Recently, W. L. Weller Special Reserve lost its 7-year-old age statement. Before that it was Weller Antique (7 years), Evan Williams 1783 (10 years), Evan Williams black label (7 years) and others. Knob Creek has always been 9-years-old but the new Knob Creek Rye is NAS (No Age Statement). It hasn't happened yet, but Beam has gotten a new NAS label approved for Basil Hayden's, which has been 8-years old since its introduction 20 years ago.
What is an age statement? It is a declaration of the whiskey's minimum age that appears on its label. 'Minimum' means that the stated age has to be that of the youngest whiskey in the bottle. Older whiskey is okay but nothing younger than the stated age is permitted. Age statements are regulated by the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau, a branch of the U.S. Treasury.
In American whiskey, age statements are required for any product that is less than 4-years-old, so the absence of an age statement means the product is at least 4-years-old.
Only age statements on labels count. If the producer tells you the age of something, but it's not on the label, well, let's just say that's not the same thing.
For producers, age statements are a double-edged sword. Without them, the producer has more flexibility. Age, after all, is just a number. The maturity of the whiskey as reflected in its taste is what matters. These days, when most producers are struggling to meet demand, age statements can seem like more trouble than they're worth.
But there are good business reasons to keep using age statements. Whiskey enthusiasts are a small cadre but we buy a lot of whiskey. We like age statements. We know they aren't the only measure of a whiskey's quality or character, and we know older isn't necessarily better, but it's like any other information. Assuming it is factual and reliable, the more information you have about something, the easier it is to make a purchase decision.
It seems to be only American producers who are turning away from age statements. In the scotch segment we're seeing more, not fewer.
What companies forget is that if you tend to like, for example, bourbon that is more than 6 years old, you will look for age statements that give you that information when you are looking for something new to try, and ignore all NAS products unless you are already familiar with them. It is, therefore, often a criteria for someone who wants to try something new, a quick way to reduce the number of candidates. If you're a producer, don't you want that trial? Isn't attracting new customers usually one of the pillars of successful brand growth?
The producer counts on regular drinkers of the newly-NAS product to either not notice the change or not care. They may be right, but that doesn't mean going NAS is cost-free. To the extent that age statements are important to attracting new customers, you give up some percentage of your potential growth when you go NAS. Is that good business?
One hopes the companies know this and have just decided, for cost reasons, to set the bar for age statements a little higher, above 8 years, maybe, or 10. Let's hope that's the case because if producers have decided they can't risk age statements at any level, they're making a mistake that could be fatal to the continuing profitable growth of American whiskey.