While perusing the aisles of my local Aldi supermarket, a bottle of Highland Earl Blended Scotch whisky caught my eye. On closer inspection, the label on this bottle had an age statement – “aged 3 years” the label read. I felt a mixture of emotions. First, I was pleased. I was pleased that Aldi was being transparent and freely admitting that its Highland Earl whisky is a 3 year old whisky. Rather than simply not state an age on the bottle, and thus make the whisky a No Age Statement (“NAS”) whisky, Aldi chose to let consumers know the age of the whisky. Second, I was surprised. I was surprised that Aldi, of all companies, was bucking the trend – which is increasingly present in the whisky industry – of releasing NAS whisky and which disclose almost nothing of value to consumers – not the age, nor the proportion of whisky matured in certain cask types, nothing. Just a catchy, usually Gaelic, name.
One NAS whisky that will soon stock shelves, and no doubt fly off them, is the Ardbeg Dark Cove “regular” or “general” release. Bottled at 46.5% ABV but priced at a whopping AU$169, it is a NAS whisky that raises my eyebrows. So much so, that I declined an offer from Ardbeg’s PR agency to be on its sample send outs list for this whisky. I immediately regretted it, but that is just my ego and greed talking.
For about AU$169, being what the NAS Ardbeg Dark Cove 46.5%ABV sells for, you can secure a host of very old Scotch whisky: Bowmore 18 year old, Bruichladdich 22 year old, Cardhu 18 year old, Caol Ila 18 year old, Glengoyne 18 year old, Glenfarclas 21 year old, Laphroaig 18 year old. The exceptional Glenfiddich 18 year old sells for $40 less than the NAS Ardbeg Dark Cove 46.5%.
The price of whisky (or Cognac, tequila etc) tends to correlate with its age; that is, how long the spirit has spent maturing in oak. The longer a spirit matures in oak, the more expensive it has historically cost. This explains why a brand of Cognac is cheapest as a Very Special “VS” (which is aged at least two years), but then the price goes up as the Cognac gets older – from Very Special Old Pale “VSOP” (which is aged at least four years) and Extra Old “XO” (which is aged at least 6 years).
Whisky is no different.
There is little doubt that the older a whisky gets, the more it tends to cost. There are some exceptions, as there are some expensive limited release young whisky around, but the general rule is that whisky costs more the older it gets. To make things clear, this is not to say that a whisky’s age correlates with the concept of “quality” (there is no other mention of “quality” in this post). A young whisky can be just as enjoyable as an old whisky; it just comes down to taste. I am only suggesting that the market correlates a whisky’s age with price. This correlation – between a whisky’s age and price – is evident in cold hard market prices.
Taking eight of the leading Scotch whisky brands on the market, Malt Mileage calculated the average price of each whisky by age (represented in the below chart).
The above chart shows that, on average, a Scotch whisky (from the sample used) is $75 when it is 12 years old, $117 when it is 15 years old, $155 when it is 18 years old, $215 when it is 21 years old, and, $480 when it is 25 years old. Clearly, the price of whisky strongly correlates with age.
The cost of making “new make” spirit (i.e: drying and mashing grain, fermenting wort into wash, distilling wash into “new make) is one thing, but aging “new make” into whisky has added costs which accumulate over the years the whisky is aged (storing costs, oak casks, Angel’s share or evapouration, regulatory compliance costs, foregone warehousing space, opportunity cost or foregoing immediate sales to age whisky etc). Additionally, older whisky is scarcer than younger whisky. First, while whisky ages in oak casks the whisky evapourates – approximately 1% of the alcohol and 2% of the liquid in Scotch whisky is lost through evapouration each year the whisky ages – and this means that after a couple of decades a fair portion of the whisky in oak casks vanishes. This loss is absorbed by the distillery, and it is reflected in the cost of older whisky. Needless to say, the remaining whisky that has not evapourated is scarcer than before the evapouration. Second, when a whisky company releases younger whisky (such as a 12 year old whisky) to make money it uses up some of its stockpiles of whisky; the leftover whisky, which has already aged (such as 12 years) therefore becomes scarcer. All these things add to the cost of aging, and buying, old whisky.
Over the years the age of a whisky has come to represent a benchmark that can be used by consumers to judge value in a whisky. For example, if a Glenfiddich 18 year old is selling for $120 then we can say that the whisky presents good value as compared with the average cost of 18 year old whisky on the market.
NAS whisky conceals from consumers any information which can be used as a benchmark to assess the value of a whisky. In normal circumstances (because there are always exceptional circumstances or products), for a whisky to sell for $169 it would either need to be: (1) between 18 and 21 years old; (2) a serious cask strength whisky (which, being more concentrated with alcohol, is less diluted and therefore more expensive); or, as recent sales figures show, (3) NAS whisky. It seems to make sense that, if a whisky is much younger than 18 years old or not cask strength, but has a price of $169, the whisky would realistically need to be marketed as NAS whisky to sell at that price. It also seems to make sense that if a whisky is over 18 years old, marketers would promote that fact (it would be like a shirt maker not disclosing to consumers that a high priced shirt is made of Egyptian Cotton, just because – unthinkable!).
Do you seriously think that NAS whisky selling for $169 comprises of whisky aged between 18 to 21 years? If you do, then have another dram and be merry, but while you drink ponder why the marketers chose to keep the age secret. If you do not, then do you think you are overpaying for a commodity which should be cheaper if it were transparent rather than a secretive NAS whisky? In other words, do you think that people are happy to pay a certain price for NAS whisky, which they would otherwise not be happy to pay if the age of the whisky is known? Is ignorance really bliss?
The thing about NAS whisky is that all we can really be sure about is that the whisky is at least 3 years old (being, by law, the youngest a whisky can be to be legally called “whisky”). That would be fairly close to, but obviously not quite, zero dollars on the above chart – hang on, a 3 year old whisky from Aldi sells for $29.99.
Debunking and responding to arguments and ‘myths’ in support of NAS whisky
Yet, despite the obvious limitations of NAS whisky from a consumer’s perspective, arguments continue to be proffered in support for NAS whisky. For reasons to follow, these arguments seem to miss the point and ignore the real issue. The real issue is that NAS whisky is contrary to the concept of transparency and it disrespects consumers by concealing information from them which should rightly be disclosed for them to make an informed purchasing decision.
One such argument is that ‘it allows more flexible management of maturing stocks‘, whereby distillers can mix young and old whisky to create a desired flavour profile without needing to reach an ‘age milestone’. So, the main argument is that, in making an NAS whisky, a whisky producer will have the freedom to mix young and old whisky to create a desired flavour profile without being forced to play only with whisky of a certain age (i.e: if a whisky is “12 years old” a distiller can only include in its recipe whisky which is over 12 years old, and thus – the argument may go – a whisky younger that 12 years old may prove to be a key ingredient which assists in achieving a desired flavour profile, but it cannot be used). This argument relies on the position that whisky which forms part of the recipe will mature at different rates due to various reasons – cask size, temperature etc.
A second argument is that ‘whisky companies need to make money‘; thus adding younger whisky to a whisky recipe makes financial sense for a company (especially in circumstances where there is a shortage of whisky due to heightened global demand for whisky).
This may be so, but do the companies need to pull the proverbial wool over consumers eyes to either make a desired product or make money? It seems objectionable to say that a company’s need to make money (or flexibly manage its whisky stocks) justifies lack of transparency and secrecy in its products, particularly in an environment in which market transparency and consumer protection are important purposes and policy objectives of UK and EU laws regulating whisky – the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 and Regulation (EC) No 110/2008. Is it about a whisky company’s need to make money, or make more money in times of a global upturn in demand for whisky? By all means, whisky producers should be free to have flexibility in creating their whisky. If the recipe for a whisky requires young whisky then add it to the recipe. Surely, however, consumers should be made aware?
A third argument may be that consumers incorrectly equate a whisky’s age with quality, when in fact a whisky does not always improve with age – it can become overly wooded by spending too much time in oak.
This argument does not seem to be very persuasive, particularly because consumers are much more informed and educated than they once were – the internet provides a host of reliable resources (books, blogs, websites etc) that can help inform consumers. The success of young whisky on the market, such as Bruichladdich’s Octomore range which tends to be aged for 5 years, is testament to the fact that consumers do not seem to always equate age with quality. They are prepared to pay good money for young whisky that they enjoy, and Bruichladdich’s transparency about the age of its Octomore range only serves to reinforce that if a company shows respect for consumers (by being transparent), consumers will usually respond positively and look to become informed.
A fourth argument – connected to the third – is that there ‘remains a stigma attached to expressing youthful ages, especially under 10 years, on labels‘ so whisky producers will avoid doing so and instead choose a name. Again, the success of Bruichladdich’s Octomore range – which tends to be young and aged for 5 years in most cases – seems to debunk this argument. Other examples include Port Charlotte PC6, as well as Kilchoman. The market has spoken, and consumers (well, at least a sizable number of them) do not seem to have bias or stigma towards young whisky. Aldi’s Highland Earl whisky, which Aldi freely discloses is aged for 3 years, would likely also sell at a steady rate – probably because it is priced appropriately. And therein lies the rub – do NAS whisky’s allow flexibility in managing whisky stocks, or flexibility in pricing whisky?
There are other arguments, which point to the wide praise for many NAS whiskies – Ardbeg Uigeadail or Aberlour A’bunadh – or long standing NAS whiskies that have stood the test of time and which continue to be a firm favourite among consumers – Johnnie Walker Red Label and Blue Label. But, all this seems to show is that these whiskies are enjoyed by many. This does not justify – as argued above – secrecy and lack of transparency in products. Proponents of NAS whisky also point to the number of “awards” NAS whisky receives, when science and various studies confirm time and time again that whisky awards are nonsense and likely handed out at random.
In my humble opinion, and with great respect, these arguments not only draw a long bow but they miss the point. Consumers deserve transparency in the products they buy. Age of whisky, as discussed above, is an important benchmark of value in whisky. NAS whisky conceals this benchmark. Without this benchmark, whisky consumers have no real way of making an informed choice as to whether they are overpaying for a product.
Admittedly, while companies should have the flexibility to create the best tasting products they can possibly make, surely they should be honest about what goes into these products? Until such honesty prevails, and these companies show consumers more respect, NAS whisky should rightly be viewed with suspicion.
The thing(s) about NAS whisky?
What, then, is the thing about NAS whisky? Let me rephrase. What, then, are the things about NAS whisky?
First, all we can really be sure about is that NAS whisky is aged for 3 years – that it is, 3 years old.
Second, NAS whisky has its age concealed from consumers, which in turn has certain repercussions. When a whisky’s age is concealed, consumers have no benchmark against which to assess a whisky’s value and as a result consumers cannot make an informed purchasing decision when buying whisky.
Third, without such a benchmark (i.e: a whisky’s age), whisky producers would seem to have more freedom to price whisky above what the whisky would otherwise be priced if it has an age statement. This is because, in normal circumstances, a whisky with an age statement would only seem to be able to sell within a price range that the market dictates is acceptable for a whisky of its age. NAS whisky has no such problems, as sales figures show, and consumers appear willing to pay high prices for a NAS whisky bottled at 43%-46% ABV that they most certainly would not in most cases pay for a young age stated whisky (3-12 years old) of the same brand bottled at 43%-46%.
Fourth, there seem to be no legitimate reasons to have NAS whisky. The arguments proffered in support of NAS whisky – which I have rebutted above – seem to miss the point why NAS whisky arouses opposition among consumers. That point, simply, is that NAS whisky pulls the proverbial wool over consumers eyes to achieve something that has absolutely no benefit to consumers but only to producers – consumers deserve transparency, so they can make up their own mind about whether they want to buy a product. It is not for whisky companies to say what information should be disclosed to consumers.
Fifth, NAS whisky seems objectionable in a climate in which market transparency and consumer protection are important purposes and policy objectives of UK and EU laws regulating whisky – the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 and Regulation (EC) No 110/2008. If it is required by law that whisky companies disclose to consumers only the youngest component in a whisky’s recipe, would concealing all information from consumers not also conflict with the ideals of market transparency evinced in these laws (or, at the very least, the policy motivations underlying the laws)?
Sixth, NAS whisky is objectionable because consumers deserve transparency in the products they buy and consumers should be given the information needed to make informed purchasing decisions.
* This post makes no suggestions or statements about the age of Ardbeg Dark Cove.