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…
The Singleton range of whiskies is a monster. I don’t mean that in a necessarily bad way, but like many monsters it is misunderstood, not particularly appreciated and big. Probably too big. However, after a promise of demonsterification a few years ago, it looks like we might finally be making progress. Step one, simplify the range and launch a new entry level bottle – introducing The Singleton Malt Master’s Selection.
Hot on the heels of this month’s first birthday Whisky Squad the chaps managed to squeeze in another a mere two weeks later. Offered the back room at The Gunmakers for a larger than usual whisky and dinner affair they took up the challenge and matched the occasion with Diageo’s Colin Dunn, returning for his second leading of an evening. The theme this time was ‘Side by Side’ – we would be blind tasting six whiskies in pairs, with each pair having a connection, giving us three mini vertical tastings through the evening.
To start us off Colin pulled out an extra aperitif from his bag. Keeping the whisky secret, as usual, he matched this with a Maltesers easter bunny and instructed us to munch, sniff and sip our way through the first glass. On the nose there wasn’t a lot, with high alcohols and a hint of sweet wood. The lightness continued into the taste, but with a bit more to it than the nose – a hint of rubber, sweet orange and marmelade, a little bit of ripe vine fruit, and a sour, bitter wood finish. A drop of water brought out apples and pears, icing sugar and orange cream. Noone had much of an idea of what it might be and it was revealed to be Cameron Brig. Made at Cameron Bridge grain distillery near Leven in Fife, this is one of the only commercially available bottlings of single grain whisky on the market, although it’s not particularly easy to find. I’m a fan of older grain whiskies, but haven’t tried any younger ones before this – I can detect the flavours I like from grain whiskies in there, but they are masked by the youngness of the spirit (it’s not got an age statement, but I suspect it’s not particularly old or matured in active casks). Give this a couple more years in a barrel and I suspect it’d be right up my street.
Dinner was then run in and scoffed, leading us on to our first pair of whiskies. #1 was quite a dark bronzed gold colour and had a dry nose with an underlying meatiness, hints of sherbet lemons, dry oxidised sherry (Spanish style Amontillado?), yeast and a lick of smoke. To taste there was bread, dry fruit cake, caramel, dark chocolate, a touch of smokey spice and a sweet woody finish. Water homogenised the flavours into something sweet and bready – a red grape jam sandwich?
Number 2 was light gold and a bit more aggressive on the nose, with TCP, a bit of peat smoke, sherbet lemons, sweet fruit and a bit of sticky toffee – Colin identified that last flavour as being like Blue Bird hard toffee that he used to eat when growing up. To taste it started with sweet syrup and moved through sour fruit to a sour, lingering wood ash finish and a bit of a boozey burn. Water calmed down the booze, sweetened up the middle a bit and added a bit of muddy mulch to the finish.
The concealing labels came off to reveal that #1 was Johnnie Walker Black Label and #2 Caol Ila Distiller’s Edition. The connection was that the light smokiness in the first comes, in part, from a slug of Caol Ila in the blend, along with some Talisker and whatever else Diageo have in the smokey section of their extensive warehouses. Black Label is a fairly decent blend and does what it sets out to – have a bit of everything at the same time as being worryingly easy to drink. The Caol Ila was one that I’d not tried before, initially thinking it to be the cask strength version I tried at the Whisky Lounge Independent’s Day tasting. However, it was a bit sweeter than I remembered and that fits with the production method – the spirit is finished for 3 months in moscatel casks, adding a bit of wine fruit to the mix. Surprisingly, based on it’s current status as an increasingly respected Islay whisky (including winning a bunch of medals over the last few years at the San Francisco World Spirits competition, including ‘Best Single Malt Scotch Whisky’ for the Distiller’s Edition this year), before 2002 there were only independent bottlings, with 99% of its production going into Diageo’s blends. They released a 12, 18 and 25 year old back then and the range has continued to change and increase since, with the distillery now undergoing expansion to keep up with ongoing single malt demand.
To start the next pair number 3 had a rather ‘industrial’ nose, with me picking out a light rubberiness and the rest of the table chipping in with motor oil and burning tires. Along with that were lemons, brine, marzipan and a general savoury umami. To taste there was salt, more rubber, white pepper and raisins, leading to a sweet fruit finish. Water calmed things down, with butter, bread and hot cross buns appearing.
Number 4 was announced as being 14 years old, which was enough to convince me that I knew the whiskies and what the connection was. In the end I got the right distillery, but didn’t get the expression right for this one. On the nose it was rich and fruity, with wax, bananas, pineapple and glacé cherries. To taste there was lots of woody spice, rich fruit and woody smoke, with salt, a peppery burn and a lemon sherbet finish. Water simplified things to a syrupy sweetness with a hint of pepper.
When the bottles were revealed it wasn’t a surprise that number 3 was Clynelish 12 year old but I was taken aback that #4 wasn’t the regular 14 year old, my favourite everyday whisky of the moment, but was instead the Clynelish Distiller’s Edition. I’ve written a bit about the distillery before, but since then it’s very much become one of my faves. I’ve got a half bottle of the 12 year old in the cupboard, will have another bottle of the 14 next time I go on a whisky buying run, and now have the distiller’s edition firmly stuck in my brain. Similar to the Caol Ila, it is a sweeter and richer version of the regular bottling, having been finished in oloroso sherry casks.
The final pair started off with number 5 and a plate of fruit cake to accompany the drams. On the nose it was quite light, with sweet cream and butter, and a bit of red fruit. To taste it was woody, with the fruit and cream from the nose leading to a sour, but buttery, wood finish. Water didn’t help it much, knocking out a lot of the flavour and leaving it just syrupy and sweet.
Number 6 had a bit more, with a nose of sweet grass, vanilla, light cream, unripe grapes, plums, stewed fruit and a hint of cheese rind. To taste it was quite green in the middle, with nettles and leaves, starting with a salty butter and ending with a gravelly minerality and quite a lot of alcoholic fire. Water killed the burn leaving the butter and gravel, and introducing some sweet and salty shortbread.
Again the connection was easy to see on the reveal, with the bottles being The Singleton of Dufftown 15 year old and Dufftown 1997 Managers’ Choice. I had a bottle of The Singleton of Dufftown shortly after it came out and wasn’t that impressed, but it seems that the mix of my changing tastes and their gradual changes to the bottling over the years have matched it more closely with my likes (especially as this is a different bottling to the regular 12 year old – thanks to Jason for pointing that out in the comments). The Singleton range has a different distillery for each territory it’s released in, with Europe having Dufftown, the US Glendullan and Asia Glen Ord. The Manager’s choice is rather more interesting – a single cask selected by the manager of the distillery as a ‘distillation’ of what their spirit is about and bottled as part of a rather exclusive range of pricy bottlings. The Dufftown bottle of the range is from a rejuvenated cask, where they plane down the staves of a tired cask and retoast them to give the barrel a bit more life, and with this whisky coming in at 11 years and 11 months old and picking up a good chunk of flavour from the wood it seems to work.
So, another Whisky Squad done and a successful second expansion into the big room. Next week’s one is back in our cosy upstairs cupboard and is all about Highlanders, courtesy of Berry Brother & Rudd’s Rob Whitehead. Keep an eye on the Whisky Squad twitter feed and website if you’re around on May 5th as last minute spots do have a habit of popping up…
Single grain Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£20
Johnnie Walker Black Label
Blended Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£25
Caol Ila 1996 Distiller’s Edition
Single malt Scotch whisky, 43%. ~£50
Clynelish 12 year old “Friends of the Classic Malts”
Single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£30
Clynelish 1992 Distiller’s Edition
Single malt Scotch whisky, 46%. ~£30
Singleton of Dufftown 15 Year Old
Single malt Scotch whisky, 40%. ~£40
Dufftown 1997 Managers’ Choice
Single cask single malt Scotch whisky, 59.5%. ~£200
Many thanks to Alan for letting me use his piccies after I singularly failed to take any that worked…