Review – The Diageo Special Releases Collection 2017

Concept cars show the future, the next generation, perhaps even the evolution of the brand, they offer a glimpse at the next automotive advancements. They are flagships paraded by brands which, in reality are built and produced essentially to show off.

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If they are ever released into production they are really only available to those with deep pockets.  Very few car enthusiasts will ever see let alone own one. There may be a lucky few who get a few laps of one at a track day.

So here I am at the Diageo launch of their Special Releases collection for 2017 and I’m about to go on a whisky track day…

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What follows are my thoughts and observations on this years Special Releases collection, with a few tasting notes thrown in.

Blair Athol 1993, 23yo, 58.4% £390 (available here)

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This is the first new Blair Athol expression since 2003, matured in ex-bodega European oak butts and distilled in 1993.

This was one on my pre event ‘must try’ list. I’ve only had the standard releases from here so was looking forward to trying something more special. There is a good sherry influence here, nothing overpowering or dramatic. Just a refreshing nutty and spiced feeling, a touch of cedar and leather lingers of the finish.

On a side note I was curious to find out what an ‘ex-bodega’ meant in terms of cask type. After checking it appears they are casks which have already been used several times and then rejuvenated by being de-charred and re-charred then seasoned with sherry.

Brora 1982, 34yo, 59.1% £1450 (available here)

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This is the 16th release in the series, was distilled in 1982 and matured in refill American oak hogsheads. Brora has a mighty reputation and has become increasingly rare after its closure. You can read more about the history of Brora in my Clynelish Appreciation article.

Very soft and gentle on the nose. Floral, lighty woody and smoky with a touch of sea spray. There is surprising lemon element alongside a touch of minerality and a feeling of grass in amongst the faintest wisps of distant smoke.  The smoke is always present but very much in the background. The lemon helps to deliver quite a clean feeling on the palate and combined with the coastal notes make for quite a refreshing feeling for such an old whisky. Waxy apple underlies here mixed with some gentle tropical fruit and chocolate with a twist of pepper.

There is that beautiful light wood and perhaps ‘dusty’ element that only age can bring to a whisky.  Astounding stuff.

Caol Ila 18yo, 59.8%, £98.95 (available here)

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This is the oldest expression of Caol Ila so far in the series and is taken from a yearly batch of unpeated malt.

Now I’m not the biggest fan of Caol Ila so I’m not perhaps best placed to judge this fairly. This particular expression doesn’t really give much away on the nose, other than some surprising citrus character, a good vanilla base alongside a touch of floralality. The palate is surprisingly malty and has some good cereal notes overlaying a faint touch of smoke.

Until I had tried it I had forgotten that this was in fact an unpeated expression. Good coastal notes hold the attention with a pleasant sort of crisp minerality. I felt this held up to water quite well, which tempered the initial pepperiness.

Collectivum XXVIII, 57.3%, £150 (available here)

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This is the 4th NAS to appear in the Special Releases series and is a cask strength blended malt.

A solid Clynelish feeling in this blend of 28 distilleries. Little bit of everything thrown into one. Took me some time to get into this but time and a drop of water did the trick. A challenge for the blending team to put together no doubt.

Initially I really wasn’t too keen but there is such a strong Clynelish character that shines through here that its impossible for me not to like, perhaps a little more than I should.

Convalmore 1984, 32yo, 48.2%, £1200 (available here)

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This comes from the silent Convalmore Distillery in Dufftown and was matured in refill American oak hogsheads which were filled in 1984.

This is a very mellow dram. Light, fruity and buttery with some great vanilla notes. Spices emerge on the palate alongside some nice woody character and a slight herbaciousness. Lingering spices and a fantastic combination of florality and green apple make for a very relaxed finish.

As with all closed distilleries its rarity and finite nature is reflected in the price.

Glen Elgin 18yo, 54.8%abv, £295 (available here)

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This has been a marriage of two batches. One made from Pombe yeast and matured in ex sherry casks, the other made with Cerevisiae yeast and matured in refill European oak.

Quite sweet and grassy on the nose, with a nutty and woody undertones It has some great fresh baked pastry elements and feels really fresh.  Palate has  some nice floral and toffee notes alongside some white chocolate and gentle perfume. All in all it feels really light and quite delicate. This is one dram I wish I had spent some more time appreciating on the night.

Its facing stiff competition as there are several good Independent Bottlings of Glen Elgin out there at half that price. Damn fine dram though.

 

Lagavulin 12yo, 56.5%abv, £88.95 (available here)

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I do love a Lagavulin and as I’ve never tried a cask strength expression this ticked a couple of boxes for me. I found this quite reminiscent of the 8yo that was released earlier this year. Smoky upfront but with a sweet, yet crisp, undertone. There is a nice coastal feeling as the smoke lifts. Despite the high abv it is quite approachable but does open up nicely with a splash of water. Palate is quite full bodied and only opens up after some time in the glass. Becoming a little meatier and with touches of ash and pear on the finish, which dries out as it lingers.

Port Dundas 1964, 52yo, £775, 44.6%abv (available here)

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The surprise of the night. It hadn’t really been on my radar leading up to the launch at all. This has been maturing in refill American oak casks since 1964. 752 bottles are available and is the oldest Special Release, in fact its the oldest Diageo release thus far.

The nose is really rich and buttery. Werthers originals and creme brûlée are dominant on the palate, along with some fruit cocktail syrup. There are strong elements of danish pastry and white chocolate. There is a slight nutty feeling on the finish, along with some very mellow spices, perhaps even some oats and a warming oak. Incredible on the nose and continues to be well balanced and intriguing throughout.

Only the enigmatic Port Ellen keeps this from being my dram of the night. Speaking of which…

Port Ellen 1979, £2625, 51%abv (available here)

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I was probably more curious about trying this dram than any other, having never tried a Port Ellen before. Much has been written about this fabled closed distillery. I’d always wondered if it was as good as everyone said. This is the 17th annual release and is the most expensive Special Release yet.

I had expected some intense smoke but was instead met with very soft wisps of smoke, overlaying some waxy and floral elements. Cedar and spice are both present but theres a surprising honey element I had not expected. The palate is oily but not overwhelmingly so. A whole mixture of fruit is here, green apples, raspberries, and perhaps a twist of red grapefruit.  As the finish approaches theres a burst of malt and digestive biscuits, perhaps even some oranges all with an overlaid element of soft ashy smoke and some gentle brine.

The finish is long and lingering and gives rise to some gentle wood notes. There’s a slight white wine feeling here, crisp green fruits before the earthy and smoky tones fade to leave a soft oily tang amidst some charred vanilla that lingers and lingers and lingers…

Wow.

Teaninich 1999, 17yo, 55.9%abv, £270 (available here)

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Pleasant, fruity and well balanced. There really isn’t much in the way of Teaninich out there so its a bit of a curiosity.

Its a good example of the Highland style. Solid vanilla and cereal notes mixes with a little florality here and there. Palate is heavier that the nose suggests, tropical fruits, pears and red apples are all here under a nice spiced honey layer.

This has been released to coincide with the distilleries 200th Anniversary, £270 though?

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The prices of the Special Releases are always set at a premium price point and some are set far too high if I’m honest. Brora, Convalmore and Port Ellen are all silent distilleries which means the prices reflect their rarity.

I do feel that both the Glen Elgin, Blair Athol and the Teaninich especially are high quality drams but overpriced.

I’m going to argue that with the way prices are rising in the market just now, and considering it is a Special Release, the 52 yo Port Dundas actually represents reasonable value at £775 which for a 52 year old whisky from a closed distillery isn’t unreasonable, especially at current market rates. For example a 50yo North of Scotland single grain was launched this week and is priced just under £1000. Im expecting the Port Dundas to sell out quite quickly.

I’d happily part with the money for the Lagavulin as it was excellent and I’m even considering the Collectivum, mostly due to the strong Clynelish base which I’m a sucker for.

Please excuse the briefness of some of the notes. I chose to focus mostly on several expressions that I really wanted to spend time with but still allow myself time to try each and every one.

A great night trying some excellent whiskies, thanks to all who kept me company on the night and, alongside the whisky, made the long trip worthwhile.

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**Disclaimer: This was an event organised by Diageo to launch their Special Releases collection for 2017. Although I was an invited guest no contributions were made by any party to cover my travel or accommodation costs**