Review: 16th Annual Diageo Special Release Whisky

Garrett Oliver viciously guards the goods
Garrett Oliver viciously guards the goods

As a whisky freak there are certain major moments of anticipation, like that special distillery tour on Islay, or when that Master Distiller in Kentucky gives me a wink and says "follow me" as we head into the rickhouse. Well, when I got the email saying that I am one of the very fortunate to review the 16th Annual Diageo Special Release Collection - the holidays came early!  Now do I wish that samples came in individual 750ml bottles instead of small samples bottles? Maybe Diageo’s PR Team will read this and get the hint for next year! Ahem.

The Special Releases Collection are truly special for it almost feels that Diageo, that big massive liquor company, is for a brief time acting like an independent bottler. The selection of distilleries in this years release range from the big established names like the Islay stalwarts Lagavulin and Caol Ila to the rarely seen Mannochmore and Auchroisk. Each release may only be a few hundred bottles to a few thousand worldwide, which for a company the size of Diageo is a minuscule amount.

The Whisky

Auchroisk 25 Year was distilled in 1990 and bottled at 51.2%, with 3,954 bottles released worldwide, selling for approximately $450. Auchroisk is an active distillery in the northern part of Speyside that is rarely seen as a single malt so most of its production will be found in Johnnie Walker blends or the other blends sold by Diageo. I personally never had Auchroisk before and was looking forward to trying this distillery’s expression.

Tasting notes: The whisky itself is a mild gold color with long legs as you move it around the glass. It has nice body and for a 25 year old that has been in refilled European oak and American oak it is not too heavy. The nose is light, which fits the Speyside profile, with a citrusy-light fresh taste. For a 25 year old, it has a very soft finish.

Brora 38 Year was distilled in 1977 and bottled at 48.6%, with 2984 bottles released worldwide, at approximately $2200 a bottle. Brora is a closed distillery that last distilled in 1983, having sat alongside its sister distillery, Clynelish. Brora was distilled in those days to reflect big body Islay style whiskies which allows the Brora whiskies to hold up well after all these years the barrel.

Tasting Notes: The whisky is a medium amber color. The nose is finely complex picking up wisps of leather and smoke and light citrus. Even though it is bottled at 48.6% I did not see the need to add water to open it up. On the tongue I picked up more wood from its time in the barrel and more spice than when I nosed it. The finish is nice and long and what some would call “waxy”with a chewy experience.

Cambus 40 Year was distilled in 1975 and bottled at 52.7%, with 1812 bottles released worldwide, for approximately $1150 a bottle. Cambus was closed in 1993 and was located in the central Lowlands of Scotland. This is a very rare release for it is also the oldest Cambus ever released by the original distillers, and one of three single grain whiskies to be bottled as a Special Release by Diageo.

Tasting Notes:  A deep amber gold reflects its 40 years in American oak. Though for such an old whiskey there is a fruitiness to the nose. For a 40 year old it is surprisingly not chewy and actually lighter and smoother than expected. It still maintains its light sweetness and fruitiness, with a short finish. You know it is a grain whiskey at the end.

Caol Ila 15 Year was distilled in 2000 and bottled at 61.5%, selling for $150 a bottle. In regards to how many bottles released…the vague “Limited Quantities Worldwide” response. This is a unique bottling for an Islay distillery as it comes from a rare batch that is made once a year from unpeated malt for blending in the Highland style. Though the production of this unpeated malt was never enough to warrant to be sold as single malt, the Special Release program allows it to fly under its flag.

Caol Ila is special, as all Islay distilleries are special to me. Though this distillery specifically brings back memories of being driven around Islay by Neill of, who was a 35 Year Veteran of Caol Ila and has his home overlooking the distillery. So whenever you are on Islay ask for Neill and he will share with you great stories of the distillery and Islay.

Tasting Notes: A light amber hue matches what you expect from a Caol Ila at 15 years. It's cleaner and crisp on the nose similar to fresh green apple and bottled at 61.5%, so I gave it a few drops of water to help open it up. I found it light in body and not layered for this aged whisky. It is again on purpose unpeated, but you do experience a characteristic light saltiness with fresh green apples on the end. The finish is not long and with the drops of water, it's a more subtle Caol Ila.

Cragganmore (2016 Special Release) is a no age statement Speyside whisky with a limited release of just 4,932 bottles worldwide at $600 a bottle. It is bottled at 55.7%.

Tasting Notes: The color in the glass is weathered gold. As a Speyside it has a smooth fruitiness to the nose along with hints of citrus. If you add a drop of water it opens more to an even smoother sweeter honey nose. It has a nice body, though very curious of its age for it doesn't taste young and well represents the American and European oak casks it was once in. I find it to be a soft cask strength Speyside with hints of many things from spice to a medley of dark fruit. The finish was longer and warmer than I expected with hints of mint at the end.

Glenkinchie 24 Year was distilled in 1991 at 57.2% with 5,928 bottles distributed worldwide at $450 each. It's a Lowland distillery, around 20 miles away from the heart of Edinburgh. It is known to have the largest wash still in Scotland. It's definitely worth the half day trip out to the distillery. I was fortunate to do that one warm summer day, and highly recommend taking a tour yourself. They run trips right from Edinburgh. You can find out more info about that here.

Tasting Notes: The color of the whiskey is a wonderful soft amber and as you move it around the glass it leaves a substantial coating. The nose is a mix of soft citrus as well as nutty nuances. The body has character but is not syrupy and matches one's expectation of a 24 year-old whisky coming from a European oak cask. The taste has a delicate wood flavor - not piney but smooth, with a hint of sweetness. The finish is lovingly warm and long as it starts a bit spicy but ends with that smooth oak experience.

Lagavulin 12 Year (2016) is 57.7% ABV, available in “limited quantities” worldwide, at $135. Another Islay whiskey in this year’s Special Release, Lagavulin is on the South Coast of the Island, the opposite side of the island from Caol Ila. Lagavulin is celebrating its 200th year on the site. Fun fact: it still houses the original of what were once "illicit" stills before the taxman founded them. Lagavlulin in not just a “Classic Malt” it is a “Classic Islay Malt.”

Tasting Notes: The color is a light gold as expected for a 12 year-old Islay coming from a refill American oak hogshead. The nose gives off that expected peat, but also unexpected traces of mint. I found the longer I let it sit after I added a few drops of water, the smoke of Islay came up from the glass. The body is light for a 12 year-old, but fits the Lagavulin profile with a oily smoothness to it. I expected a more powerful, forceful whiskey and instead tasted a creamier whiskey with hints of salt and dark chocolate. The finish was wonderfully long, rich, warm and smoky and just great for a cold night.

Linkwood 37 Year was distilled in 1978 at 50.3%, with 6,114 bottles available worldwide at $900 each. The distillery is located in the northern part of Speyside near Elgin. It is an active distillery that was briefly mothballed as many other distilleries were during WWII due to the lack of barley available. It experienced another shut down between 1985-1990. This release is even more rare for that it is released as a single malt from Diageo, though it is usually a malt blend component. The only times I have tasted Linkwood on its own before was from independent bottlers like Signatory or Gordon & Macphail.

Tasting Notes: A lovely amber gold reflects its 37 years in American and European oak casks. The nose is a wonderful expression of orange citrus along with different types of melon. With a drop of water, the nose keeps its profile with the addition of a darker, sweeter foundation. A whisky this long in the cask is fortunately not chewy and has good body. In the mouth, its smoothness lightly coats the tongue with a mix of fruits, a strong presence of warm apple and hints of vanilla. It has a long soft finish that's not syrupy, but its effect lives on for a while as a soft, warming experience.

Mannochmore 25 Year was distilled in 1990 at 53.4% with 3,954 bottles available worldwide for $400 a bottle. For Scotland, it is a relatively new Speyside distillery as it was only built in 1971 as a partner to Glenlossie distillery. The distillery is named after the Mannoch Hill which supplies the water for the distilling. This is another rare bottling for a distillery which rarely releases as a single malt.

Tasting Notes: The whisky has an enticing deep amber color. The nose has a subdued Speyside fruity aroma, Orange as well as different varieties of apple are encased by a light flower bouquet. The body is lighter than I expected though it was aged in multiple American and European oak casks. Orange is also found on the tongue along, with a creamy vanilla taste. Dried fruit along with soft traces of orange is on the medium finish.

Port Ellen 37 Year was distilled in 1978 at 55.2% with 2,940 bottles available worldwide. It is the most expensive bottle in the release at $4000 each. So much has been written about the tragedy in the whisky world with the closing of Port Ellen during those dark days when the future of single malt and Scotch industry was in question. Yes, the person or team who decided to close Port Ellen should be quartered and thrown into the pigpen from the HBO TV Show Deadwood where the idiot from HBO who cancelled Deadwood should also end up. Yes, I am venting for I love Port Ellen and I really loved the TV Series Deadwood. My website my opinion!

Tasting Notes: This whisky’s color is invitingly dark beyond all the other amber gold whiskies in this year’s release. Let the soft smoke and wood fill your nose as sweet barbecue fills your nostrils. The body for a 37 year that has been aged in American and European oak is fortunately not chewy. Tasting this Scotch brings me back to Islay, for it is a wonderful mix of smoke and dark fruit. The finish is so lovingly long as you savor it, and the layered dark fruits mix with traces of smoke coat you all the way down.

My final thoughts on this years release

All the whiskies are very good to amazing. Pricing may be high on a few of them due to limited quantities as well as expected demand for certain distillery releases. I am in agreement with Gregor Haslinger, one of our whisky judges in the Berlin International Spirits Competition as well as the man who gave me my first official whisky class at his amazing store Whisky Spirits in Frankfurt. “The Mannochmore is wonderful as long as I don’t have to pay for it and the Port Ellen is outstanding!” So when your friends and family ask what you want for a special present or belated holiday gift, show them this list - ask them how much they love you and how much they want to spend!