It is that time of the year again - Diageo, Scotland's largest whisky producer, has unleashed the 2019 edition of its Special Releases programme. The annual bottlings are designed to highlight rare or old whiskies from within Diageo's extensive portfolio of maturing stocks and are eagerly anticipated each year since the programme was first started with just three expressions in 2001.
This year is one of the smaller recent collections and sees just eight bottlings with a theme of 'Rare By Nature' running through them. As with all previous years the whiskies are all bottled at their natural cask strength. This year's whiskies have been selected by Dr. Craig Wilson, one of the Master Blenders at Diageo.
Notable exclusions compared to previous Special Releases include a blended malt, which joined for the last two years in the form of the Collectivum and Cladach, an unpeated Caol Ila (this has been a stalwart of the range for a many editions), a single grain and the continued absence of Brora and Port Ellen, which had appeared every year until 2018.
The Diageo Special Releases 2019 will be available via specialist whisky retailers worldwide with key markets including Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe, South Africa, the USA. Details and prices of the bottlings are included below within our tasting notes.
Our tasting notes
Cardhu 14 years old
A 'unique expression' of the classic Speysider.
55% ABV/ Distilled 2004/ 4,860 bottles/ £120
This malt from the 'Queen of Speyside' has been finished for two years in rare ex-Amontillado sherry hogsheads and has a malty and dusty feel instantly on the nose. Red apple skins mingle with savoury baking spices and cocoa powder. Further aromas of pear, honey and walnut also creep in with time and especially come through with the addition of some water.
This whisky is much more expressive on the palate and makes the nose feel quite closed. It is full of Autumnal notes - think of dried apple, baked pear and nuts. These mix with dried fruit, especially sultanas and figs, along with a hint of candied orange and some fudge and toffee. Then the malty and savoury spice notes take over. This gives a dusty, dry and warming feel with all-spice, cinnamon, cocoa and white pepper all evident, and accentuated the robust malted cereal characteristic.
Cragganmore 12 years old
An 'intriguing bottling with a touch of spice and smoke'.
58.4% ABV/ Distilled 2006/ Limited bottles/ £85
This classic Speyside whisky has a twist with the use of a rare pocket of peated stock that has been matured in re-fill American oak casks. The nose is light and fresh. It is immediately youthful and peaty with a mix of aromas such as fresh hay, icing sugar, honey, marshmallow and damp Autumn leaves with a tiny hint of cream soda.
The palate is vibrant and fresh with a bit of heat and feistiness. Notes of fresh apricot and pear combine with lemon zest, white pepper and white chocolate to give a pleasant fruitiness and sweetness. The peat smoke is never far away however and this an earthy and hot edge to it. This evolves to feel quite dry and ashy, with a slightly flinty/chalky quality. Late hints of toasted spices (especially five spice), sherbet and marshmallow round things off. The finish is very dry and hot with the peat and white pepper lingering.
Dalwhinnie 30 years old
An 'extra matured and unusual older expression'.
54.7% ABV/ Distilled 1987/88/ 7,586 bottles/ £500
This old Highland single malt comes from a pocket of stock that was some of the first distilled through a new condensing system installed in 1987. This has been matured in either re-fill hogsheads or butts. The nose is expressive with aromas of manuka honey, fresh vanilla and apricot jam. These are backed up by dusty, earthy spices that have an almost sooty quality.
The palate leads with notes of bitter almond, stewed apple and juicy tropical fruits - think of pineapple and mango with a touch of candied lime. The whisky feels waxy and viscous with further notes of walnut, vanilla pod, honey and gingerbread coming through. Hints of orange oil, fresh pea pods and milk chocolate add further depth. These sit alongside dusty wood spices, especially cinnamon and all-spice, and a late confected note most reminiscent of green jelly babies.
Lagavulin 12 years old
A 'youthful truly spirited expression' from the iconic Islay distillery.
56.5% ABV/ Distilled 2006/07/ Limited bottles/ £110
The cask strength Islay is a regular in the Special Releases line-up and this year's expression has been matured in re-fill American oak casks. The nose is prickly and feisty with plenty of peat smoke - imagine hot ash mixed with damp moss, wet autumn leaves and green chilli. Honey and sugar syrup aromas are also present, along with some white chocolate, cocoa powder and green capsicum pepper.
On the palate the vibrant nose is replicated with plenty of lively peat smoke and phenolic notes up front. Charcoal ash, fresh green chilli and wet moss lead the way. Much needed sweetness then follows in the form of honey, sugar syrup and canned fruits, especially pear and lychee. Also present is an interesting green vegetal set of characteristics, which are most reminiscent of asparagus, peas and capsicum peppers. A final hit of hot, ashy peat smoke combined with pinches of cocoa and white pepper gives a long and drying finish.
Mortlach 26 years old
A rare old bottling of the 'Beast of Dufftown'.
53.3% ABV/ Distilled 1992/ 3,883 bottles/ £1,500
This robust Speysider has been matured in freshly-toasted first-fill ex-Pedro Ximenez and ex-Oloroso sherry casks and offers a rich, heavy and malty nose. Sweet and savoury aromas battle it out for your attention - caramel, raisins, bittersweet malt, leather, mushroom and yeast extract. These are backed up by heavy oak and baking spices with a hint of cardomom.
The robust and heavy feel continues on the palate. Raisins, candied orange and a hint of black treacle add to the density and richness, but it is really to more savoury notes that come to the fore. This begins with something reminiscent of leather and cigar wrapper leaves, and evolves in to meaty (imagine gravy especially) and mushroom-like qualities. These are backed up by hints of soy and yeast, and everything is wrapped around some drying, earthy and bitter spice - think of cinnamon, clove, mace and a pinch of garam masala.
Pittyvaich 29 years old
A 'rare sighting from this ghost Speyside distillery'.
51.4% ABV/ Distilled 1989/ 4,976 bottles/ £330
This single malt from the Speyside distillery that closed in 1993 has been matured in ex-Pedro Ximenez and ex-Oloroso sherry bodega casks. The nose is immediate sweet with exaggerated tropical fruits to the fore - think of tinned fruit cocktail, tinned pineapple and the sugar syrup they come in. This is backed up by some dusty, earthy spices plus a hint of yeast and beeswax furniture polish.
This note of beeswax polish and old furniture continues on the palate, which is more obviously savoury than the nose. Further notes of damp leaf litter, dried mushrooms and chamoix leather mingle with earthy baking spices (especially cinnamon and all-spice) and old cigar box. Then comes the sugary tinned tropical fruit sweetness (this is more subdued than before) and some maltiness, followed by hints of dried bitter orange, fresh yeast and something antiseptic - this made us both think of clove oil.
The Singleton of Glen Ord 18 years old
A 'delicious and spicier bottling previously never bottled'.
55% ABV/ Distilled 2000/ Limited bottles/ £130
This Glen Ord from the Highlands has been matured in charred American oak hogsheads for the full 18 years. The nose is sweet and highly fragrant. Aromas of baked apple and pear dripping with golden syrup fill the glass and are accentuated by green grass, malted cereals and a pinch of cinnamon and cocoa powder.
The palate is sumptuous and juicy with a mix of crisp green apple, fresh peach and ripe tropical fruits (especially pineapple and mango) evident. There are also some honey-like notes, along with good vanilla ice cream covered in milk chocolate sauce. All the characteristics are underpinned by drying and warming wood spices - these come across as a marriage of cinnamon, all-spice and white pepper, with a hint of ginger cake and maltiness. The finish is particularly peppery, refreshing and mouth watering.
Talisker 15 years old
A 'sweet, yet deep and spicy bottling' from the famous Skye distillery.
57.3% ABV/ Distilled 2002/ Limited bottles/ £110
This single malt from the distillery on the island of Skye has been matured fully in charred American oak casks. The nose appears understated at first and slowly begins to reveal itself. Malted cereal aromas, along with heather and honey appear first. Then comes some prickly wood spice, fresh green chilli and an ashy, ozone-like smokiness.
The palate is much bolder and leads with plenty of honey and golden syrup notes, backed up by a hot ashy peat smoke. There is also a spiciness that builds - this is a combination of cracked red peppercorns, fresh green chilli and a pinch of powdered red chilli and cinnamon. Baked apple is also evident but so is an increasingly green vegetal note, especially green capsicum pepper. Hints of bitter almond, dried fern, dried heather and something flinty and chalk-like add further depth.
What's the verdict?
This is another fine collection of whiskies for the Special Releases. The range is smaller than in recent years but they feel more unified somehow. Maybe it is the fact that one person has put them together or that special packaging has been designed to give a cohesive message. What ever it is, the quality is high and the launch event is always one of our favourites of the year.
So what were our stand outs? It was such a tricky job to choose favourites. Matt had a soft spot for both the Cardhu and the Talisker, while Karen plumped for the Dalwhinnie and the quirky Pittyvaich. However, both of us put a huge gold star against the Singleton of Glen Ord as soon as we tasted it so that probably wins the prize.