Wednesday, October 30, 2013

New releases - Diageo Special Releases 2013 (Part 1)

The annual Special Releases programme by Diageo, Scotland’s largest producer of single malt, is one of the most highly anticipated releases 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. Some of these stocks have dwindled to almost critical levels. 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.

This year's selection of whiskies (pictured, above) is one of the largest in recent years and all 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.

A great view for whisky sampling

The launch in London, which this year returned to The National Theatre on the South Bank, remains one of our favourite events of the whisky year and we were delighted to be invited again this year to sample each of the new expressions.  The night was clear and fresh, and the view of the River Thames and London skyline made for a worthy backdrop.  With so many whiskies in this year's programme, we have decided to split our review in to two parts, with the second part appearing shortly.


Brora 35 years old
The Brora distillery, which was located in the north Highland town of the same name, was closed in 1983 and as a result there is said to be very little stock left. This whisky was distilled in 1977 and has been bottled at 35 years of age and a strength of 49.9% ABV.  This is the joint-oldest Brora ever released by Diageo.  It has been matured in a combination of refill American and European oak casks and there are just 2,944 bottles, each of which is individually numbered. Price - £750.

The colour is a vibrant gold and the nose is packed with a combination of honey, vanilla and waxy furniture polish.  Underneath are aromas of dried mango, golden syrup, fudge and an increasing earthy smokiness.  This whisky explodes on the palate with a dried tropical fruit sweetness (think of pineapple and mango) and honey.  The combination of toffee and a slight salty note was reminiscent of salted caramel.  Further hints of cinnamon, lemon peel, coconut and menthol add warmth and depth. It feels thick and viscous.  A touch of water brings it even more to life - the fruit become juicier and the hint of milk chocolate becomes more prominent.  The finish is long and the woody spices and delicate smoke play the biggest part, especially as the other notes fade.

Caol Ila Stitchell Reserve
The distillery of Caol Ila is located on the famous whisky island of Islay and this whisky is named after Billy Stitchell, the departing Distillery Manager who has worked there for nearly 40 years.  Caol Ila is normally produced and released in the peaty/smoky style but this is a rare un-peated expression, which they make for a short period each year. It has been matured in refill and rejuvenated American oak and ex-bodega European oak. The bottling strength is 59.6% ABV. Price - £70.

The colour is pale gold and the nose is clean, fresh and zesty (think lemons).  It has a wonderful combination of aromas - fudge, toffee and brown sugar.  Through these come distinct malted cereals, as well as a floral and slightly grassy note and a hint of liquorice.  The high ABV makes this robust on the palate and it is the sweet toffee and sugar-like notes that hit first.  These are delicious.  It becomes more complex as other notes begin to appear - treacle cake, lemon zest, honeycomb (that crunchy stuff that you get at fairgrounds), some dark dried fruit (especially raisins) and the same hint of liquorice as on the nose.  The finish packs a punch also with zesty, malty and sugary sweet notes all fighting for your attention.

Cardhu 21 years old
Cardhu distillery is located in the heart of the Speyside region, close to the village of Archiestown. This expression was distilled in 1991 and bottled at 21 years of age with a natural strength of 54.2% ABV. It has been matured in ex-bourbon European oak casks and there are just 6,000 individually numbered bottles, each of which are individually numbered. The reappearance of Cardhu in the programme seems long overdue after last featuring in 2005. Price - £160.

The colour is golden amber and the nose exhibits immediate classic European oak characteristics - toasted nuts, dark dried fruit (especially raisins and prunes), woody spices (think cinnamon and nutmeg), candied orange peel and something floral, which is hard to pinpoint.  It feels understated yet classy.  On the palate there are initial notes of butterscotch and spiced bitter orange.  These open out to reveal sweet malt and a wonderful combination of dried grass and caramel.  There are also hints of cocoa powder, cinnamon sticks, brown sugar, dried apple and a burnt nutty note, all of which add to the subtle complexity.  The finish is long and sugary with the increasing wood spices, bittersweet cereals and tangy orange notes stopping it from being too sweet.

Convalmore 36 years old
The Convalmore distillery was located in the whisky town of Dufftown in the Speyside region and was closed in 1985. The derelict distillery buildings remain on the outskirts of the town, but all of the production equipment has long gone. Releases are rare and highly sought after by collectors. This one was distilled in 1977 and has been matured in refill European oak casks. It has been bottled at 58% ABV and there are just 2,980 individually numbered bottles. Price - £600.

We have never sampled Convalmore, so this was a real treat.  The colour is golden amber and the nose is highly scented with aromas of fresh peaches and apricots.  It gives a real 'Wow' moment and is a whisky that you could sniff all night.  More subtle aromas join in - toffee, dried mango, white chocolate, malted cereal and hints of menthol and cocoa.  On the palate this feels luxurious and juicy with the peach/apricot note again prominent.  Then come notes of soft bittersweet malted cereals, crumbly brown sugar and a touch of earthy ginger root.  With time, hints of mint, liquorice, cinnamon and orange oil add wonderful depth and complexity.  The finish is long with the fruity and sweet notes fading slowly, leaving a drying woodiness and increasing earthiness.

Lagavulin 12 years old
The Lagavulin distillery is located on the southern coast of the island of Islay and is famous globally for its peaty and smoky character. This 12 years old expression has become a regular in the Special Releases programme and this is the 11th such release.  As a result, it has become a cult classic.  This year’s version is bottled at the natural cask strength of 55.1% ABV. It has been matured in refill American oak casks. Price - £80.

The colour is pale lemon yellow and the nose is pungent, feisty, fresh and vibrant. The mossy, earthy peat is obvious and has a hot, peppery and savoury edge.  It takes time for other aromas to filter through and these include vanilla, honey, lemon sherbet and candied lime. On the palate, it is again initially fiesty and a little hot and peppery.  After the initial 'kick', it settles down with lovely sweet icing sugar note coming through first.  Then come honey, vanilla and a hint of green apple.  The savoury note of earthy, mossy peat and a distinct saltiness are never far away.  The addition of water knocks the heat and smoke back allowing the sweeter notes to shine and the citrus note from the nose to develop well.  The finish takes an age to disappear with elements still coming through over 15 minutes later.


Please keep an eye on our Facebook page or Twitter feed, as we will let you know when Part 2 is live.  This will feature the other five whiskies, including the heavyweights of Lagavulin 37 years old and Port Ellen 34 years old.

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