Tastings

The first, the last, my everything

Diageo’s Prima & Ultima Collection is the pinnacle of the company’s ‘rare and exceptional’ whisky releases, and each one-of-a-kind bottling has a remarkable personal story to tell
By Christopher Coates
Maureen Robinson with the Second Release of Prima Ultima
Maureen Robinson with the Second Release of Prima Ultima
It’s understandable why some whisky lovers are beginning to feel a little cynical about the recent slew of old and rare releases from some of Scotch whisky’s most venerable distillers, boasting five- or even six-figure price tags. The industry’s current penchant for indulgent packaging and the tendency to see such releases as works of art has become a bone of contention for many, with calls from some quarters for a refocus on whisky as a drink, rather than an asset or investment.

This contemporary context makes it especially pleasing to be presented with a release quite as unquestionably ‘liquid-first’ as Diageo’s Prima & Ultima Collection. Perhaps more so than any other similar Scotch whisky release in recent years, these whiskies have been chosen on the unique merits of the spirit – not just the age statement. Each shines a light on distillery style, the development of and difference between various maturation techniques, and the careers of two (so far) of the industry’s most experienced whisky makers. The packaging, while undeniably premium and attractive, is nevertheless relatively simplistic and functional, playing second fiddle to the liquid inside.
Maureen Robinson

Launched in mid-2020, the first Prima & Ultima Collection was curated by Johnnie Walker master blender Dr Jim Beveridge OBE and comprised eight whiskies which illustrated meaningful periods of the whisky maker’s time in the industry. For 2021, the arduous task of selecting the whiskies has fallen to 40-year Diageo veteran Maureen Robinson. Bottled at natural cask strength, this year’s whiskies tell the tale of Maureen’s personal journey from trainee to master blender, but, like last year, each is also in some way representative of a beginning or an end – hence the name Prima & Ultima, Latin for ‘first’ and ‘last’. Whether it be a cask filled on the first day of distillation, a pioneering experiment, the end of a significant period in a distillery’s history or simply the last drops of something special, each bottle is a snapshot of a unique moment in time.

“If you look back at the last collection, for example, the Cragganmore was the last whisky we ever made on coal-fired stills – it varies depending on the distillery and the story behind it,” says Ewan Gunn, senior global brand ambassador at Diageo. “When Maureen and the team curate this, it’s not just about saying, ‘here is some very interesting, nice old whisky’; it’s about the story and how they relate to her and her career, but also how they relate to their place in the Scotch whisky industry’s heritage.”
Mortlach 1995

Having started in the industry in 1977, Maureen is certainly ideally placed to make such selections. During her time working at Diageo and its precursors, she has not only worked on some of Scotch whisky’s most prominent brands, but been actively involved in the evolution of how the company assesses and categorises its stock. Today, whisky lovers take descriptors such as ‘green-grassy’, ‘nutty’, ‘fruity’, ‘waxy’ or ‘sulphury’ for granted, but this method for categorising malts is actually a relatively modern innovation – one which Maureen was involved in developing more than 25 years ago.

“Over the years, as a team, we have created different classifications [for spirit styles]. The old classifications used to be ‘first’, ‘second’ or ‘third’ Highlands, or Lowlands – it was all regional,” explains Robinson. “In the early 90s we decided we wanted to do something that was more on the flavour spectrum, rather than regional. Take Convalmore’s waxiness: Convalmore is waxy, but you also had Craigellachie as waxy, Aberfeldy was waxy (back when we had it), and Clynelish is waxy, but they were in three different regions.”

As a result, her team began looking at spirit from the perspective of flavour rather than region, and subsequently spent many months at Royal Lochnagar nosing hundreds of samples from different distilleries at different ages – five, eight, 12, and older – trying to find out where they all fit into a new flavour-first framework. The results of that work, which built on methodologies identified by the Scotch Whisky Research Institute in the 1970s, can now be felt industry-wide.
Singleton 1992

Maureen has also conducted a number of maturation trials in her time at the company, some of which have been showcased in her Prima & Ultima selections. This includes trials looking at the impact of coastal maturation, new oak and re-charring. However, it’s the ‘ghost’ stock from closed distilleries, such as this second release’s Convalmore 1984, that will perhaps be the focus of collectors’ attention. The finite nature of such liquid makes releases like this particularly special, though in truth it seems Diageo has no immediate shortage of ‘unicorns’.

“There’s still one or two of the very old ones that we’ve still got – though we don’t have a lot of casks. We’ve still got stock of Glen Albyn, and we’ve still got some stock of Glen Mhor,” says Robinson, reassuring whisky lovers that Prima & Ultima will not be a short-lived series. “The one we’ve probably got the least of is St Magdalene (Linlithgow) – we’ve only got one cask of that left.”
Talisker 1979

Maureen is visibly passionate about her work and explains how a number of her chosen casks are actually stocks she ringfenced for ‘something special’ over the course of many decades. Her dedication and genuine interest shine through and it is clear that, as a result of this labour of love, the Prima & Ultima Collection has been developed with the whisky lover – perhaps even the geek – in mind. There’s something delightfully nerdy about the details which make each bottling unique, and the level of both historic and technical detail shared shows a clear understanding that the true value of old and rare whisky lies in its flavour, quality and place in whisky history – not in the baubles added into the box to pump up the price.

Indeed, though the cost is still beyond the reach of an average Joe, at a mean price of just under £3,000 per bottle, the collection is noteworthy for the restraint exhibited in setting the RRP. Some companies might have added an extra zero – Diageo didn’t. One can only hope that others might be led by this example, and that the ongoing tug-of-war between whisky lovers and economically motivated opportunists may yet be won by those for whom whisky is, ultimately, a drink to be enjoyed, not a commodity to be traded. Understood at its most basic level, Prima & Ultima has been made for those of us for whom whisky is the first, the last, and everything.


Prima


The first of its kind...



AUCHROISK 1974

ABV: 48.7% | Age: 47 Years Old
Bottling date: 26.01.2021
Number of bottles: 382


The contents of a single refill European oak sherry butt, this was the very first cask to be filled at Auchroisk when distilling began on 15 January 1974 and is therefore the oldest ever bottled. Principally used as a blending distillery, Auchroisk was in fact the original distillery marketed under the ‘Singleton’ brand, but was withdrawn from frontline service and is now only readily available as a single malt through the Flora & Fauna range. Though made-to-order, seasoned sherry casks did exist at the time, it is likely that this was an ex-shipping butt.

Ewan says: “When we launched the distillery, we actually invited fellow distillers from across Speyside, both from within our company and some of our competitors, to come along, see the spirits running for the first time, and taste some of the new-make spirit. One of our rival distillers, who shall remain unnamed, when he nosed and tasted it, said that the spirit was ‘unusually smooth and sweet’, which we took as
a compliment.”

Nose: An unusual blend of paneer and mango chutney, lime pickle, pineapple syrup and tamarind. Beneath this there’s leather, almond flour and a hint of silage, with curry leaf, shea butter and delicate floral notes of honeysuckle and lavender. Perhaps even pancake with lemon curd. In time, malt and graphite emerge.
Palate: Very light-bodied and delicate. There’s lime juice and delicate caramel, delivering a well-balanced sweet-and-sour effect. The merest hint of pear drop hides behind milk chocolate and sour plums. In time, chalky ‘Love Heart’ sweet flavours, before cashew comes to the fore.
Finish: The lime juice and delicate curry leaf elements fade to leave milk and honey for a medium-length finish.
Comment: That refill butt has had a light touch over the years and allowed the spirit to shine. The empty glass smells of hot milk and honey, which is quite unusual. It’s uncommon for such a cask to be fully ‘on profile’, but if there were any rough edges to begin with, then time has smoothed them away.


LAGAVULIN 1992

ABV: 47.7% | Age: 28 Years Old
Bottling date: 20.01.2021
Number of bottles: 1,081


This is the first of its kind from a small ‘experimental’ batch of five re-charred American oak hogsheads matured entirely on Islay. The experiment intended to investigate to what extent charred casks could temper the smokiness of the spirit. Many of the casks from this experiment have been used in blends or bottled as single malts, but these were held back for monitoring. It’s interesting to note quite how low the ABV has fallen, given this bottling’s relative youth when compared to the others. If for any reason this particular expression seems not to shine as brightly as others here, either in terms of its story or spirit, it’s certainly due to their strength rather than its weakness.

Maureen says: “Lagavulin tends to be really peaty, can be ashy, and we took the edges off that. It’s mellow and we added a sweetness to it as well… We reserved these as we wanted to keep an eye on them and see how it developed.”

Nose: Smoked vanilla and rather ashy. There is some wood smoke, but coal smoke predominates. There’s menthol and clove, with a very assertive pine note that combines with under-ripe (green) banana, apple blossom, raspberry and lily pollen to deliver a pleasant but pungent aroma which borders on ‘air freshener’ on account of its intensity. This all calms down significantly in the glass, and a lemon-lime sherbet note comes to the fore. Puts me in mind of ‘flying saucer’ sweets.
Palate: Very light. There’s the expected Fisherman’s friend–style notes of liquorice, capsicum and menthol, but, unexpectedly, also black coffee – almost coffee liqueur – and physalis. There’s candied orange, dark chocolate and raspberry too, with a delicate smoked almond character. There’s a little under-ripe melon and kiwi, but the green notes dissipate in the glass.
Finish: The delicate green elements fade away quickly, leaving a lightly smoked bittersweet coffee and orange character which lingers on with you for a medium-length finish.
Comment: Perhaps more in the vein of what one might expect from old Lagavulin, but nevertheless still a complex and pleasing dram.


LINKWOOD 1981

ABV: 52.9% | Age: 39 Years Old
Bottling date: 25.01.2021
Number of bottles: 701


This is a vatting of four ‘double-matured’ casks which started life in refill wood. After 12 years, these were re-racked into new American oak casks seasoned with a blend of Pedro Ximénez and oloroso sherry – essentially what’s known as ‘cream’ sherry – which were filled as part of the first trial exploring different maturation processes at the distillery. The timing is significant as it coincides with the period when the sherry industry implemented a new rule prohibiting bottling outside of its production zone, bringing the centuries-old practice of sherry being shipped in-cask to an end. The industry had already been running short on repurposed shipping butts for many decades, so seasoned casks were nothing new, but it is nonetheless interesting to see how new oak can perform over such a long period of time. It’s also worth noting that the bulk of shipping butts had held cream sherries or similar blends, so this may have been a deliberate attempt to replicate that style. At the time of distillation, there were actually ‘two’ distilleries on site, Linkwood A and B, but it has not been disclosed which stills this spirit flowed from. This whisky is also significant for the length of the ‘finish’ in new oak – 27 years is really very long for such a style of maturation.

Maureen says: “It’s one of these experiments we didn’t intend to keep running and running. Occasionally, we kept on checking them out and there were certain ones we decided to let go a bit longer and see how it evolves… we always think, as blenders, of ‘subtractive’, ‘additive’ and ‘interactive’, but what we’re finding is that with these finishes it’s all about the additive and interactive. So basically, when you first put the mature whisky into the finishing cask, you get all this additive from the cask, then equilibrium, then it becomes all about interaction… that’s the mystery bit we don’t quite understand.”

Nose: Petrichor and mechanic’s oils, a whiff of rubber, and a whack of roasted chestnut. Then mushroom and bark mulch, with concentrated blueberry, damson plum and a touch of soy. The fruity notes assert themselves more with time, then come prunes in syrup and dark chocolate with a little candied ginger.
Palate: Light and fruity. The palate is remarkably clean and bright, with something of a bittersweet element that reminds me of sweet vermouth. Plenty of apple juice and poached pear is backed up by clove, orange oils, and rice cake. There’s a distinctive herbal character – sage and tarragon – and, under it all, some very delicate milk chocolate.
Finish: Medium-short; fruits fade to leave milk chocolate and caramel.
Comment: The ‘workshop’ notes on the nose dissipate quickly in the glass, though a delicate (and not unpleasant) rubber note remains to the end.


THE SINGLETON OF GLENDULLAN 1992

ABV: 60.1% | Age: 28 Years Old
Bottling date: 19.01.2021
Number of bottles: 420


Part of a one-off trial conducted by Maureen’s team at Glendullan, this spirit was initially matured in refill hogsheads for 14 years, before being re-racked into two ex-Madeira barriques for another 14 years. The spirit style at Glendullan is generally categorised as ‘green-grassy’, and it’s interesting to see that this backbone has remained through the long maturation and in spite of the long secondary maturation in casks known for a punchy, fruity character. The intensity of the flavours present in this expression makes it an unexpected jewel in the collection, perhaps even overshadowing the performance of its more rarefied peers.
Maureen says: “What’s memorable about this is that it hasn’t lost its Singleton of Glendullan Distillery character. We hadn’t done this before, so it was like a leap of faith, but what we managed to do is get a nice balance between the wood and the Singleton. I didn’t know what to expect and was really surprised – a good surprise!”

Nose: Intense Pink Lady apple, with woody dunnage and ‘chuch pew’ aromas. There’s peach candies and orange squash, lily of the valley and bass notes of cinder toffee and treacle, with just the lightest touch of tomato skin.
Palate: Mouth-coating and immensely concentrated flavours, like sipping a cordial but with none of the sickly sweetness. The fruits from the nose are present here too, joined by elderflower, a touch of bubblegum and a little lemon oil. In time, a toffee sponge cake element emerges.
Finish: As the intense fruitiness subsides, honey and caramel linger for a medium-long finish to delicate red apple skin and just a touch of dryness.
Comment: Immensely intense, but mellow and well integrated. Possibly the best Madeira-cask whisky I’ve had the pleasure to try, and one of the strongest showings in the collection. Excellent.


Ultima


This is the end…



TALISKER 1979

ABV: 47.5% | Age: 41 Years Old
Bottling date: 26.01.2021
Number of bottles: 556


A vatting of the last four 1979 refill American oak hogsheads in Diageo’s stock. They spent 41 years maturing in the ‘storm-lashed’ No. 4 warehouse, which of all Talisker’s warehouses is the closest to the Atlantic Ocean. The extent to which a warehouse’s proximity to the ocean impacts spirit character is debated in the world of whisky, particularly in relation to the development of ‘coastal’ aromas. Though the scientific evidence suggests that coastal flavours are a result of raw materials and production process, that coastal warehouses exhibit significantly different maturation conditions to those inland is also in no doubt – one need only look to how proximity to the ocean impacts the development of flor in casks of maturing manzanilla (matured by the sea) and fino (matured inland) sherry to see that something is happening.

The coastal positioning of warehouse No. 4 is likely the reason why so little volume was left in the four hoggies, which yielded only 51 more bottles (35.7 litres) than the contents of the three identically sized casks of
the Brora 1980. As to whether this Talisker is redolent of the sea, that is a matter of opinion.
Maureen says: “Unfortunately, there was precious little left in each cask. Perhaps keeping whisky away from those angels beside the sea is harder than it seems…”

Nose: Ripe kiwi and banana, dried mango and tomato stems. Some musty dunnage and menthol. A little desiccated coconut and avocado. A very subtle ashy woodsmoke and a touch of aloe vera. Subtle limeade and toffee, but quite retiring. Perhaps a hint of latex.
Palate: Concentrated and somewhat ‘thick’ in the mouth. Cordial-like and fruity, with very delicate florality – gentian in particular. There’s a sour ‘zing’ of pineapple, and poached pears with golden syrup. Physalis and a little ginger biscuit, in there too. Lurking beneath it all is the ghost of peat.
Finish: Medium-length and gently drying. Fades on the physalis note.
Comment: I’d say there’s more of the greenhouse than the fishing boat about this one.


BRORA 1980

ABV: 49.5% | Age: 40 Years Old
Bottling date: 18.01.21
Number of bottles: 505


The very last of the company’s 1980 casks, distilled during the ‘golden age’ of peated Brora before the distillery closed in 1983. It was produced in an era when the distillery was using levels of peating similar to those at Talisker. Three refill American oak hogsheads were stored separately for safe-keeping, before being reunited for this final 1980 release. The inclusion of this cask is particularly timely, given the recent ‘rebirth’ of the Brora Distillery and release of the Triptych Collection. On comparing this to the 1977 ‘Age of Peat’ Triptych bottling, it’s clear that they’re cut from the same cloth – though the ’77 has a toffee and cream character on the nose and palate that’s not quite as pronounced in the ’80. Overall, the 1980 is more restrained.

Maureen says: “We’d already started looking at the Prima & Ultima range, which is all about my experiences and stories, and I earmarked it for me! That’s why this wasn’t chosen for Triptych.”

Nose: Lightly smoked cheddar and dried pineapple, with green peppers and gorse. Heather honey, brioche and tarte tatin are joined by just a touch of greenhouse and workshop funk. A whiff of rubber glove.
Palate: Medium-bodied and remarkably sweet. There’s dried pineapple and mango, with dried apricots. Sweet red pepper and cantaloupe are here, with more heather honey florals and a delicate vegetal character. A touch of sage, before caramel takes the stage.
Finish: Medium-length, with more chewy caramel notes.
Comment: An elegant old whisky with wonderfully balanced tropical and sweet candied character. One could easily miss the peat here, which is so far in the back it’s practically out of the door and down the street.


MORTLACH 1995

ABV: 52.4% | Age: 25 Years Old
Bottling date: 19.01.21
Number of bottles: 454


The contents of a single European oak butt seasoned with a blend of Pedro Ximénez and oloroso sherry, it was affectionately referred to as ‘The Lone Wolf’ by the Diageo blending team on account of its character, which stood out from other similar casks. Maureen and her team ringfenced the cask, which was matured entirely in Warehouse No. 3 at Mortlach Distillery, to keep it from being used from other projects. It’s lucky they did, because this is the kind of Mortlach those of us reared on the Flora & Fauna 16 Years Old spend our time seeking out. It’s certainly the least elegant and most spiritous of the bunch, which is perhaps to be expected from the ‘beast’ of Dufftown, but this doesn’t detract from the quality. This is the kind of whisky that lovers of sherry-cask whisky are all about.

Maureen says: “As we have carefully watched over it, this cask has done a striking job of taming the meaty, robust muscularity of Mortlach, which can come to dominate older expressions.”

Nose: Cedar, clove and black cherry, damson plum and treacle are all present on the nose. Biscuit and chocolate notes put me in mind of rocky road. Fruits of the forest make up the centre, with furniture polish and a subtle whiff of cordite minerality which plays around the edges. In time, sweet pipe tobacco aromas emerge.
Palate: Medium-bodied. Intense and concentrated notes of plum wine, toffee and milk chocolate are backed up by bramble jam and cinnamon-dusted almonds. There’s delicate clove here too, but sticky-toffee sweetness and red berries ensure the spices don’t get a chance to be too assertive.
Finish: Tongue tingles fade out slowly to leave toffee apple note and gentle black tea tannins.
Comment: While undoubtedly full-flavoured, this is more of a ‘dessert’ Mortlach than the ‘main course’ that one might expect from a spirit with a reputation for meatiness.


CONVALMORE 1984

ABV: 48.6% | Age: 36 Years Old
Bottling date: 25.01.21
Number of bottles: 647

A vatting of three refill American oak hogsheads filled on 22 November 1984, just a few months before the distillery was closed forever. It’s the last of Diageo’s 36-year-old stock from Convalmore and, indeed, some of the last stock from that distillery in the company’s portfolio.

On account of the distillery’s closure, these casks were matured at the company’s Blackgrange site in the Scottish central belt rather than in Dufftown. Free from heavy wood influence, this is a great example of why refill hoggies, though perhaps not too fashionable right now, remain the workhorse of the industry and often are the best thing a delicate spirit can ask for. When given time to shine, they can deliver some really sweet moments. This one whispers rather than shouts, so give it a little time.

Maureen says: “It does feel a bit surreal, actually, because you know there won’t be any more. There’s a bit of trepidation as well – when you bring the samples in, you’re keeping your fingers crossed that the liquid will be really excellent. You want it to be good, you want to share it.”

Nose: Creamy coconut and mango, apricots in syrup, blooming gorse and heather. Lime zest and fromage frais with ripe banana are joined by bay leaf and a little varnish-esque pear drop. There’s fresh blueberry and delicate honey notes, too. Just a little musty dunnage hints at the venerable age, but otherwise it’s remarkably fresh and fruit-forward.
Palate: Light and delicate. Citrus notes of lemon-lime, lychee and fresh green apples are backed by a honeyed element, with just a touch of crème brûlée sweetness and vanilla that builds on the palate. A hint of tonka bean lurks beneath all the fruit, with a little green tomato too.
Finish: Medium-length; the vanilla sweetness gently dries out to leave pear drop notes and some delicate green apple skin tannins.
Comment: Though perhaps one of the less complex spirits in the collection, its relative simplicity offers an unobstructed view of the spirit style at this now-lost distillery.