NASty Malt Whisky? 

I read around some blogs tonight and was pleased to see that the Macallan 12 YO is relaunched now and reassuringly expensive. However many of these bloggers have also dismissed the No Age Statement whisky fiasco as a done argument, that there is value to be found in blending good whiskies and not being bound to an age. 

Such bloggers also either live by advertising or get samples to their heart’s content  from the industry and its’ outlets. Self  same bloggers, by google vox pops, hardly every review NAS’s any more oddly enough.

Gee Us a Wee Dram, mak’ it a Malt……

Me? The plebian punter, to whom paying three quid for a dram of Macallan 20 years ago was                         quite alright. Nothing fancier. Standard offerings are guid enough for me. Then why get upset about NASty Malts when I am a hum drum type of guy, a punter doon the pub?

Well at an age when I was thinking of buying more 15 and 18 yo’s and maybe a 25 at some point, I am confronted by three issues. Availability here in Norway, availability in duty free, hand baggage only flight tickets. 

Norway is infamous for high drink pricing, and restricitng availability of harder liqors via the state monopoly shops. Shut 3pm on a saturday to save us from our sins, open 10am monday to give the worse sinners their fix. However the differential between prices of good standard and some ok NAS malts is way down to only about ten or twenty quid max, when we are not in malt of the month territroty back home or Lidl. Duty free remains then a liter for the price of a 75 back home and sometimes better value still. However…..

NAS the Novelty Island

I remember the first NAS was actually an oaked Macallan I think, or the first major brand subversion. It was dry and characterless and just levering the brand over into cheaper seas if you ask me. It was saying Macallan can be done without sherry casks, the famous sherry finish is only one string to our bow. Then we had a spate of cask strength ten year olds,. which were fun and very good value if you had good water to dilute them with. Macallan’s was the better of many, I could take  it neat even. 

However over time we started to see more of this NASty stuff in duty free and on supermarket shelves, and in malt of the month for twenty quid to keep your throat from drying out of a winter friday night. It was fine, Jura did some nice examples, then Highland park did its vikings and so on. They were a bit hit or miss, and could vary bottle to bottle. Aye, but interesting. Now they are becoming the majority of stocks of malt in ‘Travel Retail’ it seems, and it is all beyond a joke.

Less is More, Younger can be Better!…..Apparently

The distillery industry’s marketing people at least say that a non age declared malt whisky frees the master blender to mix a wonderful blend of the best the distillery has to offer, without being tied to a minimum age. Well in fact they are tied to a minimum age. Three years old. I was once misinformed on a tour of the works, and it stuck, that MALT whisky from Scotland had to be 8 years old, maybe they meant they as a distillery did not pass off younger spirit as malt. However Malt is no different from the Lloyd George government’s minimum 3 years of ageing, an attempt at prohibition  and letting the angel have her greater share. Instead of the youngest whisky being 10 or 12 in the standard priced off the shelf bottle, it is now 3, remember that. 

So while we on the one hand are being told that a very old characterful cask could be blended into the NAS and thus enhance the creativity, we have to presume that any given NAS will have whisky which is only three years matured.  

Can we though not have a Beaujolais from our finer pagodaed wee factories of the Heelans? Why the panic from the punter? It will reach new markets, new consumers not aquainted with age-matured determing precieved quality? 

Economics, Economics and more Economics

Some say that  the NAS expansion was an issue with the popularity of Malt. It had become a victim of its’s own success and good product was harder to make for the price point it was ‘competitive’ at. Sherry barrels in particular had become an expensive item, and good oak had to be sourced from the USA.

 Some blenders started experiment and perhaps to reveal their wee secrets, back when age was still more or less mandatory on the label, by launching those ‘finishes’ in wine or bourbon casks.  I suspect that chardonnay, bourbon and maybe even cognac were being used for a long time before, in secret to give a wee extra note to the blender’s choice. Port and red wine I doubt were, they are a dead give away by colour and flavour. The Auchentoshan Burbon finish took things a wee bit too far, tasting like an aged Burbon more than its toffee magic mother spirit. 

The ‘finish’ barrel label became a kind of mantra for marketing mid priced Malts in the 90s and 00s. Some of them frankly were a little interesting, but not really that good, and probably needed more time being wedded in a neutral oak cask to develop subtlety and smoothness. But it was a quick fix to spread interest. 

Enter then NAS. Let us keep malt whisky at a price point, re-educate the consumer, reach new punters and sell them something which is mighty interesting and has a mighty fine interesting gross margin for us the seller. Time and time again we have seen then these NAS’s coming out and displacing their stale old age declared cousing,. and time and time again have they disappointed when compated to standard 12’s and good 15s. Highland Park vikings are interesting on the nose, but compared to their 12 (which can vary batch to batch imho a little too much) they lacked the full HP experience.Bowmore Black Rock was my latest excursion, enticing by colour and aroma, a little let down in the mooth. 

The Rich Get Richer, The Poor Get NAStier…..

What we see with cool Gaelic branded premium malts is that they are AGE DECLARED. Aha, so you cannot con the conniseur, monsieur? However you can punt malt whisky out at a non inflationary price point by fluffing it out with 3 year old spirit, and in effect selling your soul to the devil?

The bloggers say ‘who cares?’…. if a NAS is good then the distiller is doing a great job? They then go on to do very few reviews of these allegedly creative and exciting tastes, and instead find those 200 quid plus age declared specials much more interesting. 

Clever Chemistry ?

In blending what used to be a 12 year old minimum age (as malt whisky was declared before in time) product down to a 3 year old base spirit then  you have to be able to do a few clever things to get near the quality of the 10 or 12 you used to make. And they do get near, Glen Livet and Glen Grant have new fighting brand reserves, silly cheap in Denmark last I was there, and they are not that bad at all, especially for drinking a la Canna or Eriskay waddin’or wake, by the tumbler. What the distiller can do is some clever things then>

This is because in fact of course ethanol on its own has little character, and water has none. What we are talking about in ‘character’ is probably less % per weight or volume as the caramel colour they have allowed in Malt whisky for all too long! Now if you are selling a basic entry level at 37% or 40% with a duty free variant at even 43%, you need  only add a very small portion of very characterful old barrell or very high quality first fill barrell product. This will convey a good nose, with interesting notes from matured congener organic chemicals. There will be some taste too, but there will be some  issue with body because the usual spectrum of rather hum drum esters and polyphenols from a 12 /16 year old maturing priocess will be lost to some extent.

At the distilling end you do the reverse, you can distill basically a very good smooth vodka with very little congeners such that your young, carrier “whisky” which is maybe 30% by volume of the entire product, or  even more, is neutral. I have had some good Finlandia specials, and Smirnoff black was rather creamy almost,. You could then make some special runs with more congeners of a paricular faction of the destillation, a cut, or you could permit only those which suit and benefit from a 3 year maturation to go in. 

Being even more cynical, this type of very clean ethanol production means you get a  higher efficiency from a pot still set up, that is more ethanol per batch, and can perhaps run the first distillation quicker at an optimal temperature to get that 40/60% first distillate before it goes to the second still (or third in a few Scot’s distilleries like Springbank). You may as well run it as some punters have already commented, in a column still , you know the type they use on grain and north sea oil!

Lastly you have to be in any case very precise and skillful in how you blend higher value, big character aged barell malt to the three year old presumed ‘ young, plain, vehicular spirit Further to this set of skills, you then have to be careful with the spring water you blend this down from the usual 60% to the excise man’s liking of 37 or 40% ABV. Spring water varies sometimes from some sources or fathering reserviours,  through the year so you need to be careful on when you chooise it in order that it conveys body in the product and does not interfere with the flavours. 

Ranting Old Cynical Me?

 The cynic in me talks here, and no doubt both insults the experience of master distillers while also perhaps inviting a little ‘you should mind your own business’. All I say is that innovation is not just at the marketing end of things, it will be considering effectivisation right through the production process. 

However in effect what is wrong with this NAS innovation and blending to an interesting product? The average punter gets to experience those high character barrels in an airport brand wrapped up in a fancy box and bottle, at a fraction of the price of the product those barrels would go into. A democratisation of quality for the masses!!  Well you could as well say the punter could buy of a minuiture of 18 year old for under a tenner, and then blend it themselves with a good smooth vodka and some freshly drawn burn water! 

There is an argument here though, because of those ‘luxury’ brands from the devil’s own grain blenders and mass branders. Many good ‘scotches’ are very smooth indeed, and yet are of course NAS by default. They will have as much 3 year old maize and wheat spirit in them as possible. Some like Bells Islander were quite smokey and nice with a drop of water. However as many in the industry will remember, whisky had become a fighting brand internationally for the entire industry, with the value of malt low and none of the major brand owners willing to market malt. It fought itself into a low margin, low quality position and was reliant on marketing to make up for content. I can tell you that all the big standard brands of blended are a lot better now than they were in the mid eighties, when paint stripper doing an impression of whisky was par for the course. 

Alternative Fixes Than NAS

Unlike the late seventies, early eighties, the Malt whisky industry is not on a spiral to low profitabily, but it is threatened as some say, by its own success. Good maturing barrels are hard to come by relative to demand.. Some distilleries needed complete refurbishment while others need to expand to keep up with demand.

On the plus side, the rise of malt has meant that dozens of distilleries have been allowed to sell their delicious malt while once they were tied to only supply the fiends of grain blending. On the down side we have NAS and even nastier often, ‘pure malt’, which are often confections like ‘Monkey Shoulder’, which have lowered the threshold to malt whisky, and devalued it by in large. 

The answer to me, a simple idiotice business school master graduate, would have been to say ‘ our 12 year old is bloody magic’ and on the one hand charge more for it, while on the other cut supply to the grain blenders ill trade, and to hell with ‘pure malts’. 

However that is beyond the ken of the big groups who own nearly all the quality disilleries now. They want to sell their blended brands, and they understand volume and price point competition is where the majority of profit growth should come from when they look at growing their malt brands. 

NAS – From Novely to No More Please!

 In its’ beginning I thought NAS was kind of a niche marketing effort to non whisky drinkers such that they could understand the complexities of the offering, in a less ‘stuffy’ way than the 10,12,15,18,25 trad’label way. A kind of novelty corner and doing no real harm.Now,  the Malt Bloggitelli have their heads in the sand by in large, from my google vox pops, and are living in cloud grand-a -bottle land where nothing is less than 25 years old, thinking this malaise is going to blow over and won’t profoundly change the quality and values of the industry. The shelves of supermarkets and duty free outlets are being taken over by NAS, while the speciality shops have to exact an every higher price for age declared good whiskies. The Campbells are coming! 

Well to me as a cynic,  it looks like NAS could be the new blended whisky race to the bottom. Okay it will try to cover over the difficulties with mass producing a high quality, matured product with a facsimilie aimed at growth markets and younger consumers. I was once a young consumer, and it was the allure of maturity, McTerroir and tradition which made me attached to my once hidden national drink, rather than dismissing it as kalyard. 3 year old whisky with a funky label is tatt, lamb ironically dressed as mutton. Why not age declare or state a youngest age in the small print if it is any older than three year festered vodka? 

Macallan Trail Blazing Back to Age Declared “Standard” Bottles? 

I remember  many the time ordering a Macallan and getting its fine golden promise in an unpretentious cut crystal tumbler, a scotch glass Frank Sinarta would have recognised. How it rolled over  the tongue and despite not being a wild gipsy girl with smokey allure from the camp fire, it was a wonderful dram. which spoke to the soul of a Scotsman. You could rely on it, and once in a while it was back in the 90s, around fifty pence or a quid more than general spirits, or even Glen Morangie. It  had a kind of ‘brightness’ to the whole experience, light of colour and taste and uplifting without being pretentious. You could swig it or sip it gently, or let it caress ice cubes to release a caramelly cooler experience.  Then it all went wrong and then it went NAS, Now they have relaunched a 12, at a fairly hefty price tag for what once was standard. Yet that is the way it maybe should be, supply and demand determines price if the quality is upheld. I hope this is a good purchase, I need to order it specially, which takes us back to sqaure one, good whisky goes with age and price is not an issue within reason.

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