Will consumers embrace no-age-statement Scotch whiskies?

29th July, 2014 by Tom Bruce-Gardyne

Having taught consumers to seriously value age and regional identity in single malts, can the whisky industry really change its tune?

Scotch-whisky

With a lack of aged stocks, Scotch producers are releasing increasingly more no-age-statement expressions

When Chivas Brothers launched its global Age Matters campaign in June 2010, the original poster declared simply: “Look for the number. Know the age. Know whisky.” With no mention of a brand, it felt like a generic campaign cooked up by the Scotch Whisky Association. Instead, it was based on a sample of 2,000 whisky drinkers in nine countries from Brazil to China. The research found that over 90% of consumers believe age is an important indicator of quality – that older whiskies are superior – while 89% said they actively looked for an age statement when buying whisky.

Chivas’ Age Matters has since morphed into Great Things Take Time, which continues to communicate the message “with Scotch whisky, age really does matter”. Meanwhile, a steady stream of other Scotch brands, particularly single malts, have been touting a rather different missive. With age statements discreetly dropped, the message is now more a case of “don’t look for the number”. By doing so, Ken Grier, director of malts at Edrington, owner of The Macallan, believes producers are able to improve the quality of the liquid. “I’d argue that in some ways you have greater flexibility to vat up products with a wider array of spirits that may give you greater balance and complexity than if you were simply restricted to products over a certain age,” he explains.

Focus on colour

The Macallan has taken a colour-coded approach with its 1824 Series, starting with Gold and Amber and rising in price to Sienna and Ruby. These are being gradually rolled out to replace younger expressions. In the UK, the cheapest Macallan with a number on the label is now the 18-year-old at around £135. According to Grier, 1824 has allowed the firm’s whisky maker, Bob Dalgarno, to look at their inventory of 160,000 different casks and “cut it a different way”. He explains: “Once the colour decision was taken it would have been illogical to have age constraints, because you need to have casks of different ages to get to a colour.”

Aside from unleashing the creativity of men like Dalgarno, you don’t have to be too cynical to suspect there are other motives involved. “Palpably within that is the fact that everyone in the industry is looking for a way to make sure they can not only do interesting things for consumers, but also make the best use of the stock resources they have,” Grier adds. Waiting for every cask to reach an arbitrary birthday as 2% a year evaporates as the angel’s share is painfully expensive. Yet as far as The Macallan is concerned, he insists: “It’s really driven from an innovation perspective rather than any desire to save cost or purely to eke out stock resources.”

Grier goes on to explain: “We originally started with a non-aged range in duty free to have a point of difference. People were interested and intrigued and that gave us the confidence to launch it in certain parts of the world.”

While Grier maintains there has never been any resistance to these new age-free expressions, the majority of The Macallan is still sold with a number attached, especially in the US and Asia. “By and large everywhere else is pretty much moving towards the 1824 series,” he says.

6 Responses to “Will consumers embrace no-age-statement Scotch whiskies?”

  1. Jason Debly says:

    “Will consumers embrace no-age-statement Scotch whiskies?”

    Yes, if it is good, and there’s the rub.

  2. Jason Debly says:

    Consumers will embrace no age statement whiskies if they are getting good value for money. So, if a blend is priced cheaply or reasonably, and tastes good, people will buy. The trouble is that there are a lot of no age statement whiskies that do not offer value for money. Macallan’s Sienna is a fine drink but not at the retail prices I see. At a 50% less price point I can enjoy the equivalent flavor and enjoyment in a number of 12 year old single malts.

    Finally, age is always important in whiskies. It just depends on the whiskies. Some whiskies need more time to reach their zenith and if bottled too young will invariably disappoint, even if they are used in blends.

    It’s a tricky balancing act that I think the drinks companies will engage in. Some will succeed and others will fail.

  3. ray says:

    age IS NOT A GUARANTEE of quality, i agree there.

    but age offers a GOOD CHANCE, or a BETTER chance,,,, that the whisky you are drinking has taken the so much vaunted time and patience for the wood to do its magic together wit hthe spirit.

    how will that MAGIC happen otherwise??

    and i am not inventing this,,,, we have been told all these years about the nostalgia of angels share, patience, time, humid dark corners of forgotten warehouses bla bla bla.

    or has the dogma changed now?!?!

  4. Jared says:

    No the dogma hasn’t changed. Age matters always will, what they are doing coincides completely with the SURGE in popularity of whisky and bourbon. They want to drop age statements so they can mix younger whisky in their flagship brands while still maintaining ever increasing sales, and you can GUARANTEE ever increasing prices and profits. So to take the approach that the recent attempts to drop age statements from all distillers, is all under the guise of being better able to vat whiskeys to maintain desired color and flavor profiles is complete dishonesty and disintegrity from the whisky makers. Its pulling the wool over consumers eyes. This is all because stocks are running low, and this is no coincidence its at the same time as SOARING popularity and sales of bourbon and scotch. Its just driving them insane having whisky that is say…11 years 10 months old, and they have to wait 2 more months before it can get blended in and bottled with other 12 year barrels in their 12 year scotch or bourbon. Maybe the distillers have integrity and would resist this, but its going to happen because of corporate and financial pressures. I will do exactly what most of you should do, put your money in the brands that still maintain age statements, and if they want to drop age statements my money will go elsewhere. Sure age isn’t everything, but its a good indicator when you’re searching for a new brand. And when I want to spend my hard earned dollars on a new sample of a bourbon or scotch, you can guarantee I’m not dropping $75-100 USD on a No-Age-Statement Scotch, or bourbon but its a bit cheaper here.

  5. john mccheyne says:

    The age of whisky was a big selling point for many years , probably since the modern era birth of the Single Malt category over the last 40 years. In that period the industry used age as a quality differentiator and created the view that age was all important. I can even recall films where ’12 yo Scotch ‘ has been mentioned as a big reward for something.
    So it will be difficult to quickly change that perception. The vast majority of whisky buyers don’t understand the intricacies of why NAS has come about. Even Bells dropped their 8 yo a few years ago , and I don’t think they took a big hit,although some Blends still sell premium age statement expressions.
    I believe the Chivas campaign was frowned upon in certain sectors because it added more pressure to those moving in a different direction.
    But it’s here to stay. Customers will still buy if the quality is good. But , interestingly , if 50% of Malts purchase is as a gift , and the non-whisky drinker buying as a gift used the age statement as a mark of quality , how will they make their decision if age disappears ? And have age statement whiskies seen an uplift in recent years as a result ?

  6. Paul H. says:

    For me the age statement certainly does matter. I realize that it’s not a perfect measure, but currently the only whisky available locally without age statements is really young stuff, mostly blended, that is only suitable for mixed drinks, and it’s not much cheaper than much better quality low-end single malts. Given a choice I will only buy what I have more certainty with.

    If I go into a liquor store and see to variants of the same brand, which I’ve never heard of before, on the shelf, at much different prices, it is reasonable to assume that the older batch is worth a higher premium. If they can only be told apart because of a name (Generico Super vs Generico Premium) it really tells me nothing about value, hence nothing of value.

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