On Tuesday evening I found myself the nearest thing to a corner possible at a curvy and buzzing Magazine Restaurant in Kensington Gardens on a cold, rainy November night. Here I would attempt to write some meaningful tasting notes for 11 limited edition cask strength single malts in a couple of hectic hours, including the time it would take to fight through the crowd each time I needed to move on to new whiskies, and the time it would take for the smell of prawn hors d’oeuvres to dissipate each time the diligent waitresses came over to offer them.
Meanwhile, our Spirits Buyer Toby Cutler (he’s nice, you’d like him – he really enjoys a good picture of Kevin Costner, or Chris Tucker for that matter) was having no such problem as he enjoyed a range of whiskies, some quite valuable, in a leisurely fashion alongside some pleasant conversation. Add all of this up, and it can only mean one thing: it was the launch of Diageo’s much-anticipated 2014 Special Releases!
I’m certainly not complaining, of course. I was still lucky enough to taste all the Special Releases and now I can report my findings to you! We’ll be stocking them all very soon (keep your eyes on the MoM twitter account for a heads up), and shortly after that, we’ll also be providing all 11 releases as 3cl Drinks by the Dram samples too. (Good, eh?) No mentions of Public Enemy this year either. Nope. Not one.
A return to the Special Releases for the first time in five years for Benrinnes. It’s a distillery that doesn’t produce many official bottlings but that we’ve gotten to know well through the Boutique-y and Darkness! ranges as well as our single casks. Matured, quite obviously, in ex-Sherry European casks, 2,892 individually numbered bottles are being released.
Tasting Note for Benrinnes 21 Year Old 1992 (2014 Special Release):
Nose: Big, bold and ballsy. Peanuts dipped in a little Marmite, moving into literally all of the Eat Me Dates, Coco Pop cakes and a small book of struck matches.
Palate: The entry is just as big as the first whiff, with some darker, slightly burnt dried fruits now. Allspice and chocolate too, still fairly dense and savoury though.
Finish: Long, more of the same.
Overall: Having spoken to a couple of people beforehand about this one, I was actually expecting even more of a Bovril bomb, but this release is still a fairly uncompromising Sherry beast.
One of the big guns price-wise, along with fellow closed distillery Port Ellen, this year’s Brora was matured in refill American oak and European oak casks. 2,964 individually numbered bottles have been released.
Tasting Note for Brora 35 Year Old 1978 (2014 Special Release):
Nose: Immediately pleasingly waxy, you soon realise this is going to be an elegant, fruity and complex Brora offering.
Palate: More fruit, think orchard fruits, sweet white grape and just a hint of orange. Buttery. Hints too of salt and smoke but never approaching the seaweed notes present in 2013’s release.
Finish: Gently drying oak and a little more smoke but still subtle and elegant.
Overall: Winning plenty of fans on the night, I’d love an opportunity to revisit this one in order to be able to appreciate its finer points. I personally preferred last year’s dirtier, smokier release, but that’s personal preference – this is a waxy, elegant treat.
The ninth unpeated Special Release from Caol Ila and at £75, the most affordable of this year’s releases. This one was matured in first-fill American oak casks with a “limited” number having been produced.
Tasting Note for Caol Ila 15 Year Old 1998 Unpeated (2014 Special Release):
Nose: There’s instantly more going on here than in last year’s unpeated release. Glorious vanilla fudge given depth by some fruity notes. There’s a hint of confectioner’s sugar and fruity jelly sweets before clean ship deck aromas, a hint of mint and a little clean seashell all surface, all without peat. Very nice indeed.
Palate: “Creamy” was the first thing I noted down, as much to do with mouthfeel as taste. More subtle fudge notes now, alongside more citrus and milk chocolate, all held together by that creaminess.
Finish: First suggestion of any smoke, intermingled with baking spices.
Overall: Recognisable from its peaty version, but personally at least, I wouldn’t describe this as ‘maritime’, even with the ‘belonging by the coast’ descriptors that have snuck into the notes above. I would describe it as very good though.
I was really looking forward to this one, and was not disappointed. The oldest official bottling of Caol Ila ever released, it was matured in refill American oak and European oak with 7,638 bottles being released.
Tasting Note for Caol Ila 30 Year Old 1983 (2014 Special Release):
Nose: Huge. Medicinal Germolene leaps out at first, followed by melon, candy sticks, nuts and cream. Rice pudding too, perhaps with a little jam, then into pleasing sootiness.
Palate: More menthol, melon, mango, rough leather, sourdough and a smokiness that builds before taking centre stage on the tail.
Finish: Long with a touch more soot and plenty of smoke, impressive at this age.
Overall: Pretty stunning. As a Caol Ila-phile I’m delighted to have been able to taste this, and whilst a full bottle will be a little rich for my blood I am pretty tempted to revisit it with a Drinks by the Dram sample once they’re in stock… There are elements of some of the best Port Ellens I’ve tasted in here.
Here it is, the £500 NAS Special Release, no punches pulled. Johnny Walker Master Blender Jim Beveridge was tasked with making one hell of a Clynelish for this year’s releases (it’s said that the youngest component is 15/16 years old but it is of course illegal to disclose any details about the rest). He chose first-fill, rejuvenated and refill American oak casks as well as first-fill Sherry and refill European oak casks of various ages, producing 2,964 numbered bottles.
Tasting Note for Clynelish Select Reserve (2014 Special Release):
Nose: Waxy, Jaffa Cakes, milk choc. It’s Clynelish alright, and a good’un. Disco sweets, jazzes too (the white ones), but don’t think this is all sugary or sickly because it isn’t. A sprinkling of cinnamon, fresh orange and orchard fruit round off a beautiful nose.
Palate: Great mouthfeel, more orange, more sweeties too but again they’re kept in check by the balanced citrus and wood spices. Honeysuckle and ginger, complex and delicious.
Finish: Long,warming and spicy with some satisfying grip.
Overall: Hats off Jim.
3,372 numbered bottles this time, from European and American oak casks, a fifth inclusion in the Special Releases for the Speysider.
Tasting Note for Cragganmore 25 Year Old 1988 (2014 Special Release):
Palate: Vanilla, younger green wood notes, dried mango. Fairly creamy (especially with water) with some juicy malt towards the end.
Finish: More of that green wood is joined by some spicier oak and more dark caramel.
Overall: I actually found this a little disappointing after an interesting nose, but that may simply be due to tasting so many cask strength whiskies in such a relatively short space of time. Or maybe it’s because I tasted it straight after that Clynelish!
Another Special Release staple, this is the thirteenth Lagavulin 12yo. Vatted from refill American oak casks, a “limited” number have been released. Always worth a pop at £80.
Tasting Note for Lagavulin 12 Year Old (2014 Special Release):
Nose: Sweet sea salty smoke, citrus, green apple skin, leather, malt wine, pretty much everything you’re after really.
Palate: Candied lemons, lime marmalade, mixed fruit and nut all wrapped in a plume of big, dry, savoury smoke.
Finish:Long with drying wood smoke.
Overall: Slightly different again, and slightly splitting opinion, oddly. Still well worth buying.
Only a few years of this legendary stuff left, of course, but Diageo have been able to allocate some great liquid for this release. 2,964 individually numbered bottles have been produced this year from both American oak and European oak casks.
Tasting Note for Port Ellen 35 Year Old 1978 – 14th Release (2014 Special Release):
Nose: There’s still a ‘green’ edge, like last year, with mossy peat alongside cream, but there’s plenty different to enjoy here, especially a rich nuttiness and even a touch of jam. Time and/or water brought forth that familiar chamois leather and some coastal salinity.
Palate: Nutty and full with rich peat and wood smoke. More of that chamois but it’s always in support here, never the main event. Complex with some great European oak influence manifesting as dark jam and cocoa.
Finish: Dry, smoky, some allspice and cocoa. Magnificent.
Overall: It’s good. It’s goood. Great balance, with both more Sherry influence and coastal virility than recent releases.
Another malt from a closed distillery, this time the triple-distilled Lowlander Rosebank. Refill American oak casks and 4,530 numbered bottles for a stellar third Special Releases outing.
Tasting Note for Rosebank 21 Year Old 1992 (2014 Special Release):
Nose: There are floral notes, as is to be expected, but they’re of the orange citrus variety here. There’s a ‘window thrown open (by a meadow)’ freshness, lychee, grapefruit, and some faint, gentle spice and malt.
Palate: Grapefruit turkish delight with all the powder, light sponge cake, marshmallow and more delicate but flavoursome floral notes.
Finish: Drying, with some well-measured oakiness becoming prominent for the first time.
Overall: Elegant was the word on everyone’s lips. A classic, slightly fruity, Rosebank.
Not often seen in the UK, this 38 year old is the eldest of this year’s releases. Filled into European oak casks, 3,756 numbered bottles were produced at just shy of 60%.
Tasting Note for The Singleton of Glendullan 38 Year Old 1975 (2014 Special Release):
Nose: Vanilla toffee oak, geranium, grasses, some white pepper and fresh vanilla. (The aforementioned Toby was upset I didn’t initially include his note of the night here: pencil shavings akin to a demerara rum.)
Palate: Warming up front before relaxing entirely with waxy, gentle oak notes, a touch of melon and some venerable wood spices.
Finish: Salivating oakiness.
Overall: A nice old chap of a whisky, it’s aged oak note-driven and it’s done very well.
Strathmill is this year’s only debutant, with 2,700 numbered bottles having been produced at natural cask strength from refill American oak casks.
Tasting Note for Strathmill 25 Year Old 1988 (2014 Special Release):
Nose: Gingernut biscuits at first, becoming more creamy with clotted cream fudge, lemon peel and brown sugar, then into lemon sorbet.
Palate: More brown sugar notes, bison grass, some sharper citrus and thinly spread Thyme honey.
Finish: A zingy menthol finish.
Overall: I’m a fan of this one from start to finish, undoubtedly a solid debut performance.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, Ben didn’t miss his train home for the first time this year! (Although this was only due to the fact that he unfortunately couldn’t make it to the event at all…)