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Remarkable whiskies

The 2018 special releases do not disappoint
By Rob Allanson
It is one of the times of the year that we all start looking forward to, and you know it is going to arrive as the internet fills with chatter, leaks, speculation, and a rush to see who can get there first.

It is of course the release of the Diageo Special Releases, hotly anticipated by whisky enthusiasts and collectors across the world, eager to see what the whisky giant has up its sleeves that year.

This year is no different, with a couple of notable absences – a release from both Brora and Port Ellen presumably being held off until the distilleries relaunch in a few years time after major investment work. The line up features some seriously impressive selections from the company’s blending team.

It is not just the liquid that shines in this collection, encompassing some of the rarest and oldest whiskies from famous, lesser known and often closed distilleries, the packaging has been carefully thought about with some lovely nods to each of the whisky’s heritages.

Donald Colville, Diageo’s global malts ambassador, said that each of the bottlings represents a fragment of Scotch whisky history.

He added: “The Special Releases launch is a highlight in ours and every whisky lovers calendar year. It’s a collection that allows both knowledgeable whisky fans and those new to Scotch to hunt out truly unique limited editions.

"The exceptional variety and quality of whiskies in this year’s collection will not disappoint, and we’re looking forward to sharing all of the stories behind the bottles.”

This year’s collection celebrates a year of firsts, from the first inclusion of an Inchgower bottling, to the impressive five-cask process used to triple mature the Glen Ord.

Also, following last year’s blended malt, Collectivum XXVIII, Cladach. A blended malt that aims to captures the character of Scotland’s coastline, as it features a blend using whiskies from six renowned coastal distilleries – Caol Ila, Clynelish, Lagavulin, Oban, Inchgower and Talisker.

In the preview tasting, as is usual, it started with an old grain whisky from Carsebridge, leading on increasing in peating levels. However, I have decided to present the exploration of the range in alphabetical order for ease of reference. So shall we…

Caol Ila 15 Year Old Unpeated 59.1%

One of the regulars in the releases and certainly for me one of the gems to watch out for. Since it first appeared more than a decade ago, it’s a nice peak behind the smoke of its peatier siblings.

This bottling focuses on bringing out a more sherry cask led character, using refill and rejuvenated American-oak hogsheads with ex-sherry European oak butts.

Nose: Wonderfully fruity at first. There is a melon freshness to this, with hints of Parma ham fattiness too. Then moves more floral, but more forest and moorland – blooming bracken and heather. Bolts of tweed. Then a little saline edge before the sherry influence shouts with chocolate coated raisins.

Palate: Here the sherry character really shines through with Eccles cake and dark chocolate fruit flapjacks. There is a gentle malt edge to this with a little peat lurking. Spices start to build, with candied orange peel.

Finish: A decent length with hints of liquorice root and fruit slice.

Comment: A lovely whisky with plenty of what I would call outdoor character, has a freshness and fruitiness under that peat scarf it normally wears.

Caol Ila 35 Years Old 58.1%

This is the oldest Caol Ila to appear in the range so far. The boat on the packaging reflects the distillery’s maritime links; the iconic Puffer vessel would have delivered most of the distillery’s needs in the past.

This year’s release uses refill American Oak hogsheads, and both refill American and European Oak butts. The idea is to really showcase this venerable whisky’s character, rather than having to wade through the serious wood influence that could have taken over during a long maturation.

Nose: Soft and gentle smoke here, this is sweetness at first. Almost a little cider note, windfall apples, damson jam. Tobacco pouch and cedar chests. Then a prickly, salt edge creeps in, saltine crackers and whole milk butter.

Palate: That gentle smoke comes through with a little dry roasted peanut sweetness. The brown potted shrimps on fresh brown bread with smoked butter. There’s hints of intense orange marmalade, Cooper’s Oxford marmalade for instance.

Finish: Short and really rich. That sweetness and smoke all pulling together.

Comments: Wonderfully complex whisky, moves from drying to sweetness all wrapped in that delicate smoke. Believe the hype.

Carsebridge 48 Years Old 43.2%

The grain element in the releases has become one to look out for, with the recent years showing some impressive ages and equally impressive liquids, the 40 Years Old Caledonian - The Cally to its pals – has been a particular favourite.

Our host, Mr Colville, explained that Carsebridge was originally a malt distillery but was converted to grain in the 1850s. Matured in American Oak refill hogsheads, this is the oldest release from this distillery to date.

In a nod to the distillery’s past, just 1,000 bottles will be released. The significance of the figure? Most of the grain supplied to the distillery in the past was delivered by pack horse from the docks, each horse could carry 1,000kg of grain; hence one bottle per kilo of grain.

Nose: Really intense nose that takes a while to open, but then full of fruit and oak notes. Blackberry crumble with vanilla custard. Dark chocolate coated toffee. Sweetness comes in the form of honeycomb.

Palate: Full on blackcurrant syrup, plenty of sweetness here. Those lime and chocolate hard candy sweets. There’s real soft oak notes, pencil shavings and bags of vanilla. A little herbal edge too.

Finish: Really long and sweet, turns through toffee, fruits, caramel and vanilla.

Comment: A venerable whisky what shows great balance between long maturation and distillery character. Impressive stuff – do not dismiss grain.

Cladach 57.1%

This year’s blended malt part of the Special Releases is an exercise in blending the coastal distilleries in Diageo’s portfolio. The name means shoreline in Gaelic.

The malts from Caol Ila, Clynelish, Lagavulin, Oban, Inchgower and Talisker have been matured in first fill American Oak ex-Bourbon casks, refill American Oak hogsheads, refill European Oak butts, and ex Bodega European Oak butts. The aim is that not one dominated but all bring something to the party.

Nose: Very gentle smoke, more distant wood bonfire on the beach. Citrus comes in the form of orange wrappers, a sort of fruity waxiness. There’s a little bit of farmyard too, goat’s cheese and hay bales. Vanilla pods warming in milk.

Palate: This is where the smoke is hiding. Hay bonfires, then it moves towards more smoked fish and oysters. There’s a pepperiness to it and the sweet oiliness of orange zest. That waxiness is here too, and then fresh melons.

Finish: Dries with that sweet smoke and a lingering fruitness.

Comments: A veritable showstopper. Balanced and graceful. Each distillery brings what it is good at to the party and it works, really well.

Inchgower 27 Year Old 55.3%

Sitting by the sea near Buckie, Scotland, this interesting malt has been a part of the Bell’s blend for a while. The distillery was built in 1871 to replace Tochineal Distillery, which closed due to various issues including water problems.

It’s salted and nutty character really shines through in this its first outing in the Special Releases series. There is no hiding the distillery character in this example with maturation taking place in refill American oak hogsheads.

Nose: Tons of marzipan and then poached pears. Saltine crackers and almost peanut butter come through. A lovely orange sweetness and candied almonds. Honey roast almonds.

Palate: All that citrus sweetness is here then some spices start to build, cinnamon and all spice. There’s a little oak here then salted caramel wafers. Some of those candied almonds too.

Finish: Spices build and then it dries with citrus and a salt tang.

Comments: If this is the benchmark of Inchgower, I am sold. One I would love to try out on the moors in a hipflask.

Lagavulin 12 Year Old 57.8%

The stalwart and the whisky everyone watches out for each year. This is unlike what you would normally get from this distillery, sort of the point of the Special Releases. With its maturation in refill American oak hogsheads, this takes the Laga fan into the realm of big sweetness, punchy citrus and gorgeous smoke layers.

Nose: All phenol and estery at first. Key Lime pie and warming lemon caramalised pastry puffs. The sweetness starts to build, hints of coal tar soap, smoky leafy bonfires and distant peat fires. There’s a little citrus kick, more lime and dark chocolate.

Palate: Smoke profile is fantastic, mouth-coating, a hot shower with lots of coal tar soap and mint leaves. The sweetness comes back with Werther’s Originals and barley sugar travel sweets. There’s a little pencil shaving to it as well.

Finish: A decent length full of smoke and oak. Slowly dries with a touch of menthol and black cherry.

Comment: A glorious example of what can be found lurking at Lagavulin. The smoke has some power to it, but it is tempered by that sweetness.

Oban 21 Year Old 57.9%

Sporting a sea eagle on the packaging, a nod to the distillery’s coastal settings, this is a whisky not many will have experienced outside of its usual guise. But again, like the Lagavulin, the collection gives the distillery the opportunity to try to show a different facet of its character. Here, refill European oak butts take the maritime spirit in a different direction.

Nose: Very soft and gentle at first, then it’s like opening the door to a sweetshop in a heat wave: Flying Saucers, orange Chewits, Cherry Lips and white chocolate mice. There is a hint of greenery here, shelled peas; and then a flush of citrus, mandarin slices and dehydrated and candied peel.

Palate: Here is where the sherry influence shows its hand a little, Oxford marmalade, milk chocolate and exotic spices. Then moves sweeter with that mix of sweet and sour, honey and lemon cough sweets.

Finish: Mouth coating and lingering with plenty of citrus and spices.

Comment: Would love the chance to explore more of the Oban range, especially if there is more like this lurking in the warehouses.

Pittyvaich 28 Years Old 52.1%

Open just 18 years, from 1975 to 1993, Pittyvaich was built as a mirror to Diageo’s Dufftown distillery, and in fact was designed to almost mirror the style too. During its brief existence, this Speysider provided whisky for the big blends. The distillery was also noted for being the site of the company’s first dark grains plant.

This aside it’s interesting to glimpse into such an unknown distillery that contributed to brands such as Bells. Matured in refill American oak hogsheads, it is what make the special releases such an interesting event.

Nose: Seriously intense at first, it’s oily and savoury all at once, then it opens more into gobstoppers and apple flavoured chewing gum. That fruitiness builds over time as does the sweets, more marmalade and orange barley sugar sweets come through. There’s a real autumnal edge to this too.

Palate: All that fruit is here and builds slowly. A little waxed jacket, that becomes more waxed apple wrapper. There’s spices too with cracked black pepper. A little sharp orange zest. Water makes everything more vibrant and fresh. Orchards after the rain, cider and damp wood.

Finish: Gentle, clingy and those fruits keep going.

Comment: Don’t recall having something that mixed the fruit and damp wood before, but well worth a try. It’s an interesting dram with sharp edges that smooth out eventually.

Cask: Refill American Oak Hogsheads and Ex-Bodega European Oak butts followed by a unique maturation and marrying process.

Singleton of Glen Ord 14 Years Old 57.6%

Finally to the one with the casks; to be precise, five casks, three stages, one whisky. This is the curveball that has been played with to show just what Diageo’s blending team can get up to given a little time.

This has spent its time in a handful of casks in what was explained on the preview evening as ‘triple matured in a five cask process’.

The spirit started out in European oak ex-sherry casks and refill American oak ex-bourbon, before being moved to ex-Pedro Ximénez (toasted and rejuvenated) and Moscatel casks, and finally brought and married together in European oak puncheons. Slow maturation with attention to detail, according to our hosts.

Nose: Really fruity, and gets more and more so over time. Apples and pears, the whole orchard, with a little liquorice root. Plenty of toffee and runny honey sweetness too. Fresh maple and pecan breakfast pastries.

Palate: Gentle at first, vanilla pods, ice cream and soft fruits. Then a winey notes creeps in with that breakfast pastry note building too. A little oily too, then some spices come in almost drying things out.

Finish: Moves through several stages as well, mouth coating at first then those spices start to dry. Plenty of sweetness lingers.

Comment: Not an easy feat balancing all those casks out, but the blending team has. What a triumph, everything plays nicely together and brings its own toys to the party.

Talisker 8 Year Old 59.4%

For this edition of the iconic island whisky, the blending team has looked back into the archives to recreate a moment in Talisker’s past.

This whisky was recreated to celebrate the years when its eight year old iteration was the ‘standard’ and helped build Talisker’s reputation back in the 70s and 80s.

Matured in first fill American Oak casks, the punchiness of this islander shines through, proving yet again that sometimes young whiskies have an exciting edge to them.

Nose: Really medicinal at first, almost an old school apothecary, TCP and fresh mint notes. Then this sweetness bursts out, lemon and lime drizzle cake. Spun sugar, then vanilla and chamomile tea. Eventually almost a farmyard note, distant bonfires and really good quality smoked bacon.

Palate: That bacon note comes through, tinged with maple syrup, such a lovely smoke profile. There’s a peppery punch to this with a slight saline note, briny. Plenty of sweetness too with dark chocolate orange segments. Smoked pecans and more tropical fruits.

Finish: Fades all smoky and sweet, like a distant fire going out, or the room the day after a good log fire.
Caol Ila, Aged 15 Years
Caol Ila, Aged 15 Years
Caol Ila, Aged 35 Years
Caol Ila, Aged 35 Years
Caol Ila, Aged 15 Years
Caol Ila, Aged 15 Years
Carsebridge, Aged 48 Years
Carsebridge, Aged 48 Years
Inchgower, 27 Years Old
Inchgower, 27 Years Old
Lagavulin, Aged 12 Years
Lagavulin, Aged 12 Years
Oban, Aged 21 Years
Oban, Aged 21 Years
Pittyvaich, Aged 28 Years
Pittyvaich, Aged 28 Years
The Singleton
The Singleton
Talisker, Aged 8 Years
Talisker, Aged 8 Years
Caol Ila Distillery
Caol Ila Distillery
Cladach
Cladach
Talisker Distillery
Talisker Distillery