Whisky & Culture

The first and the last

The new collection to celebrate Diageo’s master blender
By Mark Jennings
Would you like to taste the first and last of its kind, drawn from a tiny number of highly sought-after casks from a selection of celebrated distilleries?

Whisky giant Diageo is launching a new series of single vintage malt whiskies, called Prima & Ultima. The first is to be sold exclusively as a single collection, featuring whiskies chosen by their legendary maker Dr Jim Beveridge, to highlight specific moments in his 40-year career.  

Like many people, my days are now spent awkwardly fidgeting with conference call software and the vagaries of lighting, suitable backdrops and whether anyone can see that I’m wearing shorts. It takes quite a lot to break the monotony of this after four months, but a Zoom chat with Dr Beveridge, Johnnie Walker’s master blender, was just the thing (he has an OBE for whisky, for God’s sake!). 

“During the past 40 years I have worked intimately with our distilleries across Scotland, and I’ve been fortunate enough to witness great change in the whisky industry. Each of the eight whiskies I’ve selected tells a tale of heritage and craftsmanship and I’ve chosen them from distillers of great personal importance to me.”

His selection includes ridiculously rare drops from Caol Ila, Clynelish, Cragganmore, Lagavulin, Mortlach, Port Ellen, Singleton of Dufftown, and that salty seadog, Talisker. 
Beveridge is, as one might expect, happier to let the whisky do the talking, but when pressed has no end of stories as to why each distillery, and more to the point, each cask was chosen. It’s deeply personal. He tells us of how the Cragganmore marks the end of the coal-fired stills in 1971 and comes from the last cask to be filled with whisky made this way. The three casks of The Singleton of Dufftown reminded him of his work in 1988 to isolate its grassy, fruit flavours. It almost goes without saying how rare a 40-year-old cask from the sadly silent (but soon to be revived) Port Ellen is. 

The whole lineup are natural cask strength, non-chill filtered, with no colour added. Here’s them in full:

Caol Ila 35 Years Old (50.8%)
Refill European Oak Butt
A 1984 Caol Ila from a single refill cask - the first release of a new style at the time, this particular cask was recovered after initially being sold. Mild in aroma, it is rich in texture with a long, smoky-spice finish.

Clynelish 26 Years Old (49.8%)
Refill American Oak Casks
One of the first casks filled after the mysterious waxiness of Clynelish was finally studied and understood. This 1993 small batch release is aromatic and intense, with a waxy, creamy smooth quality that is now the distillery’s hallmark.

Cragganmore 48 Years Old (43.7%)
First-fill ex-Sherry butt
This is the very last cask of whisky which was made at Cragganmore on coal-fired stills before the switch to oil-fired steam heating. A literal piece of history from a single first-fill ex-Sherry butt, the whisky’s flavours run deep with hints of dark chocolate, it has a long fresh and drying finish.

Lagavulin 28 Years Old (50.1%)
Refill American Oak Casks
Distilled not long after Lagavulin’s distillery character was refined and regulated, this whisky comes from a handful of refill American oak hogshead casks filled in 1991. 

Mortlach 25 Years Old (55.1%)
First-fill Pedro Ximenez/Oloroso seasoned European Oak Butt
One of the last remaining first-fill Pedro Ximenez / Oloroso seasoned oak butt casks from 1994. The result is a 25 Years Old with robust muscularity – the deep, rich style of mature Mortlach that they now cannot stop calling ‘The Beast of Dufftown’. 

Port Ellen 40 Years Old (51.2%)
Refill European Oak Butt
One of the very last 1979 European Oak butts from Port Ellen, selected from the few casks remaining long after this Islay distillery closed in 1983. It characterises Port Ellen at its peak, expressing a discrete balance between sweetness, saltiness and smokiness that is still full of flavour after 40 years.

Singleton of Dufftown 30 Years Old (48.8%)
Refill American Oak Casks
This complex, rich whisky is the first 30 Years Old released of this kind.

Talisker 31 Years Old (51.4%)
Refill American Oak Casks
From the last six casks that showed an unusual, less peaty, more rounded character, specially put aside in 1988 to mature. It’s the same salty seadog you know and love but the reduction of peat brings out a ton of sweet peppery flavours.

Tasting some of these whiskies almost made lockdown bearable. It was like accompanying Dr Beveridge around each distillery as he poured you a little liquid history – both his and the distillery’s. Yes, they are fabulous whiskies, but they’re also something else - exciting time capsules that one is almost ashamed to drink, knowing they are so fleeting, and once drunk can’t be replaced.     

Getting your hands on a set might be tricky though, with only 238 full sets available for the tidy sum of £20,000.