Safety in numbers

Posted 01 April 2021 by Matt / In Undisclosed Speyside
The Dramble reviews The Whisky Exchange April Fool 2021

Bottle Name: April Fool 2021

ABV: 51.7%
Distillery: Undisclosed Speyside
Bottler: The Whisky Exchange
Region: Speyside Age: 30

There are 7,139 languages spoken in the world today, but fewer than a dozen off the beaten track number systems. The Oksapmin people of New Guinea use a base-27 number system - derived from more body parts than just their fingers and toes. The Welsh, for reasons that escape me, traditionally used a base-20 system, but added a twist, in that after 15 (pymtheg) each number beyond was represented as an addition. So, 1 on 15 = 16, or more complicatedly 1 on 15 on 20 = 36. Because, you know – reasons. Nevertheless, outside of these infrequent and often historic deviations, numbers are a universal language of our world. And in this same manner numbers and how we communicate about whisky is no different. Irrespective of location or language spoken, numbers, especially age statements are a commonly understood denominator that is often utilised (rightly or wrongly) to identify a whisky’s quality or perceived value.

And in terms of age statement numbers, whisky has over the last three decades, well and truly had its cake.

As the industry pivoted towards the later part of the 20th Century into the production and promotion of single malts as a category, so too did whisky education – and in doing so it took up the mantle of articulating that age (including the notion of legal minimums) was both a marker for quality and for price. No concerted attempts were made to differentiate between age and maturity. And so popular culture did what popular culture does – it assimilated the idea. Older is simply better. Consumers responded and helped build the foundations of the highly buoyant whisky market that we all enjoy today. But so successful was this edification and encouragement, that drinkers have been wrapping themselves up in age statement safety blankets ever since.

And this characteristic has created problems that are still with us today.

In the early part of the new Millennium, changing consumer tastes, depleting inventory levels (particularly of older stock) and new forms of distilling and blending creativity gave rise to the creation of NAS whisky. And let me tell you, if you think that the arguments around no age statements are heated now – this is small fry compared to the commotion from the naysayers and doomsayers of the not all that distant past. Producers and their marketeers sprung back into action. Brand Ambassadors were reloaded with new whisky wisdoms. A re-education was required.

Let me say at this juncture in our story, that I’m often torn down the middle when it comes to the NAS debate. On the one hand, it provides a tremendous freedom of hand for producers and bottlers to enhance sometimes disparate spirits into greater, more interesting wholes. On the other, it can at times be a cloud under which opaque practices, knackered casks and exploitative prices can lurk. Overall, though – if the quality, consistency, interest and price proposition are all on point - I have few major qualms. Good whisky will always be good whisky.

Regardless, the average whisky enthusiast is now much more knowledgeable when compared to 30 years ago. And this includes being cognisant of what NAS is, what it isn’t and how each bottle/dram should be judged on its own merits. New drinkers are in my opinion far more likely to be forgiving of bottles which do not display an age statement upon their labels. They’ve grown up and entered the hobby with this practice firmly established.

That’s the age statement cake. But the industry is now at a point where it is starting to eat it. Indeed, in some quarters it is starting to gorge. Whisky is at a conjunction where the age statement now doesn’t matter – except when it does.

There is a growing dividing line. Below the line, brands will happily extol the liberties and broad choices that NAS can provide. But above that line, these same brands are foisting expressions onto the market that heavily leverage their age statements – in terms of how they are positioned, their pricing and in certain cases their propositions as lifestyle choices. And some of these dividing lines are incredibly pronounced – resulting in steep price inclines for those wishing to broaden their whisky explorations back into age statement releases.

Marque brands are often the most affected by this. They still possess keenly priced (sometimes NAS) entry-bottlings to get folks through the door – but once you start heading onwards and upwards through their ranges, expect increasing talk of heritage, legacy and times long past to be subtly, or in some cases not subtly at all, related to the age statements the appear on bottles. And accordingly, to the pricing asked for such whiskies.

This all makes complete sense in terms of the dearth of older stocks – there’s simply less of it to go around and therefore it is sited and priced as a rarer commodity. But as an industry message this split still feels awkward and/or patently forced at times. Does NAS whisky only taste good when it’s relatively younger in overall composition? Of course not. Nevertheless, as consumers we’re expected to appreciate the versatility of some whiskies whilst still revering the age of others. Numbers it seems will always provide someone with a sense of safety.

So, when is an NAS whisky not an NAS whisky?

When it’s The Whisky Exchange’s 1st April exclusive “first release” of April Fool. Yes, for those who wondered whether this release was even real - it very much is.

Coming to the TWE website from 6am this morning, all is not what it appears to be with this single malt. On the surface the expression provides no age statement, declares itself to be “Extremely young, I wish I were older” and merely describes itself as a Speyside single malt Scotch whisky. But using the same UV torch concept that was utilised with the 2019 London Whisky Show bottlings, here the result of fluorescence is even more marked. Indeed, it is less of a label enhancement and more of a transformation in transparency.

What initially appeared to be little more than an oddly cryptic NAS is in fact a single malt that is 30 years of age. And it’s keen to indicate how it has fooled you with its full label providing the age statement alongside a gentle dig when under ultraviolet light.

So, that’s a thing. But as well as a fool for Fool’s Day (nicely done TWE) this release is also rather keenly priced.

As so this poses some interesting questions - how many will purchase April Fool at its sticker price without the information revealed by the UV torch? Possibly not a lot. Conversely, how many will head over the TWE website immediately *after* learning of its true nature? I dare say this will be a flood (I'll no doubt ask Billy Abbot after Easter to see how it all played out). And thus, this whole amusingly clever exercise becomes rather a proof point - whichever way you look at it, numbers still have a notably influence over our perceptions of, and purchasing of whisky.

OK enough chatter – you’re more than ready for the dets:

April Fool is a 30 year old undisclosed Speyside single malt matured in 1st fill ex-bourbon casks and bottled at 51.7%. There are 869 bottles and they’re priced at £150. You can, as of writing (it is currently 6am on the nose) pick one up from The Whisky Exchange website.

Nose: Candied pear slices and fizzy Pink Lady apples are arranged in a highly polished oak bowl. Genoise sponge is layered with whipped Chantilly cream and topped with thick-peaked Italian meringue whilst orange liqueurs are drizzled atop. On the side – soft toffee and biscuit in the form of Millionaire’s shortbread together with a glass of barley water and a tingling sprinkle of white pepper. The addition of water offers golden syrup cookies, coconut macaroons and a developing medley of tropical fruits – pineapple cubes and dried mango slices.

Taste: Lemon meringue pie brings together buttery biscuit (base), zesty citrus curd and a creamy consistency. This is followed by additional ‘thickness’ with olive oil cake, alongside lacquered oak panelling. Spice-led heat develops in the mid-palate through an amalgamation of ground pepper and aniseed. It is tempered by poached pears and a handful of slapped mint leaves. Reduction reveals broader fruit flavours with candied orange peels and pineapple jelly cubes sitting alongside cooling menthol and touches of dried herbalness – reeds and flax.

Finish: Quite long with persistent oily/creamy weight. Leafy mint offsets sustained anise and clove-studded pears.

TWE’s April Fool is a brightly composed, fruit-forward Speysider that possesses a wonderful weight and a tightly polished profile fitting of its true age. Despite being matured in a 1st fill ex-bourbon cask for the same amount of time as it takes to achieve a pearl wedding anniversary, the oak influence here is surprisingly contained - manifesting more in palpable and characterful spicing than in any degree of three-decade long tannic quagmire. Very neat indeed.

As such, I’m intrigued to learn how quickly this single malt sells – and whether all 869 bottles are snaffled up by mid-day – the notional early end to April Fool’s Day. Will drinkers eschew the long-standing obedience to age statements and purchase this whisky based solely on the promise of The Whisky Exchange alone (who in my book rarely put a step wrong with the quality of their bottlings)? Or will it take the official reveal of the UV label and a ripe old age to persuade folk of the proposition?

Either way, I pity the fool that misses out on this hoodwinker.

Review sample provided by The Whisky Exchange

Score: 88/100

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