For anyone who’s entered the single malt whisky scene in recent years, the choice and array of bottlings, brands and releases can be overwhelming. Almost 30 years ago now, the situation was very different when Diageo launched “The Classic Malts” – first into travel retail in 1988, and then into the domestic market in 1989. Those six whiskies (Glenkinchie, Cragganmore, Oban, Dalwhinnie, Talisker, and Lagavulin) became the vehicle through which hundreds of thousands of people were introduced to malt whisky. For close to a decade they were almost the definitive collection and – notwithstanding the omnipresence of the likes of Glenfiddich and Glenlivet – it was only by the late 1990’s that other brands and recognisable labels started to consistently appear in regular retail outlets.
Never one to rest on their laurels, Diageo continued (and continues) to expand their range. The so-called Rare Malts range ran from 1995-2005, and the Managers Choice range also kept hardcore fans happy with its single cask, cask-strength releases. The original Classic Malts range was also expanded in 2006, adding the likes of Clynelish and Caol Ila, in addition to others that were custom selected for individual markets (e.g. Cardhu for the USA).
One of the longer-term and more interesting projects has been the Diageo Special Releases range, consisting of a specially selected and crafted series of bottlings released annually each year since 2001. As the name inherently suggests, the releases are “special” and typically include Diageo’s rarest stock, such as whiskies from closed distilleries – Port Ellen, Brora, and Cambus being three examples.
The 2016 Special Releases range was unveiled towards the end of last year, and was only this week showcased and launched for the Australian market. Nine of the 10 releases are available in Australia (the 12yo Lagavulin being the only missing item) and all nine were on display to a thirsty and impressed audience of industry, trade, and media. Held at the iconic Rockpool Bar & Grill in Sydney, Diageo’s Whisky Ambassador, Simon McGoram, led the audience through a tasting of five of the whiskies in the range. (Click on the images below to view in full size).
Personal thoughts and tasting notes are presented further below, but the full line up of the nine Special Releases available in Australia is as follows:
Auchroisk 25yo – Distilled 1990, ABV 51.2%, 3,954 bottles worldwide, 216 for Australia; RRP $520
Brora 38yo – Distilled 1977, ABV 48.6%, 2,984 bottles worldwide, 108 for Australia; RRP $2,800
Cambus 40yo – Distilled 1975, ABV 52.7%, 1,812 bottles worldwide, 68 for Australia; RRP $1,400
Caol Ila 15yo – Distilled 2000, ABV 61.5%, 450 bottles for Australia; RRP $170
Cragganmore – NAS, ABV 55.7%, 4,932 bottles worldwide, 180 for Australia; RRP $750
Glenkinchie 24yo – Distilled 1991, ABV 57.2%, 5,928 bottles worldwide, 282 for Australia; RRP $520
Linkwood 37yo – Distilled 1978, ABV 50.3%, 6,114 bottles worldwide, 300 for Australia; RRP $1,100
Mannochmore 25yo – Distilled 1990, ABV 53.4%, 3,954 bottles worldwide, 240 for Australia; RRP $550
Port Ellen 37yo – Distilled 1978, ABV 55.2%, 2,940 bottles worldwide, 128 for Australia; RRP $5,000
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The collection will be available at selected whisky specialist retailers and at Dan Murphy’s Australia-wide. And what of the five that were available to taste at the launch? Whisky & Wisdom’s thoughts and musings as follows:
Caol Ila 15yo
Generally known for its peated, smoky whisky, Caol Ila actually runs a short unpeated campaign each year, and the Special Releases bottlings have showcased entirely unpeated Caol Ila for the last number of years. The 2016 release is bottled at a relatively high ABV of 61.5%, but it is unusually soft and balanced spirit. The nose is clean and surprisingly fruity; the palate is quite cereal-strong, malty and drying, with hints of milk chocolate. The finish is cooling with a touch of menthol. It’s certainly a very interesting excursion if you want to try Caol Ila in a different light.
A standout in the range, for no other reason than the absence of an age statement. It’s a pot pourri of casks, utilising refill American hogsheads, rejuvenated American hogsheads, and refill European oak casks. The nose featured spiced jam (chutney?), quince, and some green fruits; the palate was juicy, with oak playing a not-insignificant role. It’s sweet (wine gums?) and also had hints of stone fruits. This whisky’s real strength was in its texture – it’s a juicy, grippy whisky that is a wonderful tactile experience on the tongue and gets the tastebuds working.
Assembled from 100% refill European oak casks, there’s initially an expectation that this will have a noticeable or dominant sherry profile, but the casks must clearly be on to their second or third fill, as the hints of sherry are extremely light – and, frankly, the dram is all the more complex and interesting as a result. This is the oldest Glenkinchie to be bottled in the Special Releases range over the years, and the whisky is surprisingly lively. The nose is sweet, displaying traits of fairy floss and confectionery, with very subtle notes of amontillado sherry. The palate has malt up front, then sweetness and spices come through from the oak, together with a bit of heat.
Whilst Brora closed for good in 1983, the heavily peated campaigns made at Brora (which, to be honest, are what put Brora on the map) evidently stopped in 1977. As such, this Special Releases expression comes from that last year of peated malt, and the result – 38 years later – is a stunning dram. Peat and smokiness in a whisky diminishes with time in the cask, and whilst this dram could never be described as smoky, there’s a dry ashiness to it, together with some iodine, that makes it tantalisingly complex and complete. The nose offers fragrant beachside aromas; lots of damp, earthy notes; brine; and a certain herbal character that is best described as tobacco leaf. It’s truly a sublime nose. On the palate, things turn a bit chalky, with white pepper; a tiny hint of malt; the iodine and a drying peatiness; leading to a finish that is ashy and insanely long. There are plenty of whiskies that get to 38 years old and are tired, lifeless, woody relics. This, in contrast, is still lively, animated and – most importantly – delicious.
Port Ellen 37yo
Port Ellen has taken on a stigma and persona of its own in the last 15 years, not helped by the fact that each release is increasingly older, rarer, and more expensive. The great shame is that the Port Ellens we drink today are a far cry from the youthful, peaty, and smoky spirit that Port Ellen was actually producing when it closed in 1983. (For more on this topic, plus an in-depth look at a Port Ellen 10yo bottling, click here). As for this release, it’s certainly a whisky to keep you interested. On the nose, the peat is – at first – barely detectable, although a soft, incense-like smokiness increasingly invades your nostrils. Lots of ozone and hints of brine waft out of the glass. For those who’ve had the pleasure of catching the Calmac ferry from Kennacraig to Islay, the nose on this whisky is reminiscent of those salt-washed decks, handrails, and the engine room.
On the palate, there is pepper, black salt, salted dark chocolate, nori (dried edible seaweed) and arguably the dryness of old oak. The finish becomes increasingly maritime with time; it is soft, lingering, and satisfying. This is a journey of a whisky and worth investing your time in. The nose develops and continues for 20 minutes and never gets tired or repetitive.
The Special Releases are indeed Special, and it is nice to see Australia getting a reasonable share from the 2016 spoils. Many of these will find their way into the better whisky bars around the country, and so if the asking price on a full bottle is beyond your means, it’s worth seeking these out by the dram. Considering the age and the limited nature of the release, the RRP’s on the Auchroisk, Glenkinchie, and Mannochmore are good value, and even the Linkwood at $1,100 is a great price for a 37yo. In the line-up tasted at the launch, it was the Brora that stole my heart and got the most praise – it’s a truly wonderful, entertaining, and complex whisky, and given that peated Brora is on the cusp of becoming a unicorn, this is a bottling worth seeking out.
Cheers and thanks to the team at Diageo Australia for securing generous allocations of these whiskies for Australia and for hosting the launch, and to Leo Burnett for the opportunity to attend.