Diageo Special releases landed back in October. And as ever, the great and the good of the whisky industry were chomping at the bit to try, evaluate and critique the range.
Information on the whiskies had been available for some months prior to the launch and there was much speculation over things such as the continued absence of Port Ellen and Brora, Diageos decision to not have any blended OR grain whiskies featured in their signature releases of the year. And a more “uniform branding” for the range – as opposed to an “upgrade” of each of the individual Whisky’s yearlong livery – had ping-ponged around corners of the internet inhabited by whisky lovers both near and far.
Other notable points were the first EVER peated (albeit lightly) Cragganmore, and the inclusion of an expression from the now closed Pittyvaich distillery.
And, if the press release is to be believed,
“The 2019 ‘Rare by Nature’ inspired Special Releases collection. Is comprised of eight cask strength single malt Scotch whiskies from some of Scotland’s most renowned distilleries.
The collection comes with a visually impactful and unified theme, evoking the distinctive nature and characteristics of each distillery. The visually striking packaging celebrates the special and varied surroundings of each distillery on the bottle and allows whisky enthusiasts to uncover each distillery’s story one by one. Featuring expressions from famous, to supreme examples of the less well known and even closed distilleries, the bottlings are all extremely rare and sought-after whiskies.”
Let’s get past the excitement and anticipation and see what this liquid is all about!
Cardhu 14 Years Old
Maturation: Double matured for two years in Amontillado sherry-seasoned hogsheads.
Creamed butter and orchard fruits. Sharp ripe apple with demerara sugar and honey, ground cinnamon, anise and the faintest suggestion of white pepper in the distance. With water a toughly juicier affair, grapefruit and candied oranges replace most – but not all – of the afore mentioned spice.
Sweet honey with a touch of vanilla then warming ginger and a touch of that star anise take over. Fruits are still evident, but more in the way of preservations – raisins, currents and sultanas come to a rest with a blanket of sweet set caramel. Once more, with water the juiciness is in the fore, but the warm spices are not giving up so easily.
Medium to long with an unexpected but welcome note of citrus giving way to the spicier end of the palate note. Slightly dryer and more neutral with water.
Dalwhinnie 30 Years Old
Maturation: Over thirty years in refill hogsheads and butts.
Spice and Pepper, some leather and furniture polish from the Higher Alcohols, sultanas, apple caramelised in brown Sugar with a dusting of Cinnamon and grated lemon peel and candied basil to garnish. It’s a Tutti Truity theme with water again! The spice hold is broken and sweet fruit confection rules the roost!
Ohhh! Very much alive! Preserved sweet Lemons drowned honey, floral ozone, thick buttery vanilla fudge, delicate spice from chewy preserved root ginger, and layers of lemon butter cream. One more water unearths Panettoni Loaf style fruits, with the slightest hint of chewy mint resin at the end!
Reassuringly sweet, delicate, and long. Vanilla Icing sugar, and buttery biscuits for as long as you like! With additional water, big up the biscuit and some citrus for good measure!
Mortlach 26 Years Old
Maturation: First-fill Pedro Ximenez/Oloroso-seasoned casks.
SPICY! A lot of the traditional “sherry cask spice” with nutmeg, ginger cinnamon with the welcome addition of cardamom seed, charred oat cakes, burnt treacle with dry fruits that are currently (no pun intended) being rehydrated in sherry. Water adds a white pepper edge.
Wow, THICK! Huge raisin, dry apricot and plump currents. Malt loaf with black treacle, big on the spice cupboard again. All spice, cloves, anise, cinnamon, nutmeg. Chewy fruit cake that your arteries will not thank you for and a big serving of some spiced butter for good measure. Water acts to make this whole journey slower and more rewarding, it doesn’t matter where we’re going here folks, TAKE TIME TO LOOK AT THE VEIW!
Long and refined, back through the spices gelling with slight orange zest and liquorice binding between the biter and spice. Ahhhh, more of the same welcome length with added water, excellent.
The Singleton of Glen Ord 18 Years Old
Maturation: Freshly charred American oak hogshead.
Bright and floral with some clean-cut grassiness arriving with underlying spice, then candied orange peel with caramelised pineapple glazed in Barbados rum. As with the Cardu, water unleashes the Juice. More of a Tutti Fruity affair than a burst of calypso in this case.
Wow, big sweet and zesty, like a lemon TERENTIAL DOWNPOUR cake with thick white icing. Softer tropicals round it off nicely with mango and pineapple slowly giving way to the moor “woody” spice notes from the cask. Cinnemon, vanilla, damp charred tree bark with touches of heat from ground ginger. Water promotes the tropical fruit once more, grapefruit, pineapple and mango for the win, with zest, spice and warmth on the under-card.
Sustained with the spicey warmth from the palate, surprisingly wet and refreshing (in a good way!). Water calms the heat but expresses the refreshing damp!
Pittyvaich 29 Years Old
Maturation: Pedro Ximenez & Oloroso sherry seasoned casks.
Sweet and Rich with slight musty undertones. Tinned Fruit salad with Dark Chocolate and black cherries, misty all spice with understated lemon rind right at the end. Water helps to evolve the must into spice and turns down the Dark Chocolate down considerably.
Chewier (approaching waxy) than I expected, charred sweet chestnuts, with the pineapple, glace cherries and mango waiting to pounce but they’re kept in check with damp cigar tobacco and I kind of “Old Mans Study” vibe. Chewiness’ is somewhat loosened with H2O and, as with the nose, the darker spicier notes are levelled out.
Great balance of warm and juicy. Warmth from All Spice (emerging from said Cigar Tobacco) and the juice from said tin of Fruit Salad. Conversely, spice is promoted a little with water and shorten the length of the finish slightly.
Cragganmore 12 Years Old (Lightly Peated)
Maturation: Refill American oak casks.
Dry coal smoke and burnt green peppers. Far off suggestions of shortbread and lavender honey. Otherwise, quite linier. With water, the smoke dissipates and a welcome pleasant fresh mint springs through.
Alive Industrial smoke (more steal works than peat fire), gives way momentarily to some slight lemon peel and a dry ground earthiness. Water takes the edge from the smoke and your left with said earthy edge.
Medium with Mellower smoke on the finish, some notable spices, mace, coriander cinnamon. Water promotes some citrus peel.
Lagavulin 12 Years Old
Maturation: Refill American oak casks
Iodine and seaweed (That’s what I like in my LAGA!). Sea salt and pine fire intense and thick. Lemon cheesecake is evident with water.
Green chilli oil and candied orange peel. Hot coastal smoke with burning langoustine shells on a beach bonfire. Thicker lime pickle resides into slight zesty burnt caramel. Added water delivers the same journey over a longer period, slowly taking your hand and leading you from Chilli to Caramel.
Long and satisfying. The citrus end of the smoke dominates initially, with reminders the more savoury players from the palate occasionally wisps and invites you in for another. Water calms the smoke but intensifies the Lemony notes.
Talisker 15 Years Old
Maturation: Freshly charred American oak hogshead
Pineapple and brandy butter, lemon bon-bons with hard toffee centres. Freshly baked breakfast pastries and some underlying fresh green herbs. A touch of parsley, maybe even some basil and mint to finish. All underpinned buy a slightly smoky coastal breeze. Water highlights the lemon in a BIG way.
A surprising start with some darker spice, cinnamon bark, clove and burned coriander seed. Then more buttery with traditional Talisker lemon and bandages giving way to a pricklier more coastal smoke. Additional water brings a welcome earthiness to the party.
Long and sustained with everything you’d expect (and what you’ve just read), Dry coastal smoke and lemon, minty butter and a note of tropical fruit. Said earthiness returns with water and binds the smoke, butter and lemon notes nicely.
All in all, I think 2019 has been a very strong year for Diageo Special releases.
Am I upset that there’s no Brora or Port Ellen in the range?
Well, yes! Obviously! But let’s face it, we’ve known for years that stocks have been limited. The bottom line is, they’re choosing to highlight these (almost extinct) whiskies individually and give them a platform of their own. We all want to try them; we won’t all get too. It’s a shame, but there’s literally no way that Diageo will please everyone on this point. There’s not much else to be said.
This year there’s a slightly more “no-nonsense” theme when it comes to maturation that they deserve huge credit for. Love them or Loath them, Deagio have some of the greatest distillate in the world in their warehouses. And I’m over the moon that they have decided to let it speak for itself at a time when “Re-racking” and “Cask-Finishing” are all the rage.
The Dalwhinnie is comfortably the best example of the distilleries make I’ve been able to try off the shelf. It’s genuinely excellent whisky (and anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m not their biggest fan to say the least). The Pittyvaich and Mortlach both overdeliver in all departments when it comes to the “What you want from these distilleries” checklist. And reliably solid offerings from Cardhu, Lagavulin and Talisker, there’s very little to pick fault with.
I must admit that the first incarnation of Peated Cragganmore did not rock my world. But hey, so what? 8 months ago, I didn’t even know it existed! Fair play to the team for letting people try it in it’s most naked form and not throwing it through multiple casks and losing its character!
And you know what, I think I like the new packaging as well.
So, there you go folks, is 2019 an unexpectedly stellar year for Diageo Special Releases?
As ever, that’s not up to me, it’s up to you…