Here we go… it must be getting close the true heart of Autumn as Diageo has now released its annual Special Releases – and boy do they look good.
I’m still waiting for a Walker blend to end up in this lineup, just to highlight the huge importance of that brand to those releases. Something I try to highlight when people bring up their distaste for blends is that we wouldn’t have the capacity for Special Releases if it weren’t for global juggernauts like Johnnie Walker. It’s a fact worth bearing in mind, while also noting how lucky we are to access liquid of this quality.
There’s also been a raft of newly released expressions; we must be leading up to Christmas and the holiday season. New whiskies have appeared from Distell, Glenlivet and Aberfeldy, among others, and let’s not forget the continual releases from the independent bottling sector. Plenty to get excited about, and that is before we even step out of Scotland and into the rest of the world. Ireland, America, Mexico, Sweden and other producing nations have turned out some impressive gems of late.
However, for those of you paying close attention, this article is going to seem a little like deja vu if you were reading this feature in the last edition.
Just as I finally rounded up last year’s 2019 Buffalo Trace Antique Collection, this year’s selection is announced.
Now that is what I call timing! So let’s dive in and see what those wonderful people in Franklin County have waiting for us this time.
For those of you wondering what all the fuss is about, the collection was first launched in 2000 and features five limited-edition releases bottled from rare stocks at the distillery, featuring various ages, recipes and proofs. This quintet is so anticipated that people have been known to line up outside their liquor shops before they open just to get a bottle.
One thing before we start exploring all this loveliness is to bear in mind that next year the collection ‘comes of age’. Who knows that this means, but with the stock and experiments going on at the distillery, we can dare to dream perhaps. Personally I would love to see a parallel collection of some of the weird and wonderful experiments that are lurking in the warehouses…
So here is the lowdown on what’s waiting for you, and perhaps why it’s worth getting the sleeping bag out and heading down to Binny’s or your own local shop.
Let’s start with the ryes in the collection. Thomas H. Handy is an uncut and unfiltered straight rye whiskey. This year’s offering comes from a Spring distillation in 2014 and have been assembled from casks aged in K, M and N warehouses. Punching in a 129 proof (64.5% ABV), this whopping rye gives you everything you would expect: cinnamon spice, black cherry compote and sweetness from honeycomb and chewy toffee.
Its rye stablemate, the 2020 Sazerac Rye 18 Years Old, comes in at a respectable 90 proof (45% ABV). This was distilled back in Spring 2002, and similar to other years, has been gathered from one floor of a warehouse; this year, it is the third floor of warehouse K. You can expect a really intense experience from a rye of this age, one that has been well looked after, and it gives plenty of dark chocolate, caramel-coated coconut, black cherry jam and a pepper and cinnamon spice edge.
From the ryes, let’s head to what I often think of as the hidden gem of the collection – William Larue Weller.
The 2020 release was distilled in the winter of 2008 and aged in warehouses I and C.
Don’t be fooled by the alcoholic strength: this year’s is coming in at 135.5 proof (67.25% ABV), a climb from last year’s 128 proof, and this is still a stunner. A drop of water and bingo, flavour city; it’s subtle and aromatic, too. It takes you into a mint-laden herb garden with a stick of Big Red chewing gum. Buttered sweetcorn and a little prickly chilli heat. More, please!
Finally let’s move into Bourbon territory and the whiskey that seems to get most people excited: Eagle Rare 17 Years Old.
This 101 proof (50.5% ABV) whiskey, again bottled at the same proof in honour of the brand’s roots in 1974, was distilled in Spring of 2002 and was aged again on just one floor, this time the first floor of warehouse P. This belter of a Bourbon has set the bar yet again, offering fruit, cream and hints of oak spices. There’s plenty of vanilla and cigar-box tobacco-like notes before toffee and coffee cream take over. There’s even a hint of fresh-cut herbs at the end.
Finally we come to what the distillery refers to as its “powerhouse favourite”, George T. Stagg, coming in at a punchy 130.4 proof (65.2%) this year. This tour de force Bourbon was collected from a number of warehouses for this year’s release, including L, K and Q. The evaporation topped last year’s 56 per cent, losing 59 per cent to the angels.
This fan favourite will give you pretty much everything you are looking for
in a benchmark Bourbon. It is packed with huge oak tannins, cinnamon spices, vanilla cream and custard notes. There’s also chocolate-covered cherries, hints of pipe tobacco and a peppery and chilli spiciness.
Sports fans paying close attention to this year’s collection will note that Stagg is back to its punchy self again. For the first time in four years the proof is back up above 130. The Weller as well has climbed up the proof notches this year, so should offer an interesting comparison to other years (if you have any left).
None of these will be easy to find as usual, but if you do, remember to share – that’s the best thing about whisky.
For our cocktail suggestion this edition, with these whiskies I think I am going to stick with my steer last edition and go with simplicity: glass and ice, possibly a little water on the side.
Again, following on from last edition, I am going to recommend a pipe with pretty much any of these, but especially with the Weller. If you can find a blend high in Latakia leaf that would be perfect. The campfire note from this style of tobacco will really compliment the Weller. Try some of the Peter Stokkebye blends, or if you can find it, the wonderfully named Presbyterian Mixture.
As I have said often in these articles, slow down and enjoy. These whiskies and tobaccos should be savoured.