Hold on, how is it September already? This time of year is marked by two distinct things: the changing of the season and Diageo’s annual collection of Special Releases. I’m not quite ready to relinquish summer yet but it seems I must.
Though the hullabaloo was more muted this year – gone was the lavish launch event and in yet another Zoom call (albeit the first one I’ve had featuring a scratch and sniff pandan leaf) – it was still a moment to enjoy.
What is a Special Release anyway?
The Special Releases, lest you’ve been hiding in a bunker since 2001, is an annual, highly regarded collection of cask-strength bottlings from Diageo. Over the years there have been some odd bedfellows but it typically features something from a long-silent distillery, something pretty old, and a bunch of distilleries you know and love but tweaked in interesting ways – from unusual casking to a younger release you’ve not had before. With price varying from the generally affordable to the ‘let me just ask my wife’, they are a solid collection of bottles, loosely themed to enable writers like me to ponce on about them in long-form.
Some time ago I’d heard that the Releases were to be culled, but last year they really solidified this theming into Rare By Nature, and this year the theme returns as… Rare By Nature – which might seem a bit lazy to some, but the aim, apparently, is to be a companion to the 2019 releases. I thought the 2019 releases were all superb, so I’m not going to start complaining.
This year’s collection
Chosen by master blender Dr Craig Wilson, the eight single malt releases are an encore to last year’s and again feature illustrations of the wildlife and flora surrounding each distillery, rather than their usual livery. You’ll find unusual age points, experimental maturation techniques and the first-ever release finished in pot-still Caribbean rum casks. Lovely.
Of the process, Wilson said, “We have a huge inventory in Diageo so it’s a painstaking process choosing from millions of casks and using our experience as blenders to look through pockets of stock that we think are very special. It’s just a case of nosing hundreds of glasses and picking what we think are the best from each distillery.” Tough gig, eh?!
The full collection includes releases from Cardhu, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Lagavulin, Mortlach, Pittyvaich, Talisker and The Singleton of Dufftown 17 Years Old. Let’s dive in…
Cardhu 11 Years Old, 56.0%
A small batch from refill, new and ex-Bourbon American oak, for floral sweetness and spicy intensity.
Nose: Waxy potato skins, vanilla stem, leather and wood shavings with hints of orange marmalade – even more juicy orange with water.
Palate: Wood chips, caramelised roasted purple carrots, root vegetable crisps, more orange marmalade, then white peppercorn and green cardamom with the addition of water.
Finish: Stewed vanilla, apricot and currents, moreish and juicy, peppery right at the tail.
Cragganmore 20 Years Old 55.8%
An age never before released from the distillery, matured in refill and new fresh-charred casks.
Nose: Really overripe fleshy fruit – a big tropical sweetness, blueberries and golden syrup on hot porridge into coloured pencil shavings and a final metallic note.
Palate: Quite dry, with dried apricot and frangipane tart, into milk chocolate. With water it’s dark chocolate, maybe even cocoa nibs, some char is also coming through.
Finish: Salty and peppery at the end but a massive sweetness that wraps it all together and rides it out on a caramel -fueled rocket.
Dalwhinnie 30 Years Old 51.9%
A venerably aged drop matured in refill hogsheads that were filled in 1989.
Nose: An artist’s studio with oil paints and turpentine, big green olive oil waxiness, then into yellow grapefruit at the end and kiwi. With water, such a wedge of melon it’s almost Midori.
Palate: A canteloupe melon sweetness and green apples into salted caramel, then a big dry hit arrives. With water, black peppercorn emerges and it’s almost astringent but is just about reined in by the sweetness.
Finish: Super long – apricot jam, a woody dryness and a bunch of pepper and dried liquorice root.
Lagavulin 12 Years Old 56.4%
Soaring and intense, a small batch of single vintage Lagavulin matured in refill American oak casks.
Nose: A buttered crumpet, sun-warmed hay combined with sweet-peated briney pepperiness – unmistakable Laga. Lemon balm too.
Palate: Waxy, oily, unctuous – a smash of Barbour wax jackets, well-hung pheasant meatiness, a working harbourside with tar and brine. With water it’s fresher, more of the lemon comes through, intense like fizzing sweeties. Dark chocolate and coffee appear long into the sip.
Finish: Long and saline, into olive oil pepperiness, really chewy.
Mortlach 21 Years Old 56.9%
Rich in smooth intensity, from a small batch, finished in Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry-seasoned casks.
Nose: Orange marmalade, Fruit Salad sweeties – so many layers, with honeysuckle, lemon balm and vanilla.
Palate: So juicy, so thick and crazy dry – sucks the spit off your tongue. A sunset whisky. Full on. Starburst sweets with a big creaminess that coats the mouth.
Water takes the edge off the booze – oddly you feel the ABV on this one over the others but this but just serves to intensify the juiciness. A roasted pineapple that makes you want more. A nice glycerin-like sweetness to it that ligers in the top of the mouth and then the tannins at the back, all very pleasant.
Finish: So long, wave after wave of fruit but dried now and then a tannin and peppery finish. So much presence in the glass even after it’s long gone.
Pittyvaich 30 Years Old 50.8%
A ghost from 1989, and the distillery’s first release ever to be finished in
Nose: Tropical fruit salad, blood orange, lemon verbena – really have to search it out it’s so subtle but then it hits you, and it’s a fulsome smell. A world of red peppers, later on, nutmeg, resinous like elegant floor polish, the perfumed woodiness of Grandad’s cologne. With water, it’s a totally different nose – hibiscus, and grapefruit candy.
Palate: A big fat juicy wedge of pineapple. Herby, of thyme and rosemary, Parma Violets and a salty savoury chewiness, sun-ripened tomatoes.
With water, it’s more tannic, as the wood comes through. More pronounced umami finish. Super savoury.
Finish: A salty liquorice thing, buttery and woody but clearly balanced.
Talisker 8 Years Old 57.9%
A big one, the first-ever release of Talisker finished in pot-still Caribbean rum casks. Here we go!
Nose: Cream soda vanilla bomb at first into crème brûlée and then barbeque bananas. Sweet and smoky.
Palate: A big explosion of savoury and sweet. It’s dry then a lump of sweet peat and saltiness. The vanilla has gone, a big crunch of black peppercorns surrounds and ushers away the hit of overripe tropical fruits.
Finish: This is how I’d imagine licking a hot tyre would be – but trust me, it is in a really good way! Mezcal-like dryness that coats the mouth making you take a pause, before all you want to do is dive in again.
Singleton of Dufftown 17 Years Old 55.1%
A characterful release, the first ever to be matured only in refill American oak hogshead casks.
Nose: Candyfloss, pear drops and toffee – a real sweetshop. The hot, nail polish acetone morphs into chardonnay and pear eau de vie, buttery underneath. Grassy greenness and straw at the back of the nose, a hint of kaffir lime.
Palate: Big stewed pear hit, unexpectedly dry long into the finish, potpourri dried flowers and nutty. Water gives soft fudge and overripe fruit.
Finish: Long and dry.
How to get your hands on them?
A slightly mysterious ‘Autumn 2020’ date was given but the middle of September seems likely, from specialist retailers in Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa, selected markets across Asia and in airport duty-free.