To your average consumer, the age of a whisky is often viewed as synonymous with its quality. Older = better was an easy gauge of value, especially since it almost always corresponded with a price increase. 

This was true for every dram from Scotches to Bourbon, and made marketing older whisky an easy endeavor. But lately, there’s been a shift in the industry away from aged whisky towards a No Age Statement (NAS) equivalent.

It’s not that these whiskies aren’t aged at all, it’s simply that rather than have a specific barrel age, the whisky is composed of a blend of variously-aged whiskies, selected and combined by the distiller to evoke a consistent flavor.

This has caused some controversy among drinkers. Many believe this is simply a cost-cutting measure by distilleries looking to increase profit without reducing supply. Yet, others believe this is a welcome shift away from the older = better mentality which is often little more than a marketing gimmick.

The NAS debate has received a particular amount of attention from bourbon drinkers recently after Heaven Hill announced last year they’d be dropping the age statement from their incredibly popular and well-reviewed Elijah Craig 12 Year

As this trend becomes more commonplace, drinkers are asking the question: “How will this affect my whisky?”

What is “No Age Statement” Whisky?

As mentioned above, NAS whisky is simply the blend of several whiskies, aged different years. In the case of the aforementioned Elijah Craig, the newer NAS version will contain bourbon aged between 8 and 12 years.

There’s plenty of bourbon that still carries an age statement. Knob Creek 9, Eagle Rare 10, and Bulleit 10 Year Reserve to name a few (not to mention the notorious Pappy Van Winkle lineup). But there’s arguably even more brands that have had NAS even before the trend.

Premium offerings like Blanton’s Original, Four Roses Small Batch, Basil Hayden’s and Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select have never carried an age statement. These are considered top-tier bourbons – if they don’t need one why do others?

Really, all NAS whisky represents is the distiller’s preference and recipe. If a whisky has traditionally been made with a blend of ages, it’s likely it will continue to be made that way today. Of course, that usually leaves room for an ultra-premium offering that might contain and age, if only for the marketability.

What causes the controversy is when classic, well-loved whiskies are dropping their age statement, potentially altering the taste.

The Pros and Cons of No Age Statement Whisky

Let’s take a look at the worst possible reasons and outcomes for dropping an age statement from a whisky. 

If you’re a distillery offering a popular bourbon that is aged 12 years, and you’d like to increase profit there’s a few steps you could take. A simple price increase is a good first step, but you risk becoming less competitive with less-expensive whisky. You could always make more, but that might require the expenses of a larger distillery and more staff. Or, you could simply age it less, thus getting it to market quicker allowing you to effectively sell more of it.

That’s what many feel is driving the adoption of NAS bourbon. With its recent spike in popularity, bourbon distilleries are struggling to meet demand, and extremely popular offering are frequently sold out. In fact, Makers Mark tried to offer their whisky at a lower proof (40% ABV instead of 45%) to help meet demand, but were forced to back out after public outrage.

The cons of NAS bourbon are pretty obvious. If the aging process improves flavor, or at least has consistently achieved a flavor drinkers enjoy, changing that process might harm a beloved bourbon, all so the producers can pad their pockets a bit more. But distillers tend to disagree.

Instead of harming the whisky, many distillers believe dropping the age statement allows for more flexibility. To achieve a consistent flavor, distilleries that offer an aged whisky are largely at the mercy of fortune once the bourbon is in the barrel. However, for those distillers who can combine whisky of various ages, they’re able to assemble a puzzle from different flavors to achieve their desired dram.

Naturally, distillers are going to want more flexibility to practice their craft. And consumers are going to want quality of product over company profits. Which begs the question, who’s right?

What NAS Means is Up to You

There’s no correct answer in the age statement debate. For lovers of aged whisky, the NAS movement will always appear a travesty. But many distillers are heralding a new age of flexibility, not beholden to aging whisky to a certain age (which some view as little more than a marketing ploy.)

What’s important is to ensure you’re still loving your drink. The NAS Elijah Craig has received similarly positive reviews as the 12 year, and if other distilleries are able to achieve this level of quality, the NAS movement may simply mean more bourbon for everyone.