Diageo Special Releases Collection

Tasting and Review

There are so many so-called ‘special’ or ‘limited’ release bottles coming out these days that it’s virtually impossible to keep up with them all, even for someone like me who spends a good deal of time following everything whisky online. But if there’s one series that has the pedigree and really does deserve the ‘special/ limited’ moniker, surely it’s the annual Diageo Special Releases series.

Diageo Special Releases

Simon McGoram, Australian National Whisky Ambassador for Diageo, tells us that over the past 16 years there have been more than 143 different bottlings released under the annual series, including regular appearances by rarities including Port Ellen and Brora. This year’s (2016) release is no exception, with bottles from these two closed distilleries appearing again, alongside eight other distilleries from Diageo’s extensive portfolio. Before getting into my tasting notes, it’s worth exploring exactly what these bottles are and what they represent.

Diageo Special Releases Tasting

Diageo owns more distilleries in Scotland than any other company (27, not including closed distilleries). Whisky from some of these distilleries can be found in bars and on store shelves the world over. Others though are seldom seen as a single malt or grain (when was the last time you saw a Linkwood or Cambus on the shelf?). The annual Special Releases give Diageo a chance to change all of that though and they release official bottles of single malt (and grain) from their portfolio that are rarely seen, or considerably different to the standard core expressions you might encounter.

Port Ellen Brora

The 2016 Special Releases featured ten different bottles and I recently had the chance to sit down and taste the following five.

Caol Ila 2000 15 YO unpeated 61.5% ABV

Whilst Caol Ila is famed for their heavily peated whisky, for quite a few years now the Special Releases series has featured an unpeated Caol Ila expression. Interestingly it’s not just a case of producing standard Caol Ila with unpeated malt. Simon informed us that they actually use a longer fermentation to specifically develop more fruity esters in the unpeated spirit. This particular release has then been matured in a combination of refill American Oak casks and European Oak butts.

Caol Ila 2000 unpeated

On the nose it’s definitely quite vibrant and fruity, with waxy orchard fruits, pine , sweet grassy notes and toffee. Despite being unpeated, there’s still a good whiff of steam-train smoky soot in the background but overall it’s quite a clean nose. The palate was thick and oily, almost syrupy in mouthfeel. More of those waxy orchard fruits, quite a lot of dry cereal, nutty wood spice and lemon skins with that dry coal soot in the background.

I’ve always enjoyed these unpeated Caol Ilas (the Stitchell Reserve is one of my favourites) and this one was no exception. I would love to see a well-aged (20 year +) unpeated Caol Ila in this series one day. I suspect it would be pretty magical.

Cragganmore (No Age Statement) 55.7% ABV

We’re used to seeing Cragganmore with an age statement (the 12 year old and the annual Distillers Edition) but this year’s Special Release is the only one in the lineup presented with no age statement. That doesn’t mean it’s young, of course, but an interesting move, similar to last year’s Clynelish.

Cragganmore Special Releases

Thick and honeyed on the nose with porridge and spiced stewed fruits. I found it to be quite oily, earthy and almost savoury, with nutty cereal notes on the back. Sweet and rich on the palate with a savoury apple tart note, citrus pith, baked stone fruit, tannic and quite spicy on the finish.

It doesn’t exactly leap out of the glass, but it delivered such a rich spirit character with loads of texture. The milkshake of the lineup.

Glenkinchie 1991 24 YO 57.2% ABV

As with the Cragganmore, we normally only see two different expressions from this Lowland distillery. This release is the oldest Glenkinchie bottled by Diageo, having been matured in European Oak for 24 years.

Glenkinchie 24 year old 1991

If you describe the Cragganmore before it as a bit of a slow mover, this would be it’s brighter, zingy counterpart. Sweet fruity citrus, green apple skins, dried flowers and furniture polish on the nose. Tropical fruits, prickly tart pineapple and hot oak on the palate and finish.

We’re told this was fully matured in European Oak, but I’m not sure I would have ever picked that as it’s missing the darker, spicier fragrant wood notes I would normally associate with something that’s spent 24 years slumbering in Quercus Robur (that’s botanical-nerd for European Oak).

Brora 1977 38 YO 48.6% ABV

First appearing in the Special Releases back in 2002, Brora has featured every year since and is always one of the most sought after. Although Brora closed in 1983, many don’t realise that the peated malt runs it’s famous for actually ceased in 1977, so given the vintage of this particular release, it’s a rarity indeed.

Brora 1977 38 year old

Immediately complex on the nose. After mere seconds you know this is the kind of dram you’d love to spend some time with. Thick and oily with a salty maritime note, waxy lemons, sooty coal ash, bees-waxed leather, poached pears and fermenting pineapple. It’s coastal, earthy and has a meatiness to it as well, like a quality wagyu Bresaola.

The delivery on the palate is calm, with big oils, smoked tropical fruits, papaya, green banana skins, shredded green mango, leather and honey and a long sooty, iodine finish. It’s balanced and stately. A dram that slows time down.

When quizzed on how much Brora Diageo still have in stock, Simon responded with ‘we’re told it has been depleted.. but as to what that actually means, I don’t really know’. I think it’s safe to say that there can’t be too much of this still lying around.

Port Ellen 1978 37 YO 55.2% ABV

Featuring every year since the Special Releases were launched back in 2001, these annual Port Ellen bottles are probably the most well-known bottlings from this long-lost distillery. It’s the only distillery that has featured every year and this year’s 37 year old is the not only the oldest Port Ellen bottled under the series, but at the time of writing, it’s the oldest Port Ellen bottled by anyone to date.

Port Ellen 1978 37 year old

On the nose it was surprisingly lively for something of that age. Rich honeyed biscuits, shortbread, oily brine, soft fragrant wood smoke, hessian sacks and ozone. It carries a coastal maritime note but definitely not something you’d describe a peaty. The palate is rich again, honey and cracked pepper, bright tropical fruits, pineapple chunks, smouldering cinders, soot and citrus finishing dry and oaky.

The Special Releases in Australia

Nine of the ten 2016 Diageo Special Releases will shortly be availably through specialist retailers in Australia, with pricing and available quantities listed below.

Auchroisk 25 year old, distilled 1990
RRP $520, 3.954 bottles worldwide, 216 in Australia

Brora 38 year old, distilled 1977
RRP $2,800, 2,984 bottles worldwide, 108 in Australia

Cambus 40 year old, distilled 1975
RRP $1,400, 1,812 bottles worldwide, 68 in Australia

Caol Ila 15 year old, distilled 2000
RRP $170, limited quantities worldwide, 450 in Australia

Cragganmore NAS
RRP $750, 4,932 bottles worldwide, 180 in Australia

Glenkinchie 24 year old, distilled 1991
RRP $520, 5,928 bottles worldwide, 282 in Australia

Linkwood 37 year old, distilled 1978
RRP $1,100, 6,114 bottles worldwide, 300 in Australia

Mannochmore 25 year old, distilled 1990
RRP $550, 3,954 bottles worldwide, 240 in Australia

Port Ellen 37 year old, distilled 1978
RRP $5,000, 2,940 bottles worldwide, 128 in Australia

It was an amazing experience to be able to taste these five and not one I’d be able to repeat without the generosity of Diageo Australia, so a sincere thank you for the great afternoon.

SMWS + Shirt Bar Sydney

The other week the Shirt Bar in Sydney held a very special Scotch Club event in conjunction with the Australian chapter of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS).

Shirt Bar sign

I’ve been to a few Scotch Club events before (here and here) and I’m also a member of the SMWS, so I knew this would be a winning combo. Even more so as the evening was being hosted by SMWS Australia’s Cellarmaster, the affable Mr Andrew Derbidge.

ShirtBar

For those who’ve never met Andrew, he has to be one of the most knowledgeable and approachable whisky figures I’ve come across. His presentations are always jam-packed with interesting info, yet never bore – irrespective of your level of whisky knowledge or interest.

What you need to know about The Society

If you’re not familiar with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, who they are and what they do, their website should be able to help solve that problem for you. In my opinion though, here’s what you really need to know:

  • All of their whiskies are bottled from single casks,
  • They’re all cask strength, natural colour and non-chill filtered.
  • Bottles will never be repeated, so when they’re gone – they’re gone!

SMWS pack

In the images to follow, you’ll note that the labeling contains an odd numerical code. Quick intro if you’re not familiar with the SMWS’s labeling system – the first number represents the distillery the whisky came from and the second represents the number of casks that have been bottled by the Society, from said distillery. The brilliant names? Well, that’s the domain of the chaps in the Society’s creative department I guess!

Table

On to the whisky then

The line-up consisted of six pretty special bottles, including two not previously seen as part of Australia’s quarterly outturn (yes, think yourselves lucky my UK friends, we’re a long way away from Scotland, so our Outturn is only quarterly).

Tasting mat

41.59 Appetizing and tantalizing

First up was this ten year old whisky from a Speyside distillery by the name of Dailuaine. You may not have heard of them, but chances are you’re consumed their whisky before. Dailuaine is owned by Diageo and the majority of their output ends up in the various Johnnie Walker blends.

A super small amount of this stuff is bottled as a single malt – let alone singe cask, cask strength – so it was pretty special to have this.

SMWS 41

Very fruity and quite light on the nose. Summer fruit salad, pineapples, pears, apples and some tart piney notes dominated, while some softer vanilla and sweet floral notes hid up the back. Quite a light nose with a decent amount of spirit prickle.

Light on the palate as well, yet rather oily at the same time. I found that it initially sat quite high before unleashing a decent amount of spice and some big tangy and tart pineapple notes that sent the saliva glands into overdrive. The finish was long with quite a bit of heat and some oaky spice, somewhat balanced by a noticeable vanilla note.

Back to where it all begins  

Before moving on to dram number two, Andrew paused for a moment to take us back a few steps, presenting whisky in its naked new make spirit form.

New make

He busted out this small sample of Glenmorangie new make spirit, which comes off the stills at an industry average of 63.5% ABV. I didn’t spend too long with this, but as you’d expect, it was very grassy, slightly dusty and botanical on the nose (they often remind me of Mezcal) and hot and saliva-inducing on the palate.

I had to have a chuckle when a guy near me nosed his glass and exclaimed to his mates ‘oh man, that’s smells like unleaded petrol’.

Not the most interesting new make I’ve tired, but I always find it really interesting to sample the building blocks of whisky, and trying new make from a hugely popular Scottish distillery is not something you get to do often!

121.68 Harvesting fruit on an Indian summer’s day

Next up was this 14 year old dram from a fairly young island distillery, Arran, which opened in 1995.

SMWS 121

A noticeably heavier nose on this one compared with the Dailuaine. Sweet esthery polish notes, sour green grapes, caramel – almost on the verge of burnt bitter caramel. Initially the nose seemed quite closed, but given some time it changed quite a bit, developing some meaty fermented grape notes and gummy lollies, in particular, strawberries and cream.

Creamy and oily on the palate, straight off the bat. Tropical fruits, sweet spice and overall, a very round profile. The back of the palate became almost drying, with a hint of kiwi and some slight salty notes. A long fruity finish (reminded me of tinned tropical fruits).

123.8 In the Spanish mountains

As far as I can tell, the Society has only ever bottled eight casks from this distillery, making it somewhat of a rarity and indeed a priviledge to be tasting. I’m talking about Glengoyne and this particular bottle was matured for 12 years in a refill port pipe.

SMWS 123

Quite a dense, heavy nose on this dram. Spice, Vegemite, a touch of salt, tart plum jam or plum butter (reminded me of my favourite Polish powidła) and some hazelnuts. Not overly sweet or sugary, but also not overly fruity. A very interesting nose, though I’m still not sure how much I really liked it?

Lovely oily mouth feel which was both rich and winey. Spice developed quite quickly, but a winey sweetness remained the whole way through. The finish is where I felt the port notes really showed, with some lingering plummy prune flavours, more spice and a decent oakiness.

An enjoyable and really interesting dram, but if I’m being completely honest, I think I prefer Glengoyne’s spirit when it’s been bourbon or sherry cask influenced.

132.5 Sweet and darkly beguiling

Not actually a Scotch, this next whisky hailed from one of Japan’s most revered and lauded closed distilleries, Karuizawa.

Big, rich and syrupy on the nose. Sweet raisins, stewed plums, figs and Christmas cake. So rich, yet surprisingly clean. I’m not sure how to describe exactly what I mean by ‘clean’, but despite the heavy sherry influence, the nose came across as really quite bright and active.

SMWS 132

The theme continues with a rich, creamy, syrupy palate. Tangy raisins and dark red fruit, there’s some spice, but I found it somewhat restrained for such a heavily sherried whisky. Slightly prickly, dense and a hint of old char smoke. A long and warming finish remains sweet and fruity with some oaky spice showing at the tail end. Such a clean sherry cask in my opinion.

I wondered whether this dram had star status in my eyes because I knew it was from a closed distillery and knew it was rare. But I’ve been fortunate enough to try it on two or three occasions now – on its own and up against a number of other whiskies I regard quite highly – and each time it has stood out as something pretty special.

If you’re a big Glendronach or Glenfarclas fan, this isn’t one to miss. A hugely enjoyable drinkers whisky (ie. collectors/investors, you’re seriously missing out!)

Time to bring on the peat!

It was around this time of the night that Andrew revealed his last sensory item for the evening, some freshly peated Ardbeg malt.

Ardbeg malt

I love the smell of Ardbeg, but this was something else. Burrying my nose right in there, the glass was full of cereal and grainy notes but they were overlayed with that amazing smoky sweetness. I know it would probably taste like rubbish, but in that moment I could have eaten that glass full of malt with a spoon. A rare treat to encounter Ardbeg malt in Australia, that’s for sure.

I have no idea how he got a big zip-lock bag of malted barley past Australian Customs on the way back in from his recent trip to Scotland, but I’m glad he did. Andrew – if you smuggled this in your jocks, I don’t want to know about it.

53.198 Wasabi on a California Roll

The last dram of the evening was also the oldest of the night, a lovely 18 year old coastal dram from Caol Ila.

SMWS ShirtBar

On the nose, I found this to be rather tangy and salty up front, with fragrant peat and a fairly light smokiness. A hint of iodine, but nowhere near as medicinal as the likes of Laphroaig. In a moment of poetic wankerism, I wrote down ‘a coastal BBQ with sea spray’.

More smoky on the palate than the nose, a lovely oiliness to the mouth with some spice, saline and drying hay. It had a certain fruity quality to it as well though, with grilled peaches (burnt perhaps?) and a tangy peat, sweet and savoury finish. Really quite lovely and balanced.

Phone picture

In true Shirt Bar fashion, the evening’s Scotch Club finished off with their trademark antipasto board & pies.

Antipasto

This round of Scotch Club was perfect for those who’d never been to an SMWS event and wanted to see what all the fuss is about. As an existing member, I took it as a perfect opportunity to get my SMWS whisky fix between Outturns and taste a few new expressions I hadn’t come across before. A seriously enjoyable tasting.

If you missed out

I was originally going to write something along the lines of ‘if you missed out, not to worry – there’s another one being held on August 13th’.

Group 2

But you can forget that. It went on sale the other day and completely sold out – in less than 24 hours! If you do have a ticket, I’m not sure that you’ll be tasting the above, but whatever Andrew brings, they’re bound to send those taste buds into overdrive!

If you didn’t manage to get yourself a ticket and want to find out more about the Society, head over to their website and keep en eye on their tastings and events page to see when an event is being held in your capital city.