Got a letter from Diageo the other day. Opened and read it. It was about their Special Releases. They wanted us for their tasting, or whatever. Picture me turning down drams, I said “Hell yeah!”.
We will indeed be stocking all of the 2013 Diageo Special Releases shortly – and yes – they will all be available as 3cl Sample Drams too. You’re welcome. They should be with us any day now, but for more details as they land be sure to keep your eyes glued to the @MasterOfMalt twitter account.
Now, to skip straight to the Special Releases Tasting Notes simply Click Here, but I won’t blather on too much – promise! Although, having said that, I do appear to have built the next bit of this blog post around lyrics from an ’80s hip hop record. It’s quite possible you’re best off out of it…
The Special Releases are some of the most eagerly anticipated and talked about releases in the whisky calendar. They’re limited releases, (almost always) presented at natural cask strength, and chosen from some of the very finest stock available to the owners of the current Classic Malts and the remaining stock from a number of celebrated closed distilleries. They’ve also come under fire in some quarters, especially for the pricing policy of the more expensive releases.
As Carlton Douglas Ridenhour (better known as Chuck D) teaches us, however, one should not always simply believe the hype (from either side) without being in full possession of the facts. Let’s see if a few more lines from this particular Chucky classic can help us understand a little more about this year’s releases.
“Back, caught you lookin’ for the same thing.
It’s a new thing – check out this I bring!”
Now in their 13th year, the Special Releases feature regular favourites such as the much-sought after annual releases from Port Ellen and Brora as well as a 12 year old Lagavulin. The quality of these regular bottlings is usually excellent, but there is still variation from year to year. This, of course, provides discussion and comparison, especially with the first two, which are produced from ever depleting stocks.
The rest of the releases, as well as the total number of releases, are prone to change each year. This usually springs up a few treats such as last year’s delicious Auchroisk. This time around there’s a cheeky Convalmore (a now closed distillery) alongside expressions from Oban, Dufftown (Singleton), Cardhu, Talisker and another Lagavulin – a very old one!
“They claimin’ I’m a criminal.
By now I wonder how, some people never know.
The enemy could be their friend, guardian.
I’m not a hooligan, I rock the party…”
Diageo pride themselves on the quality of these releases, but it’s also an unavoidable fact that there have been some pretty major price increases this year (as there were last year). The Port Ellen has jumped from around £600 for a 32 year old to £1,500 for a 34 year old, whilst the Brora has jumped from around £400 to £750 for a bottling of the same age. It should also be pointed out, however, that there are some great, affordable whiskies in this year’s releases, as well as a number of excellent mid-priced releases, but it will always be the ones with the big price tags that make the headlines.
Interest in and demand for whisky is on the up globally. In turn, whisky prices are rising too, as is the number of premium or ‘super premium’ (or whatever we’re calling them now – ‘ultra premium’?) releases from distilleries that aren’t even closed. What then, does this mean for releases from ones that have been closed since 1983 and whose single malts are considered some of the best available – legendary even?! In this point Diageo will no doubt feel fairly justified, with stocks of both Port Ellen and Brora set to disappear altogether after another decade or so of carefully rationed annual releases.
Port Ellen. Yeah boyeee!!!
The inclusion of a 37 year old Lagavulin as the single most expensive release, however, (an eye-watering RRP of £1,950) would appear not to help this particular argument. Don’t worry though – Diageo have another one: it’s still considerably rarer than a number of iconic red wines, watches and cameras, so what are you worrying about, hm?
In fairness, 37 years old is a truly eye-watering age for a Lagavulin, “the oldest Lagavulin ever bottled by the original distillers” and they certainly won’t have much that’s this old kicking about. There’s still more to all this though – last year bottles still found their way onto auction sites with worrying speed and frequency, commanding much inflated prices despite the retail prices having increased greatly from the previous year. Worrying, that is, if you missed out on picking up a bottle on release (it’s like those pesky ticket touts who snaffle up all the concert and festival tickets but for more significant cash monies!). Worrying also, though, if you’re Diageo, as these bottles were still eagerly snapped up at the new prices.
“Yeah boy, part two (thirteen) bum rush the show!”
Despite this year’s increased prices at the sharp end, and whatever impact this may have on how fast and high the prices may go when many change hands again, we (and everybody else) still expect these to absolutely fly out of the door like the proverbial from a shiel! Demand around the world is absolutely huge, and whatever your own personal views on the subject, it seems that…
“All the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk!”
And finally (last one I promise!):
“Word to Herb”
Simply this: there are just quite a few herbal notes in these Special Releases. I don’t mind that personally, I find them quite yummy.
Right, well the tasting is taking place up there. If I can just work out how to get there I’ll fetch you some tasting notes…
Tasting Note for Brora 35 Year Old 1977 – Refill American Oak and European Oak
Nose: Initial apple sherbet gives way to thick custard, waxiness and then apricot wheats.
Palate: Sooty and Sweep sweet, touch of dried seaweed, a proper Brora this is.
Finish: Some beach bonfire near grass covered dunes.
Overall: If you’re looking for your Brora to be a little filthy and smoky, rather than a Clynelish on steroids then this is one for you.
Tasting Note for Caol Ila Unpeated Stitchell Reserve
Nose: Sweet and fairly innocuous at first. Hint of distant seaweed, citrus, chopped green apple. Some creamy fudge slowly develops.
Palate: Sawn wood, pine cones and some needles, those Haribo sweets that have the white bit on them (you know what I mean).
Finish: Wood spices, Rich Tea biscuits.
Overall: A popular dram on the evening and an appropriate way to honour Billy Stitchell’s 39 years at the distillery (following in the footsteps of four previous generations of his family!). At £70, it is also the most affordable 2013 release.
Caol Ila Unpeated Stitchell Reserve modelled by none other than Billy Stitchell himself
Tasting Note for Cardhu 21 Year Old 1991 – Ex-bourbon American Oak
Nose: Breakfast cereal with milk, or is that just buttery pastry? Plenty of red apple as well as green, leafy, slightly herbal notes.
Palate: Quite vegetal and green with a touch of unripe fig.
Finish: Fragrant wood, a little smoky chocolate at the death.
Overall: This didn’t blow me away to be honest, but it’s an unusual Cardhu that went down well with a number of other people.
Tasting Note for Convalmore 36 Year Old 1997 – Refill European Oak
Nose: Treacle, biscuits and fruity boiled sweets at first, but this one really opens up wonderfully, becoming more honeyed with mead and dried herbs before elegant spicy wood notes develop.
Palate: Warming wood continues on a vaguely Christmassy palate. Red apple, dark spices.
Finish: Red apple peel and soft oak, touch of smoke.
Overall: Plenty going on here – the nose especially is excellent. There’s still life in this 36 year old, a rare treat from a distillery that closed in 1985.
Tasting Note for Lagavulin 12 Year Old – Refill American Oak
Nose: Nutty with integrated citrus (lemon iced tea?), mossy peat and soot.
Palate: Big but well balanced with cocoa, seaweed and sweet, well-barbecued vegetable kebabs.
Finish: Oily smoke and cocoa.
Overall: Excellent, as expected. A flavoursome, chocolatey, smoky treat.
Tasting Note for Lagavulin 37 Year Old 1976 – Refill American and European Oak
Nose: Oily and drying with smoky crushed peanuts developing.
Palate: Mossy then that drying peanut reappears, moving into rich hazelnut. Dirty smoke.
Finish: Heavily toasted pine nuts, ash. Still going.
Overall: Mucky and fantastic, 37 years wasn’t enough to reign this smoke in. Wow.
Tasting Note for Oban 21 Year Old – Rejuvenated American Oak and second fill ex-bodega casks
Nose: Honey and a briney note that becomes akin to pickled courgette, moving into spicy caramel.
Palate: Fresh with light toffee and fruit throughout. Crushed sea salt. Ends on refreshing cucumber.
Finish: Drying with creamy roast chestnuts and oats.
Overall: One of my favourite drams of the night – a cracker, no doubt.
Tasting Note for Port Ellen 34 Year Old 1978 (13th Release) – Refill American Oak and refill European Oak
Nose: Olives in brine, mossy peat and touches of thyme and tarragon followed by ice cream and just a touch of cork before rich wood smoke fully develops.
Palate: Boom. Even bigger than the nose suggests. It still has a green edge but there’s tropical fruit, covered in cream and smoke.
Finish: Green, smoky and fruity again. Just wonderful.
Overall: Truly excellent with the general consensus being that this is a big step up from last year.
Tasting Note for Singleton of Dufftown 28 Year Old 1985 – Refill American Oak
Nose: Wax, creamy fruit with crème brûlée, moving into soft cheese territory with a touch of herb, runny honey then surfaces. Quite fresh.
Palate: Wallop, herbaceous with raspberry bushes, touch of rocket.
Finish: Big menthol notes and just a hint of must.
Overall: Another of my favourite drams of the evening. The casks used would ordinarily have found their way into Johnnie Walker blends towards the top of the range (as quite a few of the casks used for Special Releases no doubt would), but I for one am thankful these ones didn’t!
Tasting Note for Talisker 27 Year Old 1985 – Refill American Oak
Nose: Treacle and cornflakes become oats with cream and jam, then with golden syrup.
Palate: Brine, more treacle, tropical fruit, some engine oil, gently warming without characteristic pepperiness.
Finish: Smoke that’s been hiding just below the surface pokes its head above the parapet for a satisfying finish.
Overall: A real highlight (there were many) and definitely a contender for best of a great bunch.
There are some superb whiskies in this year’s releases, with the Oban 21 Year Old and Talisker 27 Year Old standing out for me, but the Convalmore, Singleton, Brora and both Lagavulins are excellent too (so yeah, basically all of them). With prices spanning from £70 – £1,950, there should be something for everyone, even if not everyone can have any of them. (Got it?)
“Phew! Time for a pint then – What’s that? A Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival 18 Year Old?!
Well, don’t mind if I do, cheers Joel!”
What else can I tell you? Well, I can tell you that the increasingly surreal evening included meeting Mumford & Sons as well as bumping into two of the chaps from BEASTS, a sketch comedy trio I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe this year and performers of my favourite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles based sketch of all time.
“They are BEASTS.”
Oh, and Ben missed his train home. Again.