Diageo’s Special Releases are an annual set of, well…. whisky Releases that are, you know…  Special! Hitting the market every autumn, they’re chosen to showcase some of the company’s older stock and lesser known (sometimes closed) distilleries. Since 2001, we’ve been treated to dozens of one-off bottlings of whisky up to 50 years old. Blended malt, single grain, and single malt have all been represented, from stalwart distilleries such as Oban, Talisker, Cardhu and Lagavulin, through lesser-known facilities such as Pittyvaich, Auchroisk and Cambus all the way up to [formerly assumed deceased] iconic names like Brora and Port Ellen.

So, as you can imagine, chances to preview these expressions are highly sought after! We were delighted to be invited to the special press launch and went along in our best bib and tucker.

This year’s launch was billed as a ‘Tasting Experience’ and was held at Nine Adam Street, just off The Strand in London.  The space itself was an old refurbished 16th century underground cellar chock-full of moody atmosphere (and thirsty whisky types).

Now, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: “Crikey! There’s Posh!”. I suppose Diageo are commonly perceived as the corporate heavyweights, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the PR department get to spend a couple of quid, right? And these whiskies are the jewels in the crown, so it stands to reason that their launch deserves a proper do. 

The cellar was split into a reception and bar area with dimly-lit archways that guide you on your path of discovery to the two cosy event spaces where various Diageo luminaries were waiting to pour samples. Very pretty, although I still stick by my suggestion of Gateshead Town Hall…

The two rooms were split between peated and unpeated whiskies. The Unpeated lineup featured the following (prices are suggested RRP):

  • The Singleton of Glen Ord, Highland, 14 years old, distilled 2002, 57.6% ABV, £100
  • Inchgower, Speyside, 27 years old, distilled 1990, 55.3% ABV, £300
  • Pittyvaich, Speyside, 28 years old, distilled 1989, 52.1% ABV, £330
  • Oban, Highland, 21 years old, distilled 1996, 57.9% ABV, £450
  • Carsebridge (Single Grain), Lowlands, 48 years old, distilled 1970, 43.2% ABV, £750

…While the Peated line-up looked like this:

  • Talisker, Islands, 8 years old, distilled 2009, 59.4% ABV, £70
  • Caol Ila, Islay, 15 years old, distilled 2002, 59.1% ABV, £100
  • Lagavulin, Islay, 12 years old, distilled 2005, 57.8% ABV, £110
  • Cladach, Blended Malt Scotch Whisky, Highland, Island, Islay and Speyside, no age statement, 57.1% ABV, £155
  • Caol Ila, Islay, 35 years old, distilled 1982, 58.1% ABV, £675

On sampling the whiskies, we got the opportunity to quiz the well-known Diageo faces often seen at events, with Donald Colville, Colin Dunn* (on form as ever), and Ervin Trykowski all on hand for any in-depth queries (Ervin’s description of the Glen Ord’s complicated maturation journey was particularly impressive).

However, with this being the Special Releases – the pinnacle of Diageo’s regular tastings – there were also high ranked representatives of the production team present – proper whisky-making royalty including Master Blender Maureen Robinson, and organic chemist Emma Walker, both of whom played a part in developing the whiskies on offer.

So, the WHISKY! As you’d expect, the standard was good in my opinion [Your new title is Master of Understatement – Ed.]. In previous years there have been clear favourites and some not quite as good as you might have hoped, however this year the standard was constant, with welcome reminders of why Diageo’s whiskies are considered as great as they are.

The Talisker 8yo demonstrated that age isn’t necessarily needed to pack flavour, while the Caol Ila 35 showed as a great example of how the distillery’s early ’80s spirit worked as a ‘fattier’ base in contrast to today’s lighter style (as showcased by the new Caol Ila 15yo). Meanwhile, the Carsebridge 48yo delivered great flavour from what is usually a deliberately neutral-tasting grain whisky.

We’ll have more in-depth and detailed tasting notes coming for you once the inevitable fight for a sample pack has been settled in The Whisky Lounge office! I’m looking forward to that one! As long as Ru doesn’t turn up with a pool ball in a sock again…

It’s worth noting that once the dust had settled on the Special Releases, it didn’t take long before thoughts turned to the two rather sizeable elephants in the room. For the first time in many years, offerings from Port Ellen and Brora distilleries were not included in this year’s Special Releases. Would it be too obvious to assume that these two recently resurrected legendary whiskies would command a launch all on their own?!?! [Possibly, but that doesn’t make it any less inevitable – Ed.]

Time will tell [No, I will tell you now that they very definitely will. We just don’t know when – Ed.], but no doubt the conversation about where this year’s batch of Special Releases sits within the Hall of Fame will continue well into the future. Unlike the conversation concerning a certain individual who managed to incite a mosh pit in a rock bar at 1am following the event, causing me to reassess my afterparty attendance choices!

Stay tuned for those reviews, folks!

Cheers,

Connas

*Little known fact: if you kiss Colin Dunn on the head (not unlike The Blarney Stone) you get the gift of the gab. But only on Wednesdays. “FAN-TAST-IC!”