What’s going on with NAS whiskies?

July 30, 2015

“Age isn’t how old you are but how old you feel.”
― Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

You might have noticed some changes to whisky labels lately, especially on Scotch and Japanese whiskies. Some of our favorite tried and true single malt and age statement expressions are disappearing in favor of others with no numbers in sight, a.k.a. No Age Statement whisky or NAS. As a point of vanity, some people think they should hide their age when past a certain number, but when it comes to whisky, the opposite is true. In fact, some younger whiskies are hiding behind a lack of age declaration. Instead of a number, there’s a hard-to-pronounce Gaelic name, or perhaps some other whimsical moniker.

Consider that if a whisky does come with an age statement, the youngest whisky has to be at least that age. Some components of NAS whisky can be rather mature. Some brands are more transparent than others about the liquid in their blend. In many instances, it’s hard to know exactly what goes in there.

The emerging prevalence of NAS whiskies

Why is NAS suddenly a thing? Some brands say they’ve sold too much of their older stock and the NAS releases must take their place to fulfill consumer demand. Others say it allows them more creative and artistic freedom to actualize exciting blends. They want the freedom to release expressions that vary from the brand’s usual character, such as making peated whiskies at traditionally non-peated distilleries, or playing with different cask finishes. Another consumer pitfall, some NAS is released as a rare, limited edition that can be quite pricey because the blend contains library malts “hand selected by the master blender.” What does that mean?

Well, how does it taste?

At this year’s Tales of the Cocktail, whisky experts Greg Cattanach, Gerard Graham, Dr. Nick Morgan, Dave Broom and Ewan Morgan presented “The Blinder Truth About Aging Whisky,” a sequel of sorts to last year’s controversial “The Blind Truth About Aging Whisky.” The object of the discussion this year seemed less concerned with persuading people to embrace the NAS trend than with explaining what they’re about by blind tasting a selection of marks of different ages and origins to better understand how different factors affect the flavor of whisky.

In whisky, numbers sell. “Pour me the oldest whisky on the table,” is a common refrain at whisky tastings. There are some terrific high end, older whiskies that still have a ton of life in them, such as Glenlivet 25 Year or even Highland Park 40 Year, but consider than an older whisky is only as good as the cask it was aged in. As Dave Broom explained, even a heavily peated dram won’t taste like much if it was aged over 30 years in a “knackered cask,” one that was refilled repeatedly over the years and given too much of its character away to too many whiskies in its lifespan, the ultimate triumph of age vs. character. Attendees tasted a whisky that was revealed to be 35 years old and definitely lacking in nuances.

What makes a good NAS whisky?

At the same time, we’ve all tasted whisky that’s far too youthful and hasn’t had the chance to come to full maturity before bottling. It can taste harsh, brash, young and green. If an NAS is made well, it will contain a blend that’s influenced by both younger and older elements that together strike a delicate balance. Maybe the whisky isn’t necessarily older, but the right blend will evoke a sense of maturity and elegance.

A point that was mentioned during the discussion is that single malt whisky is a relatively new concept in the last few decades. The majority of the best selling brands in the world, such as the Johnnie Walker series, Teacher’s, Chivas Regal, J & B, etc. are all blends. As Dr. Morgan explained, single malts were invented to build brand credibility. The numbers attracted consumers and provided a reference point.

However with the numbers disappearing, and a lack of labeling regulations, it’s disconcerting that consumers now only have Gaelic pronunciation apps to assist them (and us of course!). Even more disconcerting is when brands take the “This is better than the one with numbers anyway” stance. The talk was informative and certainly entertaining, however it would be more helpful to blind taste whiskies that share common themes and provenance that come together to form one point instead of several very disparate marks. For instance, a better flight would be to compare all Islay whiskies – an older vs. a young one, then one with sherry influence and another matured in virgin oak, then a popular NAS vs. a popular mass market blend that contains peated whiskies.

Let’s try some NAS whiskies

As stated earlier, not all NAS is intended as a marketing gimmick, and not all of it is bad. There are some excellent NAS drams to be had. Some to try:

Highland Park Dark Origins
Old Pulteney Navigator
Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique
Glenfiddich Vintage Cask
Nikka Coffey Grain
The Balvenie Tun 1401, Batch 9
Glenmorangie Signet
Hakushu Heavily Peated
Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve
The Glenrothes Select Reserve

We welcome your comments. Cheers!

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