Wednesday, October 3, 2012

New releases - Diageo Special Releases 2012

Each Autumn there is always a ripple of anticipation around the whisky industry as they wait to see what Diageo, the multi national drinks company, are to release in their annual Special Releases programme.  This programme highlights some of the most exceptional single malt stock from within their portfolio of 28 working distilleries, plus remaining stocks from those which have been closed. Some of these stocks have dwindled to almost critical levels.

When the 2012 lineup was announced a few weeks ago, the waiting was over and the annual debate about the bottlings and the prices started around the whisky blogosphere.  This year's selection of whiskies (pictured, above) are bottled at the natural cask strength, are non chill filtered and all are limited edition.  The collection places well known flagship distilleries alongside very rare stock from the iconic Brora and Port Ellen, both of which closed in 1983.

We were delighted to be invited to the launch event held earlier this week in The National Theatre, overlooking the River Thames on London's South Bank.  It is rare that all four of us are at the same event, so it was great to catch up as a group and taste some lovely whiskies.  It was also good to meet our fellow London based whisky bloggers, drinks journalists and a few others from further afield.  Our thoughts on the eight whiskies are below ...

Auchroisk 30 years old
This is the oldest ever release from this little known Speyside distillery.  It has been matured in a mix of re-fill ex-bourbon American oak and ex-sherry European oak casks.  There are just 2,976 bottles available with a natural strength of 54.7% ABV and a cost of £230 each.

The colour is golden yellow and the nose is fresh and delicate, with understated aromas of honey, vanilla and soft baking spices (think of cinnamon and nutmeg) present. On the palate, the whisky feels slightly oily in texture and adds some succulent dried fruits (imagine sultanas especially) to the honey, vanilla and spices from the nose. There is also an underlying bittersweet note of malty cereals, some almond and a hint of candied lemon peel. On the finish the spices come to the fore. They give a drying, mouthwatering quality to the whisky which is refreshing and enjoyable. This is an enjoyable aperitif style single malt and a good way to kick off the evening.

Brora 35 years old
Stocks of single malt from this closed north Highland distillery are now very low and this is the oldest release to date.  Matured in re-fill ex-bourbon American oak casks, this is bottled at 48.1% ABV and there are just 1,566 bottles at a recommended retail price of £400 each.

The colour is a dark gold with a hint of amber and the nose is expressive and packed with aromas – there is a complex mix of fudge, honey, baking spices, lemon and dried apricot, which are all backed up by robust malty cereals and a hint of coal smoke. On the palate, the complexity continues with some savoury earthy and grassy notes (imagine hay) joining the sweeter fruit and fudge notes from the nose. Depth is added by further notes of dried tropical fruit (especially mango and papaya), sandalwood and a dash of white pepper. It is only after time that the sooty coal smoke appears (at least 30 seconds) and this lingers through the pleasant finish, which balances the sweet, fruity and savoury notes.

Caol Ila 14 years old
Caol Ila is known for its peaty, smoky style of whisky but once a year they produce a small batch of unpeated spirit.  This unpeated spirit has featured in previous Special Releases and has built up a cult following.  This version is the oldest released to date and the first to have been matured in ex-sherry casks.  There are just 5,958 bottles, the strength is a hefty 59.3% ABV and the price is £66.

The colour is a pale gold and the nose is vibrant with immediate fresh aromas – think of lemon zest, vanilla, icing sugar and a hint of lavender. These are followed by richer honey, butterscotch, caramel and sultana aromas. On the palate there are initial tangy notes of candied orange peel, followed by an intense combination of malty cereals, toffee, vanilla, honey and caramelised dried fruit. With time the tangy orange returns, but is more reminiscent of spiced orange. Finally comes a hint of dried grass and brine. The finish has initial honey sweetness, which becomes much drier and tangier with the salty brine note increasing. It’s very well balanced and easy to drink considering the high ABV strength.

Dalwhinnie 25 years old
Older versions of this popular central Highland distillery are few and far between.  This expression has been matured in ex-bourbon American oak hogshead casks and there are just 5,358 bottles available.  The alcohol strength is 52.1% ABV and a bottle will cost £185.

The colour is a deep gold and the nose is highly aromatic with plenty of early sweet notes – think of fudge, butterscotch, vanilla, honeycomb and a hint of tropical fruit. Underneath are some hints of soft wood spice, especially cinnamon bark, and a slightly savoury damp earthy note, which made a couple of us think of mushroom. On the palate, this is soft, rich and complex with a lovely mouth coating texture. The butterscotch, honeycomb, cinnamon and earthy notes combine beautifully, along with some malty grain and delicate vanilla. The finish is deliciously long and is sweet vs. savoury – the honeyed fudge notes combining with the increasingly intense wood spice.

Lagavulin 12 years old
The iconic Islay distillery is one of Diageo's best known and this 12 years old cask strength version has been a stalwart of the Special Releases programme.  This year's version has a strength of 56.1% ABV and has been matured in ex-bourbon American oak casks.  A bottle will cost £71 and the press releases only states 'limited numbers' rather than an actual figure.

The colour is a pale gold and the nose is a little feisty, although not as much as expected given the high peat level and ABV strength. The earthy, mossy peat is there but is accompanied by some lovely sweet aromas, such as honey, vanilla and icing sugar. There is also floral note, reminiscent of rose water. On the palate, the peat smoke is much more prominent and expressive – it is acrid and tar-like with plenty of chili spice and heat. Underneath are notes from the nose, especially honey and vanilla, but also some zesty lemon and lime, fresh green apple and salty brine. This saltiness increases in to the lengthy finish, which smoulders away for ages and ends with a further twist of lime zest.

Lagavulin 21 years old
The other release from Lagavulin is only the second of this age from the distillery- the first has gone down in whisky folklore.  This whisky has been matured in first fill ex-sherry European oak casks and has a strength of 52% ABV.  There are just 2,772 bottles and they have a recommended price of £350 each.

The colour is golden amber and the nose is highly perfumed and aromatic. There is an immediate aromas of burnt orange and this is followed by some sweet brown sugar, caramel, freshly cooked biscuits and some damp earth and moss. There are hints of orange blossom, lemon zest and understated but acrid peat smoke. On the palate, this feels succulent and oily with much more smoke evident than on the nose. This is peaty, phenolic and tar-like, gripping your taste buds. This is balanced with refined sweetness, which includes notes of raisin, sultanas, chocolate and caramelised apples. Hints of nutmeg, spiced orange and brine carry through to the long, dry and intense finish, where the saltiness and peatiness increase further.

Port Ellen 32 years old
Stock from this fabled Islay distillery have almost run dry.  This version has been matured in a combination of re-fill ex-bourbon American oak and ex-sherry European oak casks.  It has a natural cask strength of 52.5% ABV and there are just 2,964 available.  The recommended price is £600.

The colour is deep gold and the nose is highly complex with plenty of aromas combining – these include honey, dried fruits (especially sultanas and mango), caramel, salted liquorice and hints of salt and ashy bonfires. There are further notes of honey, cereal grains (oats we think) and a twist of lemon. It is very, very good indeed. On the palate this feels thick and oily, almost waxy. It is deliciously sweet with plenty of honey and cereals, backed up by some rich dried fruit (the mango with hints of pineapple and dates). The bonfire ash smoke compliments this, as does a pinch of cinnamon. After the amazing nose, we couldn’t help but feel a little disappointing with the palate. The finish is long with plenty of ashy smoke with the tangy dried fruits and lemon coming through.

Talisker 35 years old
Older versions of single malt from this distillery on the isle of Skye have featured before in the programme, but never one of this age.  Despite the age, it still has a high strength of 54.6% ABV and has been matured in a combination of re-fill ex-bourbon American oak and ex-sherry European oak casks.  There are just 3,090 bottles which will retail for £525 each.

The colour is deep gold, tending towards amber, and the nose is surprisingly soft yet expressive. There are some lovely aromas of dried fruit, including some tropical fruit (think of sultana, apple and mango especially), some decent wood spice (imagine cinnamon bark, nutmeg and sandalwood) and a hint of prickly smoke. This has a chili-like edge to it. On the palate, this is sweet and smoky. The juicy dried fruits combine with caramel and chocolate notes to give the sweetness, while the smokiness again has that hot chili edge and a pleasant earthiness. Further depth is added by hints of cinnamon, clove and sea salt. The finish is of decent length and is dry and smoky, with an interesting tangy orange note appearing right at the end.

What's the verdict?
The standard of the eight whiskies is high across the board.  This year Diageo have largely stuck to their tried and trusted favourites, with only the Auchroisk representing their lesser known distilleries.  This slightly conservative stance has given a set of lovely whiskies, but with nothing in the 'truly stunning' category.  However, we are not going to criticise Diageo for that as all are of a high standard and it was very enjoyable to sample them all.

The prices of the Special Releases 2012 seem to have come in for much criticism from numerous whisky commentators and fans alike, but is anyone really that surprised that Diageo have put premium prices on some of their most premium products?  This is especially true of the Brora and Port Ellen, both of which are so depleted that they are almost non existent.  In the current climate where the collectable whisky market is booming, any producer would do (and some have already done) the same ...

So, what were our favourites?  Interestingly we all chose a different whisky - this perfectly demonstrates how whisky can divide opinions and instantly create a lively conversation, as we all started arguing for our own personal favourite.  Chris went for the Dalwhinnie, Karen for the Caol Ila, Matt C for the Brora and Matt T for the Lagavulin 21 years old.

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