It is that time of year again, when we try Diageo’s Special Releases range of whiskies. A year ago, I gathered a group of whisky enthusiasts to taste the 2015 range, and we decided to do the same for the 2016 releases as well.
This time around, the whiskies include a rare 40-year-old single grain whisky from Cambus, a 37-year-old Port Ellen, rare single malt bottlings from Mannachmore and Linkwood, and the oldest ever Special Releases from the closed distillery of Brora and the Lowlands’ Glenkinchie.
(Distilled 1990, 51.2% ABV)
Auchroisk was actually the distillery that originated the “Singleton” brand that Diageo has been focusing on of late. The Singleton of Auchroisk was a 10-Year-Old in 1986, but was later discontinued. The Singleton name, however, is currently used by Diageo as a brand for some of their other malt whiskies, such as Glen Ord, which is currently one of the most popular malts in Malaysia. A pretty decent dram that starts off a little young tasting but develops into a creamy, buttery palate when enhanced with water.
Tasting notes: On the nose, grassy, straw notes with unripe fruits and cocoa, hints of sherry, light butteriness that comes out with a little water. On the palate, it has slightly vegetal notes, like a cucumber salad with hints of green papaya, and a nice mouth-coating creaminess, spicy on the finish.
Brora 38-Year-Old (Distilled 1977, 48.6% ABV)
This is the oldest Brora ever released in this series, and compared to the 37-Year-Old in last year’s Special Releases, this is much better by far. This is definitely a great example of why whisky from the closed Brora distillery is so sought after among whisky enthusiasts.
Tasting notes: Oh wow. We could just nose this all day. A complex, ever-evolving bouquet of solvent tea, faint smoke, ripe orchard fruits, canned apricots, ham cold cuts, smoked berries, grilled corn, pink peppercorns, mellow peat …these were just some of the notes we picked up from the nose alone. On the palate, the whisky is stunning – sweet smoke is very apparent, with beeswax, liquorice, and subtle, minty sweetness; well balanced all around. One of our tasters put it as “like a musty wet rug but in a good way”. Okaaaay.
(Distilled 1975, 52.7% ABV)
The third single grain whisky to be bottled for the Special Releases, this is the oldest bottling to be released from the closed Cambus distillery. This is simply an amazing single grain, arguably one of the best we’ve ever had. Unlike many single grains, which tend to have a young, grassy flavour no matter how old they are, this one has mellowed out to become a tropical fruit bomb.
Tasting Notes: From one stunner to another. On the nose, we got butterscotch, candy, umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur), and lots of tropical fruit notes like perfectly ripe mango, passion fruit, and even peach tea. On the palate, it’s something else – lots of tropical fruits, salted caramel, plum, and full-on candy sweetness on the finish. The best part about this whisky is the way it seemed to keep developing more and more flavours with every sip we took.
Caol Ila 15-Year-Old (Distilled 2000, 61.5% ABV)
One of the highlights of the Special Releases 2015 series was the unpeated bottling from this Islay distillery, and happily, the trick is repeated again with the current series. It’s not as good as the previous one, but this is still a pretty good, unpeated expression of the Caol Ila.
Tasting notes: On the nose, we got toffee caramel, young cognac, apricot schnapps, butterscotch, and most of all, pears and green apples, which carried through to the palate. At 61.5% ABV, this is a powerful dram that coats the palate magnificently, and opens up even more with a drop of water. “There’s that typical Caol Ila structure with the burst of flavour in the middle,” said one of our tasters.
Cragganmore (55.7% ABV)
The only non-aged statement (NAS) whisky in the range, this particular blend of Cragganmore malts comes from three different cask types – refill and rejuvenated American oak barrels, and ex-bodega European oak butts. While it is a decent dram, somehow this did not stand out much among the rest of the series.
Tasting notes: Honeydew, rock melon and bubblegum on the nose, which carry on to the palate along with almond, coconut and honey, and a slightly spicy finish. It gets sweeter with water, with jammy apple and pear notes coming through.
(Distilled 1991, 57.2% ABV)
I have to admit, Glenkinchie is not one of my favourite single malts from Diageo’s portfolio. Yes, it represents the Lowlands in the Diageo Classic Malts series, but somehow, it has never really stood out for me. This one, however, was quite an interesting dram, and might have just encouraged me to give Glenkinchie another try.
Tasting notes: It took a while for the nose to open up on this one, with subtle hints of citrus and toffee, but with a drop of water, the bouquet opens up more with more honey sweetness, and even some savoury, meaty notes. On the palate, there is sweet, light honey in the beginning, some sour lemons in the middle, and a slightly contrasting bitterness and spice in the end. Interesting, to say the least.
Lagavulin 12-Year-Old (57.7% ABV)
This is the 14th Lagavulin 12YO to be released in the Special Releases range, so this dram is more like greeting an old friend. This particular edition also commemorates the 200th anniversary of the iconic Islay distillery, so it was no surprise that its most prominent characteristic, peat, dominates this malt.
Tasting notes: On the nose, the peat is rather soft and subtle, but it’s on the palate that the peat really, really gets you. There’s some balancing saltiness and straw-like grassy sweetness as well, which finishes off sweetly with some slight, lingering peat.
Linkwood 37-Year-Old (Distilled 1978, 50.3% ABV)
From an old friend, to a relatively new one – Linkwood isn’t exactly a new distillery (it was founded in 1825), but official bottlings of this “malt-maker’s single malt” are hardly available in the market today. It’s an important component of the Johnnie Walker Green Label though, and it was no surprise that this single malt reminded us of that recently relaunched blended malt.
Tasting notes: Guava, melon fruits, and minty fresh bubblegum on the nose, and a damp grassiness, like wet grass after a storm. The guava notes carry through to the palate, as well as the mint and grassiness, with a hint of apples and raisins. A relatively short finish though, with lingering pepper and fruity notes.
Mannochmore 25-Year-Old (distilled 1990, 53.4% ABV)
Mannochmore was only established in 1971, so is it a relatively young distillery compared to the rest on this list. The 1990 Special Releases included an 18-year-old malt from the distillery that was considered to be one of the best the distillery has ever released – this one is just as good as that one.
Tasting notes: Jackfruit on the nose, white flowers, and a unique dairy creaminess tempered with malt and raisin notes. On the palate, however, this is like a “flavour bomb” – sherry dryness, baked apples, very oaky, dark chocolate, dark fruits, and a bittersweet, coffee-like finish. “A dark chocolate version of a fruit and nut chocolate bar,” said one taster.
Port Ellen 37-Year-Old (Distilled 1978, 55.2% ABV)
The Port Ellen was the highlight of the last batch of releases, and so we approached this with quite a heightened sense of anticipation. Thankfully, it didn’t disappoint, as it not only lived up to expectations, but also stamped its mark as one of the outstanding malts in this series. With a recommended retail price of £2,500 (over RM13,000), it also continues the tradition of being completely out of our price range. Sigh.
Tasting notes: Subtle and sophisticated nose, with a very soft, mellow smokiness, and salty maritime notes. On the palate, there is sea salt, seaweed, that soft peat again, tinge of bitter liquorice, and a very balanced ashiness. Some spice comes out with a little water, but doesn’t change that slightly herbal bitterness in the finish. What a whisky.
Michael Cheang swears he could still smell the sweet nose of that Brora hours after he tasted it. Drop him a note at the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page (www.facebook.com/mytipsyturvy) or follow him on Instagram (@mytipsyturvy).