It’s that time of year again: Diageo has released the line-up for the yearly shiny-fest of The Special Releases. It looks like it might be a more egalitarian stack of drams than in some previous years – even after the Port Ellen and Brora fell out of the range last year, the prices started feeling a little pushed.
Anyways, this year’s announcement gave us the distillery and age of each whisky, along with a vaguely cryptic comment about it. Below are my predictions of what each of the hints means, and an update with what they actually meant, once we found out…
Update: You can find my full tasting notes over on The Whisky Exchange blog – The Diageo Special Releases 2019.
Cardhu 14 Years Old
A supremely elegant and unique expression of our warm-hearted Speyside Scotch.
The only word that stands out here is “unique”, and while it’s an overly used word in the Scotch-whisky-marketing lexicon, I trust the folks behind these descriptions to not have used it without at least some reason. If we’re looking at an elegant 14-year-old we’re not talking new oak or dechar/rechar*, so I’m thinking it’s some kind of refill vatting, with a chunk of old sherry casks in there. This is the most wishy washy of all my predictions, and it’s the first of them…
Update: Almost, but not quite. It was matured in amontillado hogsheads – the most elegant of sherry casks, and something uncommon, if not unique in the world of Cardhu.
Cragganmore 12 years Old
A complex and intriguing bottling that combines Speyside elegance with a touch of spice and smoke.
The mention of smoke is the key here – Diageo are generally quite conservative when talking about smoke, as you would be after decades of experience of talking to consumers about as divisive a flavour as peat. So, I suspect this does have some smoky influence, and as I’ve not heard of any peated distillation going on at Cragganmore (although I’m sure they’ve done experimental runs) I’m hoping this is a peaty cask experiment. Again, the conservativeness of Diageo would come into play, as peaty casks are quite nu-skool in approach, however, I’m fairly sure that they’ve already tried pretty much every experiment the other distillers have, and have stocks ready to go if any of them are successful.
So, I’ll go for peated cask Cragganmore. Maybe with some dechar/rechar in the mix to hit the ‘touch of spice’ hint. If it is, then it could be the most interesting Special Release since the ‘how many different cask types?’ 20-year-old release of Port Dundas in 2011.
Update: Close, but it’s actually peated spirit – they have been making peated spirit there, or at least doing experimental runs, and this is that spirit. It was matured in refill American oak, and the spice and smoke is all from the spirit.
Dalwhinnie 30 Years Old
An extra matured and unusual older expression which retains its undeniably gentle character.
Unusual is an intriguing and worrying word, and ‘extra matured’ could mean a finish or just older than usual. I suspect the latter, so: aged for a long time, but with something done to it to make it strange enough that they feel the need to both point out and reassure the reader that it’s still the Dalwhinnie we know and love. Diageo’s secret weapon when it comes to whisky is decades of experimentation with finishing casks, and I suspect that’s what they’ve been playing with here.
However, when it comes to interesting casks, they don’t usually get anywhere near Dalwhinnie, so the ‘unusual’ is probably not all that unusual in the grand scheme of things. Even the recent Distillery Only bottling was made by juggling bourbon and oloroso sherry casks, albeit in interesting combinations. I’m going to go for a long-aged bourbon cask Dalwhinnie with a port finish. I suspect I’m entirely wrong.
Update: The ‘unusual’ here is due to it being made during a period where the distillery’s trademark worm tubs were replaced with shell and tube condensers. These strip out more sulphur compounds from the spirit, leading to a lighter whisky at the end. The switch totally changed Dalwhinnie’s character and they put the worms back in shortly after, and I’ve never heard of the shell-and-tube spirit ever being released on its own before. The whisky itself is intriguing, soft and with lots of layers.
Lagavulin 12 Years Old
A truly spirited, yet youthful expression from our iconic Islay distillery, our home for over 200 years.
This one is the most predictable: it’ll be a bourbon-cask-matured 12-year-old whisky. Like it usually is. The mention of youthfulness makes me thing there’ll be a higher concentration of refill casks in the mix and that it’ll show off more of the raw Lagavulin spirit character. Which makes me happy.
Why mention the 200 years? Are Diageo just feeling left out now that the Lagavulin bicentenary has passed and they’ve not got any more birthdays to celebrate? It’s only three years until they hit a quarter century themselves…
Update: It’s all refill American oak – perfect for showing off the character of Lagavulin itself.
Pittyvaich 29 Years Old
A rare sighting from this ghost distillery that delivers a mature and smooth single malt.
Rare is a strange word. Yes, Pittyvaich is rare: it closed in 1993 after only 19 years of operation and never really caused much of a stir while it was about. A few casks made their way out into the indie and blending world, but they don’t turn up very often, in part as the distillery doesn’t have a very good reputation. As a former colleague pointed out: it’s the perfect distillery to collect whiskies from, as there’s a very good chance you could actually buy them all.
However, Diageo can’t really call it rare when the only real avenue for releasing an official bottling is in the Special Releases and they’ve released one in two out of the past four years. The bottlings in question were a 25-year-old in 2015 and a 28-year-old in 2018, so a 29-year-old in 2019 is either a nice way to see how the pile of same-vintage casks are developing or just another Pittyvaich. I’m hoping it’s something incredibly interesting, but I suspect it’ll be just a slightly weird tasting vatting of refill bourbon casks like usual.
So, a PX and olosoro finish. Not a boring bourbon cask. Well played, Diageo.
Mortlach 26 Years Old
The Beast of Dufftown at its most impressive
As I hinted at in my round-up of the announcement on The Whisky Exchange Blog, this is the whisky that I most want to be one thing when it almost certainly will be another.
The Mortlach 25 Year Old released as part of the ill-fated 50cl bottle, luxury Mortlach range – now discontinued and semi-publicly apologised for – remains one of my top whiskies of all time, and almost certainly my favourite Mortlach. It’s a bourbon-cask dram, unlike the usual sherry-matured fare we see from the distillery, and while I’d love this 26-year-old to be similar, I doubt it. Sherry is what Mortlach is best known for, and what people want – I suspect the people will get it.
So, a sherry-matured (mixture of refill and first-fill finish) whisky, which will probably be announced as ‘the oldest Mortlach in Diageo’s stocks’.
Like the Pittyvaich, a mixture of PX and oloroso casks. These ones are specifically first-fill, and if the whisky has been in them for 26 years then I expect this will be a beast of a sherried dram. The public will be pleased. I will dig out the remains of my bourbon-cask 25-year-old sample to toast the passing of my favourite style of Mortlach.
Talisker 15 Years Old
A sweet, yet deep and spicy bottling layered with unmistakeable maritime flavours.
There’s always one bottle in the Diageo Special Releases that even us jaded whisky geeks get excited about. Last year it was the Talisker 8 Year Old and this year, to continue the theme, it’s a Talisker 15 Year Old.
When it comes to the descriptions that came with the announcement, this is the one that has the most potential for excitement. Not only is it an older Talisker, where often the rawness of the distillery’s ‘made by the sea’ punchiness has been tamed slightly, but it is promised to be ‘sweet, yet deep and spicy’, words that hint heavily at sherry casks. Without the Caol Ila Highland release – unpeated, often sherry matured whisky, usually bottled in the teens – the Special Releases 2019 has a definite hole that could be filled by a mellow, sherry-matured 15-year-old Talisker. I hope this is that whisky…
Update: Again, almost but not quite – it’s definitely not mellow. It’s gone dark, but has some proper weight.
The Singleton of Glen Ord 18 Years Old
A different and delicious spicier expression previously never bottled.
Being different and spicier to any other Ord previously bottled isn’t much of a challenge. I do love the old Ords and the Singleton bottlings from the distillery are my favourite in the range, but they’re never that different from the norm, and are all the better for it.
So, different and spicier: I think it’s time for some dechar/rechar or virgin oak Ord. Either a finish or full maturation for the former, or just a finish for the latter, but either way they’re going to kick up the wood influence. If you know my thoughts on wood and whisky, you can probably guess that this isn’t high on my most-wanted list, but I do really like Ord, so I’ll give it a chance. I just hope the spirit can stand up to it.
‘Lively rich fruit and spiced oak’ – sounds like it’s going down a sherry cask route…
Now to wait until October to find out whether I was right…
You can find more of my thoughts on the range over on The Whisky Exchange Blog.
* dechar/rechar – casks that have had the insides scraped (usually by some kind of excellent whirling flail) to remove the top layer of oak that’s already seen whisky, revealing newer oak underneath, before being recharred. This gives a new kick of life to a cask, not only giving it more fresh wood, but also a new layer of char.