Diageo Special Releases 2018

Here’s what to expect from this year’s limited edition Scotch, including a new blended malt whisky.

Lagavulin stills

Lagavulin stills

All photos by Adam Levy.

Yes, I say it every year that I am honored to receive the Diageo Special Release Sample Box from the Whisky Gods. They were even kinder to me this year, for they also invited me to a Diageo Special Release Dinner they held in New York earlier this year. There I was first able to taste the collection, take notes, ask questions along with other whisky aficionados and be fully prepared when the sample kit arrived.  

A brief note to remind our readers on the history of the Special Releases: The program began back in 2001, which is the also the first year I attended Whiskyfest in New York.  The Single Malt Whiskey Universe was a smaller place then where the Master Distillers from Scotland and Kentucky,—including the likes of Booker & Fred Noe, Parker Beam, Dr. Bill Lumsden and now Sir David Stewart—would be behind the tables, (and maybe reaching below the table), to pour from that special bottle. I still believe today that the Special Releases allow whisky aficionados at Diageo to put out their best and to remind us of distilleries in their portfolio that rarely make it on the shelf as a single malt, or whisky that is no longer in production. Well, at least for now.

Each of the Special Releases, as always, are natural cask strength—meaning this is the spirit from the cask and not diluted or cut with water to bring it down to 40% ABV.  The whiskies are not chilled filtered so if and when you do add a droplet of water to the whiskey and it becomes cloudy… do not fear you are drinking the whiskey in its purest form.

Caol Ila Distilled 1982 35 YR, 58.1% ABV, £675

This Caol Ila is the oldest ever released in the Diageo Special Release series and the oldest I have ever tried. If you have read my past reviews you know I am in love with Islay, want to be buried there and my favorite taxi driver in the whole world used to work there at Caol Ila. So I will try to curtail my bias for this distillery. Ahem.

The casks used are American and European Oak. It has a nice deep gold coloring as one would expect for 35 Years in refill cask. Even though it has a high ABV at 58.1% it is still delicate on the nose. Surprisingly to me it has an overall lighter body after aging that long in the cask.

There is a creaminess to it with layers of light sweetness and soft confectionary, and you can taste the maltiness on the palate. The tannins are there throughout the tasting experience with the hint of sweet smoke. With a few drops of water it becomes a more mature dram—less sweet and more gentle and saltier while keeping its smokey character.    

I seek more rich uncles to buy this for me….

Caol Isla Distilled 2002 15 YR “Unpeated”, ABV 59.1%, £100

The casks used for this whisky are refill and “rejuvenated” American Oak Hogshead and ex-bodega European oak butts. The color of the whisky is antique gold that is deeper in color than I would expect for a 15 year, yet shows what casks it came from. It is their first time using European oak for a Special Release Caol Isla. The high ABV does not overwhelm the nose which has a crisp fruit tartness to it with light vanilla, grassiness and sea salt in the background.  

The fruitiness takes a turn in the mouth to a less tart taste and more honey with hints of salt.  The finish is a long one and you will savor the honey and licorice notes.  I felt no need to add any drops of water and enjoyed it in its pure state.

I believe it is one of the great values of the 2018 Special Releases

Caresebridge Distilled 1970 48 YR, ABV 43.2%, £750

This is the first time I have tasted a whisky from this now closed distillery—a first timer in the Diageo Special Release Program.  A Lowland distillery founded at the end of the 18th Century, and at one point it was the largest grain distillery in Scotland before it closed in 1983. The whisky from the distillery served as the backbone for many blended whiskies during its time.  

It has a deep gold color with a medium body. The casks were refill American oak hogsheads and the liquid did not come out “overoaked” for being 48 years in the cask.  Fresh fruit and ripe pear and peach is prominent on the nose.  Spending more time with it, I picked up black currant, vanilla and a hint of non bitter dark chocolate. 

The finish was definitely longer than I expected for a grain whisky.  It was discrete with light bitterness and had more subtle fruit at the end.  Rich berry fruit was more pronounced with added water.

Cladach Blended Malt 57.1% ABV, £155

Adam outside Lagavulin

Adam outside Lagavulin

This is an interesting whisky bottling for the Special Releases for it is a blend and they actually list the names of the distilleries the liquid comes from—Caol Ila, Clynelish, Lagavulin, Oban, Inchgower and Talisker. 

It has a deep gold color and a light freshness to the nose. It smells simply like “fresh laundry” to me. What is really nice about this whisky is that the nose mostly matches the taste with the more mint and black licorice filling the mouth. The finish is a lovely mix of citrus and coastal salt, in keeping with a maritime whisky profile. 

The is the best value of this year’s Special Release.

Inchgower Distilled 1990 27 YR, ABV 55.3%,  £300

This is the first time Inchgower, a small Speyside distillery rarely seen as a single malt appears in the Special Release program. Though it’s a Speyside, it doesn’t drink with the classic flavors associated with most of these whiskies, with influences from the nearby River Spey.

27 years in refill American hogsheads gives it a golden color.  Nosing the whisky, I pick up ripe fruits and touches of pepper along with marzipan. The high ABV is prominent in the nose and after adding some water, the ripe fruit becomes more intense. 

When tasting the whisky it starts sweet, especially after water is added and dark chocolate becomes more prominent. It has a long, warm finish that only improves after water is added.  

Overall on its own with its high ABV it is hard to fully appreciate the complexity of the whisky, and recommend adding drops of water.

Lagavulin Distilled 2005 12 YR, ABV 57.8%,  £110

We return again to Islay to the south of Caol Ila, along the coast to Lagavulin—a distillery that flies the smoky peaty flag of Islay whiskies. This bottling well represents its Islay roots for a distillery that has been a part of the Special Releases since 2002.

The color of light gold reflects the 12 year in a refill American oak hogshead cask. The peat and smoke fills the glass and the nose. Delving deeper into the glass, I find some spice and mint, and with added water, touches of vanilla.

Hints of salt and vinegar lay on the tongue with a small smokehouse of peat and smoke alongside it. The finish is longer than expected for a 12 year, with full warm tinges of sweetness throughout.

The real benefit for a Lagavulin fan is sipping it in its pure cask strength. 

Incidentally, Lagavulin 16yr won Gold Medal in the 2018 New York International Spirits Competition.


Oban Distilled 1996 21 YR, ABV 57.9%, £450

A small gem of a distillery in the Highlands that sits in the middle of the city it is named after—remaining the same as the city grew around it.  (Right across from the distillery sits a Chinese restaurant and with the windows open you get hungry at lunch time.)

Most whisky drinkers are familiar with its 14 YR and now new non age statement “Little Bay”.  For this release, 21 years in European refill oak butts give the whisky its golden color and the oak does not overwhelm the spirit.  The nose has a light maritime nose along with blood orange and a sliver of coconut emerges with more focus.

This Oban matches its sister whiskies with a smooth, viscous consistency, with light layers of sweetness with a tinge of sea in the air. The finish continues with traces of smoke and ginger in the finish.

Obans are rarely released outside of the classic 14 YR. and this makes this whisky special for that reason if you are an Oban fan. Because it is such a small distillery, with only 7 workers and smaller output, the whiskies are typically not sent out for blending.

To learn more about how a whisky ages please watch Carol Bennet of Oban explain the process.

Pittyvaich Distilled 1989 28 YR, ABV 52.1%, £330

Pittyvaich is a now closed Speyside distillery. This release is the oldest entry from Pittyvaich in the Special Release program. The distillery only existed for 18 years, starting in 1975 and its whisky was a big part player in whisky blending at the time. During the “whisky troubles” of the early 1980s, when a lot of distilleries were closed down, this distillery also fell victim to the times. The interesting thing is that this whisky was aged longer in the cask than the years the distillery was in operation. 

Aged in refill American oak hogsheasd casks, the color has a deep gold hue. Oranges and other citrus fill the nose. The body is not full, but a little oily, with dark fruits on the palate. The finish is long, with rare remnants of smoke for a Speyside adding to the journey it takes through the body.

It may be an interesting purchase for a closed distillery, but not one I would buy to enjoy for its price. 

Singleton Glen Ord Distilled 2002 14 YR, ABV 57.6%, £100

This whisky is the first Singleton from Glen Ord in the Special Release series. It takes a circuitous route being matured in 3 different stages using 5 different woods of American and European sources. The color of the whiskey showcases the darker woods.

The Speyside profile is there up front in the nose with the citrus and apple showing varying degrees of sweetness. The fruit experience continues while sitting in the mouth, with light smoke and salt on the edges. Throughout it all it maintains its dryness without being oily or syrupy. 

The finish is soft and breaks apart with water added. I recommend tasting without adding water since though it has a high ABV, the alcohol does not overwhelm the mouth or nose.

Singleton of Glendullan 12 YR & 18 YR both won gold medals in the 2018 New York International Spirits Competition.

Talisker Distilled 2009 8 YR, ABV 59.4%, £ 70


This 8 YR Talisker is a nod to its lineage, since it was mostly bottled and sold up until the late 1980s as an 8 year old single malt. Talisker was the 2nd distillery after Cardhu purchased by Johnnie Walker, and has been in this whisky family of distilleries a long time. This whisky is aged in deep charred, first fill ex-bourbon American oak hogsheads to give it its deep, warm gold color.

Even though it has a high ABV it is gentle on the nose, with prominent characteristics of Talisker—coastal sea salt and peaty smoke provide ballast to its aroma. When on the palate, the sweetness arrives and it comes with light waves of peat smoke. The smoke continues with its delicious, long finish.

In short, this is a terrific value whisky.

The Talisker 10 YR won a double gold medal in the 2016 Berlin International Spirits Competition and Talisker Storm won Gold in the 2018 New York International Spirits Competition.

On a personal note this is the first time in the many years that I have reviewed the Special Releases and that the only one truly loyal to me, that I could trust to guard this precious whisky, is no longer with us. My dog “Garrett Oliver” is now in doggie heaven and to taste these whiskies without him by side is sad. He is terribly missed.