Don’t swallow this age-old whiskey myth

One of the most consistent trends in the global whiskey market over the last is the development of non-age statement (NAS) whiskies. Since whiskey is years in the making, it can be very hard to forecast appropriately enough into the future to determine an optimum level of production to quench consumer thirst.

Yet another example came to mind when — moments ago — I reached for a bottle of Knob Creek bourbon, only to be reminded that, as of last September, it is no longer offered at its customary 9 years of age.

“We have good inventories,” Beam Master Distiller Fred Noe said back then, “but with the growth we’re seeing [of Knob Creek] we are going to take the age statement off so we can keep the taste profile the same.”

Sure, fans of Beam whiskies including Knob Creek should already understand that the company has the expertise and the inventory to maintain product integrity. As Noe pledged to fans last September: “I will taste every batch. It won’t be Knob Creek unless I say it’s Knob Creek.”

Nonetheless, consumers seem to dislike the change and disruption rampant today. One by one, whiskey companies are dropping age statements from some of their whiskies, or introducing new NAS whiskies, while phasing out other whiskies that either can’t be brought online fast enough, or are no longer profitable enough to tie up aged stock.

Whiskey companies are partly to blame for having marketed the idea that some whiskies are best at this or that age. Or, in some instances, the marketing folks pushed the silly idea that age always equals quality in whiskey. Arguably simply emphasizing an age statement of any sort on a whisky creates some consumer expectations which are then open for disappointment when the product or packaging changes.

If last September one could spend $30 and buy a bottle of 9-year-old Knob Creek bourbon, but now that same $30 only buys an NAS Knob Creek bourbon, it is easy to see where somebody might feel that the loss of that “9-year-old” statement represents a devaluation. Either a deflation in the value of their money, or in the value of the product. This isn’t entirely rational, but it is understandable.

Whisky companies ought to stop marketing silly notions about whisky traditions and time-honored production methods.

Whisky brands are not, and never have been, maintained in the long run on set formulas, but rather on taste profiles. For even though there is greater consistency of quality ingredients today than in the past, production variables and variations cannot be entirely eliminated. Differences in grain quality can be significant, and any alterations of production process can make a huge difference. The need to blend whiskies to ensure some level of consistent flavor profile is an industry constant.

All that ever ought to matter when it comes to consumer goods like whiskey is: does this whiskey taste good, and is it worth this price? If the answer is yes to both, then stop griping.

As I contemplate all this, I do so over a dram of Knob Creek Small Batch Straight Bourbon Whiskey (50 percent abv; $30): Chunky, firm, earthy, sweet and brilliant, this exhibits floral aromas with a touch of charred oak, a hint of spicy rye, honey, roasted nuts, vanilla and an odd, yet not unpleasant, touch of mustiness. These are followed on the palate with sweet, creamy flavors of vanilla pound cake, maple sugar and (slightly burnt) caramel, hot cinnamon candy, white pepper, walnuts and something like apricot chutney.

Was it better as a 9-year-old whiskey? Who cares.

L’chaim!

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