One of the most surprising things to me when I came into the world of scotch from other spirits was the divisive nature of these three letters: NAS.
Never heard of that? I didn't either at one point. It means “Non Age Stated.”
Normally when we talk about scotch, we say a distillery and a number. For example, Highland Park 12, Dalwhinnie 15, etc. That number, of course, refers to the minimum number of years the scotch in the bottle has spent in some kind of wooden cask. It can be older, but it most certainly cannot be younger. And that's by Scottish law, not some gentleman's agreement.
But in today's whisky market, not all scotches carry such a designation. For example, Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Auchentoshan Triple Wood, Kilkerran WIP, or Old Pulteney Navigator. You'll notice that all are labeled sans-number. Is this an issue? Let's dig into why distilleries do this.
The cynical point of view
By not stating the age on the bottle, distillers can sell a young whiskey for more money as some kind of “limited edition” product. Would we pay as much for Laphroaig Quarter Cask if the distillery called it “Laphroaig 5” instead? Probably not.
A lot of people refuse to buy NAS whiskies because they feel they represent the erosion of trust between the distiller and the consumer. Before, distillers told us the minimum age of the casks used in the malt. In a NAS product, that information isn't disclosed, which removes a point of data we can use to evaluate the quality of the spirit.
It's hard to move away from decades of consumer education that has drummed into us that older is better. Even American, Irish, and Canadian distilleries have embraced the notion that an age statement is a sign of higher quality. One of the surest signs of an up-market product is an age statement on something that lacked one before. For example, going from Elijah Craig bourbon to Elijah Craig 12.
Giving the distiller the benefit of the doubt:
Consider the case of Laphroaig Quarter Cask. If the distillery were to call it Laphroaig 5, we might indeed be inclined to view it as something less than the standard 10. In fact, the QC is created from itty-bitty casks that give more interaction between the spirit and wood simply by virtue of a larger surface area to volume ratio than would happen in a larger cask. It needs less maturation because the wood is aging it faster. There's a strong possibility that if the QC was aged for 10 years, it'd end up as an over-oaked mess. 5 appears to be the magic number.
I know all of this intellectually. However, on an emotional level—and while I love the QC and really don't like the 10-year much at all—I have to admit that my own internal compass as a consumer generally leads me to conclude that more maturation is better. Expensive whiskeys of a young stated age place a small doubt at the back of my mind that I'm paying more for less. It's a bias that makes me part of the problem and part of the reason why the number is left off the packaging. At least with NAS products I can pretend that there might be some extraordinarily old whiskey in there.
To further play devil's advocate, consider that if the distiller's goal is creating a consistent product, they might get closer to the mark at a better price point if they didn't have to abide by a minimum age. Stocks of whiskey are constantly evolving, even for two barrels produced at the same distillery at the same time. One might taste different from another. Going NAS allows a distiller to theoretically shape a flavor profile without being restricted about the choice of whiskeys used.
Which side do I fall on?
As the (misunderstood and misquoted) saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. As someone who tends to research what I buy, a NAS product represents a variable. Some are superb, such as the Kilchoman Machir Bay and much of the Compass Box line. Others have underwhelmed me and haven't warranted a second thought.
In the end, I would say that anything NAS should be evaluated on a case-per-case basis and viewed with an eye of suspicion. However, there are some exceptional products out there. Being hard-lined about only buying alcohol with a number would have caused me to miss out on some tremendously good stuff!
Do your research, see what people like, and you have a good chance of separating the wheat from the chaff.