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.

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

 

 

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!

Abbey Whisky – 10th Anniversary whiskies

Tasting Abbey Whisky’s 10th Anniversary releases

When opening a recent delivery from the good people at Abbey Whisky I was super excited to see that a couple of wee samples had made their way into the parcel.

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What are they exactly? Well, Abbey Whisky recently celebrated their tenth year in business and to celebrate they released a trio of very desirable whiskies. The first release – a 1993 GlenDronach single cask – sold out in a flash, but was promptly followed by two additional anniversary bottles, pictured here in sample form.

Abbey Whisky Glenrothes 2006 Cask 5469

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First up we have a 2006-vintage Glenrothes, from sherry cask 5469. It was bottled at ten years of age at a ball-busting 67.1% ABV. Glenrothes can be a little bit hit and miss for me, and I don’t really pay any attention to their official releases, so let’s see where this one sits.

Nose – Big vanilla and caramel. You know it’s high ABV, but I would never have guessed this high. Vanilla slice (the kind you get at a good bakery, with passion fruit icing on top), packet custard, gummy cola lollies and delicious bread and butter pudding. Plenty of complex sweetness in this nose, but give it some time in the glass and an interesting minerality emerges.

Palate – The alcohol is a tad more present here, but brings with it bucket-loads of sweet juiciness! No-where near as brutal as I was expecting. Creamy vanilla custard, with an almost buttery texture. Confectionery sweetness, jammy fruit and sponge cake, finishing with hints of dark chocolate, a slight fizz and some grassiness.

One for those with a sweet-tooth, but wow. What a killer little pocket-rocket. The most exciting Glenrothes I’ve tried to date.

Abbey Whisky Anon. Batch 2 – Orkney 1999

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Next we have Abbey Whisky’s third tenth-anniversary release, this 17-year-old mystery malt released under their ‘Anon’ range. In case you haven’t picked it up from the label, that string of numbers is actually a set of latitude and longitude coordinates. Punch them into google and hey presto, it looks like our anonymous malt is actually from Highland Park distillery. So, unofficially, what we have here is something pretty exciting – a 17-year-old Highland Park, matured in a refill sherry butt and bottled at 53.8% ABV.

Again, when it comes to official releases, Highland Park isn’t a distillery I really pay any attention to these days as they’ve well and truly lost me with their multitude of odd viking-inspired series. That said, I’m very excited to try this.

Nose – Gentle and refined at first, but with an overarching ‘coastal’ note to it. There’s some honeycomb, soft spice and a light, sweet heathery-smoke (almost floral, in a way). Flinty minerals, crushed quartz rock, red apples, apple skins, grilled stone fruit and oily rope.

Palate – A lovely oily texture. Naturally sweet up front, with notes of bush-honey (it’s an Aussie thing), lavender and toffee. The peat is much more present here, delivering a smoky farm-yard – smouldering hay, floral tobacco and leather. It finishes with an earthy quality to it, some salted dark chocolate and a touch of sweet liquorice.

Complex and hugely rewarding. A really evocative dram that takes me right back to the far-north of Scotland. This is what Highland Park should be bottling themselves.

Get onto it!

At the time of writing, both of these are still available at Abbey Whisky. I put my money where my mouth is and bought a bottle of the Highland Park the second it came out. After now tasting it, I’m very glad I did and am now thinking I might just pick-up another.. and a Glenrothes as well. Hmm…

Cheers for the samples Mike! Not that I doubted your taste in the slightest, but a couple of absolutely cracking selections here. Seriously.

Nikka Coffey Grain

Nikka’s Coffey range comes to Australia

In years gone by, Australian shelves were graced with aged-stated whiskies from Nikka’s Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. Those days disappeared a few years back and for a while the only expression you could get your hands on was the incredibly tasty Nikka From The Barrel. That is until now. Asahi Premium Beverages are gradually launching the full Nikka Coffey series into Australia, starting with the Nikka Coffey Grain.

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Thanks to that good news, I recently found myself sitting down with Naoki Tomoyoshi and Emiko Kaji from Nikka Distilleries to learn all about the Coffey series, and how they do things at Nikka.

The Coffey Series and grain whisky

Not trying to re-write whisky literature here, but it probably helps to know two quick things, to help put this new release into perspective:

  • Where the Coffey term comes from, and
  • What grain whisky is.

No, the ‘Coffey’ reference has absolutely nothing to do with the delicious brown caffeinated beverage! It comes from Mr Coffey (known to his mates as Aeneas), who is credited with inventing and patenting a continuous column-still design in 1830. That design would go on to become the most sought-after piece of equipment for grain whisky producers around the world. As for grain whisky itself? Whereas single malt whisky is made solely from malted barley, generally in a pot still, grain whisky can theoretically be made from any grain, and it’s distilled in a column still (sometimes also referred to as a continuous, or Coffey still).

Emiko tells me that Nikka’s first Coffey Still (they now have two) was imported from Scotland in 1963 and was installed in their Nishinomiya facility. That facility was later closed and in 1999 both stills were re-located to their Miyagikyo Distillery, where they now produce the grain distillate for their entire Coffey series (Coffey Grain, Coffey Malt, Gin and Vodka). In the case of their Nikka Coffey Grain expression, it’s distilled from American corn (with a small component – less than 5% – of malted barley), before being filled into casks at 63% ABV.

Tasting notes

On the nose it’s immediately sweet, creamy and buttery. I get notes of cinnamon finger buns with runny icing, a touch of orange peel, toffee, coconut and sweet tropical fruit.

The first thing that strikes me about the palate is the texture. It’s milky (or creamy), with a fantastic oily texture. That texture brings with it an immense depth of flavour. Creamy tropical fruit, whipped vanilla cake icing, candied popcorn and biscuity notes. The finish stays sweet, with a touch of oak.

This is so well-constructed, refined and classy – completely moreish and delicious.

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So what makes Nikka Coffey Grain so different?

In my personal experience, I’ve found that grain whisky tends to be very one dimensional and often needs to have been quite well-aged to even begin exhibiting any kind of depth. Nikka Coffey Grain is completely different though. I mention my experiences to Naoki and Emiko, and ask why they think Nikka has been able to create such a tasty grain whisky, compared to their Scottish counterparts?

Naoki offers up an interesting perspective when reminding me that traditionally, Scottish grain whisky was produced for one reason: blending. When it comes to blended whisky (a blend of single malt and grain whisky), the grain whisky component generally serves as a filler. The traditional school of thought is that the complexity in blended whisky comes from the malt whisky, therefore the grain component is literally used to bulk-up the blend. And to make enough grain whisky, distilleries have generally focused on volume – pumping out as much volume as they could, to fill as many casks as they could (often very tired casks, filled one-too-many times, in my opinion).

Naoki goes on to explain that Nikka once treated their grain distillate as a filler as well. But they quickly learned that they could bring added complexity to their blended whiskies (such as Nikka From The Barrel) by paying close attention to the spirit quality and style coming off their Coffey still. They also fill into a variety of casks (ex-bourbon barrels, a range of refill casks and re-charred casks) to give them a broader flavour range of matured whisky down the track. It’s that ethos that has allowed them to produce such an incredibly tasty whisky.

There’s so much more to the Nikka story

This post is all about the Nikka Coffey Grain, but spending some time with Naoki and Emiko reinforces just how much more there is to the Nikka story. Between their two distilleries they have 14 stills (six at Yoichi and eight at Miyagikyo). A combination of steam heated and direct coal-fired stills, they’re all different shapes and sizes, and all have been designed and forged in Japan. Over the years, they’ve also cultivated their own yeast library, boasting in-excess of 700 different strains, six of which are currently in use across their distilleries at the moment. They don’t stick to one style of malt either, distilling a number of different barley varietals, along with malt that has been peated and/ or roasted to different specifications. Add to that all of the different casks they’re filling into, and you literally have thousands of different possibilities.

And the most amazing part in my mind? These random statistics aren’t just marketing fluff. Nikka use all of these aspects, every single day, when creating their whiskies. They actively seek to create a vast range of different spirit types so that once matured, they can create complex, delicious whisky.

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Naoki tells me that’s another reason why it’s so hard for them to increase production. Whenever someone asks ‘why don’t you just make more whisky?’ – aside from the fact whisky needs time to mature – for Nikka it’s not just a case of making more of one whisky. Rather, it means increasing the volume of each and every one of these whisky styles, so they have the right components for whisky creation and blending in future.

Nikka Coffey Grain – Available now

Even just this week I saw a post on Facebook from a whisky-fan who had just tasted the Coffey Grain for the first time, while skiing in Japan. A photo of three newly-purchased bottles was attached, along with a caption about how he was blown away by the flavour, and that it’s now his new favourite.

It’s winning fans the world over, and when it tastes this good, it’s really not hard to see why. The new (to Australia) Nikka Coffey Grain will be hitting select retailers shortly, with an RRP of $129.99. The rest of the range should be making its way to our shores throughout 2018 and into early next year.