Will consumers embrace no-age-statement Scotch whiskies?

29th July, 2014 by Tom Bruce-Gardyne

Scotch producers are increasing telling consumers that age is not necessarily an indicator of quality

Rise of no-age-statements

For Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach at Diageo, age statements were rare before the mid-1980s, aside from Johnnie Walker Black and Chivas Regal. “Age came in with a vengeance with the launch of the Classic Malts in 1987, and since then we’ve had about 25 years of ‘age, age and more age’ as people tried to establish the category and differentiate their products from others in consumers’ minds,” he laments.

Thus if the industry now feels constrained by age statements it has only itself to blame.

Morgan believes the trend for dropping age statements is partly down to “the relentless drive for innovation in the single malt category where every week there have to be new offerings”. He adds: “Frankly it’s less about running out of stock, than running out of numbers. The only one yet to appear on a label is unlucky 13.” He also quotes a recent poll of 25-45-year-old whisky drinkers that contradicts the Chivas research. “Consumers are now telling us that the key driver to purchasing whisky is flavour (60%), whilst only 3% mention age.” And yet with the notable exception of Talisker Storm, most of Diageo’s malts still come with an age attached.

The industry bean counters must be excited at the prospect of faster stock rotation and less share for those pesky angels, and that’s fine so long as it doesn’t compromise quality. The consensus is that they wouldn’t be so foolish to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs for some short-term gain. “Even with accountants running here there and everywhere,” says Richard Paterson, Whyte & Mackay’s master blender, “there’s no way we would reduce the quality in any shape or form.”

Trend which is ‘here to stay’

At the time of writing, Whyte & Mackay, whose malts include The Dalmore and Jura, is once again up for sale, this time thanks to co-owners United Spirits and Diageo. “As you can imagine it’s not a comfortable position to be in, but having been here 10 times before we get pretty used to it,” says Paterson with a weary sigh. Back to the subject of non-age whiskies he says: “I think they’re definitely here to stay.” In one duty free outlet, he was recently told they accounted for nearly half the malts on sale.

Four years before The Macallan took the plunge, Speyside malt The Glenrothes launched its Select Reserve in 2008. “People thought we were absolutely bonkers not having an age on the label,” says brands heritage director, Ronnie Cox. “But we very quickly found that consumers did understand what we were trying to do.”

For Cox, malt whisky is an organic substance that matures at its own pace depending on the quality of the wood. He says: “Just being a 12-year-old is no guarantee of quality if the whisky was filled into exhausted, third-fill casks.”

But, as Paterson says: “Many consumers are still hooked on a magical age – that’s the way whisky’s been marketed. So it is up to the industry to convey the message that age isn’t everything.”

Bill Lumsden, Glenmorangie’s head of distilling and whisky creation, feels things are slowly changing. “It will take quite a number of years for a global acceptance that age is not important, but if our Kentucky and Cognac cousins can do it without an age statement, then I absolutely don’t see why we can’t.”

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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