Think that a scotch whisky needs an age-statement to be any good? Think again. Clinton Cawood joins a panel of bartenders on an inspiring voyage of ageless discovery
What’s in an age? No-age-statement whiskies aren’t new, but in recent years they’ve increasingly been embraced by the scotch industry, and are often a go-to for new releases.
Sceptics fret for the category, fearing a deluge of ever-younger whiskies, as demand for scotch rises and brand owners clamour to release more, and sooner. But perhaps NAS is just what single malt needs – an unfettered and creative space for distillers.
What are whisky producers doing with all this freedom though? To find out, we called in a selection of NAS single malt whisky from across the scotch industry, from established no-age pioneers to trendy, experimental new releases. We put these in front of a tasting panel of top bartenders, to find out whether or not this style of scotch is bringing about the downfall of scotch as we know it. (Spoiler: It’s not…)
How it works
We called in a selection of no-age-statement (NAS) single malt whisky from all over Scotland. These were tasted blind, peated and non-peated expressions separately. Tasters weren’t aware that these were NAS until after the tasting, and nor were they aware of price. Each was scored out of 20, resulting in a percentage score for each. Tasters also marked each sample as a whisky for either sipping or for mixing,
or both. All prices are RRP.
Pierre-Marie Bisson, Milk & Honey; Liam Broom, Callooh Callay; Clinton Cawood, Imbibe;
Chris Dennis, Disrepute; Tara Garnell, ex-Original Sin; Luis-Rene Orozco, McQueen;
Chris Tanner, The Vault / Milroy’s
88 Ardbeg Uigeadail, Islay
Big peat took top prize in this varied line up, with Uigeadail earning unanimous praise from our tasters. An established member of the Ardbeg family, this is a combination of the ex-bourbon casks commonly used for the distillery’s whiskies with some ex-sherry casks.
This had it all, from tropical fruit to bonfires, not to mention sweetness, as well as a nuttiness. More than one taster identified a briny, saline note too. Our panel described toasted marshmallows, butterscotch, sherry-dipped pecans and ‘charred fudge’.
To balance all of these facets, along with that high abv, is a remarkable achievement for an NAS whisky. ‘A nightcap, by the fire, on a winter night,’ summarised one taster.
54.2% abv, £61/70cl, Moët Hennessy UK, 020 7808 4400
85 Aberlour A’bunadh, Speyside
Proof, if any was needed, that you don’t need peat to be packed full of flavour. Cask strength and made using traditional methods, Aberlour’s A’bunadh inspired long and detailed tasting notes from our panellists.
They described a ‘salty, rich and sweet’ single malt, with maple syrup, toffee, ginger cake, soreen, honeyed allspice, liquorice and clove, along with charcoal-grilled peaches and caramelised pear. More unusual notes in this whisky included Szechuan pepper, sandalwood and pewter.
A dash of water wouldn’t go amiss, or a cube or two of ice, said a few tasters. One could see this in an Old Fashioned.
61.2% abv, £49.65/70cl, Pernod Ricard UK, 020 8538 4484
79 Bruichladdich The Classic Laddie, Islay
This unpeated entrant from Islay’s Bruichladdich was no sweet and straightforward single malt. A rubber note – like pencil erasers or, as one taster described it, hospital gloves – was joined by some wax paper and dusty lemon aromas, leading to more pronounced and generous fruit, like pineapple and ripe banana.
The palate followed with a grainy Rice Krispies note, joined by mango skin and liquorice-flavoured rolling papers – not your run-of-the-mill single malt scotch tasting notes…
One panellist thought there was a youthfulness here, but that if anything, this added to its complexity.
50% abv, £42/70cl, Rémy Cointreau UK, 020 7580 6180
79 Glenfiddich IPA Experiment, Speyside
Glenfiddich has gone big on the experiments, and judging by the scores awarded to this recently launched whisky, it’s paying off. This single malt is finished in casks seasoned with an IPA brewed specifically for this purpose.
The result is a generous and warming whisky, with a full aroma and a rich mouthfeel. Tropical fruit like papaya meet cocoa and nutty notes, as well as sweet toffee and fudge. Added complexity came from some pine and heather notes, plus pink pepper, and orange peel too.
The distillery’s not quite done with its experimentation either. There’s already a second whisky in the Experimental Series, entitled Project XX, created by 20 Glenfiddich brand ambassadors. Expect more in the years to come.
43% abv, £45/70cl, William Grant & Sons, 020 8332 1188
79 Kilchoman Sanaig, Kilchoman, Islay
To look at our panel’s tasting notes, there was no doubt as to this whisky’s provenance. Charcoal, embers, leather, tobacco smoke… definitely an Islay malt.
But with its significant amount of sherry influence, there was nothing one-dimensional about Sanaig either. Those peaty notes were joined by vanilla and stone fruit, some dark chocolate and even a fino sherry note. In addition, one taster identified some mineral notes, like granite and slate, not to mention a mushroom-like character too.
A complex, fascinating whisky, and one that would make a good scotch Vieux Carré, suggested one taster.
46% abv, £55/70cl, Pol Roger, 01432 262800
79 Macallan Edition No 2, Speyside
A limited-edition, no-age-statement single malt from a distillery that’s no stranger to NAS single malts. A collaboration with the founders of acclaimed Catalonian restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, this consists of both European and American oak casks, and a total of seven cask types.
The result is a rich and interesting whisky with its sherry casks at the forefront. Leather, butterscotch and sweet pastries were some of the notes describing the aroma here, joined by black tea and molasses. The rich and rounded palate followed with more sweet flavours like cacao, liquorice and toffee, but with a satisfyingly dry finish, like dark chocolate.
There was plenty of rounded mouthfeel and complexity to make this a great sipper, with, as one taster suggested, a glass of water on the side.
48.2% abv, £65/70cl, Maxxium UK, 01786 430500
79 Port Askaig 100° Proof, Islay
A pale colour, as well as an elegant, restrained aroma, belied a punchy, characterful whisky from Port Askaig.
In addition to a good whack of peat, there was a distinct vegetal character here, from grassy notes to an almost floral character. After some green apple and salted caramel aromas, as well as some ripe banana, the full, chewy palate kicked in with some measured sweetness and ‘an explosion of complex smoke, brine, iodine and TCP’.
‘High-octane flavours!’ summarised one taster. In spite of that sky-high abv, this was beautifully balanced. And great value too.
57.1% abv, £45/70cl, Speciality Brands, 020 8838 9367
78 Port Charlotte Scottish Barley, Islay
Unlike Bruichladdich’s unpeated Classic Laddie, its Port Charlotte whiskies are heavily peated. This Scottish barley expression started out subtle though – light and approachable, with some citrus and wild-flower honey notes joining some fudge and treacle, with some gentle soot too.
‘Like a siren, it lures you in…’ said one taster after encountering the much more substantial and unabashed palate, replete with TCP, brine and iodine notes, but backed by a creamy honey note.
‘If this was a song, it would be Get It Together by Jurassic 5 – exactly what you want from classic hip-hop, or Islay whisky, in this case,’ said one panellist.
50% abv, £47/70cl, Rémy Cointreau UK, 020 7580 6180
77 Talisker Skye, Islands
This had all the hallmarks you’d expect from a Talisker single malt, like medicinal, saline notes, but tasters also found some roasted coffee beans and a nuttiness too, like toasted pecans.
The actual smokiness was subtle here, described by one panellist as ‘a mist, coming across lightly’. This wood smoke was wrapped up nicely with some honey and maple syrup on the noticeably sweet palate. The whisky’s palate had ‘an extremely full mouthfeel, with great viscosity’.
45.8% abv, £33/70cl, Diageo, 020 8978 6000
74 Ailsa Bay Single Malt, Lowland
There’s nothing typical about Ailsa Bay. It’s a peated Lowland whisky, for a start, and is produced at a single malt distillery located on the site of grain distillery Girvan. Got all that?
Most important was that the spirit combined these diverse influences beautifully. Tasters found all of the expected TCP and iodine notes, but also found some subtler notes, described by one as ‘herbal and woody, moss and rain’. Anise and angelica joined in on the palate, along with some cacao notes, and a subtle, sweet mint note.
48.9% abv, £55/70cl, William Grant & Sons, 020 8332 1188
74 Glenmorangie A Midwinter Night’s Dram, Highlands
Released back in 2015, this limited edition from Glenmorangie is matured, in part, in oloroso sherry casks. This was decidedly light and delicate on the nose, with cereal notes joining a floral element, along with some lifted spice and some light red fruit, like redcurrants. Bracken and wet slate completed the picture.
The palate was equally delicate, but sweeter, with apricot jam, whipped butter, raisin and halva, with some macadamia nuts. Overall, an antidote to some of the punchier single malts in this tasting.
43% abv, £40/70cl, Moët Hennessy UK, 020 7808 4400
74 Oban Little Bay, Highlands
At first, Little Bay was restrained to the point of being shy on the nose, but this soon resolved into a floral and nutty aroma, with toasted macadamia nuts and popcorn, along with some dark chocolate. The palate was more open, with a mix of orchard fruits and quince paste, as well as some herbal notes to add some complexity.
As one taster put it: ‘This one makes me just want to drink whisky.’ And you can’t ask for much more than that.
43% abv, £51/70cl, Diageo, 020 8978 6000
73 Glenrothes Select Reserve, Speyside
A ‘light yet complex’ single malt, tasters praised an appealing combination of honeycomb, golden syrup and crème de banane on the nose. A milky-coffee note was present too, along with some spicy anise. This continued in a similar vein on the palate, with butterscotch, sherry and more honey, but a good amount of tropical fruit too.
This combination made it ideal for mixing, preferably with something herbal, said one taster.
43% abv, £38/70cl, Berry Bros & Rudd, 0800 280 2440
73 Dalwhinnie Winter’s Gold, Speyside
Designed to be served straight from the freezer, even at room temperature Winter’s Gold beautifully married a few distinct elements – sweetness, fruit and a saline note. Tasters praised dark chocolate and roast chestnut notes, paired with stone fruits, like dried apricots.
Salted caramel, and even a bready note, added complexity to this very mixable whisky. One thought to use this alongside apricot brandy and orgeat in a Brigadoon, while another imagined this doing good service in a Bobby Burns.
43% abv, £38/70cl, Diageo, 020 8978 6000
72 The Singleton of Dufftown Sunray, Speyside
One of two recent NAS releases from The Singleton, this American oak-aged single malt was described as ‘smooth and elegant’ by our panel, with honey to start, and some spicy liquorice to finish things off.
Between the two, there was candied orange, butterscotch, walnut, gingerbread and fruit cake. A vibrant, summertime whisky – juicy and fresh, and very moreish. And for all of that, a versatile spirit
for mixed drinks too.
40% abv, £42.15/70cl, Diageo, 020 8978 6000
Say what you like about NAS, but the scores here spoke for themselves. Tasters didn’t complain about a single whisky in the selection, and the average score was a whopping 78%.
In addition, this tasting dispelled any suspicions that NAS whiskies are either too youthful or lacking in complexity. On the whole, tasters praised these for being rich and complex.
With great strength comes great, er, tasting notes. Almost all of the top scorers in this tasting brought with them some of the highest abvs.
We asked our panellists to specify whether they thought each whisky was better suited to mixing or sipping. While many in this line up were thought to be suitable for both, all of the top-scorers were identified as good sippers. NAS isn’t breeding a new wave of light whisky suited only to cocktails.
The peated expressions scored higher than their non-peated counterparts, with an average score of 79% versus 75%. This is likely a combination of a predilection for peat with our panellists, and a recent focus within the industry towards peated whisky in general.
Pierre-Marie Bisson, Milk & Honey
‘Thanks to other whiskies – American and Japanese, mainly – people are usually more interested in a name than an age. If you create a relation of trust between your guests and your staff, they will listen
to you and try anything you suggest.’
Liam Broom, Callooh Callay
‘Talking to a customer about a whisky, I wouldn’t lead with age. I’d ask how smoky they like their whisky, for example. For me, scotch is ultimately more about geography than age. Having said that, I think that producers of no-age-statement whiskies should be open about what goes into them.’
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘It’s clear that age statements aren’t the only guarantee of quality in scotch, and that in their absence, quality, character and style aren’t suffering. This line up had everything, from subtle summertime whiskies to full-bodied, characterful spirits.’
Chris Dennis, Disrepute
‘We’ve often seen NAS whisky get a bad name from puritans, but these all scored relatively highly. There wasn’t anything bringing up the rear. I enjoyed all the whiskies today and while, some of them tasted perfect on their own, I would have happily mixed much of what was on offer.
Tara Garnell, ex-Original Sin
‘This feels like a brave new world – like opening the door. As guests become more familiar with Scotch, NAS can offer a way for the curious customer to gain a deeper understanding of a distillery’s offering. However, I still find the biggest influence will be a brand’s age statement whiskies, which have paved the way for these newer releases.’
Luis-Rene Orozco, McQueen
I was really intrigued by this category. Ageing is usually the most important selling point when it comes to whiskey. Customers often naturally assume that the older the whisky the better, but that’s not always the case.
Chris Tanner, The Vault / Milroy’s
‘I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with not putting an age statement on a whisky. You’re giving a blender or distiller more freedom, so the whisky should only be better. I don’t find these necessarily more difficult to sell either.’
Many thanks to the team at Milk & Honey for hosting the tasting and for all of their help on the day.