Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Plea To American Whiskey Producers: Don't Give Up On Age Statements.

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.

7 comments:

Tim Read said...

Chuck,

I agree that I'd like to see bourbons try and keep an age statement, but I don't think I agree with your contention that the trend in Scotch is away from NAS whiskies.

The Ardbeg line continues to be dominated by NAS whiskies - the Ten is the only regular whisky they carry.

Dalmore produces tons of NAS whiskies as well (Cigar Malt, King Alexander, Mackenzie, the Rivers)

Auchentoshan just added Valinch; Macallan continues to play with NAS at Duty-Free; etc, etc.

I could go on and on with examples... seems that age statements may juggle (COLA shows Macallan having a 12y Fine Oak, possibly to replace the 10y domestically?) but there's not really a strong trend towards more, unless I've completely missed something.

Josh Feldman said...

I'm torn. On the one hand, I agree with you. It seems as if distillers are cheaping out by dumping age statements. It seems like a slippery slope to younger and younger bourbon.

On the flip side, only what's in the glass counts. If a master distiller says a barrel is ready, then leaving it in the warehouse another year to satisfy the demands of the label has the potential to do a disservice to the quality of the bourbon if it becomes too tannin laden in that extra year. Jim Rutledge says (in the Bourbon Dork's excellent series of interviews) that he resists doing age statement bourbons precisely for this reason. Some barrels are ready before others. He says, 'let the whiskey decide'.

Ultimately a no-age-statement bourbon is only as good as the master distiller's palate and sense of priorities. But then, that's the case in every phase of bourbon production, right?

Chuck Cowdery said...

I'd like to think there are benefits to both NAS and aged-stated bottlings. I hope we will always have both.

Re Scotch, I should have said that blended scotch producers are introducing more ultra-premium blends and many, if not most, of those are age-stated. (Excluding the Johnnie Walker range, of course.) I haven't noticed any change in the mix with single malts.

Lazer said...

Is it possible the bourbon producers are suffering from age envy when they look at the scotch? They might be afraid that consumers will automatically assume an 18 yr old scotch is superior to an 8 yr old bourbon, so going NAS could help in that regard? Level the playing field, sorta?

Sylvan said...

I'd like to add that not only do whiskey enthusiasts buy a lot of whiskey, our friends, relatives and twitter followers tend to buy what we recommend.

Jordan Devereaux said...

I agree with Josh that how the whiskey tastes is ultimately the most important factor. The difficulty comes in justifying the resulting prices to the consumer. With age statement whiskies, you can learn about the angel's share and understand how old whiskey becomes scarce with time. A younger whiskey might taste just as good or better (everyone has had a spirit at some point that tasted like pure oak extract), but it's more difficult to determine its value.

So while I can understand all the reasons why distillers want to move away from age statements, it means that they are going to have an increasingly difficult time marketing their products. Most buyers will be willing to pay more for an older spirit (whether or not its intrinsically 'better'), but paying extra for something with muddier provenance may be a harder sell.

This seems like the point where bloggers come in, as it seems like more and more this is where people are turning for information about spirits. Which is also a tricky thing, given the complex relationships between distillers and the people who write about spirits. Maintaining credibility when there are increasing rewards for touting products is going to be key and only time will tell how this plays out.

Anonymous said...

I am a bourbon enthusiast, buy a LOT of bourbon, but none without an age statement. I regard an age statement as a statement of ultimate quality and pride in product.