Grab a spoon. Let’s start stirring it up again.
There has been a marked increase in dissent against the ever-growing trend towards Non Age Stated whiskies. We’ve been diligently speaking out against it here on ATW (here, here, here and here ad nauseum), but so have several others in their own capacity. Dom Roskrow has recently written two pieces on this (here and here). Serge, on Whiskyfun, has been taking shot after shot at NAS malts and blends in many of his recent reviews, and others such as The Malt Desk have spoken out in recent days as well. Let’s not forget the plethora of brilliant commentary by readers here on the site and beneath many of the other articles posted about this subject on various other forms of social media.
I think things really came to a head last week when The Whisky Exchange blog posted an interview with Diageo’s Nick Morgan. I’m not sure I’ve ever read such a condescending load of tripe from someone within the industry (Morgan, that is, not TWEB). Morgan managed to offend nearly everyone out there that writes about and buys his spirits. Perhaps we should thank him, come to think of it. He probably singlehandedly turned more people to militant opposition by his offensive candor than others have been able to do with rational argument and pleas. I was going to post a couple of his full quotes regarding our ‘hot-headed ignorance’ and ‘ill-informed’ stances, but I honestly think it needs to be read in its entirety. Just follow the link above.
With the rising tide of discord I felt it was time to have a chat with one of the gents out there who has always seemed to fight the good fight for the best interests of Scotch Whisky. Ralfy Mitchell – he of the down-home, candid video entries on Youtube he refers to as Vlogs – has been a supporter of much I’ve done over the years and immediately agreed to take part in a discussion on NAS whiskies. I sent him a bunch of questions a few weeks back and his replies came back yesterday.
Without further ado, let’s turn the spotlight on Ralfy…
Ralfy Mitchell: Hello Curt, and hello to all you ‘merry malt-momenters’ wherever you may be. I hope you’re keeping it quality and not quantity with your malt-missions and remember to trust and enjoy your own whisky experiences without other people telling you what to like and not like. Taste is a personal thing and should remain so.
So now to question time!
All Things Whisky: In late December you posted a Vlog in which you addressed the issue of No Age Statement (NAS) whisky and the inherent issues that come with the industry having embraced this concept to the extent it has. Can you discuss the trend as you see it, and share what you think are the central issues with NAS whiskies to which we should be taking exception?
Ralfy Mitchell: It was my end-of-the-year Vlog, where I sit by the fire and just say what’s on my mind about the year that’s just past and, despite buying and enjoying a number of NAS malts over that year, I could see less-appealing, and importantly, costly under-matured malts appearing which a quick bit of detective work online allowed me to identify and avoid. One of my strengths as an online reviewer is the fact that I buy my bottles from retail using the adsense google-ads revenue to fund the purchases. It is therefore in my interests not to buy disappointing (and often expensive) malts. Recently NAS malts have generally (there are some good exceptions) grown increasingly avoidable as ‘young’ superficial wood-influence flavour-blankets of clean anaemic barley spirit lacking character and quite simply a proper matured full flavour ‘event’. . . especially for the price charged.
NAS malts are happening because:
A – less maturation reduces production costs and improves profits.
B – the less time some distinctly mediocre casks spend ‘maturing’ malts the better in all honesty!
C – when demand grows, supply shrinks and NAS is a way of un-shrinking!
D – during the last whisky downturn in the 1980’s, costs were cut to maintain profit margins, especially production costs so now all these years later there’s simply not enough volume of good wood in warehouses making the magic happen in line with current demand projections.
E – People buy them, these are very customer-tolerant times we are in with marketing over-influencing what sells.
As is always the case, if you want to know what’s going to happen next, follow the money!
ATW: Was there a catalyst that made you finally say ‘enough is enough…we have to do something’? A decline in quality or rising prices, as examples?
RM: The catalyst was simply that the increasing chances of aged malts being of better calibre than NAS malts (and often cheaper too) is now increasingly self evident as we browse the online retailer options, and options have never been greater. Availability (depending where you live), especially of Independent aged bottlings, is at an all-time high. The internet is increasingly useful for whisky buyers who buy intelligently rather than slavishly! Online auctions can be a real boost for yesterday’s quality at today’s prices and I include blended whiskies in that bracket!
ATW: The boycott is your way of taking up arms against this issue, but do you believe the industry can be beaten on this one?
RM: I really don’t care. I choose to boycott NAS malts this year as I have plenty of better options, not that I am being a malt-militant, and I share this situation in my Vlogs to help whisky fans feel more confident about being in control of their spending money. The Industry will be beaten by effective global competition providing better options, combined with the Industry’s own inertia and increasingly detached leadership.
ATW: If change does come about in relation to NAS whiskies, do you believe it will be one or two of the brands making the decision to take a stance for age statements again or will it be something more resounding, such as an amendment to the SWR (Scotch Whisky Regulations) of 2009 or a mandate by the SWA (Scotch Whisky Association)? Are the latter simply pipe dreams?
RM: It will be all about the money! As the trend grows from passive consumer to proactive customer, where and on what the customer’s cash is spent will determine the future direction of Scotch (and everything else). The biggest card in this game of poker is the customer’s decision to buy. That’s why marketing budgets can often appear to be so extravagant! Sponsoring polo teams and football personalities does not come cheap! In my opinion the Scotch Whisky Association is not responsible for Scotch whisky, it is responsible to those who control the Industry. Effective regulation on intrinsic quality long-term would need to come from National Government.
ATW: In 2010 Chivas launched its ‘Age Matters’ campaign, in which they provided stats speaking to consumers interests and how they were branding their products in response. One number they mentioned was that 89% of consumers who were polled look for an age statement when making purchases. They’ve been decidedly silent about this concept in recent days. One of the associated brands is, of course, Glenlivet. The new Glenlivet Nadurra NAS and Founders Reserve speak volumes about the company’s current stance in respect to age statements. This is just one example. How are we, as educated consumers, to engage with these brands going forward? It seems like a case of ‘either you lied to us before or you’re lying now, so which is it?’
RM: We, as educated consumers, will continue to share and educate new and less-experienced drinkers as to what’s what with quality. The quality of what we consume directly influences the quality of our lives and as and when quality goes down hill, we take responsibility in closing our purses and refusing to participate. We then share this with others who care to show an interest online. . . . So the whole wide world of tomorrow’s literate malt-fans can learn from our experiences. Bless them, big Corporate Institutions can often lack the decisive, foresightful leadership and vision of a genuine entrepreneur, (think Steve Jobs and Apple) and thus decisions get blown around in the winds of fleeting expediency.
ATW: There are some folks out there who are getting very passionate – even heated – about this issue, seeing it as the industry ‘duping’ the consumer in some respects. Is that a fair assessment, or are the consumers at fault for ever thinking that Big Business had the same interests as they do?
RM: Love&peace, malt-mates, love&peace! No need for heated rants when a well focused non-sale is intimated! ‘Boycott’ is always a frightening sound to businesses, especially when visible online.
ATW: A lot of voices speaking on behalf of industry interests are saying that buyers should ‘let their taste buds be the judge, and not ignore good NAS releases’, but that negates the fact that NAS isn’t a type of whisky; it is a type of marketing. While some releases like Uigeadail, a’bunadh, Valinch, etc are indeed great and may bolster their argument a bit in regards to there being good NAS releases out there, it does little to assuage our doubts about the pricing schemes. How do you feel about a) their arguments in general and b) the current ideas as to fair market pricing which the brands are levying on this recent spate of NAS releases?
RM: I agree with the Industry voices, let the customer decide, and if the cupboard is stocked with good or bad whisky, it’s all down to the customer’s motivation. Simple market forces prevail.
ATW: Who do you feel are the brands leading the charge in the right direction? And at the risk of making enemies…who are the worst offenders?
RM: Independents tend to get malts right, corporations tend to get blends right. If integrity is transparent in the bottle, that will do for me! The worst offenders are gullible and lazy consumers.
ATW: The industry has been decidedly evasive or silent when it comes to one particular question levied at them: ‘why is it that age doesn’t matter when it has to do with young whiskies or NAS vattings, but it becomes relevant again when they want to sell a 25, 30 or 40 year old’. Thoughts?
RM: I think that’s a great question, and the answer is ‘money today before profits tomorrow’!
ATW: Where does the NAS issue stack up in respect to the arguments against caramel coloring or chill filtration? In your opinion is one or the other more detrimental to whisky in both its current incarnation and in regards to what the future will bring?
RM: These things all contribute collectively to a trend growing internationally relating to ‘consumer awareness sophistication’ and having (creating) the choice to buy intelligently. The future will bring great challenges to Scotch whisky as the overall integrity of the commodity is successively reviewed by customers over time.
ATW: This is an issue that has gained a lot of traction in the less professional media (i.e. blogs, vlogs and forums). But we’re still seeing a lack of overt discussion by professional writers and publications. Do you think today’s professional whisky writers are balanced in talking about the industry?
RM: The professionals do a professional job and I commend them for dealing with the challenges they face. The ‘hobby’ media have added some real colour to the whole scene, something the industry will continue to tolerate! And so the drama continues. That’s alcohol. Always has been, always will be, a vehicle of human drama, comedy and tragedy; a comedie del arte!
ATW: Your own boycott is focused primarily on Scottish Single Malts. Do you think Irish, American, Canadian and world whiskies should be held to the same standards, even without falling under the jurisdiction of the SWR and SWA? If not, why?
RM: No. Scotch enjoys a top-ranking reputation, so standards should be maintained as top-ranking. Other Countries have different spirits and different circumstances, so I stick to boycotting any reviews of NAS Single Malt Scotch Whiskies during 2015! …Just to keep things simple and transparent!
. . .thanks everyone and may your malt-moments be malty and many!
Sincere thanks to Ralfy for the time and efforts. And thanks to any out there challenging the status quo and letting the brands know we’re not behind this endeavour. It’s about doing the right thing. It’s about trying to protect the integrity of the drink we love, and if the industry would open their eyes, they’d see it is about protecting the very lifeblood that forms the foundations of their own lives and livelihoods.