New Whiskies

Batch 164: Diageo Special Releases 2018

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Diageo Special Releases 2018

It’s Diageo Special Releases time again, but with a twist in the notable absence of Port Ellen and Brora, the fabled duo of closed distilleries whose whiskies have become so sought-after in recent years.

It’s not the end for Port Ellen and Brora in any sense: both distilleries are due to reopen in the next couple of years, and archive releases will still be made on a stand-alone basis, outside the aegis of the Special Releases.

That allows the spotlight to be shone on other names – the rarely-seen and short-lived Pittyvaich, which made whisky for only 18 years until its closure in 1993; and an aged grain from another lost distillery, Carsebridge.

There’s also the Special Releases debut of quirky Inchgower, the return of Talisker in youthful guise and the intriguing appearance of Oban in European oak. A Singleton of Glen Ord bottling, meanwhile, offers a bewildering lesson in complex cask maturation.

Then there is the old guard: Lagavulin 12 Year Old, plus two entries from Islay stablemate Caol Ila: a richer take on its unpeated form, and a startling 35-year-old that may finally give this underrated distillery the prominence it deserves.

Nine whiskies in the original line-up – and now a 10th in the shape of Cladach, a ‘coastal’ blended malt that includes liquid from Caol Ila, Clynelish, Inchgower, Lagavulin, Oban and Talisker. Taking its name from the Gaelic word for ‘shoreline’, it’s well worth the wait. Richard Woodard provides the tasting notes.

Scoring Explained

Overview

  • Caol Ila 15 Years Old Unpeated

    Caol Ila 15 Years Old Unpeated
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    59.1%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Islay
    Availability
    Limited quantities worldwide
    Flavour camp
    Fruity & Spicy
    Nose

    Fruit to the fore, and it’s tropical and exotic. Rich melon in particular, but there’s a darker element lurking here too. Then some bright, ripe citrus and the heady aroma of a pine forest on a hot summer’s day. That darker element turns out to be black cherries dipped in chocolate. Assertive, but charming too.

    Palate

    As smooth as a weasel in a velvet smoking jacket. Some heat, but it’s unctuous enough to be able to get away with it. Cinnamon-spiked summer pudding and a dried fruit character that verges on figginess. Water calms that spirity prickle and brings even more coherence.

    Finish

    Mouth-coating, rich, fading just a little quickly.

    Conclusion

    This is a darker, richer, thicker unpeated Caol Ila, letting its hair down and having some fun.

    Right place, right time

    Fiesta!

    Caol Ila 35 Years Old

    Caol Ila 35 Years Old
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    58.1%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Islay
    Availability
    3,276 bottles worldwide
    Flavour camp
    Smoky & Peaty
    Nose

    Immediately rich and ripe. The interior of a top-class French boulangerie-pâtisserie, fully stocked with fresh-baked bread, croissants aux abricots and iced buns [Is this right? – Ed]. The tropical fruit darkens and deepens, but there’s always a whiff of maritime smoke lurking in the background. Really rather delightful.

    Palate

    Broad and mouth-filling – almost oily – melding into smoked fish on a bonfire of aromatic woods. The smoke is content to sit back and cede the stage to those beguiling tropical fruits – mangoes now and melons edging into overripeness. Water dampens the smoke further and lightens the fruit, recalling the distillery in its younger manifestations; but, as long as you can handle the heat when neat, it doesn’t add much.

    Finish

    Some black fruits now, ringed with smoke.

    Conclusion

    The oldest and most expensive single malt in the line-up, and fully justifying its pole position. If you still dismiss Caol Ila as ‘industrial’ after this, then there’s no hope.

    Right place, right time

    The Caol Ila of your Dreams.

    Carsebridge 48 Years Old

    Carsebridge 48 Years Old
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    43.2%
    Production type
    Single grain whisky
    Region
    Lowland
    Availability
    1,000 bottles worldwide
    Flavour camp
    Rich & Round
    Nose

    The heavily polished patina of an ancient bureau, rich black fruits and the lifting presence of graphite. Highly vinous – a warm vintage of Napa Cabernet in new oak. Water shows vanilla, but introduces a drying element that clashes with the rich sweetness.

    Palate

    The wood shows its hand more overtly here, threatening to dominate before those black fruits push their way to the front. Combined with the sweet grain, there’s an almost confected flavour of blackcurrant Tunes (the cough sweets) or, less prosaically, crème de cassis de Dijon. Irresistible and hydrophobic (= no water needed).

    Finish

    Dusty wood – old libraries with inefficient cleaners – and more cassis. Loooong.

    Conclusion

    I’m not a fan of old grain whiskies. Too sweet, too wood-dominated, too little evidence of distillery character. Flabby. Blowsy. With such low expectations, as you might imagine, this rather blew my mind.

    Right place, right time

    A long life, a Lush Life.

    Cladach

    Cladach
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    57.1%
    Production type
    Blended malt whisky
    Region
    n/a
    Availability
    Limited quantities worldwide
    Flavour camp
    Fruity & Spicy
    Nose

    Initially as soft and comforting as a well-loved jumper, with more fruit than smoke or overtly ‘coastal’ character. Ripe citrus notes and an appealing creaminess, with the merest whisper of smoke in the background. With time and water, dry spices appear, along with honey and dampened embers. Beautifully put together.

    Palate

    Now the smoke asserts itself, with notes of freshly extinguished bonfire, but it’s only a brief appearance before that fruit – more tropical now, lifted by orange zest – takes over. A knot of intense waxiness sits on the back of the tongue. Sweet caramel toffee and a lift of salt and anis. Water brings out more of that orange zest.

    Finish

    A shy reminder of smoke.

    Conclusion

    As a blend, this is a masterpiece and shows the potential of blended malts to display their component characters, but combine them to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Highly recommended.

    Right place, right time

    Dark and light; sweet and savoury. As changeable as The Sea beneath Sinbad’s Ship.

    Inchgower 27 Years Old

    Inchgower 27 Years Old
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    55.3%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Speyside
    Availability
    8,544 bottles worldwide
    Flavour camp
    Fruity & Spicy
    Nose

    In-yer-face combination of spice and pepper, then a pleasing grungy element that somehow combines herbs, spices and nuts in true Inchgower style. Black fruits – a real theme this year – sit in the background. Water brings sun-baked stone fruits, turning spice to salt and white pepper.

    Palate

    Now the fruits have lightened and sharpened into cooking apples dusted with nutmeg. The seamless nuttiness of an old amontillado Sherry. The wood – where it’s detectable – simply refines, sanding off a few of Inchgower’s sharper corners.

    Finish

    Salty, spicy, mouth-tingling.

    Conclusion

    The quintessence of quirky. My secret crush on Inchgower has only grown stronger.

    Right place, right time

    If There Is Something odd about your whisky, then… ‘Growing potatoes by the score.’

    Lagavulin 12 Years Old

    Lagavulin 12 Years Old
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    57.8%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Islay
    Availability
    Limited quantities worldwide
    Flavour camp
    Smoky & Peaty
    Nose

    There’s smoke (of course), but it’s nicely restrained, with an attendant citrus note as if someone just threw a handful of lemons on a dying bonfire. The prickle of (alcoholic) heat only reinforces this. The bright fruit of the distillate creates a mirage of sweetness.

    Palate

    Someone may have soaked those lemons in paraffin. The smoke builds, then drifts away to reveal a raw centre that moves towards camphor and carbolic. Water attempts to soothe, but fails to reveal much extra depth.

    Finish

    Grumbling, grumpy smoke.

    Conclusion

    Reining back on the oak (refill American hoggies) to accentuate distillery character has left this a little undercooked for me. The pricing – north of £100 – is getting a little cheeky too. Unusually uninspiring.

    Right place, right time

    We all have our moments of Impatience.

    Oban 21 Years Old

    Oban 21 Years Old
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    57.9%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Highland
    Availability
    Limited quantities worldwide
    Flavour camp
    Fruity & Spicy
    Nose

    Topping and tailing green beans on the chopping board. There’s mangetout too, before the fruit kicks in with rich mandarin orange. The fruit is all-pervasive now, with richer dried elements in the fade. Oddly, just as things begin to darken, grassy and wild flower aromas make everything fresh and new again. Hard to pin down.

    Palate

    Wonderfully silky texture, aided by the alcohol. That also makes the fruit explosively aromatic, whether it’s of the fresh or dried persuasion. Water teases out more of that grassy element, along with weak orange squash in a plastic beaker.

    Finish

    Resurgent, with more dried fruit.

    Conclusion

    There’s a lot to like here, and a lot to experience, thanks to the somewhat unusual combination of Oban and European oak. A little more coherence would lift it to another level. And the price…? Hmm…

    Right place, right time

    ‘I’ve got my spine, I’ve got my Orange Crush.’

    Pittyvaich 28 Years Old

    Pittyvaich 28 Years Old
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    52.1%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Speyside
    Availability
    4,680 bottles worldwide
    Flavour camp
    Fruity & Spicy
    Nose

    Fizzy, sherbety citrus fruit, then overripe apple sporting a couple of bruises. That effervescent, Space Dust-like element persists, alongside a lime character that brings to mind Clare Valley Riesling. Then… an unexpected nuttiness that lightens into hay loft with water. Slightly odd, but not as odd as its reputation suggests.

    Palate

    Nuts! Pecans dusted with garam masala, with orange juice highlights. Cereal, yeasty flavours, edging into beef stock. The casks are happy to sit back and watch. Water brings out a brighter note of tangerine and a prickle of anis. Plenty to think about.

    Finish

    Liquorice torpedoes.

    Conclusion

    Funky, fun and just a little dirty around the edges.

    Right place, right time

    The gorgeous and grubby sound of Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan.

    The Singleton of Glen Ord 14 Years Old

    The Singleton of Glen Ord 14 Years Old
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    57.6%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Highland
    Availability
    Limited quantities worldwide
    Flavour camp
    Fruity & Spicy
    Nose

    Softly-spoken and polite; rounded and almost treacly, with no hint of the elevated abv. A little shy and almost embarrassed to show its grassy, lightly fruity side behind a gentle veil of cask influence. A judicious amount of water reveals a creamy, blackcurrant-and-apple character, and then the grassy Ord identity finally shows itself.

    Palate

    Oily and vinous, rich with dried fruits and an edge of spice and well-tanned leather. Surprisingly punchy and broad, filling the mouth with black fruits that dribble down the chin. Not too heavy on the water, or it’ll dry quickly.

    Finish

    Blackcurrants and bitter cherries.

    Conclusion

    I took extensive notes on the cask policy behind this whisky, and I still don’t fully understand it. Matured three times in five different casks, including European oak (twice), American oak, ex-PX with toasted ends and ex-Moscatel wine; then married. Slow maturation reflecting slow fermentation and maturation… A neat idea, and a decent-value whisky.

    Right place, right time

    A cosmopolitan kind of whisky for a Man of the World.

    Talisker 8 Years Old

    Talisker 8 Years Old
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    59.4%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Islands
    Availability
    Limited quantities worldwide
    Flavour camp
    Smoky & Peaty
    Nose

    Immediate nose prickle (clock the abv), followed by notes of green apple and a sulphurous waft. A slightly counter-intuitive combination of richer tropical fruit and greener, immature notes redolent of rampant hedgerow weeds in early summer. There’s smoke, but it’s an accompaniment.

    Palate

    Very smooth, given that nose prickle. The smoke is billowing and ascending now, blotting out almost all of the Talisker pepper. There’s tangy green fruit – mushy gooseberry and greengage – before the smoke turns tarry and slightly bitter. It’s all a little frenetic until water tames and calms, ekeing out white pepper and relegating the smoke.

    Finish

    With water, Talisker hoves into view.

    Conclusion

    Hard not to compare this with Lagavulin 8, another (relatively) youthful expression with a history. It lacks the Laga’s sheer vivacity, but offers great value and a new perspective on a much-loved single malt.

    Right place, right time

    ‘Thank you naivety, for failing me again’… Saved These Words.

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