The NAS Dilemma

My entire motivation for starting this blog was to help bridge the gap between what's happening with the online whisk(e)y community and what's actually happening in the business.  There is no bigger divide between these two very different worlds than how each perceives "Non-Age Statement" whiskies, i.e. brands that don't provide a maturity statement. Without any information about the age of the whisk(e)y, companies are sometimes free to sell younger spirit at a higher price.  I think one of the biggest misperceptions from whisk(e)y enthusiasts is that their personal distrust for these bottles resonates with a larger audience. My recent post about Black Maple Hill, for example, resulted in a few emails and some public discourse about my possible exaggeration of certain details – namely, was BMH really as hot of an item as I was making it out to be?  Maybe I just wanted to push sales, despite the fact that I didn't have any to sell.  There couldn't possibly be so much love for a whiskey that doesn't provide an age statement, nor a distillery of origin.  That wouldn't make sense. When the internet whisk(e)y community has deemed it totally uncool to enjoy certain NAS bottles, how could the public possibly go against such strong sentiment?

NAS whiskies are not going away, however. While they anger those in search of complete transparency, they make complete business sense from the company's perspective.  They can sell younger whisk(e)y for the exact same price as older whisk(e)y and people will happily pay it because they don't know the difference!  If it didn't make complete business sense, Macallan single malt whisky wouldn't be transitioning their packaging to NAS color-coded selections.  They are a gigantic brand and it would be the worse possible decision they could make if it really mattered. I know that sounds crazy to certain people, but you have to remember that, if this idea upsets you, you're very different from the large majority of the purchasing public – you actually care about this.  I'm not saying this to upset anyone.  I'm saying it because I work in a big liquor store and it's just part of my daily routine.  I care about whisk(e)y, too.  If I didn't, I wouldn't spend so much time writing this blog.

Some people care so much about whisk(e)y that the idea of actually enjoying a NAS bottle is forbidden. In some circles you can completely lose your credibility if you come out in favor of one.  Personally, I think that's silly.  There are many terrific whiskies that don't post an age statement and we'll just have to accept the fact that some people enjoy them.  I really don't care either way – I'm not totally in favor of them and I'm not completely against them (I am against price gouging, however, which can happen with these).  It's a case by case basis.  I care about flavor and value, which I can assess from tasting a whisk(e)y and deciding if I think it's worth paying the price. Everyone has one simple tool they can employ if they don't like something: don't buy it.  That's all you need to do.  The problem for some, however, is that most people do buy these whiskies – in droves.  Black Maple Hill is so hot right now that I'll sell out my monthly allocation in a day sometimes.  Sixty bottles in twenty four hours.  Granted, this trend isn't happening everywhere as some customers in other states have no trouble finding it, but it is happening at K&L and I'm just reporting what I'm experiencing.

People buy Black Maple Hill because they like it.  They buy it because it's now hard to get.  They buy it because some bar in downtown San Francisco uses it for their house cocktails.  They buy it because it's cool.  Whatever the reason, most people absolutely do not care that it's completely without an age statement.  In fact, the idea that an age statement would change anything about this whiskey is completely beyond their ability to care.  If I were to ask every customer whether they cared about that fact, they would likely say, "Does it still taste the same?"  While we, the passionate, blog-following whisk(e)y faithful share our opinions about booze daily, the rest of the public continues to drink without doing much internet research.  Word of mouth, trends, sales, and brand loyalty guide spirits sales at K&L, not blogs or message boards.  As much as I wish the internet community could help push customers towards more esoteric and interesting products, it can only preach to those interested in listening.  From my personal experience, most people aren't all that interested in listening – at least not to speeches about age statements and transparency.

That's not to say that they should listen either.  Who are we to tell people what they should or shouldn't drink?  However, when you're passionate about something it can be disappointing to find that other people don't care.  I find it disappointing when people care too much about what I say concerning booze, just like I find it disappointing when people don't care enough.  That's life, however.  We're constantly bitching about what other people are doing.  Here's one thing people are definitely doing: they're buying NAS whiskies.  Whether you're alright with that or not, it's happening.  Until that stops happening, companies are going to have a field day with it.  If you don't like that, you know what you can do: get people to care (which I can tell you is extremely difficult) or don't buy them.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll