Whisky Tasting: Diageo 2015 Special Releases
Each year Diageo, one of the world's largest beverage companies, releases a series of special limited releases. The 2015 crop of nine selections came out in the UK last fall and are now around in limited quantities in the US. The selections are exciting. Diageo has vast reserves of whisky aging in their warehouses and there are unusual treasures within. These include distilleries whose whiskies you seldom see because they are used primarily in blends like Johnnie Walker, and others even more unusual because the distilleries are long closed. Diageo’s special releases put a showcase around these rarities. Plus, there are unusual, old, or special higher proof releases of distilleries that are the mainstays of the Classic Malts Collection - offering an opportunity to get a new perspective on old favorites. All of the selections are released at cask strength, and are not chill filtered. This year’s special releases do not disappoint. The nine show diversity, age, rarity, and an impressive intensity of flavors. Furthermore, they are cohesive as a collection with certain elements of delivery and nuance that make this diverse group feel like an actual set. A common attribute is that, almost across the board, the noses are shy and the palates are enormous - leading to a surprise explosion on the palate. These impressive single malts don’t come cheap, however. And they aren’t easy to find either. But if you can swing it and can locate some, they represent an opportunity to taste definitive statement expressions from the leading producer of Scotch whiskey.
Malt Maniac Peter Silver and I sat down a few weeks ago and tasted samples generously provided by Diageo (thanks, Adam Levy for passing them along!) Here are the selections and our separate impressions.
“The Cally” is a single grain whisky distilled at a venerable and long closed grain distillery just west of Edinburgh called the “Caledonian”. It started operations in 1885 and was closed for good in 1988. The site is currently used for residential apartments. Caledonian used to be the principal grain whisky component of the Johnnie Walker blends, long ago (now Cameronbridge fills that role). A lot of people (myself included) think that this is one of the major reasons that dusty Johnnie Walker Red from the early 80s and prior is a lot better than the stuff from today.
The spirit in this release was distilled in 1974 making it over 40 years old. It was aged in refill American oak hogsheads (barrels based on ex-bourbon barrels but with added staves to make them larger for less wood surface area per volume). There are 5060 bottles in this release, with a retail price of £750.
Nose: light and delicate, faint honey, grass, beer and dry vanilla malt
Palate: unnatural effervescence for one so ancient, honey melon and rosewater
Finish: short and sweet
Color: Old Gold
Nose: faint herbal grass, beer, dry unmilled malt, faint honey, oak like an old hatbox or old drawer
Palate: rich honey melon rosewater, hard candy, turkish delight and powdered sugar ending on floral perfume with ambergris in a stroboscopic progression. Effervescent on the tongue fizzy. Finish is moderately long on floral echoes and blonde oak.
Brora 37 Year Old
Brora is a legendary Highland distillery, replaced by Clynelish, that finally closed for good in 1983. It had been previously closed, but was brought back in the 60s to make a peated version to temporarily replace Lagavulin in Johnnie Walker blends during a drought on Islay. These later peated Brora’s are legendary and rare. This is Diageo’s 14th limited release of Brora, and also the oldest, at 37 years. Bottled at 100.8 proof, it was distilled in 1977 and matured in refill oak hogsheads. 2976 bottles are being released at a retail price of £1300.
Color: Pale gold
Nose: starts on farmy barn and manure. Then honeysuckle and melon appear and the barnyard fades.
Palate: opens on intense melon honey and masses roses. Then peat hits with light smoke and heat with hay and barn mixing with floral and honey. The turn is surprisingly light with melon turning to perfume with prickle and fading fruits. The finish is medium long on roses and old oak and very mild peat. Amazing nose and fore-palate. Not as long or intense at the back as some but still amazing whiskey.
Nose: farm manure, hay and peated honeysuckle, well balanced and elegant nose, opens more every minute, melon notes starting now
Palate: Honeysuckle peat rolling around into infinity,
Port Ellen 32 Year Old
This is Diageo’s 15th limited release of the legendary Islay distillery at Port Ellen that was shuttered during the mass of distillery closings of 1983 and demolished to make way for the Port Ellen maltings which make most of the peated malt used on the entire island. Port Ellen has become a cult favorite because its beguiling flavor signiture of lemons, chamois, and dirty peat have responded well to barrel maturation as the last of the distillate has matured over the decades. Diageo has had tremendous success with the the previous 14 limited releases of Port Ellen, with many garnering very high ratings. Bottled at 107.8 proof, this release was distilled in the final year operation: 1983. The release is limited to 2964 bottles and retails for £2400.
Nose: light, sweet grassy peat
Palate: Peat, brine, cat piss, very estery
Finish - long and briny, more Caol Ila than Port Ellen
Color: Full gold
Nose: light sweet yellow grass, like a dry meadow on a hot day. Clean peat with clay and a touch of urine (which might sound unpleasant, but which is actually lovely).
Sweet with honey on the opening some rich citrus zing then melon and estery fruits and a thickened mouth feel. At the turn the peat hits. Heat, smoke, and urea (urine) like a Caol Ila. The finish is long and lingering on clean earthy peat and brine. Delicious - but where are the characteristic trio of Port Ellen flavors lemon chamois and dirty diesel peat? They are present but hide behind the estery floral fruity This drinks like a top tier Caol Ila.
Peter and I split on this one. It’s clearly excellent whisky but doesn’t taste distinctly like a Port Ellen.
Caol Ila 17 Year Old
Caol Ila is the largest distillery on the legendary island of Islay known for peaty, smoky, and briny flavored whiskies. Caol Ila produces about double what any of the others on the island produce. It’s the origin of much of the smoky notes in Johnnie Walker blends, and also a beloved single malt in OB releases. This is a rare unpeated expression (although cross contamination from the equipment that produces peated malt whisky most of the rest of the year gives it some peat flavor as our tasting clearly showed). The use of unpeated malt lets the fruity and more delicate flavors of Caol Ila shine through clearly. One of the least expensive offerings (£90), it’s also one of the few that’s readily obtainable. Bottled at 111.8 proof, it was distilled in 1997 and matured in ex-Bourbon American white oak barrels.
Color: Light gold
Nose: Grassy and lightly floral - honeysuckle
Palate: Opens on honey and rapidly a sharp perfume floral note. Then expansion is on lemon drops and peat heat. Clean peat with a lot of prickle on the finish which is medium and clean and faintly sweet with honeycomb. Less hay and urea than many Caol Ilas. Intense, balanced and delightful.
Nose: Honeysuckle. floral, lightly grassy
Palate: Peat, Sriracha, Perfumed floral notes
Finish: lemon drops
Conclusion: a stunning value.
Dailuaine 34 Year Old
Dailuaine is a venerable Highland distillery dating from 1852 that was expanded to a full industrial scale in the Victorian era. In the late 1880s Dailuaine was one of the largest distilleries in the Highlands. It was the first distillery in the world to have the iconic pagoda roof. It was an early adopter of Saladin box malting and internally steam heated stills (in the 1960s). But, despite its size and history, Diageo didn’t make Dailuaine part of the Exclusive Malts collection. Most of its large output ends up in the Johnnie Walker blends - bringing a fruity classically Highland flavor profile. Whisky enthusiasts have, thus, only been able to taste Dailuaine in releases from independent bottlers such as Gordon & MacPhail, and the semi-official Flora and Fauna releases. So it’s exciting to taste a cask strength, highly mature offering from Diageo who has access to the best casks. This offering is 1980 vintage distillate, aged in refill American oak hogsheads for 34 years. It was bottled at 101.8 proof in a limited run of 2952 bottles, £380.
Color: Pale gold
Nose: Richly malty honey with a dusky grain, burlap, and distant jasmine and honeysuckle floral perfume
Palate: Waves of rich honey floral nectar unfolding like a fan dancer. Alternating Honey, lemon, green apple, and jasmine florals in vivid intensity. The finish is long and perfumed and fruity with balanced pale oak and light herbal bitters at the end.
The dram of the night for me.
Nose: Malty honey butter. Super balanced and inviting.
Palate: Viscous, sweet nectar rolling over your lucky tastebuds with jasmine honey, lemon and green apples rolling in alternating waves
Finish- long and sweet.
Pittyvaich 25 Year Old
Pittyvaich closed in 1993 after only 19 years in operation. Originally built in 1974 right next to Dufftown by Arthur Bell & Sons to expand production of Dufftown (a clean and fruity Highland malt) for Bell’s blends. Bell merged with United Distillers in 1987 and so this became part of Diageo. It’s rare to come across Pittyvaich ever, given its short period of operation and its status as a component of Bells blends. This is the first time I’ve ever tried it. (Not so for Malt Maniac, Peter Silver, however).
This offering is bottled at 99.8 proof from distillate laid down in 1989 and matured in first fill ex-bourbon barrels. The release is limited to 5922 bottles and offered at £250.
Nose: Melba toast
Palate: Exploding Esters, Batman!!! Huge explosion of esters, like fireworks in your mouth
Finish- short and bitter
Nose: melba toast - malty light honey
Palate: powerful assault of confectioner's sugar, honey, roses and apricot cream. An ester bomb. Viscious. Richly floral. Big amplitude. Then prickly on the turn which is long and turns to fading milk caramel, salt and malted milk then finally oak and bitters on the gentle finish. A big firework and then a fadeout. The shy nose gives no hint to power that follows.
Dalwhinnie 25 Year Old
Dalwhinnie is located along the southern edge of the Speyside region - high in the Grampian mountains. It is supposedly the highest distillery in Scotland. Diageo chose to make it one of the six original malts in the Classic Malts series. The high altitude and colder temperatures in its dunnage make the spirit lighter and smoother than most other Scottish malts. It is only available in the OB 15, DE editions and an occasional 36 year old release. This one was distilled in 1989 and aged for a quarter century in refill American oak hogsheads. It is bottled at 97.6 proof in a limited run of 5916 bottles, £235.
Color: Light gold
Nose: Faint malt and lemon. Linseed oil - like oil based paint.
Palate: a rising tide of gentle creamy sweetness which crests into a robust expansion full of honeyed crystallized orange, orange blossoms, turkish delight, sandalwood essence and rock candy. The turn to the finish is gradual but the finish is medium long on on cotton candy on cotton and old oak. The contrast between the gentle opening and explosive. The mid palate is sublime.
Nose: Tight with lemon and linseed oil
Palate: Pure silk, malty rich, viscous, palate coating that develops into golden honey as it swishes down past your adenoids.
Finish- Long and fading sweetness
Clynelish Select Reserve
Clynelish is the extreme northern Highland distillery that replaced Brora in 1968 and it has a beloved waxy and fruity flavor profile with a bit of brine and acid bite. When mature it can be utterly glorious and is one of my favorite Scotch single malts. This release produced a lot of commentary because it is the only no age statement bottling in this year’s limited releases - and with a retail price of £550. That’s a lot of money for a NAS, and I was anxious to try it to see if its quality could warrant the price. In the notes, Diageo says that the Select Reserve consists of of malts 15 years old and older from first fill ex-bourbon, refill American Oak Hogsheads, and refill European Oak Butts. It is bottled at 112.2 proof in a limited run of 2946 bottles.
Nose: Paraffin, ripe apple
Palate: Huge estery palate, very well balanced, a delight to drink
Color: Light Gold
Nose: Shy nose of grain and oil. Opens to paraffin and ripe apple
Palate: Viscous honeyed and intense perfumed jasmine and honeysuckle opening. Powerful and spectacular. Honeyed and acid zing from citrus and tart apple with a wisp of pickle at the mid palate. The finish is long with oak, herbs, and char fading to old lace with dried flowers.
Yes - this Clynelish had a richness and intensity that speaks well of the maturity and quality of the casks selected. It’s a monster. Is it worth the high price? It’s not an easy answer but it certainly doesn’t embarrass itself in the least.
Lagavulin 12 Year Old
Lagavulin, the venerable Islay distillery, dating back to 1816, that has historically provided the smoke flavors for blends such as White Horse. It is one of the original Classic Malts series, as a 16 year old, and is one of the most beloved single malts around with it’s rich flavors of stone fruits and wood smoke. A cask strength Lagavulin is a regular part of Diageo’s limited releases, often bottled at a younger age than the 16, which accentuates the heat of the peat and the sweeter flavors in the distillate. This year’s offering is bottled at 97.6 proof, aged in refill American oak and retails for £80, making this the most affordable offering in the group. Our tasting showed that the price was no indication of lower quality at all.
Color: Pale gold
Nose: grass honey peat putty clay and smoke with mineral dust.
Palate: Sweet honeyed opening immediately giving way to mouth filling earthy peat, smoked meats glazed in honey, charred grass and pan toasted seeds. Vivid and intense. Loooong finish on bacon and pumpkin seeds and char. No weaknesses.
Palate: Honey and Peat Smoke
Finish - Long, smoky, pure Lagavulin in the best way possible
Diageo confounds detractors again by putting out a group of amazing and diverse whiskies with powerful and delicious flavor profiles. The range showcases the treasures within Diageo’s massive holdings and shows us that their corporate orientation in no way bars the production of amazing whiskies.