The Whisky Tasting Club

Who are you calling lazy?

To age or not to age? That is the question.

Well actually it isn’t – nobody is saying whisky shouldn’t be aged. But there’s a right royal row about to sweep all before it over how much emphasis should be put on the age of a Scotch (and we are talking Scotch – as anyone familiar with my work will know, when it comes to world whiskies we’re in a totally different ball game).

The ‘debate’ – or more accurately, conflict of opinions – has simmered on for a couple of years now, as Diageo and Pernod Ricard, in what is the whisky equivalent of the USA-USSR Star Wars programme, have sought to dominate the debate as to whether we should make more or less of age on a bottle of Scotch. Diageo, owners of Johnnie Walker and Buchanans, says emphatically not, and argues that flavour is the key element, and age is just one component of what constitutes a quality whisky. But Pernod Ricard, owners of Chivas Regal, Ballantine’s and Royal Salute, argues that age matters, and that much more….er.. time should be taken educating a very ignorant consumer as to how important the age of a Scotch is.

But this Autumn the debate looks set to go up a notch or two, because now Edrington, owner of The Macallan and Highland Park, has plunged into the debate, and indeed, added colour to it – quite literally.

The company has launched four new whiskies in to its 1824 range and in the most dramatic company move since it launched the Fine Oak range, is scrapping aged malts under the age of 18. The four new whiskies have no age statements and cover various price points, and each whisky is sold on its colour. Simplistically put, the rich and darker the whisky, the better the quality, presumably the older the contents, and therefore the higher the price.

Let’s draw a breath a minute because whatever else you might or might not say, you can’t accuse Edrington of being shrinking violets when it comes to the big issues: non aged whiskies replacing aged ones? Selling whisky by colour? And if that weren’t enough, the entry level whisky, Gold, is replacing the Fine Oak 10 year old without an age statement and at a higher price. Oh, and did I mention that the new range is being introduced in some countries for some malts but basically the United Kingdom is one of the only ones to be offered the whole shebang in one hefty lump?

So where to start in a analysing this? Well at the heart of it is the main debate: flavour. So the questions are:

1. Are the whiskies any good?

2. Is Gold better than Fine Oak 10 Year Old?

3. Does it justify the higher price tag irrespective of how good it is?

4. Is selling whisky by colour such a good idea or will it just confuse the consumer?

5. What’s their thinking about introducing NAS whiskies to the UK and not elsewhere?

The first two questions can be dealt with quickly. All four new releases are excellent and worthy of The Macallan name. They are beautifully made, rich and full in taste, and all four are very different to each other. I like them all. I’ll post notes soon.

Is Gold better than Fine Oak? Yes it is. All the new malts are from sherry casks, with a mix of first fill and second fill casks, but none of them really hark back to the big and heavily sherried Macallans of old – a plus for me as I’m in the minority which prefers Fine Oak anyway – though they do have trademark orange and stewed berry fruits and a smoky, oaky, rich and complex Macallan undertow. Gold is weightier than Fine Oak 10 year old, richer and longer in the finish, and exudes fresh, fruity class and sophistication. All in all, it is, indeed, gold.

Does it justify the price tag despite the fact that it has no age statement? Tough one, but given the way entry level Scotch malts are going up in price in general, and given the fact that it tastes great, I’m going to say yes. And by so doing, I suppose, I’m implicitly siding with the non Age Statement camp in the whisky debate. Given that I write so much about world whisky, I have to. But that aside, the minimum age statement can be a barrier to great whisky making – and it’s no coincidence that some of the world’s most enjoyable Scotches – Johnnie Walker Blue, Dewar’s Signature, many recent Glenmorangie and Ardbeg releases etc etc – have no age statement. They are what they are because an age statement means that the youngest whisky in the mix is at least that age. Even one drop of younger whisky affects the age of the bottle, and young whisky can be necessary to boost much older whiskies. Truth be told, letting a young whisky loose among the oldest most venerable malts is like letting a boisterous teenager loose in an old people’s home: it stirs the residents up, gets them moving, shouting out, waving their walking sticks in protest. In short, it stirs some life in to them. In such cases, overall age has become irrelevant. So far so good.

But questions four and five are something else again. Macallan brand ambassador Joy Elliott had the following to say about age statements and colour at the launch of the new 1824 series: “Age statements have made us very lazy and one-dimensional. People have different palates and can each discern different flavours. What appeals to one person may not appeal to another. Right now whisky consumers believe an 18-year old is better than a 15-year old, and a 15 better than a 12, but it’s really all down to personal taste. “ (Whisky maker) Bob Dalgarno wants to prove it’s not about age, but what’s in the glass and those whiskies that deliver character and flavour. There’s a big education job to do. We are the most modern market in terms of whisky, but we’ve still got a long way to go. An age statement doesn’t give you any clues as to quality, but this (The Macallan 1824 Series) is one of the ways around.”

Firstly, I think that these words do a massive disservice to the talented and hard working staff across The Whisky Shop estate and elsewhere, who have for several years now worked hard to educate the consumer about whisky and have, frankly, been hampered by an industry that is telling them that colour isn’t important but it’s important, age isn’t important but it’s important, and it doesn’t matter if whisky is old but you’ll pay an awful lot for it if it’s old.

In fact I would argue that in terms of education The Whisky Shop and our magazine Whiskeria have cut through an awful lot of confusing crap (such as ladies should drink Lowland malts, Highland and island whiskies shouldn’t be set loose on novices – less common now but not that far in our past).

Secondly, the first part of Joy’s argument – that age statements have made us lazy and one dimensional applies equally – or even more so – than judging whisky by colour. But most importantly, linking colour, age and quality is at best a difficult sell and is at worst completely misleading and arguably, wrong. In fact Macallan’s view that ‘an age statement doesn’t give you any clues as to quality,’ is far less justifiable than saying that the colour does. Leaving aide the caramel argument – the Scotch Whisky Association allows colouring through caramel though it’s increasingly frowned upon, especially in malt whisky – colour cannot be a guide to age or quality. We even have a feature in the next issue of Whiskeria saying as much. Why? Because bourbon and casks and sherry casks have a very different effect on colour. Because the number of times a cask has been used will affect the colour. And because different cask sizes, temperatures, seasonal extremes of temperature, style of oak and humidities will all affect colour in maturation.

If you’re not convinced, have a look at a three year old Kavalan matured in Taiwan in first fill sherry, or take a look at a 100 DAY spirit matured in Hungarian oak near the North Pole and which is the colour of prune juice.

It’s true that the issue isn’t understood but that’s because the consumer is being blitzed with confusing and conflicting information from the industry itself.

Which brings me to the final question – why us? The official reason is that the UK is a more mature market and able to understand the colour and non age statements. But again, I don’t think this washes. In one breath we’re being told that we’ve been lazy and one dimensional in our education programme and there’s a massive job still to be done, and in the next we’re being told that the British whisky drinker is mature enough to understand the issues. Que?

We know that figures show that the public don’t understand age statements and that they think age is a marker of quality, and yet the new 1824 whiskies are all without age statements. So let’s be blunt. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – any move like this is about selling more whisky for as much as possible.

This move is about selling more younger whisky for a bigger profit in what for many companies is a flatlining market.

Nothing wrong with that – it’s business after all, and why is anyone still surprised that capitalists want to make money? And in this case, in my view, the whiskies make the mark and pass The Macallan test. They make a worthy addition to the argument for Non Age Statement whiskies.

But the colour argument seriously worries me. It’s dangerous ground, undermines a lot of work many of us have been doing. And on behalf of everyone in whisky retail faced with the mess of selling this on to the customer, I find the word ‘lazy’ more than a little insulting and unfair.

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