Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review - Diageo Special Releases 2017

The Special Releases are an annual selection of bottlings from Diageo, Scotland's largest producer of single malt whisky. The series first appeared in 2001 and has grown to be eagerly anticipated by whisky fans, consumers and collectors around the world. The Special Releases are designed to showcase some of the best whisky, both single malt and single grain, held within Diageo's extensive portfolio of maturing stocks. This includes distilleries that are currently in operation and those that have sadly closed.

We were delighted to again be invited to a special preview event in London a couple of weeks ago. Here we got to sample each of this year's ten Special Releases bottlings in the company of Dr. Nick Morgan, Head of Whisky Outreach at Diageo, and Maureen Robinson, one of Diageo's Senior Whisky Blenders and a major influencer of the Special Releases programme. Here is the information for each whisky and our tasting notes.

Blair Athol 23 year old 
  • Distilled: 1993 
  • ABV: 58.4% 
  • Region: Central Highlands 
  • Cask: Ex-Bodega European Oak Butts 
  • Bottles: Max. 5,514 available worldwide 
  • Price: £400

This is a rare appearance of the central Highland distillery of Blair Athol in the Special Releases and uses unusual 'bodega' casks. These are made of European oak, charred and filled with a fortified wine. They are said to give great consistency in maturation. The nose is immediately herbal and minty with aromas of caramel, dried fruits (especially sultanas), milk chocolate and hints of milky coffee and black treacle.

On the palate this whisky feels heavy and rich with initial notes of fruit cake and Christmas pudding. This involves flavours of raisin, sultana, candied orange peel, caramel, earthy baking spices and a hint of treacle. Underneath are hints of dried cherry and something savoury, most reminiscent of a combination between old leather and dried tobacco leaf. With water the orange peel notes becomes much more prominent, as does an interesting hit of mulling spice and fudge. The finish is quite short and drying. There are raisins and lingering earthy warming spices such as ginger and cinnamon.

Brora 34 year old 
  • Distilled: 1982 
  • ABV: 51.9% 
  • Region: Coastal Highlands 
  • Cask: Refill American Oak Hogsheads 
  • Bottles: Max. 3,000 available worldwide
  • Price: £1,450

Brora was closed in the early 1980s and despite this, and the depletion of remaining stocks, the north Highland distillery has featured in the Special Releases most years. This is the 16th appearance. On the nose the whisky seems very mellow, almost subdued. Aromas of vanilla, fudge, marzipan and tropical fruits (think of mango, peach and apricot especially) are present, along with a distinct earthiness and savoury aromas of leather and bonfire embers.

On the palate this whisky feels viscous, chewy and a little waxy. There are fruity and nutty notes present (imagine raisin, sultana, peach and dried mango, along with almond and a hint of peanut) and these are supported by further notes of marzipan, candied orange and subtle earthy smoke. This has a slightly drying and ashy feel to it. With the addition of water some real savoury notes come out - old books, leather and beeswax - along with candied lemon and walnut. The finish is very complex and long. The sweetness fades to let savoury and herbal notes through, while soft background ash and peat linger.

Caol Ila 18 year old 
  • Distilled: 1998
  • ABV: 59.8% 
  • Region: Islay 
  • Cask: Refill American Oak Hogsheads 
  • Bottles: Limited quantities available worldwide
  • Price: £100

The Caol Ila unpeated 'Highland style' malt has become a mainstay of the Special Releases and has now featured for a number of years running. Despite being labeled as unpeated, the malt used to make it is mildly peated to a level of around 5ppm. On the nose there are immediate aromas of vanilla, toffee and malty chocolate biscuits. Further aromas of fruit cake, dried apricots and a whiff of delicate earthy smoke.

On the palate this whisky feels sumptuous and sweet, but with a slight edge. There are initial notes of honey, golden syrup and vanilla. These are offset against a constant earthy and malty undertone, which is complimented by delicate drying wood spices that develop and increase with time. With water the earthy and woody characteristics are softened. This allows some delicious subtle fruitiness to come through, especially green apple and a hint of dried mango. The finish is sweet before the malty and spicy elements take control. A hint of delciate smoke hits right at the end, as does a pinch of ground clove.

Collectivum XXVIII 
  • Distilled: NAS 
  • ABV: 57.3% 
  • Region: Highlands, Island, Islay, Lowland and Speyside
  • Cask: Blend of Refill American Oak Hogsheads, Refill European Oak Butts, Ex-Bodega European Oak and First Fill Bourbon Casks 
  • Bottles: Limited quantities available worldwide 
  • Price: £150

The Collectivum is the first ever blended malt to be included in the Special Releases line-up. It features whisky from all 28 of Diageo's Scottish single malt distilleries that are currently in operation. This makes it one of the first bottlings to feature Roseisle malt, which opened in 2010. The nose is highly perfumed and full of aromas including honey, vanilla, rum soaked raisins, apples, pears and beeswax. There is also a background whiff of damp earth and peat.

On the palate this feels soft and sweet. There are plenty of fudge and toffee notes up front and these are supported by background earthy wood spices (imagine cinnamon and ginger powder especially), tangy citrus (think of candied lemon and orange, plus tangerine), stewed apples and pears, dried fruits (especially raisins and sultanas) and a hint of cocoa powder. With a dash of water it becomes very chocolatey and creamy, almost a bit oily. The finish is long and sweet, before some late soft peat smoke comes through with some menthol and liquorice.

Convalmore 32 year old 
  • Distilled: 1984 
  • ABV: 48.2% 
  • Region: Speyside 
  • Cask: Refill American Oak Hogsheads 
  • Bottles: Max. 3,972 available worldwide
  • Price: £1,200

The Convalmore distillery closed in 1985 and remaining stocks are now extremely rare. This is the fourth time it has been bottled for the Special Releases and the whisky included here was distilled in the year prior to closure. The nose is full of fresh green fruits (especially pears) and there is also a distinct aroma of candied lemon and lime. Underneath is something slightly earthy and dusty, along with some golden syrup and hints of coconut and floral aromas.

On the palate the Convalmore is very soft with a slight waxy feel. There are initial notes of honey, caramel and tropical fruits (think of pineapple and mango). There is also an increasing characteristic of apricot jam, plus some warming cinnamon and gingerbread-like spices. In the background are hints of earthy smokiness, eucalyptus, liquorice and dried grass. Water seems to invigorate the whisky - it becomes vibrant and lively with a waxy and slightly chalky feel. A developing note of old furniture and beeswax polish adds further depth and complexity.

Glen Elgin 18 year old 
  • Distilled: 1998 
  • ABV: 54.8% 
  • Region: Speyside 
  • Cask: Ex-Bodega European Oak Butts 
  • Bottles: Max. 5,352 available worldwide
  • Price: £300 

The third appearance of Glen Elgin in the Special Releases but this one is a little different - this is from a small batch of spirit made using Pombe yeast, which was experimented with at Glen Elgin for a short period in the late 1990s. The nose has plenty of toffee apple and honeycomb aromas. These are backed up by further aromas reminiscent of sticky toffee pudding, stewed pears and a hint of coconut.

On the palate this whisky feels very soft and sweet. Honeycomb is particularly prominent, as is a note of pear. This is joined by stewed cooking apples, brown sugar and a hint of dessicated coconut and milk chocolate. Underneath are notes of delicate and warming wood spice, especially cinnamon and powdered ginger. The overall combination of flavours made us think of apple crumble. With water it becomes softer and fudge-like with plenty of the stewed apple coming through. The finish is sweet but a bit short. The warming wood spices add depth, as does a lingering note of green apple skin.

Lagavulin 12 year old
  • Distilled: 2004
  • ABV: 56.5% 
  • Region: Islay 
  • Cask: Refill American Oak Hogsheads 
  • Bottles: Limited quantities available worldwide 
  • Price: £90

The Lagavulin cask strength bottling has become a firm favourite in the Special Releases programme and it features again this year. The colour is pale yellow and the nose is packed with sweet and smoky aromas - think of a combination of sweet embers and campfire smoke with icing sugar, honey, sugar syrup and vanilla. Background hints of green apple, mint and green chilli add complexity.

On the palate this whisky has a fresh and feisty feel to it, along with a slight hint of oiliness. As with the nose, there is a combination of sweet and smoky notes. The sweet peat has an element of moss, damp earth and oily rag to it and this becomes more bittersweet, acrid and hot (that green chilli again). The sweetness has a syrupy edge, plus some butterscotch. There is also some crisp green apple and lemon zest. Water pushes the heat and smoke back to let the sweet notes to express themselves further. The sweetness recedes on the finish to leave the feisty peat smoke to create a pleasant and warming dryness.

Port Dundas 52 year old 
  • Distilled: 1964 
  • ABV: 44.6% 
  • Region: Lowlands 
  • Cask: Refill American Oak Hogsheads 
  • Bottles: Max. 752 available worldwide 
  • Price: £775 

In 2011, Port Dundas was the first ever single grain whisky to appear in the Special Releases. Now it returns for another couple of milestones - the oldest ever bottling in the Special Releases programme and the oldest ever whisky releases by Diageo. The nose is packed with aromas of sweet vanilla, marzipan, dried tropical fruits (think of mango and peach especially), coconut and almonds.

On the palate this whisky feels soft, silky and viscous. the tropical notes from the nose are particularly prominent with plenty of dried mango and peach evident, along with hints of tinned pineapple and lychee. The sweetness of the dried fruits are accentuated by a distinct note of golden syrup, plus hints of rum fudge and creamed coconut. These notes are tempered by an increasing spiciness - think of cloves, cinnamon and mace. The finish is bold and long with lingering wood spices present, along with lovely hints of fudge and white chocolate.

Port Ellen 37 year old 
  • Distilled: 1979 
  • ABV: 51% 
  • Region: Islay 
  • Cask: Refill American Oak Hogsheads & Refill American Oak Butts 
  • Bottles: Max. 2,988 available worldwide 
  • Price: £2,625

The now legendary Port Ellen distillery closed in 1983 and the remaining stocks are dwindling. However, it still features heavily in the Special Releases programme and appears for the 17th time this year. The nose is delicious and full of expressive aromas. Initially there is plenty of sweetness including aromas of honeycomb, golden syrup and ripe peach. Then comes some robust malt and savoury elements - think of earthy spices, bonfire ash, leather and a hint of something meaty in the background.

On the palate this Port Ellen is soft and sweet, before the subtle smokiness begins to show itself. Notes of honeycomb, sultanas and dried tropical fruit (especially pineapple, mango and peach) lead the way. Then comes a note of sweet malty biscuits and something slightly yeasty. The peat smoke becomes more influential and is reminiscent of bonfire ash with a hint of white pepper. With water, the tropical fruit comes to the fore. The finish is drying, warming and smoky with a nice level of sweetness complimented by a dusty and ashy feel. There is a very late hint of cocoa powder and gingerbread also.

Teaninich 17 year old 
  • Distilled: 1999 
  • ABV: 55.9% 
  • Region: Coastal Highlands 
  • Cask: Refill American Oak Hogsheads & Refill American Oak Barrels 
  • Bottles: Limited quantities available worldwide
  • Price: £275 

This bottling marks the first ever appearance of Teaninich in the Special Releases line-up and is a commemoration of the distillery's 200th anniversary this year. The nose is highly perfumed and fresh with distinct grassy and herbal aromas. These are joined by sweeter aromas of honey, vanilla and toffee, plus ripe pears.

On the palate this whisky feels creamy and sweet. A lovely mix of vanilla, toffee, honey and butterscotch combines with a note of preserved citrus fruits (especially lemons). There are also hints of delicate wood spices (think of cinnamon and all-spice in particular) and dried cherry. With water, the whisky becomes even creamier and the ripe pear and preserved lemon notes come to the fore. The finish is long and sweet with increasing wood spices coming through. This gives a slightly drying final flourish.


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