Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Pilgrim's Ponderings Part 1: With Age Comes Wisdom. (ish)

So here's the thing. I'm a Whisky Nerd. Fact. That's a given. And with that comes the time-consuming necessity of combing the internet in search of knowledge, debate and understanding. And in this search, this quest, no issue seemed more hotly contested, more vociferously fought over than the
question of the NAS. Or for those uninitiated, the No-Age-Statement Whisky.

The debate, frankly, could fill a book. It probably has. If not a printed book then certainly a metaphorical digital one. And it's worth debating. Because for years - decades even - casual consumers and critical connoisseurs alike have been accustomed to Scotch Whisky being sold (and particularly priced) on the merit of how long the spirit has sat maturing in its oak cask. You will note that I single out 'Scotch Whisky' in this instance. And in my opinion it's fair to do so. Yes Whisky from the USA and Canada and Japan and New Zealand and heaven knows where else is often labelled by age, but not exclusively so. Not 'necessarily' so. Because in these warmer climes the oak takes its telling toll upon the spirit more swiftly; the extraction more emphatic and aggressive. Hell, even Norfolk sees its barrels robbed by angels at more than twice the rate that the most Southerly Scottish Distillery experiences. Scotch Whisky, as every hammy Distillery tour video will assure you, needs time. Time for the wood to exert an influence and impart a character to balance the fire of the new-make and provide that 60+% of the product flavour of which old statistics proudly boast. But is it being given enough?

The problem lies in the demand. Sure Scotland produces a hell of a lot of Whisky. It has over 100 distilleries churning out the stuff, and with newbies popping up seemingly every month and production increasing even at the biggest of big boys there's never been more about. But there's also never been a thirstier market. The sun just does not set on the Scotch drinker nowadays, and we're an impatient bunch. Distilleries and bottlers might want to wait 10, 12, 15, 18, 25, 30, 40, 50 years for their product to reach its peak. We don't. I don't. Fuck you - my glass is empty. Fill it up. And whilst
you're at it sort out my millions of mates ready for their next dram.

Once upon a time we had a 'Whisky Loch'. A beautiful excess of Single Malt - so much that we could wait as long as it took before it was bottled. Or rather my father and his generation could. That's been drunk now. What next? There may be millions of barrels across Scotland full of maturing spirit, but we want something now, so Whisky companies had better get creative. And to their credit many a distillery and conglomerate has answered the call. The Ardbeg Uigeadail or Corryvreckan need no introduction, nor does the Glenfarclas 105. And I'll never forget that day in Delhi Airport when I first clapped eyes on the bottle that was to become my friend, my companion in times of trouble, my one true Whisky love, the only bottle I have purchased more than once - the Aberlour A'Bunadh.

Thing is though, right, these are just four examples. And from where I sit, four examples can't hold up the most famous whisky-distilling nation in the world. A nation producing a whisky so iconic that the word 'whisky' becomes unnecessary, and we simply call it 'Scotch.' But even that's not enough. Especially when all around it more fortunately located countries are upping their game and upping the ante. And when I look at my list of age-dated whiskies vs NAS it gives me pause for thought. I prefer Talisker 10 to Talisker Storm. I prefer Deanston 12 to Deanston Virgin Oak. The less said about Dalmore Spey Dram the better. And that's just three. And hang on - what about all the bad habits that NAS whiskies usher in? We know that the average Scotch Drinker looks at colour as a key factor. We also know that barrels in Scotland's chilly
atmosphere only impart much colour after extensive maturation. And so Scotch Whisky turns to the dreaded caramel to hoodwink the unwary. The potential result for we passionate disciples? A fudgy, over-youthful cocktail of smothered spirit and artificiality. A slippery slide towards the drink we love becoming little better than the grain equivalent of Cognac, with flowery marketing guff on the back-labels of bottles attempting (successfully more often than not) to convince us that it was worth the same money as the age guarantee of yesteryear.

It's a bleak picture that's painted, of a world that I certainly don't want to be part of, and so I decided to conduct an experiment to see whether the move towards NAS whisky was really the death-knoll suggested by the more emotive corners of the whisky-net. Happily the majority of my friends fall into the 'interested but still learning' category where whisky is concerned - the potential unwary consumer if you will - and so I invited one of them, my sartorial Sensei Ben (whose inestimable blog on tailoring can be found at: http://agentlemanstailoringguide.blogspot.co.uk/ - promised I'd plug in exchange for his help, but genuinely worth reading anyway!) to join me at the wonderful Bristol-based Whisky bar 'The Woods'
for a blind tasting. My plan was to present him with two pairs of whiskies, each pair comprised of an age dated whisky and an NAS of the same style and price (roughly) and simply to ask which he preferred, whilst also coming up with my own evaluations.

I arrived early to choose the Whiskies from The Woods' selection. (The bar is dangerously close to work, and I'm now regular enough to be invited along to a couple of their closed tastings.) Instinctively I wanted to pick the Talisker 10 and the Port Ruighe, but Ben sadly has yet to embrace peat, so I had to look elsewhere. For the first pair I picked the Auchentoshan 12 Year Old to set against the Auchentoshan 3 Wood, but my search for a second pair was stymied by the lack of a represented distillery from which The Woods had an equivalent-priced Age Dated and NAS example. However, knowing Ben to be an utter fanatic where James Bond is concerned (the man saw Skyfall at the cinema 15 times) and thus knowing his dedication to the Macallan I decided to pick their 'Amber' to set against the Glenfiddich 15.

On his arrival I didn't tell him the identities of the two whiskies in front of him - simply asked which he preferred and why. Having nosed and tasted the two Auchentoshans beforehand I'd come to the personal conclusion that the 12yo needed a tad more oomph on the ABV and that the 3Wood had more complexity on the nose, but Ben unknowingly announced the 12yo to be his preferred dram on the basis of 'its smoothness and balance.'

I then lined up the Glenfiddich 15 next to his beloved Macallan Amber. The Macallan's actually a smidge more expensive, and it's more intense on the nose certainly, but I'd go for the 'Fiddy every day of the week for complexity and elegance. (Though 6% more ABV wouldn't go amiss.) Ben raised them both to his nose, took tentative sips, considered carefully and then announced the glass containing the Glenfiddich to be his preference. Before I had a chance to reveal the four drams he did me the helpful service of ranking the lot. (Auchentoshan 12, 'Fiddy 15, Macallan Amber, Auchentoshan 3Wood.)

Which left me with some pretty inconclusive results. As far as the blind novice consumer was concerned the age-statement whiskies had cleaned up, which should certainly satisfy the whisky-net firebrands. But I had been torn. The Glenfiddich 15 had beaten the Macallan Amber, but the Amber hadn't been bad, and its nose was a wonderful thing. And after several re-noses and re-tastes I had been certain that I preferred the Threewood to the Auchentoshan Twelve. As I say - inconclusive. I never was much of a scientist.

As far as I can see the bottom line for No Age Statement Whiskies is a two hander. On the first hand, we can't hold back the tide. Whatever I might say (and my opinion counts for precisely nothing), however much the whisky-net might rail, however much more venerated personalities; the Murrays and Valentins and MacLeans and so on might campaign, money always talks. And whilst certain noble and notable exceptions might stand against the tide of NAS, they cannot hold it back. Demand has demanded, and the sad replacement of the Scapa 16 with the 'Skiren' (still not tried it - really want to!) is but the latest in a string of overhaulings which will not abate so long as Whisky holds its well-earned crown as the aristocrat of the Spirit world. 

And yet. And yet. And yet and yet and yet. Hope remains. All is not lost. The fact stands that whilst for most distilleries marketeers and vast conglomerates hold the purse strings and sign the dotted line the manufacturing and creation of Our Spirit remains in the hands of men and women to whom the
Aqua Vitae means more than these rude words can describe. Sure there are several NAS whiskies which badly need to come up to scratch, but that could have been said of a fair few Age-Dateds back in the day. There will always be peaks and there will always be troughs, but on the evidence of tonight, on the evidence of the last year or two of my tasting the New Era may not be the bleak hinterland we fear. The success of the NAS whisky will hinge upon the calibre of the base malt emerging from the stills. It will hinge yet further upon the careful selection of casks (another thorny issue which I will light upon in an article yet to be written.) Most fundamentally it will hinge upon the ingenuity, craftsmanship and talent of the distillers, coopers and master blenders upon whom the responsibility rests to create the drink we love. It falls to us to put our trust in them. It falls to them to understand the weight of that trust. But do not doubt that great NAS whisky can, will, must be made. It exists. I have seen it. I have nosed it. I have drunk it. The challenge now is for the Scotch industry as a whole to master it.

A final word on the subject, but one which I think offers real hope. As I had covered the cost of the blind tasting, Ben, whose top two had both been age-dated, stood me a round before we left. His malt of choice? Dalmore's King Alexander III. Nope, I didn't see an Age Statement on that one either.


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