When I told Diageo’s Nick Morgan that I’d like to discuss the subject of No Age Statement (NAS) whisky, there was a roll of the eyes and a rather weary sigh. This reaction is explained in part by the frequent brickbats hurled at NAS whiskies, particularly on social media, something that Morgan keeps a keen eye on.
As head of whisky outreach, Morgan is essentially the public face of Diageo for journalists, bloggers and all those who write or talk about whisky. But despite the company’s ultra-corporate image, it was encouraging he was happy to speak openly about what remains a contentious topic.
Diageo’s latest NAS release is Talisker Skye, the third NAS Talisker to hit UK shelves in as many years, following Storm and Port Ruighe. The launch has raised alarm bells that its arrival will signal the untimely end of an established age-statement bottling: the 10 Year Old.
Fears that the arrival of a new NAS whisky automatically means the disappearance of a much-loved bottling are not totally ungrounded: Macallan’s 1824 Series spelled the end of the 10, 12 and 15yo; and this year, The Glenlivet 12yo will be replaced in the UK and Germany by Founder’s Reserve. But rumours of Talisker 10’s demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated, and Diageo have already confirmed that it is here to stay.
What does Morgan make of the negative feedback? ‘Sadly, I think a lot of the more intemperate and ill-informed views seem to come from people who have been in the category for a short amount of time, with not much understanding of how the whisky industry works,’ he says. ‘A lot of the comment is driven by hot-headed ignorance.
‘There’s increasing demand for Scotch malt whisky, but it is a finite product, and in the face of increasing demand, it becomes increasingly difficult to guarantee a supply of aged stock. Sometimes people say “Oh, so you’re running out, then?” Actually, we just haven’t got enough, which is a very different situation.’
Rumours aside, from a logical standpoint, you would think that it would be commercial suicide to do away with the flagship bottling of a 100,000-case-a-year brand, one which has seen significant investment from Diageo over the past 15 years.
AGE = GOOD?
But while the flurry of NAS whiskies may not mean the death knell to popular age-statement bottles, Morgan does admit that companies – including Diageo – are responsible for the notion that age = good: ‘When the rush towards single malts occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s,’ he says, ‘the easiest thing to create a credential was putting numbers on bottles. It justified higher price points and it gave them integrity. [The industry] decided to teach people that age equated to value, so in some ways, it’s a situation of our own making.’
Not only that, but with some NAS whiskies getting a critical mauling coupled with the perception that prices are creeping up, then you have a situation, says Morgan, where the ‘bond of trust’ between producer and consumer has been broken, something he describes as ‘very regrettable’.
But on the NAS concept as a whole, Morgan is unrepentant. He believes that their existence is born out of necessity and, in fact, makes life easier for distillers and blenders: ‘It’s much easier to give yourself the flexibility of producing non-age-statement whisky,’ he explains. ‘It gives our people much greater creativity when producing a blended single malt – 99% of single malts are “blends”, and that is how the people who put them together think of it. And people might not like this, but it is a fact – age-statement whiskies are, largely, rarities. Almost 80% of Scotch whisky sold does not have an age statement.’
It’s a tricky one. Us whisky fans are a passionate bunch, and if we get a whiff that our favourite malt may be about to disappear, then we are understandably upset. However, distilleries have to take a more pragmatic view and put measures in place to ensure they can balance inventory and stock levels so that there are no nasty surprises a decade or two down the line. And if that’s the case, the existence of NAS whiskies will actually do more to ensure the long-term survival of those beloved age-statement whiskies – something even the most rabid keyboard warrior would be happy to raise a glass to.