It’s that time of year once again and last night Diageo invited us to the Serpentine Sackler Gallery to taste the 2015 Special Releases! There are nine this year. That’s two less than last year, which as I’m always up against a bit of a time limit (two hours) to scrawl down some meaningful tasting notes for you all (as well as fight through the crowds and also try to avoid notes from elsewhere – ham, butter, bread, candles, aftershave…) was fine by me! There was, of course, still plenty of stunning whisky on show.
Before we go on, however, I should probably point out that the Special Releases are available for Pre-Order now! You may want to head straight over there. If you do miss out on any of them then keep your eyes on the @MasterOfMalt twitter feed over the next couple of weeks as there may be more available once the bottles land.
Ranging in price from £80 to £2,400, Nick Morgan has gone on record to say that even amongst Special Releases “This year is a special one”. Exciting.
Nick Morgan last month.
[Ed: No football references Jake, we’ve talked about this – get back to the whisky!]
There are new releases from the sought-after closed distilleries of Port Ellen and Brora – who knows how long we’ll be able to say that for. Half a dozen years? A couple more than that? Who knows. Demand is high and Diageo’s finite supplies of each are only getting smaller. There’s also 2015 releases of Lagavulin and unpeated Caol Ila at the other end of the price range, plus bottlings of Pittyvaich, Dalwhinnie, Dailuaine, Caledonian grain and a second no-age Clynelish. Nine old and rare whiskies, four from closed distilleries. Let’s get started…
It’s no secret that the prices of the Special Releases have increased greatly in the last few years. As well as increasing scarcity of many, this is in no small part due to the fact that just a couple of years ago many of them would still find their way onto auction sites with alarming speed and frequency with some tasty mark ups. Not great for anybody genuinely trying to get hold of a bottle for themselves and especially not great if you’re Diageo. We’ve therefore seen the price of the annual Brora release increase from £400 (2012) to £750 (2013) to £1,200 (2014). It’s against this trend that 2015’s £1,300 price tag – for what is in fact the oldest Brora release in the series so far – should be judged, whatever conclusion you may reach. There’s also the fact that the whisky is rather good indeed… It’s matured in refill American oak hogsheads, with 2,976 individually numbered bottles released.
Tasting Note for Brora 37 Year Old 1977 (2015 Special Release):
Nose: Quite dirty and smoky at first – always a good sign, it is an Islay whisky after all – but not a smoke bomb. It probably sits between the last two releases in that respect. This one’s all about lime and kiwi, wax, white pepper and sweet nuts.
Palate: Big, fairly sweet (not too much so), rounded and rich. Some honey nut, definite kiwi once again as well as as an undercurrent of subtle integrated smoke.
Finish: Syrupy and satisfying.
Overall: Quite an old fashioned whisky, which I mean in a very good way indeed. A rounded and frankly stunning Brora that brings a smile to your face.
The other big-hitter, and of course a similar story in terms of scarcity, demand and price increases as the Brora. The Port Ellen has also gone up ‘just’ £100 this year although from a higher start point. Matured in refill European oak butts, 2,964 individually numbered bottles are being released. This is also the first 1983 vintage (the final year of production) in the series.
Tasting Note for Port Ellen 32 Year Old 1983 – 15th Release (2015 Special Release):
Nose: More creamy and less green or coastal this year with complex caramels, just a hint of smoke and some menthol edge.
Palate: It just grows and grows with each sip. Hints of coconut initially before those deep, sometimes dark caramels take centre stage augmented by a plethora of rich juicy prunes and dates, treacle, honey, raisins… All totally integrated.
Finish: Dry, earthy oak before it becomes slightly cooling (perhaps a return of that menthol character).
Overall: Quite a departure from the ’78s, but a triumphant and eminently drinkable one even at full strength. Plenty of European oak influence, oodles of complexity.
The first single grain in the Special Releases since 2011’s Port Dundas, and another closed distillery. Caledonian, or ‘”The Cally” to those who worked there, was a grain distillery in Edinburgh that closed in 1988. Bottlings of any kind are rarely seen, so this official bottling is something of a treat. Matured in refill American oak hogsheads, 5,060 bottles are being released.
Tasting Note for The Cally 40 Year Old (2015 Special Release):
Nose: Coconut, candy lipstick then into concentrated Werther’s Originals and richer, spicier treacle.
Palate: Bitter caramel now, warming wood spices, dates and cinnamon.
Finish: Creamy vanilla takes centre stage for a moment.
Overall: A very good old grain, and I do love an old grain, from an all but forgotten distillery. £750 places this as the third most expensive, and does seem a bit punchy.
The excellent upeated Caol Ila releases have been creeping up in age over the years and this year’s is a 17 year old! It’s also the tenth in the series. Very exciting, and still under £100, although no longer the most affordable of the Special Releases. That’s now the Lagavulin 12 Year Old. Matured in ex-bourbon American oak casks, a “limited” amount have been released.
Tasting Note for Caol Ila 17 Year Old 1997 Unpeated (2015 Special Release):
Nose: Toffees. It really does smell just like toffees. Allspice, lots of brown sugar, a touch of anise, Cinnamon Grahams and even a hint of chilli.
Palate: Tangy toffee now, a little chalk and increasingly charred oak spice, charred oak and, yep, definitely some smoke in there…
Finish: What do you know, it’s smoky!
Overall: The smokiest unpeated release for many years. Plenty of bourbon cask character, perhaps at the expense of tangible distillery character (except for the phantom smoke, of course).
A second NAS Clynelish Special Reserve, now at £550. Once again, it is also expertly put together by Johnny Walker Master Blender Jim Beveridge. Ex-bourbon first-fill American oak barrels, rejuvenated and refill American oak hogsheads, and ex-Sherry and refill European oak butts were all used and 2,946 individually numbered bottles are being released. The youngest whisky used is said to be 15 years old, amongst other liquid which is much older.
Tasting Note for Clynelish Select Reserve (2015 Special Release):
Nose: Super buttery at first, rather than waxy per se, it’s like custard. There’s some jaffa cake in there, but it’s more cake than jaffa, pepper too.
Palate: Custard and cocoa, thick, delicious and comforting.
Finish: Spicy and sweet with a hint of salinity.
Overall: When I asked Whisky Discovery’s Dave Worthington which whiskies stood out to him last night, he said “The Clynelish, the Clynelish and the Clynelish”. I felt quite guilty when I told him the price and he realised he wasn’t going to be ordering a case.
Dailuaine. We like Dailuaine, meaty it is (although they’ve replaced the condensers now). It’s not often you get to taste a 34 year old though, and this is the first official bottling from the distillery in six years. Matured in refill American oak casks, 2,952 individually numbered bottles are being released.
Tasting Note for Dailuaine 34 Year Old 1980 (2015 Special Release):
Nose: Lots of raw honey, then also marmalade, steamed sponge cake, eucalyptus, tea tree and crème de menthe. Just wow.
Palate: Menthol at first before delicious tobacco notes are able to get into their stride. On the tail things get minty for a moment, super minty, almost toothpaste minty!
Finish: What lingers is ash, presumably from that tobacco we were enjoying moments ago.
Overall: Stunning – as I tweeted last night, the stand out in this year’s releases.
A 25 year old Dalwhinnie made up part of the 2012 releases and here we have another, matured in refill American oak hogsheads. 5,916 bottles are being released.
Tasting Note for Dalwhinnie 25 Year Old 1989 (2015 Special Release):
Nose: Quite floral and light, grass and subtle pear flesh.
Palate: Dried grass, a little Weetabix, oak, perhaps some orchard fruit but it’s all fairly muted.
Finish: Crisp with a little more cereal.
Overall: Less impressively aromatic that 2012’s release, unless memory is playing tricks on us. It didn’t stand out for me on the night but unfortunately that always happens to a couple of whiskies at a manic tasting like this!
Another Special Release staple, included for the thirteenth time this year, the Lagavulin is now also the most affordable release (as mentioned above). Matured in refill American oak casks, a “limited” number will be released.
Tasting Note for Lagavulin 12 Year Old (2015 Special Release):
Nose: Very sooty, warm lemon rather than zestiness. Warming, rounded wood spice. Water livens up proceedings a little.
Palate: Plenty of peat smoke, some cardboard and oatcakes, salted caramel richness beneath.
Finish: Dry and sooty.
Overall: Perhaps not the best the series has ever seen, but it’s clean, dusty and always well worth a punt. (Clean and dusty? Yep, I’m pretty sure that does make sense in this case.)
Last but not least, a Special Release from a distillery that was only open from 1974 to 1993. In fact, this whisky is older than the lifespan of the distillery where it was made! Matured in refill American oak hogsheads and ex-bourbon barrels, 5,922 individually numbered bottles are being released.
Tasting Note for Pittyvaich 25 Year Old 1989 (2015 Special Release):
Nose: Syrupy, hints of playdough that open up to reveal fragrant cereal and violet petals. Creamy and peppery but also slightly sharp.
Palate: Again there’s this fragrant interplay with fruit skins, florals and malt, becoming thick and almost soapy at the end.
Finish: Light oak notes, Madeira wine, white and dark chocolate.
Overall: An interesting whisky from yet another closed distillery, displaying some of the sublime and some of the bonkers. Recognisable to those familiar with the Flora and Fauna bottling.