Firstly I'd like to thank Ben Cops (@ben_cops) for this guest post after he attended the following event on my behalf, i think you should all go follow his blog anyway at Bens Whisky. In fact you can now read all about this on his blog here.
Every year about this time, Diageo release 10 or so whiskies as a "Special Release". This started life as the much loved "Rare Malts" range, a rather epic set of great single malts released that would have otherwise have been blended away into "stuff". The whisky makers at Diageo must look back on the blending decisions back in the late 80s with regret given the dire state of stocks across Scotland now and the prices whisky like this now fetches! Rare Malts ran from 1995 to 2001, when the Special Releases took over, and they have become an annual tradition of amazing Port Ellen and Brora, affordable Caol Ila and Lagavulin, and loads of random brilliance from Diageo's extensive stable of Scottish distilleries.
I've tasted some of them at the Whisky Exchange annual tasting last year and the year before and it has long been an ambition of mine to attend the official launch in October. This year, Tom was offered a ticket but couldn't attend and allowed me to take his place! I graciously accepted.
The Special Releases are a double edged sword. On the one hand they're official bottlings with massive care paid to them, and the obvious result is that they're all pretty wonderful. On the other, big scary hand, they're at "auction frenzy" prices. Value is in the eye of the beholder, clearly, but for me once a 2cl dram in my own house starts to cost more than a tenner, it's more than I'm prepared to spend on a drink and so even if I did buy a bottle it wouldn't get opened.
As before I'll post detailed (and sometimes gushing) tasting notes on my own blog and be a bit more high level here as Tom's blog is a little less nerdy - so here's a roundup.
Dalwhinnie, 25 years old. I don't think I've ever actually paid attention to a Dalwhinnie so I wasn't sure what to expect here and so had it first. I really enjoyed this - bright, citrussy, quite agave, it's delicious and refreshing.
The Cally, 40 years old. An ancient Caledonian single grain whisky, and that's a first for the special releases although not a first for a grain whisky (I believe that spot is taken by the multi-cask mayhem that was the Port Dundas 20yo in 2011). This is a great grain whisky, big, meaty and with proper balance and gravitas, but outrageously priced and outclassed by grain whiskies of similar age from SMWS at fraction of the price. It reminded me of Compassbox's Hedonism Quindecimus which goes to show the whisky is bloody brilliant. But £750 is taking things too far.
Dailuaine 34 year old. This was always the one to watch, as independent bottlings of this are typically fantastic and at "only" £380 this is actually pretty keenly priced for an OB 34 year old. This is deeply classy, full of orange wax, tropical fruit and perfectly balanced. An absolutely fantastic whisky, and can almost be had for a tenner a glass, and is consequently selling out on pre-order.
Pittyvaich 25 year old. I'm not sure I've had a Pittyvaich before. The distillery opened in 1974 and closed in 2002 so this whisky is almost as old as the distillery lasted. This had a restrained nose, but you have to bear in mind the environment (loud, busy and full of big whisky) - lemon wax, light oak. The delivery was delicious, very classical, with a long, tropical and spiced finish. A delicious whisky.
Clynelish NAS. This is the second NAS release and caused great controversy last year as the first NAS whisky in the Special Releases. This years' is a total blockbuster, with the youngest whisky being 15 years old and the other casks stretching into the 80s. It's sweet and truffled on the nose, muscular but feminine in the delivery and absolutely fantastic. A deeply sexy whisky.
Brora 37 years old. This is the oldest Brora in the Special Releases so far and on the nose, it's massively Brora (i.e. totally epic). Deep polished oak, meat and toffee. The whisky is absolutely delicious and everything you hoped for but the finish has too much wood for me, cloying wood tannins build up too much with repeated sips, just pulling the whisky back from perfection. Perhaps 37 years was a little too long for this whisky? Not that I'm an expert in whisky maturation. Maybe it was just because of the massive whisky I'd had before.
Port Ellen 32 years old, 15th release. This was distilled in 1983, the year the distillery closed. Presumably any non-amazing casks of Port Ellen go to Big Peat! This has an amazing nose, and very Port Ellen with sandalwood, seashells, spice and boiled sweets. There's actually quite a lot of robust peat in this release, a lot less alien than last years' and some of the other Port Ellen's I've tried.
Caol Ila Unpeated Style, 17 years old. We made the decision to bring the Brora and PE in front of the Caol Ila and the Lagavulin because we didn't want the big ones to be the last two, but this made tasting the Caol Ila rather hard. Toffee apple, salt and vinegar crisps and surprisingly peated even for an unpeated Caol Ila (which are always quite peated).
Lagavulin 12 years old. This was excellent this year, classical Lagavulin with coastal lemon, quite gentle and with a touch of wine. A real cracker.
This years' release was excellent - I've not been able to taste the whole thing before but I think the standard was universally high. The stand out whiskies for me were, weirdly, "mid" priced compared to the range. The Dailuaine is beautiful - elegant and waxed, loads of juicy fruit and totally balanced. The Pittyvaich is classical and delicious. The Clynelish is downright sexy. The "men's" whiskies (as someone described them), the Brora and Port Ellen are as epic and absolutely delicious as you would expect but both pull up just short of perfection - for me, last years' were better. I am splitting hairs because the whisky is priced for high expectations!
Thanks a million to Tom for passing me his ticket, and Diageo for letting me come! It was wonderful.