Over the past few years, whisky lovers have hotly debated the merits (or demerits) of NAS or No Age Statement whiskies. After all, for a long time a whisky’s age was considered to be indicative of its quality. So not being able to tell whether your bottle is three years old or ten years old is bound to ruffle some feathers.
Brendan McCarron is Head of Maturing Whisky Stocks at Glenmorangie and at Ardbeg, and heir apparent to the distilleries’ Whisky Creator, Dr. Bill Lumsden. As someone who’s spent 12 years in the business, he has some pretty strong opinions himself, and weighed in on the issue while leading a whisky-tasting masterclass at Discovery Primea in Manila last week.
“Some people in this room will think that a non-aged whisky is rubbish. You’re wrong, but that’s fine, it’s your choice. If you only want to drink aged whiskies, that’s fine but I think you’re missing out on a lot of really innovative experimental whiskies,” he says.
“That’s why we non-age them, so that you can play around. Some of our competition—I won’t point to people—but they’ll non-age stuff so they can sell more,” McCarron continues. “I think they’ll get found out. I genuinely think that’s a very dangerous game to play, but we only non-age whiskies so that we can do experiments, so we can do different, so we can produce the flavours.”
While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a well-made NAS whisky, McCarron also takes issue with people who claim that age doesn’t matter at all. “That’s crazy talk. That is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Age matters,” he says. “There’s a texture, a silkiness, a velvety feel to Glenmorangie 18 Year-Old that you can only achieve by leaving the whisky for a minimum of 18 years. We’ve never ever seen [that silkiness] in younger whiskies.”
He explains that they make their Extremely Rare 18 Year-Old whisky by taking 30 percent of their 15 year-old casks and transferring them from American white oak casks to Spanish Oloroso casks. After three years, they’re combined with the 70 percent that was left in ex-bourbon oak casks for all 18 years.
“We do that with the sherry, because Glenmorangie is famous for complexity. We want to add another layer of aroma, another layer of texture, another layer of flavor, and the end result is this, the most complex Glenmorangie of them all,” he says. “It’s floral, it’s sweet, there’s citrus fruits in there, but that age has taken the citrus fruits even further and pushed it into some grapefruit—I’d almost think an entire basket of tropical fruits.”
McCarron also observes that smoky whiskies tend to taste better younger too. “If you compare them to a Speyside whisky—we’re really generalizing here—say if a Speyside whisky tastes good at 18 years, smoky will taste good at 16. Because over time the smoke is falling, so you want it a wee bit younger if you want it to taste smoky. Smoke goes down over time, fruit goes up over time.”
In the end, both NAS and aged whiskies have their merits. Just because you can’t tell exactly how long a whisky has matured doesn’t mean it’s no good, and different ages bring out different characteristics. While it’s fun to geek out over whisky, what ultimately matters is that you enjoy what you’re drinking.