Monday, September 19, 2016

Review - The Diageo Special Releases 2016

The Special Releases are a limited edition range of whiskies that are bottled each Autumn by Diageo, Scotland's largest whisky producer.  The series started in the early 2000s and is designed to highlight some of the best and rarest Scotch whiskies from Diageo's extensive estate of single malt and single grain distilleries, including some that are no longer in production.

In 2016 special release there are 10 whiskies - nine single malts and one single grain - and all are bottled at the natural cask strength and all are non chill-filtered.

We were privileged to be invited to a preview tasting of the ten new whiskies in London last month. The tasting was hosted by Dr. Nick Morgan, Diageo's Head of Whisky Outreach, and Maureen Robinson, one of Diageo's Senior Master Blenders. Both are part of the Special Releases selection panel and are wonderfully, and secretively, already working on the 2017 selection.

The information and our tasting notes for each of the 2016 Special Releases bottlings are below.

Auchroisk 25 years old
Region - Speyside
Status - In operation
Distilled - 1990
Casks - Re-fill American oak hogsheads
ABV - 51.2%
Bottles - 3,954
Price - £280

As the lightest and freshest of the Special Releases with Diageo themselves describing it as a fruity apéritif malt. The Auchroisk is a light amber whisky that delightfully highlights the distillery character with fresh green tropical fruits (guava and some fresh hay grass) plus American oak cask characteristics of custard cream biscuits, and a little ice cream on the side.

The palate offers cereal bar 'crunch' with creamy custard, freshness of dark autumnal berries (blackcurrants and blueberries) plus richness from raisin and dried tropical fruits (especially peach). There are also vanilla and honey notes, plus hints of ginger and candied lemon.  Warm vanilla spices lead into a lingering mouth-watering finish that holds true to the fruity character and American oak wood spice.  Water makes the whisky soft, creamy and velvety with malt and peach notes coming through.

Brora 38 years old
Region - Highlands
Status - Closed (1983)
Distilled - 1977
Casks - Re-fill American oak hogsheads and European oak butts
ABV - 48.6%
Bottles - 2,984
Price - £1,450

The Brora distillery operated between 1819 and 1983 and this stock is starting to become much scarcer with time. This release is one of the oldest to have ever been part of the Special Releases.

The nose on this malt greets you with meat and leather alongside seasonal autumnal, and somewhat farmyard, characters of rich turf and campfire smoke. There is also a peach-like fruit aroma.  The palate offers an oiliness and saltiness of rich smoked nuts, such as chestnuts, mixed with a freshness of seasonal nuts, such as green pistachios and macadamias. These characteristics combine with distinct butterscotch and caramelised apple notes, plus a hint of honeycomb.  The long finish maintains the full bodied oiliness and saltiness mixed with a peanut brittle sweet character.  With water the whisky becomes softer and sweeter, while the bonfire smoke fades.

Cambus 40 years old
Region - Lowlands
Status - Closed (1993)
Distilled - 1975
Casks - Re-fill American oak hogsheads
ABV - 52.7%
Bottles - 1,812
Price - £750 

This is the first time for Cambus in the Special Releases and only the second time that it has ever been released as an official Diageo bottling.  The nose has plenty of immediate tropical fruit aromas (mango and pineapple) along with dried strawberry and candy floss.  There are also plenty of oaky wood spices.

On the palate this whisky is very much a case of sweet versus spice.  The sweetness is driven by notes of muscovado sugar, vanilla, maple syrup and plenty of dried tropical fruits (mango, peach and pineapple).  These are complimented by increasingly intense notes of drying wood spices (cinnamon, cedarwood and oak sawdust).  A hint of caramelised banana comes through at the end.  The finish is long with the sweetness lingering in particular, supported by more delicate wood spices.  With water, the whisky becomes much gentler and creamier with the mango note coming to the fore

Caol Ila 15 years old
Region - Islay
Status - In operation
Distilled - 2000
Casks - Re-fill American oak hogsheads and European oak
ABV - 61.5%
Bottles - Not stated but 'limited'
Price - £90

Another year offers another release of 'unpeated' Caol Ila. This is a firm favourite and regular expression in the Special Releases series and marks the 11th appearance on the list, however this is the first time a Caol Ila in the series has been distilled since the millennium. 'Unpeated' Caol Ila is one we look forward to each year, as no other distillery offers an expression out-of-character yet indisputably following the distillery character so closely.

This year's release follows the profile of previous years with a mild touch of smoke on this pale straw toned whiskey. The initial nose is creamy and delicately sweet reminding us of something like American cream soda or English flying saucer sweets but then fresh lemon citrus and the salty influence of the distillery's water-front location come through creating a bittersweet balance. The palate maintains the experience on the nose but this is joined by mild ashy peatiness, warming toasted nuts and some warming chilli spice which lingers on the palate. Adding water to the distinctly high ABV brings out the creaminess without taking away from any of the complexity on the palate.

Region - Speyside
Status - In operation
Distilled - Different ages included
Casks - Re-fill American oak hogshead, re-fill European oak butts and rejuvenated American oak hogsheads
ABV - 55.7%
Bottles - 4,932
Price - £400 

This 'flavour-led' whisky is an intriguing mix of Cragganmore using different ages and cask types including some very rare casks.  On the nose there is an instant prickle followed by aromas of fresh pear and apple, then vanilla and honey.  Underneath are delicate hints of cinnamon, nutmeg, rose petals and damp earth.

On the palate this is initially quite spicy with some cinnamon-like baking spices to the fore.  Then come notes of stewed apple and caramelised pear, plus raisins and toasted almonds.  These are backed up by something slightly savoury and meaty that is difficult to pinpoint.  Background notes of vanilla, gingerbread, malt and yeast add further depth.  The finish is very nice and sweet, but ends abruptly.  With water the vanilla comes through strongly as does some toffee and a hint of red berry jelly sweets (strawberry and raspberry).

Glenkinchie 24 years old
Region - Lowlands
Status - In operation
Distilled - 1991
Casks - Re-fill European oak butts
ABV - 57.2%
Bottles - 5,928
Price - £300

One fellow taster described the colour of this malt as pineapple juice which does not only explain the hue but also hints at the character in the glass. The initial nose is of rich grease and rubber bands but that is very quickly over taken by tropical notes of passionfruit, that distinctive pineapple and mango. All of the tropical flavours have their sweetness countered by a refreshing tartness.

The palate continues to offer the big tropical notes alongside some richer sweeter notes of golden syrup, malty cereals, stewed apples and further dried tropical fruits.  There is depth from warming spices such as white pepper and bran. It is a drying yet sweetly fruity palate that includes some warming nuttiness on the finish, which most reminded us of hazelnut.  Water brings out fresher green fruits, such as apple and pear, and the nutty characteristic.

Lagavulin 12 years old
Region - Islay
Status - In operation
Distilled - 2003
Casks - Re-fill American oak hogsheads
ABV - 57.7%
Bottles -  Not stated but 'limited'
Price - £80 

A cask strength 12 years old version of Lagavulin is a fixture in the Special Releases line up each year.  this year is not exception, especially as the Islay distillery is celebrating its 200th anniversary.  The nose is a heady mix of hot peppery, peat smoke and sugary sweet aromas - think of red chillis, candy floss, toasted marshmallows and icing sugar.  Underneath are hints of vanilla, honey and seaweed.

On the palate this whisky has an immediate and intense hot peppery note that is again reminiscent of red chilli, although there is now also further notes of white pepper and bonfire ash.  There is a distinct earthy and slightly damp mossy characteristic that follows and evolves in to heavy peat smoke.  Much needed sweetness is then delivered in the form of vanilla, honey and icing sugar notes.  The icing sugar in particular really comes through when water is added, while the smoky spices are knocked back.  The finish is long and powerful.  The sweetness fades quite quickly but the peat smoke and hot spices linger.

Linkwood 37 years old
Region - Speyside
Status - In operation
Distilled - 1978
Casks - Re-fill American oak hogsheads and European oak butts
ABV - 50.3%
Bottles - 6,114
Price - £600

One of the rarer malts to appear (even in this singular list) from Diageo. With a flowery and sweet distillery character this release follows with a curious complexity. On the nose it is fresh and floral - red and golden apples with a sweet juiciness combined with a skin like waxiness, plus a degree of tannic tea-like bitterness in the background.

The palate offers loads of sweet sugary juiciness, such as the apples, with a mouth coating viscosity. The flavour profile is a late summer harvest fruitiness with richer orchard fruits, blackberries and blackcurrants. These combine with sweet vanilla fudge, candied lemon and slightly bitter oak spices. The finish picks up the tannic character to be rightly associated with this whiskey's age: chewing tobacco, dried nuts and aged woodiness, but blends this elegantly with the juicy sweet orchard fruitiness.  The whisky becomes soft and delicate with the addition of water and bringing out slightly herbal and earthy notes.

Mannochmore 25 years old
Region - Speyside
Status - In operation
Distilled - 1990
Casks - First fill American oak hogsheads and European oak butts 
ABV - 53.4%
Bottles - 3,954 
Price - £250

Mannochmore is rarely bottled and this is one of the oldest whiskies from there to date.  The distillery only began production in the early 1970s and very few old casks remain.  On the nose there is a lovely mix of aromas - toffee, honey, vanilla, sultana and hard boiled butterscotch sweets.  There are also hints of earthy ginger, fresh pastry, green apple and banana.

On the palate there is plenty of sweetness.  Notes of vanilla, golden syrup and white chocolate are backed up by dried mango and over ripe banana.  Then come further notes of honey, dessicated coconut and milky coffee.  The balance is redressed by a lovely mix of warming spices that add a great depth and complexity - think of liquorice, clove, menthol and a hint of sandalwood.  A late nutty (possibly walnut?) hit rounds things off.  The finish is long with the warming, earthy spices becoming more prominent, especially once the sweeter notes fade.

Port Ellen 37 years old 
Region - Islay
Status - Closed (1983)
Distilled - 1978
Casks - Re-fill American oak hogshead and re-fill European oak butts
ABV - 55.2%
Bottles - 2,900
Price - £2,500

A bottling of Port Ellen has appeared in every year of the Special Releases.  As the whisky gets rarer and rarer so the prices escalate rapidly.  This year's bottling is the oldest expression to date and also the most expensive.  On the nose there is a delicious mix of aromas - dried tropical fruits (pineapple and mango), sultanas, waxy furniture polish plus dusty and soft peat smoke.  There are also hints of brazil nut, caramel and blackcurrant.

On the palate, the smoke is immediately more noticeable than on the nose.  This has a dusty, earthy, ashy feel to it, which becomes more sooty with time.  There are also heavy tropical fruit notes (pineapple, papaya and mango) that add delicious sweetness, along with juicy sultanas and golden syrup.  Underneath are hints of cinnamon powder and ginger.  The finish is long and expressive - there is plenty of burnt sugar and ashy bonfire embers, which makes everything feel a little drier and hotter.  With water, notes of fudge and butterscotch and this softens the feel of the whisky.



1 comment:

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