This year's selection of whiskies for the Diageo Special Releases is one of the largest in recent years. Therefore, we have decided to split our review in to two parts - Part 1 appeared towards the end of last week and can be read by clicking here. All of the whiskies are bottled at the natural cask strength, are non chill filtered and each one is a limited edition. As in previous years the collection places some well-known flagship distilleries, such as Cardhu, Lagavulin, Oban and Talisker, alongside very rare stock from the closed distilleries of Brora, Convalmore and Port Ellen.
Diageo are Scotland’s largest producer of single malt and their annual Special Releases are one of the most highly anticipated events in the whisky calendar. This programme, which started back in 2001, is designed to showcase some of the most exceptional single malt stock from within their portfolio of 28 working distilleries, plus selected remaining stocks from closed ones. A few weeks ago they announced the line up and details for the Special Releases 2013 and they will be available from specialist retailers from early November. We attended the launch at The National Theatre in London earlier this week ...
The Lagavulin distillery is located on the southern coast of Islay, overlooking the picturesque Lagavulin Bay. This is the oldest expression of Lagavulin that has ever been released by Diageo and it has been matured in a combination of refill American and European oak casks. The whisky was distilled in 1976 and the casks have yielded just 1,868 bottles, each individually numbered. It is bottled at 51% ABV. Price - £1,950.
The colour is a rich amber and the nose is wonderfully scented. There something savoury and slightly meaty to begin with. This aroma is accompanied by robust earthy (almost cigar-like) smoke. These are joined by a rich mix of toffee, honeycomb, dried fruits (think of raisins and sultanas) and almonds, plus a hint of menthol and orange marmalade. On the palate, there are immediate notes of earthy smoke (or is it smoked seaweed?), toffee and vanilla. These are backed up with a complex combination of orange, brine, dried fruits (add dried tropical fruit, especially mango, to the raisin and sultana from before) and something reminiscent of leather, plus hints of dark chocolate, stewed tea leaves and espresso coffee. It is sublime and well balanced. The finish is very long with the smoke fading and highlighting notes of chocolate, treacle and juicy dried fruit.
The distillery is located in the coastal town of Oban in the west Highlands. The regular Oban 14 years old is one of Diageo’s Classic Malts and is hugely popular in the USA. Older versions are rare however. This expression is one of the oldest for a while and has been matured in a combination of rejuvenated American oak and second-fill ex-bodega casks. There are just 2,860 individually numbered bottles, with a strength of 58.5% ABV. Price - £225.
The colour is golden with a coppery tint and the nose grabs the attention with a lovely opening aroma of warm gingerbread. This carries through and is joined by further aromas of salted caramel, golden syrup, stewed apples, cinnamon and hints of lemon zest and nutmeg. On the palate, the initial notes involve creamy malted barley notes and boiled butterscotch sweets. It feels viscous and velvety. The prominent gingery note from the nose is again present and adds warmth and depth, along with notes of spiced stewed apples (think of apple, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg). A slight salty tang adds freshness, as does a twist of lemon zest. The finish more understated with the sweeter characteristics fading to leaving a mouth watering and bracing combination of earthy ginger, wood spice and a hint of salt.
The Port Ellen distillery was located on the outskirts of the village of the same name on Islay. It was closed in 1983 and very little stock remains. Anything from the distillery has become highly collectable. This whisky was distilled in 1978 and is Diageo’s oldest ever expression of Port Ellen. It has been matured in a combination of refill American and European oak casks and is bottled at 55% ABV. There are 2,958 individually numbered bottles. Price - £1,500.
The colour is russet amber and the nose is a little more peaty than expected for an old smoky whisky. This has an ash-like feel and is backed up by aromas of honey, vanilla and beeswax. There are also hints of toffee, malted cereals. lemon juice and menthol. The palate is soft, gentle and superbly balanced with plenty of depth and complexity. A distinct toffee note leads the way with the ashy bonfire smoke never far away. The combination is lovely and is complimented by other characteristics - malty barley, honey, vanilla, cedarwood and tangy lemon zest. There are also hints of ginger, brine and eucalyptus. The smokiness on the finish seems a little earthier to begin with, before turning ashy and drier again. The finish slowly fades and it is the soft smoke and gripping wood spices that last longest.
The Singleton range encompasses three of Diageo’s biggest yet least known distilleries – Dufftown, Glendullan and Glen Ord. Dufftown is located in the Speyside town of the same name and this whisky was distilled in 1985. It is one of the oldest expressions ever from the distillery. It has been matured in refill American oak casks and bottled at 52.3% ABV. There are 3,816 individually numbered bottles. Price - £235.
The colour is golden yellow and the nose has depth and warmth to it. There are instant aromas of robust malted barley and toasted nuts (think of almonds and walnuts), joined by notes of vanilla, honey, butterscotch and dried fruit (especially raisins). There is also a hint of pear drop sweets and distant soft earthy smoke. On the palate this feels creamy and slightly oily. There are immediate notes of sugary toffee, raisins and green apples. They are followed by honey, vanilla and malty cereals. With time, some wood spice notes appear (imagine cinnamon bark and a hint of aromatic cedarwood) and these increase with time. They balance the soft and sweeter notes well. The finish has a lovely warming feel that is reminiscent of apple crumble - combining notes of apple, brown sugar and cinnamon in particular.
Talisker is the only distillery on the Hebridean island of Skye and its range of single malts is hugely popular and award-winning. This whisky was distilled in 1985 and has been bottled at 27 years of age. It has been matured in refill American oak casks and bottled at 56.1% ABV. There are only 3,000 bottles, each with an individually numbered carton. Price - £475.
The colour is golden with a hint of amber and the nose is wonderful. A superb range of aromas are detectable - toffee, vanilla, cinnamon bark, orange oil, something earthy and a bit musty, waxy furniture polish, brine and a whiff of ashy, hot smoke. On the palate, there is a hint of the classic spicy Talisker smoke but is quickly incorporated in with the other notes that are present. It is intense and slightly oppressive, mixing sweeter notes (imagine toffee, honey and vanilla) with earthier, woodier ones (think of cinnamon, cloves, ginger and ginseng). The combination is hugely complex and the characteristics are accentuated by hints of salt and chocolate. The finish sees the smoky element at its spiciest and this combines well with further notes of ginger, brine and toffee. It just seems to go on and on.
What's the verdict?
We seem to say it every year about the Special Releases, but to a man we agreed with each other - Diageo have released the best, and most consistent, set of whiskies to date for the 'Class of 2013'. The series seems to be getting better and better. Much has been made of the price of most of the whiskies and we will leave those arguments to others. What is undeniable is the high quality of the liquids.
So what were our favourites? That is a tricky question but if each of us had to choose, then it would be as follows ...
Chris went for the Talisker 1985 because "it was brilliant from start to finish", Karen loved the Lagavulin 37 years old for being so well balanced for such an old whisky, Matt C went for the Brora 34 years old which he felt was "absolutely superb with water" and Matt T plumped for the Convalmore 36 years as it was "uncious, sweet and spicy". It seems like we have all got expensive tastes ... Honourable mention must go to the un-peated Caol Ila Stitchell Reserve, which we all rated highly is the cheapest of the lot.
Catch up on our reviews of previous years ...
Special Releases 2012
Special Releases 2011
Special Releases 2010
Special Releases 2009