The Diageo Special Release 2015: (From left) Brora 27YO, The Cally 40YO, Clynelish Select Reserve, Lagavulin 12YO, Port Ellen 32YO, CAol Ila 17YO, Dailuaine 34YO, Pittyvaich 25YO, and Dalwhinnie 25YO.
It is not often that one gets to taste a whisky that costs more than RM14,000. But that’s what the most expensive bottling in the Diageo Special Releases 2015 costs: a 32-year-old single malt from the closed Port Ellen distillery.
Diageo, as you may know, is a mega-conglomerate that is also the largest whisky producer in the world. It produces the biggest selling blended whisky in the world – Johnnie Walker, and also owns about one third of the whisky distilleries in Scotland.
Every year, Diageo puts out a range of rare, old and unusual bottlings from famous and closed distilleries under their umbrella. These bottlings are limited editions, usually bottled at cask strength, and have since become some of the most sought-after whiskies in the world.
The nine whiskies that were part of the Special Release 2015 range late last year are no exception, ranging from a unique grain whisky from a closed grain distillery, an unpeated single malt from a distillery known for its peated whiskies, and a 37-year-old from the highly-acclaimed closed Brora distillery, the oldest Brora ever bottled by Diageo.
I was recently given a chance by Diageo Malaysia to sample all nine of the Special Release bottlings, together with a few other whisky enthusiasts, including Shawn Chong, three-time winner of the Malaysian leg of the global Diageo World Class 2015 bartending competition. Considering that most of these bottlings are now sold out, this was a unique opportunity to try these old and rare bottlings.
But enough chit chat, let’s taste some whisky!
The Cally 40 Year Old (53.3% ABV)
We started off with a 40-year-old single grain whisky from Caledonian, a closed Edinburgh distillery nicknamed “The Cally” by its workers. This 2015 Special Release is the oldest Caledonian (and only single grain bottling) ever released by the original distillers.
The whisky has typical grain characteristics (including a young grassiness on the nose and palate), but is much, much mellower than many single grains I’ve had. Up front, it seems young (for a 40 year old!), and there is a bit of the grassy grain notes, ethanol, but also hints of butterscotch. On the palate, there’s fruits, coconut, a little bit of cardamom, and a fruity finish with a bit of bitterness in the end. Limited to 5,060 bottles worldwide.
Dalwhinnie 25 Year Old (48.8% ABV)
The flagship Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old is considered by many as a classic malt, and this one, a 25-year-old aged in refill American oak, is also a great whisky, though a little bit spicier than the 15YO. Floral on the nose with lavender notes and hints of spice and pepper, the palate follows the same sort of spicy, peppery path, medium bodied, and ends with a medium-long, yes, spicy finish. Limited to 5,916 bottles worldwide.
Clynelish Select Reserve (56.1% ABV)
Limited to only 2,946 bottles worldwide, this is the only non-age-statement single malt on the list, created from a selection of whiskies from ex-Bourbon first-fill American oak, rejuvenated and refill American oak and ex-bodega and refill European oak butts, with a minimum age of fifteen years. Salty and fruity on the nose, there is a distinct caramel and candied banana sweetness on the palate, and an oiliness that coats the inside of your mouth with that sweetness beautifully. With a drop of water, you get even more tropical fruit notes. A wonderful, complex whisky that is one of my favourites from the range.
Pittyvaich 25 Year Old (49.9% ABV)
Pitty-what? Of all the bottles in the 2015 Special Release, this was probably the one that got me scratching my head the most. Not only because I had never heard of this closed Speyside distillery (it was established in 1975 and shuttered in 1993), but also because the whisky itself was like nothing I had ever tried before.
It had a very, very creamy body, one that coats the inside of your mouth instantly. That was the characteristic that stood out the most for me. Otherwise, on the nose, it’s a little more esther-y than the others, and the flavour was a little disappointing, reminding me too much of a typical Speyside malt. Limited to 5,922 bottles worldwide.
Dailuaine 34 Year Old (50.9% ABV)
According to the official Diageo malts website (malts.com), this is the oldest bottling ever to come directly from the Speyside Dailuaine Distillery by a dozen years, and it is the first new bottling for six years. Aged in refill American oak casks, this, for me, was pretty robust for a Speyside malt, with lots of chocolate notes on the nose and palate, and a long, malty finish. Limited to 2,952 bottles worldwide.
Caol Ila 17 Year Old (55.9% ABV)
My second favourite whisky of the night. Created at Islay distillery Coal Ila, this is the tenth unpeated release from the brand. Distilled in 1997, it is also the oldest Coal Ila to be released in Diageo’s Special Reserve range so far.
Caol Ila is usually known for its peated whiskies, but this unpeated version was a real surprise. It’s very sweet with a very faint hint of smoke on the nose, and has that robust Caol Ila nature, and a wonderful fruity sweetness throughout the palate. As one of our tasting group pointed out, it is “signature Caol Ila without the peat”.
At around RM600 a bottle, it’s probably the best value for money as well. Unfortunately, there might not be anymore left.
Brora 37 Year Old (50.4% ABV)
The closed Brora distillery is considered a legendary single malt amongst whisky enthusiasts. Distilled in 1977 and aged in refill American oak hogshead, this 37-year-old malt (limited to 2,976 bottles worldwide) is the oldest Brora bottled by Diageo as part of its Special Releases collection.
I found this surprisingly underwhelming though, probably because we had our hopes really, really high for this bottling. It IS a great whisky though, with a great balance throughout the nose and the palate – peatiness, maltiness, fruitiness, they’re all there. A very good, very soft, subtle and balanced whisky.
Lagavulin 12 Year Old (56.8% ABV)
Lagavulin’s flagship 16-year-old is one of my favourite whiskies ever, so I was curious to see what a younger malt from the distillery would taste like. This is the thirteenth in a series of special 12-year-old releases from the original distiller’s stocks.
If anything, this gave me an indication of why the flagship Lagavulin expression is at a relatively high 16YO. In this 12YO, I had a sense that it was a little incomplete. The classic full-bodied peatiness of Lagavulin is there, but there was a slight youngness to the whisky – a little bit of grassiness in the nose here, a slight sting on the tongue there – that somehow made me miss the matured mellowness of the 16YO. It’s still a good whisky, mind you, but you can see why it is considered an “introduction to the Special Releases”.
Port Ellen 32 Year Old (53.9% ABV)
And so we come to the highlight of the night. “Sweet, intense, enigmatic and uncompromising” – that is the official description of this 32YO single malt from the closed and highly acclaimed Port Ellen distillery, which is matured in refill European Oak butts filled in 1983, which was the distillery’s last year of production. The bottling is limited to 2,964 bottles worldwide.
This truly lives up to the Port Ellen reputation. A wonderful peatiness and sweetness on the nose, hints of tobacco, entry is sweet, but the peat slowly creeps up on you in the mouth as does a sweet, peachy fruitiness that manages to balance it all out. This truly is a great whisky, though at approximately RM14,000 a bottle, it had better be!
Michael Cheang is truly thankful to Diageo for giving him a chance to taste all those wonderful whiskies, and wishes he was rich enough to buy all the stock of the Port Ellen in the world. Drop him a note at the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page.