The Silver Lining of the NAS Trend
You know what happens when you take the age statement off a whisky label, but don't lower the price per bottle as a result?
Well...sometimes nothing happens. In the case of Suntory's Hibiki, which went from a 12 year old to a "Harmony" blend, our sales haven't stalled one bit. It still blows off the shelf just as fast as it did two years ago—business as usual. In many cases, however, whisky fans have responded to NAS (no age statement) editions with a lackluster enthusiasm and a bitter online response. Like I've mentioned before, big whisky executives don't read internet blogs. What they do read, however, are sales reports and when customers vote with their dollars it's a far more effective method of protest than a Twitter rant. Global corporations answer to shareholders and the bottom line, not social media. The thing about about NAS whiskies, however, is that you don't need an iPhone or an Instagram account to notice what's happening. Where there used to be a number there's now a clever name or a description. Tech savvy millenials get that, as do the eighty year old grandpas I see in the store grumbling about the loss of the "12" on the Elijah Craig. When you start pissing off the brand loyalists and the life-long drinkers, to boot—the guys that buy dozens of the same bottle every year—that's when the shit really starts hitting the fan.
Nobody likes it when their favorite brand transitions from an age statement label to an NAS edition—period. That's pretty clear at this point.
I have to say, however, that in my conversations with the higher-ups at Beam-Suntory, Diageo, Pernod-Ricard, Remy, LVMH, and Edrington, it seems like that message has finally resonated. Not that it means they're going to put the age statements back on the bottle, mind you, it just means they've realized that customers are not taking whisky for granted anymore. You have to understand: these guys were riding an endless wave of sales, a long and effortless cash cow of a movement that saw bottles depleting at paces never previously seen. They got complacent. They thought they could put anything in a bottle and people would buy it (so did many craft distilleries). What they're learning, however, is that competition is a bitch. There are too many good options still on the market for even the most basic customer to buy a shitty bottle of NAS whisky. That's why a number of brands have been forced to work harder, smarter, and better with their NAS editions. As I've stated before: WORK is what's coming, not winter. And now WORK is here.
From what I've been tasting, many big companies are starting to put in the work. In the past week I've tasted some of the best new NAS whiskies in years: the Ardbeg An Oa, the Beam "Little Book," the Bladnoch "Samsara," the Macallan 3rd Edition, and the new Highland Park "Magnus," a $32 bottle of whisky that is absolutely delightful. In talking with the brand ambassadors and CEOs from these companies, it's clear they knew they needed to up their game. What we're seeing now is whisky that tastes like it's priced, which is ultimately what most people care about. The new Macallan Edition Three tastes like a hundred dollar bottle of whisky. The Ardbeg An Oa tastes like a sixty dollar whisky. The Magnus tastes like a really fucking good thirty dollar bottle of whisky. The question I have is: are we living in a whisky world still built on taste?
The answer will definitely be in those sales reports!