Transparency in Whisky – The truth might be on its way.
Updated: May 22, 2020
Over the past few weeks, all of us in the whisky world, be it customers, retailers or industry professionals have been supporting both Compass Box and now Bruichladdich, for their support of removing regulations that allow the censorship of what some producers would like to state on the front of their bottles.
Recently and indeed still currently we are in the midst of a whisky renaissance, buying and selling has never been higher across the world. As a result of demand, a lot of NAS (Non Age Statement) whiskies have been released onto the market, with much mixed acclaim. Now as someone who works in the retail side of the industry, I can vouch for a lot of confusion from some customers concerns. When I’m asked, “What’s the age on this one?” The explanation can sometimes feel over bearing and slightly guilty from a retailer’s perspective, as we ourselves don’t necessarily know the answer to that question.
Now I can understand why this has frightened off some of the older generation of whisky drinkers, seeing prized and desired bottles rising in price and becoming ever more elusive, all because of that precious age statement that they carry. It almost feels like everything you knew and trusted about the lovely malt or blend that you put to your lips in both good and bad times is on the verge of destruction. However, I can assure you all that this is not the case.
In an era where all areas of the whisky world are in such high demand, from the well aged sherry stock of Macallan, Glenfarclas and GlenDronach through to the super rare boutique American whiskies from Buffalo Trace; George T Stagg, Sazerac 18 and Blantons. Even the highly praised and for some people, very recent addition of Japanese whisky to the drinking world, it’s all flying off shelves and retailers can barely keep up with the demand.
So naturally, distilleries have to release products that can keep the demand at bay. Not by necessarily being “classic” expressions from what people would expect from those distilleries, but in some cases they are.
Now whenever anyone asks me about “good” NAS products, the correct answer is, all of them.
It totally depends on your pallet and what kind of flavour you would enjoy.
But, there are a few stand-out bottles in my eyes. Ardbeg Uigeadail, Compass Box Spice Tree, Bruichladdich Classic and countless amounts of bourbon.
All of these products individually have things that shine; Ardbeg has a huge ABV (54.2%) and has been mainly sherry matured. This provides an absolutely huge flavour profile of sweet, rich smoke along with decadent toffee and pistachio notes. Spice Tree uses some of my favourite smaller distillers such Dailuaine and Teannich, these in turn bring big hits of caramel, ginger and malty sweetness. It makes you feel all snug and warm inside.
- Lovely NAS whiskies
But, I digress; this article is about transparency and whether or not distillers should have the right to show you, the customer, what is in their products. As a fan of all types of whisky, I whole heartedly agree to this.
Censorship is bad in any form. But this isn’t a state run rule that must apply to all. It’s a way of allowing producers to show the age and contents of their products, if they would like to. If you don’t wanna show us, that’s fine. Although as a result of that, there are a few more questions that spring to mind.
Now before we delve into my own questions for distillers who would choose to ignore this new policy if it were to be put in place. I want to clarify the point that none of these companies are trying to dupe you. We should always trust master distillers and master blenders with the products that they have been helping to create and mature over their years of service. However, the marketing department are another kettle of fish altogether.
Let’s theorise that this rule gets put into place and it MUST apply to all.
Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Ardbeg Uigeadail, Compass Box Spice Tree, Macallan Gold and Glenlivet Founders’ Reserve all now have lists of ages and barrel sourcing that has gone into the product. Would this change my opinion on what I would buy from those distilleries and producers? Of course it wouldn’t! I’d still buy them if they tasted good.
It’s always about taste; you can keep the strangely shaped bottles and overly fancy packaging. If it tastes good you can rinse my wallet for the years of cash flow that I will be providing to that bottle. The odd “bad” batch of whisky will occur every now and then. It’s a sad thing to say but not all batches of a product will always taste the same, the individual elements of what makes all of these amazing malts, blends and bourbons special will change over time, with barrels, spirit and weather conditions all having their own unique finger print on these spirits. But as a result, you’ll just have to accept that this one batch wasn’t as good as the last one. Don’t ditch your love for a product because of one off bottling. That’d be like abandoning Nichols Cage as an actor for making one bad film......
There is a small bonus for me in this theorised world of whisky which is that, customers who buy products purely based on a brand would have to understand why that brand has done it. So if someone buys a specific NAS bottle because they’ve been told that it’s “smooth and old. “ All of a sudden they have to understand that there’s six year old whisky in it and that it isn’t a bad thing.
I’ve tried some stunning young whisky from; Lagavulin, Kilchoman, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh. Maybe the real question that we have to pick out of people’s minds in the whisky world is that, just because it isn’t sixty plus years old and matured in a cask that once contained God’s personal sherry collection doesn’t mean it’s a bad product.
On the other hand, let’s not forget what I said earlier. Marketing is huge, if not a truly fundamental process in whisky these days.
Who can get the biggest celebrity endorsement? The best usage in a cocktail and even more stuff that does make me a little bit angry on the inside, but anyway. I do think that if a distillery is going to place certain words onto a bottle, let’s say for instance; “rare”, “old”, “reserve” and “rare batch” to name but a few examples, at that point, if it has these words adorning it and still no actual age or list of what has gone into to, I’m beginning to feel slightly betrayed by that trust I mentioned earlier.
Now those products could contain some very old and expensive whisky, which I won’t deny. But I can’t help but feel that if these terms continue to get flaunted by marketing men and women who barely touch the stuff themselves, then we will begin to lose the old and new customers who really do love whisky to the ends of the earth.
This may seem rather strict, but perhaps put a policy in place for the use of those words on a bottle? If you’re telling me it’s old on the label, you should be able to tell me how old the product actually is. Words mean a lot, but let’s not wear them out to the point of forgetting what they actually mean.
- John Glaser of Compass Box
So all in all, yes, transparency for this industry is a good thing, it’s positive in all of the right ways.
For people who have been drinking whisky for the same amount of time as me and those who have been drinking it for longer than I’ve been alive. We want to know what we’re drinking. If it tastes good and it’s young, fantastic! Less time to age and more money for distilleries and producers straight away, no need to wait a minimum of ten years, as it was in the days when sherry casks littered the land.
But if it’s not to everyone’s liking and the only people who buy it is because it’s on offer on a supermarket shelf, then the time comes to either scrap it or just be honest with us and we’ll always return the favour. Because it’s not being bought for flavour at that point, it’s being bought because it’s cheap.
To learn more about Compass Box's Campaign for Whisky Transparency, please click here.
Phil Dwyer is an independent Whisky Writer and blogger based in Manchester, UK.
His favourites are the Sazerac 18 , Glendronach, and Irn Bru WKD.