Monday, October 24, 2011

New releases > Diageo Special Releases 2011

Each Autumn sees the highly anticipated release of a selection of single malt whiskies from the portfolio of drinks giant Diageo, which owns 28 whisky distilleries in Scotland. For the Special Releases programme they have traditionally mixed limited edition expressions from some of their flagship distilleries with very rare and older whiskies from some of the lesser known parts of their estate. Some of these include whiskies from closed distilleries whose stocks have dwindled to almost critical levels. This year's selection of eight whiskies are mostly bottled at the natural cask strength and are non chill filtered.

We attended the launch of these products in London recently. Below is a round-up and details of each of the whiskies for the Special Releases 2011, with our tasting notes from the launch evening.

Brora 32 years old 
Single malts from this coastal north Highland distillery, which closed in 1983, are now very rare. This bottling consists of just 1,500 bottles and rumour has it that this may be one of the last ever releases that Diageo can bottle. It is their oldest ever bottling of Brora and this had been matured in a combination of re-fill ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. The alcohol strength is 54.7% ABV and it will have a recommended retail price (RRP) of £300.

The colour is dark gold and the nose is initially reserved, but reveals more with time - there are aromas of honeycomb, vanilla, cereals, icing sugar, dried grasses, bonfire-like ash and a hint of mint.  On the palate, this whisky is oily, soft and mellow.  The honeycomb and vanilla sweetness from the nose is there but is joined by more fruit, especially dried fruit like raisins and candied lemon peel.  These are backed up by soft cereal notes and hints of sea salt and mint.  All the time a bonfire-like ashiness is burning away in the background.  The finish becomes drier than expected, with more smokiness prominent.  The addition of water releases a previously undetected floral note, which is reminiscent of honeysuckle, and makes it feel even creamier and softer than before.

Caol Ila 12 years old Unpeated
This Islay distillery is well known and regarded for it soft peaty single malts, but once a year they produce a small batch of unpeated whisky. Most of this is used within Diageo's range of popular blends but some of the best casks are kept for release. This is the sixth such release and has been matured in first-fill ex-bourbon casks, which has yielded just under 6,000 bottles. It has been bottled at an eye-watering 64% ABV and will have an RRP of £55.

The colour is a delicate lemon yellow and the nose is unexpectedly restrained for a whisky of such high ABV.  There are subtle notes of vanilla, honey, green apples and floral blossoms, with a hint of surgical spirit.  However, it lulls you in to a false sense of security - it wakes up on your palate and the high ABV hits it with a BANG.  The whisky feels light and tangy with plenty fighting for your attention.  There are notes of feisty cracked pepper, lemon zest, vanilla, burnt icing sugar, buttery oat cakes and surgical spirit.  The finish is clean, fresh and dry.  This whisky benefits from the addition of water, and can take quite a lot.  This takes away the surgical spirit aspect, giving a lovely creaminess and more delicacy.

Glenury Royal 40 years old
Whisky from this east Highland distillery are extremely rare and highly sought after. Glenury Royal closed in 1983 and has since been demolished. Recent releases have been scarce and this is one of the oldest ever expressions that Diageo have bottled from the remaining stocks. There are just 1,404 bottles, each of which is individually numbered, and it has been maturing in the same re-fill ex-bourbon casks since 1970. It has an RRP of £525.

This Glenury Royal was unfortunately not available for tasting at the launch event, due to the highly rare nature of the whisky.  This was a shame, as we have never tasted anything from this closed distillery and we plan to update these notes if we ever get the chance to try it.

Knockando 25 years old 
The 12 years old bottling from the small Speyside distillery of Knockando is one of Diageo's best sellers, but older expressions such as this one are much harder to come by. This has been maturing in first fill ex-sherry casks since 1985 and has been bottled at a slightly reduced strength of 43% ABV. There are fewer than 4,500 bottles in this limited release and each one carries an RRP of £135.

The colour is a dark amber and the nose is rich and intense.  There are aromas of butterscotch, toffee and raisins immediately, after which some further understated oak spices (especially cinnamon and nutmeg) come through.  There is something savoury in the background also, which is difficult to pinpoint. The palate is rich and oily, with that savoury note becoming more immediately prominent - maybe there is a whiff of peat smoke?  There are sugary fudge notes, which are supported by plenty of dark dried fruits such as raisins, figs and dates.  In addition, there are further background notes of cocoa, coffee grounds and baking spice. The long, warm finish begins sweetly before becoming pleasantly drier and almost like an Armagnac.

Lagavulin 12 years old
This Islay distillery is one of Diageo's flagship single malts and the popular 16 years old forms part of their iconic Classic Malts series. It is well loved for its peaty, smoky style of whisky and this one will be no different. This expression is bottled at the natural cask strength of 57.5% ABV and has become a regular feature in recent Special Releases programmes. It has been matured in re-fill ex-bourbon casks and will have an RRP of £63.

This whisky is pale gold in colour and the nose is fiery, intense and complex.  There is initial chilli spice and heavy peat, which is interlaced with iodine and damp moss aromas.  Underneath is further aromas of coal tar soap and some much needed sweetness in the form of vanilla and honey.  The palate is lightly oily and pleasantly salty with some initial chilli heat.  This subsides as the whisky mingles with the saliva in the mouth to give some creamy, buttery vanilla, honey and cereal notes.  The peatiness is always present but is now a combination of being sweet and earthy and a little bonfire-like and ashy.  There are also hints of mint and liquorice.  The finish is powerful, smoky and bittersweet.

Port Dundas 20 years old
Port Dundas is a grain distillery in Glasgow which closed a couple of years ago. Whiskies from this distillery are very rare, as most are used to produce Diageo's range of blends. This is a 100% single grain whisky and is the first ever such release to appear in the Special Releases. It has been bottled at 57.4% ABV and there are 1,920 bottles. The bottling has been made from just three casks - one new American oak, one new European oak and one re-fill ex-bourbon cask - and has an RRP of £135.

The colour is a deep amber brown and the nose is expressive and tempting.  First comes some aromas of bitter orange (this is reminiscent of marmalade), dark chocolate and old furniture polish.  These are joined by aromas of bitter sweet cereal grains, distinct wood spices (think of cinnamon bark and nutmeg) and burnt brown sugar.  On the palate this feels viscous, oily and a bit heavy, with plenty of robust notes present - vanilla, molasses, dark chocolate, coffee, burnt orange, bitter sweet cereals and drying wood spices.  The impact is impressive.  The finish is long and complex with the orange and spices most evident.  The addition of water softens the whisky and brings out further creamy oak and the coffee note in particular.  Very interesting to try this.

Port Ellen 32 years old
This is the 11th release in the series from this fabled Islay distillery, which closed in 1983. Port Ellen stocks are said to be running very low and this release contains just 2,988 individually numbered bottles. This is Diageo's oldest release of Port Ellen to date and has been maturing in re-fill ex-bourbon casks since 1978. It has been bottled at 53.9% ABV and has an RRP of £300. Previous releases in this series have seriously increased in value, some by over 150%, so this is one to watch.

Everyone, as ever, was excited by this Port Ellen.  The colour is golden yellow and the nose is very subtle, almost understated. There are delicate aromas of honey, freshly baked bread, vanilla, lemon zest, bonfire ash and a hint of surgical bandages.  With time, some leafy green vegetation aromas come through also.  On the palate, this feels oily and there is a very good mix of sweet and savoury notes.  Sweet - hints of tropical dried fruit, vanilla, honey and toffee.  Savoury - oat cake biscuits, bonfire ash, fresh green vegetation, hints of menthol, tangy lemon and sea salt.  The finish is long and very warming with a nutty feel that develops, along with the distinct honey, lemon zest and increasingly dry ashiness.  The addition of water softens everything with the green vegetal smokiness being allowed to come to the fore finally.

Rosebank 21 years old
This whisky is from another closed distillery, this time from the Lowlands of Scotland between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Rosebank was founded in 1798 and would be one of Scotland's oldest distilleries if it were still in operation. However, it closed in 1993 and despite almost constant rumours of it re-opening, it never has. This expression has been matured in a combination of re-fill ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, and there are 5,886. Remaining stocks are low, so the RRP of £160 seems like a bit of bargain.

The colour of this is a pale gold yellow and the nose is full of delicious, yet subtle aromas.  There are notes of honey, oaty cereals, candied lemon, golden syrup, green apple, soft flowers (like honeysuckle) and sherbet sweets.  The light palate is initially full of tangy lemon citrus notes (similar to "lemon cheesecake" - © Colin Dunn), before these give way to softer and more delicate ones - honey, vanilla, a pinch of baking spice, coconut, bittersweet cereal grains, soft oak and a hint of cocoa powder.  The finish is dry and delicate, with everything in glorious balance and no one element dominating or overpowering another.  It is exceptional as it is, but with water it is also very good - plenty of white oak, creamy coconut and floral notes come out.

What's the verdict?
Well, the verdict is that all of the whiskies in this year's Special Releases are good!  The diversity of distilleries is thought provoking, mixing well known ones with much rarer or closed ones, as is the inclusion of a single grain whisky.  So, which was our favourite of the night?  This is a tough question as the quality was so high ... 

Let's start with the younger whiskies - the Lagavulin was delicious and feisty, while the Caol Ila unpeated is an interesting experiment but one that we have never really enjoyed or been as good as expected.  The single grain Port Dundas was also interesting to try and was full of dark characteristics, as was the rare Knockando. The Port Ellen won many plaudits (and quite rightly so) amongst those in attendance at the tasting, but our two favourites were the Brora and the Rosebank.  Both were exceptional whiskies and were the two that we went back for a sneaky second helping of before we left (thanks Tom and Colin!).

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