One of the first indicators of quality a whiskey drinker looks for on a bottle is the spirit’s statement of age. The long-held belief is that the older the whiskey, the better—and the more expensive. Yet, there's an increasing presence of "No Age Statement" (NAS) whiskey hitting the market.
In the Scotch realm, the past few years have seen heavy hitters such as The Macallan, The Glenlivet and Johnnie Walker removing age statements from certain labels and markets. Meanwhile, other brands have introduced NAS whisky alongside their age-specific products, such as Ardbeg Uigeadail, and Talisker Storm.
What's behind the growth of the dreaded No Age Statement, where does it fit into the American scene, and does it signal a lower quality bottle?
NAS and Bourbon
Stateside, some of the biggest names in bourbon have always steered clear of declaring age statements, from Maker's Mark to Woodford Reserve. Meanwhile, Wild Turkey 101 removed its "8 year old" label way back in the early 1990s and the company currently describes the spirit as "a marriage of primarily 6-, 7-, and 8-year-old bourbons."
Eddie Russell, recently named Wild Turkey Master Distiller alongside his 80-year-old father Jimmy, recognizes that although Wild Turkey 101 made the switch decades ago, others have had their hand forced more recently, due simply to supply. The ever-increasing demand for bourbon has played a major role in the disappearance of certain age statements. "I think a lot [of producers] had to do it, because of their stocks," he says.
Indeed, ages are disappearing left and right across the bourbon landscape. Old Weller Antique is no longer age-specific, and neither is Very Old Barton, or Heaven Hill's Fighting Cock. Elijah Craig 12 could be next, as the age has already been conspicuously shifted to the back of the label.
In 2014, Jim Beam Black removed its age statement. Master Distiller Fred Noe, whose drink of choice at a recent dinner hosted at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse was Jim Beam Black with water and ice, extensively tasted, tested and tweaked the whiskey before feeling confident enough to release it without an age statement.
If his choice drink didn't hold up to his own palate, "it would have been bad," he jokes. Since the switch, not only has he been happy with the outcome though, he hasn't seen any consumer outcry, either. "There hasn't been any [backlash]," Noe says. "And we haven't heard any negative press on it."
That is contingent on consumers keeping an open mind to the lack of an age statement though. "If everybody gets tore up over the age statement, then that limits a lot," he says. "Right now, the demand is so great for bourbon all over the world. You gotta worry about that all the time."
Other products within the Jim Beam family have different requirements, such as the Jim Beam Signature Craft 12 Years. "Well, getting it to 12 years old takes a long time," jokes Noe. "The demand might spike dramatically, but we've only got so many barrels that are in that program. If you start sucking 'em up, all of the sudden your supplies are gone, and you can't age it quicker."
No Age Doesn't Mean No Quality
Removing an age statement doesn't necessarily mean a reduction in quality, nor a change in how a whiskey tastes. There are ways to manipulate whiskey to produce different effects, compensating for lower ages without changing mash bills or proofs. For instance, "mingling barrels from different areas of the rickhouse," explains Noe. He now includes more barrels from the top floors in Jim Beam Black, where higher temperatures comparative to the bottom of the warehouse more rapidly mature the spirit.
Removing an age statement doesn't necessarily mean a reduction in quality, nor a change in how a whiskey tastes.
In fact, without the constrictions of an age statement, sometimes quality and consistency can actually be maintained in a superior fashion. At Maker's Mark, Master Distiller Greg Davis oversees the creation of a whiskey which never had an age statement. "We're not concerned about that time," he says, "just that taste."
Maker's follows a unique aging system where all barrels are aged at the top levels of their warehouses for three summers before rotating to the cooler bottom floors for a period roughly lasting between two and three quarters to four years. The whiskey in a bottle of Maker's Mark could therefore be just over five years old, or perhaps as much as seven years old, but it will always retain the Maker's Mark flavor profile because they aren't mandating themselves to reach an aging minimum.
Chris Morris, Master Distiller of Woodford Reserve, also avoids age minimums and statements. "We do not have an age-specific product," he says. "We've never believed in ages on labels." He prefers, instead, to focus on continued tasting and sampling to reach his consistent end result and quality standards.
Morris also recognizes the practicality of avoiding age statements though. "Then you get painted into that proverbial corner," Morris says, and with increases to demand, stock shortages may arise, and lower aged whiskey would have to be used. Whether or not the whiskey tasted the same, the change could spark concern with consumers. As Noe also discussed, removing or changing an age statement is dependent on the willingness of consumers to go along with the shift.
Morris believes that stock and supply issues are indeed what may be happening with certain other brands. "If you did detective work, then that's what you would find," he says.
Bourbon and Scotch Age Differently
Many American whiskey drinkers, particularly those who first fell for Scotch, hold true to the sentiment that age is the biggest signifier of quality. With Scotch, it's relatively common to find 30-year-old or 25-year-old whisky, while whisky aged less than 10 years will get an upturned nose from many drinkers.
Many American whiskey drinkers, particularly those who first fell for Scotch, hold true to the sentiment that age is the biggest signifier of quality.
However, more common ages for mid to high-end bourbon are between six and 12 years, while standard bearers such as Jim Beam white label and Jack Daniel's, technically a Tennessee Whiskey, are each aged four years. That's one potential explanation for the Pappy Van Winkle obsession, as the brand showcases 20 year and 23 year labels in its lineup, rarities in the world of bourbon.
Yet, with bourbon, bigger age numbers have never necessarily led to better whiskeys. Bourbon ages differently than Scotch, reaching its peak at an earlier age due both to the spirit itself as well as the warmer American climate comparative to Scotland's.
Eddie Russell's first expression as Master Distiller at Wild Turkey, Master's Keep, is due to hit the market this fall, and it's the oldest Wild Turkey bourbon release in the United States ever, at 17 years old. "If you've ever been around Jimmy [Russell], he'll tell you he doesn't like bourbon much older than 12 or 13 years," he says, joking that if drinkers don't like Master's Keep, they need to blame him, not his father.
"The reason Jimmy doesn't like [older bourbon] is because he doesn't like that real woody taste," explains Russell. Bourbon reaches a plateau at a certain point, and the oak of the barrel takes over the spirit. Cask finishes, or barrel selections from cooler parts of the warehouse, can compensate in the other direction, as the heat of the top floors may help to compensate for younger ages.
Noe agrees. "To my taste, when it gets to about 14 years old, the wood is just about taking over," he says. "Once you get past that age, it gets so damn woody."
So why is 20 and 23-year-old bourbon even hitting the market? "The only reason they're out there is because some distillery made 'em 20, 23 years ago and couldn't sell them, and then somebody comes along and bought 'em up," he says.
Older doesn't always mean better—especially for bourbon—and NAS doesn't signify a downturn in quality, either.
At Wild Turkey, there are 525,000 barrels aging in their warehouses, yet Russell says only three or four single barrels of more than half a million are 20 years old or more. "And they should have been dumped 10 years ago," he says. "What I normally do though is add them to my special bottlings."
Older doesn't always mean better—especially for bourbon—and NAS doesn't signify a downturn in quality, either. As with the entire whiskey market, or any consumer marketplace, supply and demand is playing a role in affecting what producers are putting out there, and what they're able to offer.
Age labels may continue disappearing, and whiskey drinkers should certainly pay attention to their favorite brands to monitor consistency and make sure distillers don't take shortcuts. As long as the quality is still there though, thanks to the experienced hands of those who still list their names on the label, even if they don't promote the whiskey's age, remember the adage—age is just a number.