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.

Paul John Whisky

Indian single malt whisky

If you played a little word association game with the average person and asked ‘what’s the first country you think of when you hear the word whisky?, I’d say there’s a really good chance most people would say Scotland. Some might hit you with Ireland or the United States. Heck, Japan is probably high up on that list these days too! But I don’t think you’d get too many people saying ‘India’.

Paul John Whisky 4

Don’t for one second think that’s because India isn’t a whisky-drinking nation though. It’s quite the opposite actually. According to these statistics, India is actually the biggest whisky-drinking nation on earth! To satisfy that demand they have over 40 whisky-producing distilleries around the country, but only two of those (as far as I’m aware) produce whisky specifically for the export market. The first, and perhaps the more well-known, is Amrut and the second – the feature of this post – is Paul John.

Paul John and John Distilleries

The brand Paul John comes out of John Distilleries’ single malt distillery located in Goa. The facility uses two Indian-made copper pot stills to produce in the region of 3,000 litres of spirit daily (1.1 million litres a year). This makes them similar in scale to a distillery like Ardbeg, who also have a single set of stills and a similar annual production capacity.

Not only does Paul John use Indian-made copper pot stills, but they also use a varietal of Himalayan 6-row Indian barely in the production of their spirit. This gives them a lower alcoholic yield, but Master distiller Michael John is of the belief that it helps give the whisky more characteristics of its country of origin. Casks are filled at 55% ABV (compared to standard Scottish filling of 63.5% ABV) before being matured in one of two warehouses.

Paul John Whisky 7

India’s hot and often humid climate makes whisky mature much faster than it would in Europe or the United States, with Paul John’s annual evaporation (‘The Angel’s Share’) being around 8% per year (compared to Scotland where it’s closer to 2%). As a result, their whiskies are often bottled anywhere between four and seven years of maturation. Paul John isn’t a brand you encounter too often here in Australia, so when they recently contacted me and offered a samples of their full core range I was more than eager to give it a try.

I’ll keep my notes brief, picking out some similarities and differences to try and form a better understanding of Paul John’s single malt profile and how the expressions compare against one another. One thing to note from the get-go is that all of their whisky is 100% natural colour and non-chill filtered.

Paul John Brilliance 46% ABV

The entry level expression in their range. Brilliance is made with un-peated spirit and is aged in ex-Bourbon American Oak casks for around 4 years.

Quite soft on the nose with some sweet vanilla and malty biscuit notes. There’s a hint of citrus, orange pith and oak. It’s chewy and oily on the palate and quite close to the nose – more citrus, zesty notes, spice and oak. It’s like a quality, soft Speyside whisky.

Paul John Whisky 6

Paul John Edited 46% ABV

Edited is also matured in ex-Bourbon American Oak casks for around 4 years, however it contains around 15-20% of peated spirit in the vatting. To get peated spirit, Paul John import peat from Scotland and then peat their preferred 6-row Indian barley themselves.

Very soft again on the nose, almost muted in a way. There’s a definite hint of peat that presents itself in a salty, damp hay smoke kind of way. It’s there, but it’s also fairly subtle and integrated. I still get the same malty biscuit and citrus notes from the Brilliance as well.

On the palate the peat is quite pronounced upfront with a salty saline tang, that great chewy mouthfeel. There’s toffee, maybe even salted caramels and that bitter citrus pith note again.

Paul John Classic Select Casks 55.2% ABV

A non-peated cask strength offering. A fuller, deeper and richer nose compared with the Brilliance, really showcasing the oily rich spirit profile. I got deep creamy vanilla, sweet malty cake notes and a hint of orange.

It’s bright and punchy upfront on the palate with a great sweet, oily, malty mouthfeel. Hot cinnamon and cedar-wood spice upfront gives way to sweet chewy vanilla, some honey notes, summer fruit salad. There’s more malt, oak and spice on the finish.

There’s a definitely lineage to the Brilliance in this one – with a similar general profile – but everything is cranked up to 11 and there seems to be more going on in the Classic Select Cask, probably due in part to the higher alcohol level.

Paul John Whisky 8

Paul John Bold 46% ABV 

The ‘Bold’ expression takes us into full peated territory and a single small whiff confirms that. It’s quite deep and bold on the nose with sweet herbal peat notes. It’s quite vegetal though, like a highland peated whisky, with a salty saline tang.

It’s vegetal and peaty on the palate (though not smoky) with that saline tang from the nose, but it also manages to incorporate some sweet notes. It finishes with a big wave of lingering peat that dries out your tongue, leaving behind a slightly bitter oaky woodiness.

Paul John Peated 55.5% ABV

As the name suggests, this takes us into peated territory again, but this time at cask strength. It somehow seems more restrained on the nose, with a nice balance of peat, berry/sherry sweetness and that herbal salty peat note.

Loads of tangy, salty peat upfront on the palate, a hint of crisp drying smoke, vanilla, charred peaches and brown sugar sweetness. The higher ABV carries the peat notes through to a long satisfying finish.

Paul John Whisky 3a

Some overall thoughts

I was really impressed by the whole Paul John range. Not that I expected it to not be good, but I think in the back of my mind I didn’t expect it to taste anywhere near as mature and balanced as it does. None of these five expressions gave off any hint of their youth. The decision to bottle at 46% ABV and above with no chill filtering is a smart move in my opinion, with the full range having a fantastic oily, chewy mouthfeel that carries loads of flavour across the palate. Whilst some of the expressions are slightly restrained in their flavour profile, they were all nicely balanced and tasted like high quality, well-made whisky to me. If I had to pick a favourite out of the five, I think I’d go for the ‘Peated’ expression at cask strength. It had a lot going on in every sip and is genuinely great whisky.

Paul John Whisky 5

Paul John also kindly included a full-size bottle for me to photograph (pictured throughout this post). I’m a sucker for packaging and presentation and I have to say, the presentation is rather smart! An embossed card box with a magnetic closure opens to reveal a nice clean, modern bottle. The fonts/script used throughout are fresh and clean, the main branding is screen-printed and there’s a nice little swing tag including a booklet on all the basics you need to know about Paul John’s full range.

Paul John Whisky in Sydney 

Mr Madhu Kanna, General Manager – Exports, from Paul John will be in Australia for the Whisky Live whisky show on 8th and 9th April 2016 so if you’ve got yourself a ticket, I encourage you to drop by their stand and try some Paul John whiskies for yourself!

Paul John Whisky 1

Thanks goes to Paul John for the generous whisky samples. I’m looking forward to seeing your brand develop further and tasting whatever you bring out next!