For at least the whole of this decade, we’ve been in a whiskey boom that shows no sign of slowing down. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, whiskey sales jumped from $5.4 billion in 2010 to $8.1 billion last year. And that’s just in this country; the same thing is happening all over the world.
The obvious result of this is that prices are going up—anybody who’s bought whiskey in the last five years knows that. But there’s another consequence, too: Numbers are disappearing from whiskey labels. The problem isn’t that distillers hate math; it’s that age statements are becoming increasingly less common. This has upset whiskey nerds in a way not too dissimilar to how an indie band’s fans get when their beloved group goes mainstream. And if you listen to them, you may get worried about a drop in whiskey quality.
But I’m here to tell you to just cool out. Change isn’t always a bad thing. Especially in this instance, because a whiskey’s age doesn’t correlate with its quality, and the recent rise of non-age-statement (or what insiders call NAS) is forcing drinkers to consider how their booze tastes rather than just how old it is. (And it’s also helping whiskey distilleries manage their stocks better and keep price increases—somewhat—in check.)
First, it helps to understand a little bit more about aged whiskey. Every drop of the spirit in a bottle labeled 12 years old must have been aged for a minimum of 12 years—which means that in order to meet demand, a distillery has to be able to predict how much it needs more than a decade in advance. Back in the early 2000s, for example, whiskey in general was at a pretty low point after vodka’s dominance in the ‘80s and ‘90s. So most distilleries decided not to increase production, and now as the whiskey boom burns on, brands are finding themselves low on barrels with the necessary 10, 12 or 15 years of aging. The solution? Stop labeling the whiskey as 10, 12 or 15 years old.
Distilleries have been swapping numerically named bottlings for NAS whiskey for years, and whiskey geeks have been in somewhat of an uproar. It’s understandable: If your old reliable bottle of 12-year-old Scotch was suddenly replaced with god-knows-how-old whisky with a hard-to-pronounce Gaelic name, you might be pissed, too.
Others find the reliance on numbers to be a crutch. “It’s frustrating to see people shitting on a product just because it doesn’t have a number on the label,” says Los Angeles bartender Jordan Gold, who’s worked at several top spots in town, including The Writer’s Room, Ray’s & Stark Bar and Littlefork. “I want people to like things because they like how they taste.” Gold laments what he calls “numberphiles,” whiskey fans who go after only the oldest thing they can afford, without real regard for their own personal preferences. His own favorite whiskey of all time is Old Overholt Rye, a value-priced (and decidedly young) whiskey that’s been a favorite of bartenders since the 1800s.
In my personal experience, older is not only not always better; it’s often worse. Here’s the deal: The longer a whiskey sits in a barrel, the less you can taste the differences in flavor caused by mashbill, fermentation and distillation—basically anything besides the barrel. And because pretty much every distillery uses the same basic types of barrels, it’s those differences that make one brand different from another; that ensure variety in the whiskey world. So while two 20-year-old bourbons from different distilleries might taste remarkably similar, their respective 5-year-old whiskies show more of what makes each one unique. And for me, spirits are all about variety.
The latest high-profile switch to NAS happened in late January, when the venerable Elijah Craig 12-Year-Old Bourbon morphed into Elijah Craig Small Batch, a blend of whiskey aged between 8 and 12 years. “We’re growing at such an unprecedented, phenomenal rate that nobody could have predicted,” says Denny Potter, co-master distiller for Heaven Hill Distilleries, which makes Elijah Craig as well as Evan Williams, Old Fitzgerald, Larceny and several other whiskey brands. “We had no clue 12 years ago that we were going to see this explosion in demand.”
Faced with a limited supply of 12-year-old barrels today, Potter was forced to choose between abandoning an age statement and raising prices, and he chose the former. To keep the old 12-year-old, he estimates the price would’ve had to jump from its current $30 to $50 or $60, with an accompanying drop in sales. “The last place we want to go with Elijah Craig Small Batch is allocation [a practice where distilleries set a maximum number of bottles of in-demand whiskies that bars and retailers are allowed to buy],” Potter says. “By making this switch, we are guaranteeing a set supply for our whiskies down the road.”
Perhaps even more so than bourbon, Scotch whisky is feeling the old-barrel pinch, too. Age statements have disappeared from bottlings by Talisker, The Glenlivet, Ardbeg and many others. Scotch’s close cousin Japanese whiskey is abandoning age statements, too, with NAS bottles from both Suntory and Nikka replacing age-stated cousins in recent years.
The Macallan was one of the first to get on board, releasing the 1824 Series, a set of four bottlings labeled by color (Gold, Amber, Sienna and Ruby) rather than age at the beginning of the 2010s. Today, the 1824 bottlings have replaced the age-stated Sherry Oak line in the U.K., Europe, Asia, Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean—pretty much everywhere on Earth except for the U.S.
“It’s an unshackling of our whisky maker,” says Craig Bridger, The Macallan’s national brand ambassador. “Now, he and his team can go through the whole warehouse looking for casks at peak maturity without regard for age. This is a practice that’s been common in cognac for years.”
Sure, that sounds like marketing-speak from a major Scotch brand trying to defend its own NAS switch, and it is. But the truth is that the rise of NAS whiskey is forcing drinkers to better understand their own tastes. If you prefer The Macallan 15 to The Glenlivet 12, for example, you might attribute it to those three years of age difference, but if you like The Macallan Gold more than The Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve, you’re more likely to trace it to specific flavors—the roasted-fruit notes in the former versus the spicy brightness in the latter.
Even independent craft distillers, most of which are just a few years old, are being affected. Gold ran the tasting room at downtown LA’s Greenbar Distillery for a few months, and the most common question he got about the distillery’s Slow Hand Six Woods Whiskey—a truly innovative spirit aged in a huge French oak vat with toasted cubes of hickory, mulberry, red oak, maple and grape woods—was how old it was. “We couldn’t break that mold based on just talking to them; they had to taste it,” Gold says.
There are plenty of whiskey geeks out there shaking their fists at the loss of their favorite age-stated bottles, but in my mind, this trend is a good thing on balance, especially if it brings more drinkers around to the conclusion that age is truly irrelevant.
Take Laphroaig Lore Single Malt Scotch Whisky. The brand-new bottling from the famed Islay distillery is a smoke bomb with elegance, marrying briny, assertive peat with a smooth sweetness that creates complex layers of flavor. It’s also essentially an NAS replacement for Laphroaig 18 Year Old. (The distillery insists it’s not, but it’s priced at roughly the same place and is rolling out as the 18 is being discontinued.) But what matters here isn’t age. It’s that Lore is a delicious whiskey, and I think well worth its high price ($125, for the record).
Bridger, for his part, thinks that NAS has hit a turning point. “It feels like a sea change to me, with a ripple effect that will carry through the whole industry,” he says. “We’re talking about a liquid that exists for us to taste and enjoy it. ‘Non-age-statement’ doesn’t mean anything to my tongue and my nose.”
Agreed. Down with numbers, I say!
AND NOW, A WORD FROM SOME BARTENDERS