The Promise and Pitfalls of No-Age-Statement Mentality
What the New Mortlach Says About Diageo’s Direction
As the largest Scotch malt whisky entity, Diageo has thrown its weight further into the no-age-statement arena with the launching of the new Mortlach Rare and Old.
(see our review HERE)
The rebranding of this classic, but obscure single malt has bellwether implications for the entire industry, as it moves away from traditional age statements, even as retail prices soar. And Diageo’s leadership role is once again on trial.
The shift toward more no-age-statement single malts is endemic, and is in direct response to Scotland refusing the powerful whisky lobby’s desire to change the rules governing age statements.
No longer can distillers afford to offer a bottle of single malt or blended scotch of 18 or 21 years of age, which is actually a vatting of much older casks, with the label stating only the age of the youngest whisky among them – as dictated by law.
Malt whisky just takes too long to age and nothing can hurry it up. Worldwide demand is too high, corporate overlords are too impatient for profits, and supplies of older spirit are running too low, or so we are told. Going with no age statement allows master blenders to employ a wider variety of ages to create premium expressions of great quality. Again, so we are told.
Some in the whisky industry have seized upon the current climate as an opportunity for innovation and revitalizing their product line with interesting and rewarding no-age expressions, priced appropriately. But the way is also paved for others who may attempt to maximize profits by dressing up, and pricing up, inferior products.
The New Age of Caveat Emptor is Dawning
There is a tale from the world of high-end guitars, where a manufacturer was trying to figure out how to dispose of a growing supply of imperfect spruce used for soundboards, which was structurally good, but stricken with unusual and unattractive aesthetic anomalies. The answer came from a veteran employee who said, “Give it a clever name and charge more for it.”
That is basically the route Macallan and Highland Park have followed, with special editions spattered with bourbon and virgin American oak, because they can no longer afford to make only the whisky that earned both houses their stellar reputations, which is aged in casks that had previously held Spanish sherry.
And while the Norse gods series of Highland Park and the Fine Oak of Macallan appear pale next to their sherried expressions, they all offer very good drams. Unfortunately, in direct comparison to the traditional stuff, the prices charged for them are simply ridiculous.
But now Macallan has announced that even its traditional whisky aged only in sherry casks of European oak will be converted over to no-age-statement expressions. [Note: Macallan appears to have abandoned this path entirely. Their new Double Cask 12 expression is both an age statement whisky and a surprisingly successful marriage of their Fine Oak exploration with their traditional European oak sherry cask classics. Ed. 11/2016]
We are assured from all corners of Scotland that the brilliant expert blenders can marry mature malt with younger malt of good quality to create a product greater than the sum of its parts. And in many cases this has proven to be true.
But not always.
No-age expressions from Ardbeg and Bowmore have run the gamut from very good to magnificent, with prices from much less than $100 to a little beyond it. Here, the bang for the buck is favorable to a high degree. It is hoped Macallan will scrutinize this model, rather than some others.
Certain entities, like Bruichladdich, claim age is trumped by craftsmanship, while offering expressions that fail to improve enough upon a core of raw and unrefined spirit, yet costing similar high prices.
Now that Diageo is expanding their no-age-statement editions, they need to think long and hard about which direction they will go, as their reputation could soar or sully as a result, and for decades to come.
Their prowess, capital, and stores of aging spirit put Diageo in a unique and influential position. Their distilleries currently produce some of the best single malt that has ever existed. Here is an opportunity for them to find inspiration in the stellar no-age-statement whiskies coming out of Ardbeg and Highland Park, and to do even better.
Sadly, when one considers Talisker Storm and the new Mortlach, and how both are good whiskies, yet not as refined, robust, or rewarding as comparable expressions from the same distilleries, it is clear Diageo has stumbled coming out of the no-age-statement gate. And they are stumbling in front of floodlights staged by their own marketing department.
There was rejoicing when Diageo announced Mortlach would return to a wider circulation. But when fans learned that even the lowest tier would be held for high ransom there was disbelief which quickly turned to anger.
Diageo seems to be banking on the fact most drinkers are unfamiliar with Mortlach and will embrace its reinvention as an elite spirit worth its high price.
At two tastings held in preparation for my review of the Rare Old, all but one taster had never experienced Mortlach. Their mixed response amounted to it being a well-crafted whisky, but one that was exceedingly overpriced at $125. And a spontaneous list of single malt at a similar or lesser price point was recited, each providing a more rewarding experience.
Talisker 18, Highland Park 18, Glenmorangie 18, Glendronach 18, Springbank 18, Oban 18… And priced under $100 are Springbank 15, Lagavulin 16, BenRiach 16, Glenfarclas 17, and especially the Mortlach 16 Flora and Fauna edition … The list really does go on and on.
All of those are age statement expressions. And before long most will either become extinct or be jacked way up in price. This is the economic reality facing the whisky making world, and the universe of whisky drinkers.
Among the new Mortlach expressions is an 18 year old. But if the Rare Old goes for $125 you can imagine what the higher levels cost. OK maybe you cannot.
It is $430.
I have loved Mortlach since I reached legal drinking age. But if you are going to try telling me that one bottle of 18 year old Mortlach is worth $300 more than a bottle of 18 year old Talisker, I will try to have you committed.
At least a bottle of Storm is only $23 more than the going price of Talisker’s venerable 10 year old. But it comes off as trying to hide young, hot spirit inside older spirit, and not succeeding nearly as well as their 175th Anniversary edition – or for that matter, not nearly as well as Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask.
When the excellent but now retired 16 year old Mortlach from the Flora and Fauna series cost about $70, before tax or shipping, the new Mortlach pricing is simply too much. They would have done better to just put the F and F into the posh new bottle and raise the price. The expensive Rare Old is nice, and clearly contains some older whiskies, but it is not nearly as enormous and rewarding as the affordable Mortlach it has replaced.
Weighed against the choreographed hype surrounding Talisker Storm and Mortlach Rare Old, Diageo appears to have put large sums of money into the packaging and placards and passed the costs onto the consumer in the form of high price tags beyond the worth of the whisky in the bottle.
While initial returns may justify this kind of corporate sky box thinking, it could prove wrongheaded over the long haul. Posturing for executives expensing client gifts may prove lucrative, but it may also alienate a much larger population of dedicated drinkers who are careful in how they choose whisky beyond the price of the typical 12 year old single malt, and who practice brand loyalty, but expect loyalty in return.
Hollywood long ago adopted the system of pre-release hype aimed at having a big first weekend, before word of mouth gets out about how mediocre a film really is. A new whisky expression needs the customers to keep coming back for more.
Diageo has all it takes to match or exceed the competition when it comes to exciting and rewarding no-age-statement single malts. But they should also be able to offer them at lower prices to undercut the competition and reap legions of dedicated customers who will go on to buy their whisky by the boat load, instead of the short-sighted policy of greedy gouging they appear to be set on now.
They could begin by offering a young Mortlach for broad release in the $50 – $75 range. Other small Diageo distilleries equally prized by blenders manage to do this, like Cardhu and Royal Lochnagar. And a no-age-statement Talisker even cheaper than the 10 year old classic would sell very well.
[01/01/2016 – Mortlach Rare Old has dropped in price to below $50, a natural result of drinkers refusing to buy a second one at the original price. With Costco selling it for $30 it has gone from a bad idea at a bad price, to a very good deal for good whisky, even if it is not as good as the old Mortlach it replaced.]
But most vital, Diageo should shift their greater weight toward the Ardbeg model of premium labels, by focusing their resources on simple bottlings of exceptional product that makes the drinker feel they are getting a serious bargain for their $125, rather than a debate over buyer’s remorse bought in fancy trappings.
Instead, Diageo seems to be following the indie bottler model of putting out the good stuff at prices only the rich folk can afford, while banking on legions of common malt fans enticed into stepping up to the entry level for that one bottle of something that ain’t like it used to be, but for a lot more money.
Diageo is a conglomerate of old, traditional whisky companies, and overall they care a great deal about wood management, distillery character, and spirit quality. But they also receive a lot of criticism typical for a mega-corporation that appears to value profit over all other things. The hoity-toity rebranding of Mortlach, and their current forays into no-age-statement releases isn’t doing them any favors.
But they could change that, as so many of us hope they will.
And that is one man’s word on…
Diageo and the new Mortlach in the no-age-statement era of malt whisky
Reviews of Mortlach:
Reviews of Other Non-age Statement Single Malt: