Diageo Special Releases

It’s that time of year again where Diageo bring out the big guns and introduce the Australian market to the latest bottles from their Special Releases collection. If you’re not familiar with the Special Releases collection, it’s essentially the one time each year where Diageo take a good hard look at their entire portfolio of distilleries – both open distilleries and long-closed distilleries – and release a series of bottles to celebrate the diverse range of flavours found at each.

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These bottles aim to showcase distilleries and flavour profiles that you’re unlikely to find in their core range products that are found on the shelves of retailers on a daily basis. Many of these are one off releases; bottles you’re not going to see again in this shape, form or vintage.

In its 18th year, we again see some familiar expressions like the Lagavulin 12 year old and an ‘unpeated’ Caol Ila (significant, given all of the standard releases from this Islay distilleries are quite smoky little numbers!) But there are also a number of other interesting bottles in Special Releases collection this time. Some that are interesting because they’re old and rare, and others because they’re young and unusual.

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Thanks to a generous invitation, I recently had the chance to taste six of the ten released this year in Australia. 

The Singleton of Glen Ord 14 year old

Up first was The Singleton of Glen Ord 14 year old. Ordinarily, whisky from Glen Ord distillery, or whisky bottled under the Singleton label hasn’t generally been a source of excitement for me. This promised to be a little bit different though, given it had been through a five-wood maturation and cask marriage regime and was bottled at 57.9%.

Rich notes of waxy honeycomb, mushy baked apples, zest and sweetness on both the nose and the palate, with a spicy sweet, yet minty dryness on the finish. I was too quick to judge this one. While not super complex, it was really enjoyable and dare I say it – quaffable!

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Inchgower 27 year old

You’ll be forgiven if you’ve never heard of Inchgower, as it has always been a significant component of blended whisky, including Bells and Johnnie Walker and is seldom seen as a single malt. Apparently less than 1% of production is bottled as a single malt, so this is an interesting addition to the lineup this year.

After the sweetness of the Glen Ord, I found the Inchgower to be quite dry and tight on the nose. It’s quite savoury, with some mossie salty earth notes, damp, coastal, spicy hessian sacks and leather. The palate was also savoury, but with some tropical fruit notes lurking in the background among quite a lot of drying spice. I can count the number of Inchgowers I’ve tasted on one hand, so I’m not sure what the ‘typical’ profile is. Something I’d quite like to explore further.

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Pittyvaich 28 year old

Like the Inchgower, you’d also be forgiven if you’ve never come across Pittyvaich before. Built in 1974, it was one of the youngest Speyside distilleries (most were built a good century or more earlier), but it was short-lived, closing in 1993.

On the nose it was quite waxy, with some flinty gingerbread notes, firm stone fruit in the background and a touch of coconut. The palate delivered notes of honey, rich spice, caramel, coconut and some of those tropical fruit notes in the background again (papaya, and green mango).

Oban 21 year old

In contrast to the previous two, the one probably doesn’t need much in the way of an introduction. Despite the small size of this western highlands distillery, Oban seems to be a gateway single malt for so many people. The Oban 14 year old was one of the very first single malts I ever purchased, but that’s pretty much where the core range ends in terms of Oban with an age statement on it. So I was quite looking forward to this one.

Matured in European oak butts, this has a great deep nose with notes of honey, stone fruit and creme brûlée, intertwined with coastal notes of sea-salt, minerals and damp rock. The palate had a nice connection with waxy honeycomb, creamy rich saline custard, caramelised sugars and ashy char. I really enjoyed this.

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Cladach

Cladach – Gaelic for coastline or shoreline – is a blended malt that runs with the coastal theme by including whisky only from Diageo’s six ‘coastal’ distilleries; Inchgower, Clynelish, Talisker, Oban, Caol Ila and Lagavulin.

I loved the nose on this, initially getting notes of wood-fired custard, sweet salty spice, zest and smoke, all delivered in a rich, fatty buttery way. The palate completely caught my by surprise though, delivering a big peaty whack, with a tangy saline youthfulness and loads of maritime notes.

Caol Ila 35 year old

It’s impossible to not get excited at the prospect of tasting a 35 year old Islay whisky. In previous years, the ‘old Islay’ whisky featured in the annual Special Releases collection was always from the now-closed (but soon to be re-opened) Port Ellen distillery. With stocks ever-dwindling and prices soaring, it seems as though Diageo are holding onto what they’ve got and will be releasing them via other avenues. That’s not bad news though, as this year it has opened the door for this well-aged example from Caol Ila.

I’ve had the pleasure of trying a few 30+ year old Caol Ilas and they’ve all been stunning. This bottle was no exceptions, offering a mature nose, notes of pine resin, waxy apples, freshly malted barely, distant peat, aniseed and brine. The palate was oily and rich, delivering waxy fruit, stone fruit, saline, spicy sugared nuts and an aromatic menthol eucalypt notes.

On their own, the notes sound bizarre, but the layers, depth and integration of flavour made this something very special in my mind.

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Diageo Special Releases collection – available now 

The full Diageo Special Release collection consists of the following bottles, available in Australia now:

  • Caol Ila ‘unpeated’ 15 year old – $179.99
  • Caol Ila 35 year old – $1,249.99
  • Carsebridge 48 year old (grain whisky) – $1,349.99
  • Cladach (coastal blend) – $249.99
  • Inchgower 27 year old – $499.99
  • Lagavulin 12 year old – $179.99
  • Oban 21 year old – $824.99
  • Pittyvaich 28 year old – $499.99
  • The Singleton of Glen Ord 14 year old – $179.99
  • Talisker 8 year old  – $129.99

Thanks as always to Diageo Australia for the invite and the opportunity to taste these special releases.

Win the full Diageo Special Releases Collection

Are you based in Sydney? Are you free this Thursday? Would you like to win whisky – lots of whisky. Lots of very tasty, very expensive whisky? Here’s what you need to know!

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To celebrate the launch of the Diageo Special Releases collection in Australia, Diageo are giving one lucky person the chance to win the full set of bottles. Details are limited, but this Thursday (14 March 2019) a set of clues will be released throughout the day at 8am, midday and 3pm at Customs House, Sydney. These clues will help one lucky person decipher a code, which will in turn unlock the grand prize of the ten bottles pictured above.

Unfortunately I can’t make it on Thursday (which is good news for those entering, as I would be competing fiercely for this awesome prize!!), but I did get the chance to taste a few of these bottles last week – stay tuned for some of my tasting notes and thoughts soon.

Johnnie Walker Ghost and Rare Port Ellen

Yes, it really does have Port Ellen in it.

The Johnnie Walker ‘Blue Label’ moniker is synonymous with luxury and rarity, so it’s fitting that when Diageo decided to blend together some of their rarest whisky stocks, they would release it as an extension of the Blue Label range. But that’s pretty much where the lineage to the ‘common’ Blue Label ends, as this new release from the striding man is almost in a league of its own.

Johnnie Walker Port Ellen

The new release I’m talking about is the Johnnie Walker Ghost and Rare Port Ellen and I was fortunate enough to attend a special preview tasting last week held at one of Sydney’s finest diners, Bennelong, at the Opera House.

The story of Ghost and Rare

The ‘Ghost and Rare’ element of the name comes from the malt and grain whiskies used in this blend, specifically those from the closed distilleries of Caresbridge and Calendonian (both grain distilleries), along with the fabled golden child of Islay, Port Ellen distillery.

Port Ellen’s history dates back nearly 200 years to the 1820s when it was founded on the south coast of Islay, the little island we now know as home to Scotland’s peated (or ‘smoky’) malt whiskies. It produced whisky for over 100 years before being sold to DCL, who we now know as Diageo, the parent company of the famous Johnnie Walker brand. After only a few years of ownership, Port Ellen was temporarily closed for some 37 years, before it was eventually brought back to life in 1967. The resurrection would be short-lived though, as the whisky glut of the 1980s hit hard. Diageo – owners of Port Ellen, Lagavulin and Caol Ila – had a tough decision to make, and in 1983 Port Ellen was closed for good. In the decades that have passed since, the ever ageing (and dwindling) stocks of this lost Islay distillery have become some of the most sought after single malts in the world. So when you see a Johnnie Walker release with the name ‘Port Ellen’ on the bottle, it’s the kind of thing that piques your interest.

Tasting notes

The other thing to note is this; with Port Ellen and Caresbridge closing in 1983 and Caledonian closing in 1988, you have some seriously well-aged whisky in this blend. Aside from those three Ghost and Rare distilleries, malts from Mortlach Dailuaine, Cragganmore, Blair Athol and Oban also make an appearance, so this should be interesting.

On the nose I found it quite tropical, with some overripe, almost effervescent stone fruit. Behind that though were some interesting heaving notes; workshop grease, wet rocks and a salty maritime note.

The palate had a strong link to the nose with much of the above, along with a touch of citrus and a classy, tropical maritime peat note.

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Is the Port Ellen really evident?

Normally I would be a bit skeptical and wonder whether my mind was playing tricks on me. I know it has Port Ellen in it. It even says so on the bottle. So am I just convincing myself I can taste the influence on that rare malt? That would certainly be plausible, but I don’t think that’s the case with this one.

Here’s an interesting thing about this release. The absence of a certain detail makes this just as interesting as the inclusion of detail (top marks to Diageo for telling us what’s in the bottle!). The peat influence in most Johnnie Walker expressions comes from a healthy dose of Caol Ila, but a quick glance at the bottle confirms that Caol Ila is indeed absent from this release. In actual fact, the only whisky in this bottle with any kind of discernible peat and maritime note is the Port Ellen. So while we don’t know exactly how much Port Ellen is in there, it’s enough to let you know it’s there!

Johnnie Walker Ghost and Rare

So as I asked last time – a clever marketing move? Of course it is! But it’s so much more than that. It’s genuinely tasty whisky, with some genuinely old and rare liquid in it and it’s been put together in a very clever way. To think of this as a standard bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label with a splash of Port Ellen is missing the point.

The Johnnie Walker Ghost and Rare Port Ellen is now available from major stores with an RRP of AU$480

 

 

Sullivan’s Cove x Whisky & Alement

When these two get together, you know you’re in for something good

It’s our national day of celebration today – Australia Day – so I can think of no better day to post an article that celebrates an Australian whisky, and the fantastic people and bar that brought it to us.

If I had to pick a defining moment for Australian whisky in the last, say, ten years, one clear event comes to mind. It was when Sullivan’s Cove won the accolade as 2014’s ‘world’s best single malt’ in the World Whisky Awards competition. It was the moment the catapulted Australian whisky from being a thing that local whisky fans knew about, to a thing that everyone knew about. Articles started appearing in mainstream news, colleagues at work started asking if I’d tasted ‘the best whisky in the world’, and people who’d never even tried whisky – let alone an Australian whisky – started asking where they could get their hands on a bottle. It was a real zero to hero moment.

Sullivan's Cove Whisky and Alement

Just as Sullivan’s Cove played a pivotal role in catapulting Australian whisky into the mainstream, I’d argue that a certain Melbourne institution has played an equally sizeable one in defining the whisky-appreciation culture in Australia and really bringing it to life. That institution is Melbourne’s Whisky and Alement.

Whisky + Alement

Since opening their doors back in 2010 (originally known as Chez Regine), Whisky and Alement have quietly gone from strength to strength. With their whisky shelves overflowing back in 2013, they felt there was enough momentum and interest in whisky to take the leap and pigeon-hole themselves as a whisky bar. It made them unique and that gamble – along with loads of hard work – has paid off. It paved the way for Whisky and Alement as a bar, but also provided a place where they could educate a whole new wave of people who didn’t yet know they were whisky lovers.

Following on from their popular and educational Introduction to Whisky classes, the team started hosting The Story of Whisky: From old to new world’. Among plenty of other aspects, the story of whisky touches on the significance of single casks, but also explores the importance of blending and the notion that blends can produce something greater than the sum of their individual parts. And what better way to illustrate that to an audience than with your very own ‘blended’ whisky. And that’s exactly what W+A did with this Sullivan’s Cove collaboration.

A collaboration with Sullivan’s Cove

What you see here is quite a significant bottle. Julian White – one of Whisky and Alement’s owners – pitched this collaboration idea directly to Sulivan’s Cove Managing Director, Adam Sable. He tells me that it wasn’t just a case of ‘hey, it would be cool if we had our own bottle’, but rather he wanted to produce something with ‘purpose’. The ‘purpose’ was to help consumers understand that as unique and interesting as single cask whisky can be, they’re not always the complete package, so don’t automatically discount something that’s been ‘blended’ or diluted as being inferior. From my own experience, when done right, blends can definitely deliver something quite extraordinary. 

Sullivan's Cove Whisky and Alement

Adam was clearly on-board with the idea and a short while later Julian found himself at Sullivan’s Cove, surrounded by a host of un-marked sample bottles that gave nothing away as to their contents. The task – to put together a bespoke blend that met the brief, and could be proudly used in their masterclasses. After more than five hours of sampling, blending, nosing and sampling, Jules tells me that palate fatigue had well and truly set in, so after landing on something he thought might meet the brief, he called it a day. Returning fresh the next morning, a re-taste confirmed he was on the money, and this bottle was locked in.

What’s in the bottle?

Now it was time to find out what he’d actually blended and it’s a pretty bloody interesting one.

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Unbeknownst to Julian at the time, one of the casks he’d selected was HH042, which turned out to be Sullivan’s Cove’s oldest cask of whisky at 18 years of age, which clocked in at a staggering 76.7% ABV. The second component he landed on was TD0225, a ~10 year old French Oak tawny port cask at 69.6% ABV affectionately known as ‘Stubbs’, as it was rather short and stumpy after being re-coopered down to 180-190L. The idea of a blend clocking in at 70%+ ABV is a lot of fun, but doesn’t really make for the greatest drinking experience, so this was very sensibly brought down to 50.3% ABV, a perfect strength in my opinion.

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On the nose it’s thick, warming and comforting. A slathering of honey on hot buttered-toast, some dry oily grassy notes (like dried Australian native plant leaves), vanilla custard, those home-made chewy coconut biscuits and a some caramel fudge. 

On the palate it’s oily and textural, but without the distraction of a big alcohol whack. An amazing connection with the nose (which I personally love) with a good dose of thick honey, caramel pecan pie, pastry crusts and some dried fruit mix. The finish presents gentle baking spice with a slight eucalypt-menthol note.

I’m very much a sucker for single cask whiskies and the variability and fun they bring. But are they often a complete package? Are they always technically poised? Rarely. This on the other hand is. I’ve tasted quite a few Australian whiskies – not a huge number, but quite a few – and this is one of the very best I’ve come across. It nails the brief and is simply great whisky.

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Wherever in the world you’re reading this from – if you ever happen to find yourself in Melbourne, Australia, you should do yourself a favour and pay a visit to Whisky and Alement, or their sister venue upstairs, The Melbourne Whisky Room. And if you’re somewhat more local, full details on their great classes can be found here. I’m not sure if this bottle is currently on the bar to taste, but if you do ever get the chance, move it to the top of your list – I’m quite confident you won’t regret it.

The Last Drop Distillers

Tasting some seriously old liquid from the ‘rare spirit hunters’

Just prior to Christmas I was invited along to something that promised to be rather special. But I didn’t realise quite how special it would end up being until I arrived and scoped-out the rarities on the table. But more on that in just a few moments.

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The event was held to welcome The Last Drop Distillers to Australia, and their extremely limited range of very old, very premium (and rather pricey) beverages to Australia. You’re entirely forgiven if you haven’t heard of The Last Drop Distillers, as their whiskies aren’t exactly the kind of thing you’ll find on supermarket shelves. They greeted the world back in 2008; the brainchild of two pioneers of the spirits industry – James Espey OBE and (the late) Tom Jago – and their ethos was simple. They were going to source and bottle the world’s finest, rarest and most exclusive spirits. Ten years later, they’ve risen to the challenge and continue to only offer liquid that they firmly believe to be unique, delicious and extremely limited in nature.

The Last Drop in Australia

We were very fortunate to have Rebecca Jago, Managing Director and daughter of the late Tom Jago in Sydney to share the above, and some of her personal stories, while taking us through the following extraordinary line-up.

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First on our list was a 1971 Blended Scotch Whisky, that had an interesting back-story to it. This particular whisky was originally blended in 1983 as a premium 12 year old whisky for the American market, but after a portion was bottled, the remainder made its way back into 11 ex-Oloroso sherry butts where it sat un-touched for a further nine years. A small volume was again bottled at the age of 21 years, but for some reason a further parcel was held back; this time filled into nine ex-American Oak barrels. Another 24 years passed before the now dwindling parcel of whisky was discovered by The Last Drop, who then bottled it at 45 years old.

On the nose and palate this was completely convincing. A rich, flavourful blend that showed layers of complexity, no doubt brought about through a combination of great spirit, age and the complex cask treatment it had been through over the previous 45 years. Two minor issues with this one – 1) me consuming it with too much gusto, and 2) not having more in my glass to savour!

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Two very Glenrothes

If the blended whisky wasn’t special enough, we were also treated to two 1968 vintage Glenrothes, which form part of trilogy which The Last Drop will be releasing over three consecutive years. Approaching whisky of this age, I’m always quite skeptical as not all whisky can withstand 50 years in an oak cask and it doesn’t always end well. I’ve been very fortunate to try a number of whiskies aged between 40-60 years and there are only a handful that I’d genuinely want to drink again and again. These two fall into that category.

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The nose and palate were well and truly still alive with notes of earthen floor dunnage warehouses, old oak, and overripe tropical fruit, fleshy stone fruit, marmalade, liquorice straps, apple skins and baking spice. They both shared an awful lot in common and were an absolute treat to try.

The Centenario Port Duo

As dessert was served, Rebecca introduced us to something a little bit different, two Tawny Ports which represent The Last Drop’s first foray into fortified wine. The two bottles of port are presented as a set and hail from the Douro valley in Portugal.

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Why the two bottles? Well, to provide their lucky owners with the chance to indulge in what has to be a once in a lifetime kind of experience. One of the bottles is a 1970 vintage, which in itself is a mighty special thing. However, the other pre-dates it by 100 years and is an 1870 vintage. Yes, 1870, allowing you to taste the effect of 100 additional years of ageing. Having had the privilege to try both, side-by-side, I can confirm it’s a mighty special thing indeed.

The 1970 is still vibrant and full of bright fruit notes, honey, sticky plums, berries and the perfect amount of acidity. The 1870 vintage is almost like a reduced, caramelised version of its younger sibling. The viscosity is unreal; it’s syrupy, incredibly rich and is like a glass of liquid flame raisins.

If you’re in the market..

Apart from needing to taste exceptional, all releases that come out from The Last Drop have to have pedigree and flawless provenance and authenticity. Such is their criteria that since 2008, just 12 ‘last drops’ have been released, encompassing some incredibly rare Scotch whiskies (such as this 1967 Glen Garioch I tried a few years back), along with some very rare cognacs.

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The trio shown above will all be available through Dan Murphy’s here in Australia, starting at $5,000 RRP for the 1971 blend. Expect to see some further interesting releases from The Last Drop in 2019, possibly even including a super premium Bourbon!