Taste

Extraordinary people and places

Eight whiskies, three regions and our expert’s opinion
By Mark Jennings
The annual Diageo Special Releases are firmly established as a classy, considered and well-woven range of bottlings that either add to one’s expectation of a favoured distillery profile, or challenge that expectation entirely. In a world where consistency is key, this temporary tearing up of the rule book is something I look forward to. You get to see some of the oddities, some of the quirks and experimentation that happened in years past and finally through the Special Releases vehicle, find a home in the wild. As Ewan Gunn, Diageo Global Whisky Master, puts it, “they each tell a strong story of the extraordinary place and the people who have shaped each dram.”

One other thing I like about the Special Releases is that there is, relatively speaking, something for everyone. From the sherry-bomb loving lunatic to the soil-sucking peat freak, via the gentle, golden brown of a Bourbon cask loving beauty, and across the price ranges too.
They are usually a finely balanced collection, a concerto when taken together and some stonking great chords when taken separately. This year did little to knock the respect I have for this troupe of releases.

This year’s collection includes whiskies from Speyside distilleries Mortlach, Cardhu, Cragganmore and Pittyvaich and expressions from the Highland distilleries of Dalwhinnie and The Singleton of Glen Ord. The Isles are represented by Lagavulin and Talisker.

The eight single malts (that’s right, no grain or blends this year) were chosen by master blender Dr Craig Wilson, along the theme of ‘rare by nature’. They are brought to life by some beautiful illustrations on each of the cask-strength bottles, giving them a unique shelf presence and a wonderful running theme when seen all together. Of course, a fancy bottle and big press launch means nothing if the liquid ain’t up to snuff. I did my best to nose, taste, taste again and pontificate on each of them for your delectation.

Cardhu
14 Year Old 55.0%

It’s double matured for two years in Amontillado sherry-seasoned hogsheads. Amontillado is known for its nuttiness and it sure shows here. Only 12 casks of this particular experiment ever existed.

Nose: Ripe green pears, moves into new spruce, pine, spicy, deeply buttery and nutty. Oddly floral all the while.
Palate: Big white pepper hit at first, then apricots all wrapped up in dense super creamy nuttiness, drifting into fudge. It’s sweet but not cloying with enough spice to give it character beyond the sherry impact alone.
Finish: A lot more wood at the end that I was anticipating, but still a blend of spice, veering into fine milk chocolate.
Comments: As Maureen Robinson the master blender at Diageo said, this dram is a “solid, fun, easy drinker, you can just play with it but the strength appeals to whisky geeks”. If you like nuts and caramel, this is your dram.

Cragganmore
12 Year Old 58.4%

Matured in refill American oak casks, and IT’S FECKIN’ PEATED. A real oddity and one I deeply enjoyed. Lots of distillery character despite the unexpected slab of smoke.
Miss this at your peril.

Nose: A distant barbecue quelled by a sudden rain storm. Forest floor, petrichor, then woody spice and leather and all the while the sweetness of car-travel boiled sweets or roadtrip McDonald’s apple pie.
Palate: Rich and most definitely savoury, a hit of oiliness but less than expected, and in fact less peat than the nose suggested. Fruit, if any at all, is dried oranges and apple but mostly this is a gamey, Sunday lunch of a thing.
Finish: The wet embers are still there, dancing around some dark chocolate and lemon rind.
Comments: Speyside in autumn in liquid form. This is quite a bottling so I would buy this before I do.

Dalwhinnie
30 Year Old 54.7%

Matured in refill hogsheads and butts this spirit started its life in quite a funny way. In 87/88 the distillery had replaced their worm-tubs with condensers, until they realised that the spirit that flowed “just wasn’t Dalwhinnie” and so they changed back. Just 20 casks of this strange spirit remained awaiting the right moment to see the light. This is the result.

Nose: Mulchy and almost a hint of smoke if you strain for it, but a lovely rounding of wood spice into honey. Savoury first with a touch of natural sweetness.
Palate: The sweetness continues, beeswax guarded by pepper with digestive biscuits and clotted cream.
Finish: Long, long tingly finish, develops into ginger snaps and burnt vanilla.
Comments: I had to go back several times to work out what I felt about this dram, and each time I felt something quite different. It left me with questions I couldn’t quite answer.

Lagavulin
12 Year Old 56.5%

Just pour this into me all day long. What else can I say, one of my favourite drops, at a mighty, mighty strength. Refill American oak casks are used here, as you might expect.

Nose: Classic Laga. Powerful, fat smoky coals charring underneath the olfactory medicine cabinet, and not forgetting the minerality that transports even the least imaginative of us to the harbourside.
Palate: Of those accustomed to a peated dram it’s the smoothness and even the sweetness of Laga that always delights me, and this is no exception. Saline, briney, fat, truly the most classic distillery character.
Finish: A campfire just extinguished, after a great night.
Comments: You know where you stand with this fella, and it’s not messing around. At cask strength everything is just enhanced, it’s like it latches more deeply into your central nervous system. If you like Laga, you’ll love this.

Mortlach
26 Year Old 53.3%

Matured in first-fill Pedro Ximenez/Oloroso sherry-seasoned casks this release knows exactly who it’s aimed at. They call Mortlach the Beast of Dufftown; the colour of this thing does have something of the night about it.

Nose: Oloroso sherry up front, which I realise is a lazy note but it’s right there. I’m fighting not to write ‘Christmas cake’ but you know what I mean. Varnish, black tea, newly oiled expensive leather, a bit of tar, a delicious stew of apples, raisins and prunes.
Palate: Oily but not unctuous, of leather and cigar tobacco, occasionally tannic but restrained by a dark cherry sweetness, sloe berries and cloves and a bunch of caramel-covered shortbread.
Finish: A rather refined, long balance of dark stone fruits and wood spice, with salted caramel.
Comments: Only a liquid of true quality could withstand this onslaught of sherry. This somehow manages it.

Pittyvaich
29 Year Old 51.4%

We all get a little bit hot under the collar for closed distilleries and while Pittyvaich doesn’t get quite the fanboy following of Brora et al this whisky, double matured in Pedro Ximenez & Oloroso sherry-seasoned casks, is still probably worth noting.

Nose: Super fresh with a long grassy note and a lot of dried flowers, deeper investigation brings out a hint of tannins. All the way through is bread and butter pudding and sponge cake.
Palate: Starting sweet and ending sweet, the palate eventually drops in some black tea spice but mostly it’s sultanas, dates and blackcurrants. There’s a hint of sherbet somewhere
in this too that surprised me.
Finish: The spice takes over, accompanied by fresh ginger, buttery pastry and a hint of cinnamon.
Comments: While I don’t think this quite sets the heather alight for me personally, it’s still lovely, and rare.

Singleton Of Glen Ord
18 Year Old 55.0%

Matured in freshly charred American oak hogsheads, it’s the more intense cousin of their previously released, but hard to find, Singleton Of Glen Ord 18. It’s not a dram that you’d save up for your wedding day, it’s the whisky you’d wet the baby’s head with and see the empty bottle in the recycling the next day without regret.

Nose: Subtle at this high ABV, and expect some ‘prickle’, but once past this you’re into marmalade, fresh apples, spice and a touch of zested orange – again, not super strong, but there. Water brought orange and milk chocolate.
Palate: A growing spicy punch at first, then more orange, apricot and a wedge of caramel towards the end.
Finish: Long and drying. Without water you get the spicy side, with water it’s more the milk chocolate.
Comments: I love the standard 18, and this has all the necessary horsepower to lift it into a new territory.

Talisker
15 Year Old 57.3%

Remember the Talisker 8 Years Old that everyone loved last year? Well, this is just as beautiful. For me this is the standout dram of the releases. It’s the first ever release of Talisker as a 15 Years Old, matured only in freshly charred American oak hogsheads.

Nose: All the maritime characteristics you associate with this Skye whisky, of seaweed, oysters and beach barbecues, maltiness and honey and smoke entwined with a coastal freshness.
Palate: The usual chilli bite is replaced with a paprika-like pepperiness and there’s a creamy, vanilla liquorice thing going on with rush of raisin, and hints of cacao. Sweet smoke.
Finish: A light buttery milk chocolate with sea salt traces and wood smoke curling around right to the end.
Comments: It’s a truly beautiful Talisker, with more intense aspects of some of its character and a new dimension in other areas. Intriguing and worth exploring.

So that’s it for another year.
Was I upset not to see a blend here, or another super old grain (as per previous years)? A little, but these single malts hit all the right notes for me, some more than others as is the way, and all in all I felt this was a solid output and well worth getting your lips and wallets around.

The ‘Rare by Nature’ Special Releases collection will be available from specialist retailers in Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa and selected markets across Asia.
Cardhu
Cardhu
Cragganmore
Cragganmore
Dalwhinnie
Dalwhinnie
Lagavulin
Lagavulin
Mortlach
Mortlach
Pittyvaich
Pittyvaich
The Singleton
The Singleton
Talisker
Talisker