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Special Releases 2020 Lagavulin 12 & Talisker 8

‘We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.’¹

These releases give me the perfect opportunity to kick off this article with one of my favourite quotes. The reasoning and question in my mind is; what’s special nowadays? It’s a word utilised by marketeers who are fond of other examples such as limited edition, rare, old, exclusive… et cetera. There’s no tangible meaning and it is open to interpretation. For instance, the 2020 instalment of Diageo’s Special Releases; are these special compared to Diageo’s exclusive Forgotten Drop series? Do they represent the pinnacle, a memorable proposition or a well-established pathway to bring in more revenue without too much effort?

I’ve already stated that these releases are no longer special in my mind, but I’m open to the possibility, that to some out there, they do represent an annual highlight. A treat from their usual staple whiskies and a chance to take in something else. That’s cool and as we’re constantly reminded by emails we receive looking for advice on whiskies – there’s a whole market out there looking for value and quality at different levels.

Perhaps what makes these releases special is the packaging? Some eye-catching labels and impressive design to finish off the complete experience. When Adam kindly sent up some samples (yes, he doesn’t just buy cider, folks), they arrived housed within the Lagavulin 12 bottle tube. I felt a slight itch of acceptance when faced with the tube. A snazzy look which in turn leads to a higher price tag, but we’ll come to that soon enough.

The cynical voice inside my head suggested that such a design revamp is Diageo’s attempt to elevate the Special Releases to another plateau. One where the collectors and investors graze on unopened bottles and the flesh of other bottle chasers. That might be true of some of the more exclusive releases from the likes of Dalwhinnie and the blemish on distilling that is Pittyvaich, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who buys such releases on a regular basis from the series. Sure, Port Ellen and Brora always possessed a certain closed appeal. Now, they’ve been pulled unless you’re looking to pay car prices for a fancy 40 year old, as stocks are becoming less and we have the reopening, or Frankensteinisation, of the distilleries later this decade.

I’m so out of synch with these annual releases I hadn’t actually realised the price of these releases until now. Namely, £85 for the Talisker and an eye-watering £125 for the Lagavulin. I’m quite surprised by the latter although Diageo has always tried to pitch this as a classic distillery, but of late, its whiskies haven’t hit that benchmark. More often than not, Lagavulin has become a byword of mundane and mediocre. So, on paper at least, the pricing sets a high expectation.

The Lagavulin 12 has a more traditional make-up, being aged in refill American oak casks and bottled at 56.4% strength. This is still widely available which possibly is a reflection of the price with Master of Malt requesting £125 and The Whisky Exchange also expecting £125 of your hardearned cash. The Talisker 8 year old was finished in ex-pot still Caribbean rum casks and bottled at 57.9% strength. Expect to pay £89.95 via Master of Malt or The Whisky Exchange will also demand £88.95.

Speaking of expectations, I do have to mention how Adam kindly labelled these samples! One being dubbed distinctly-meh releases 2020 and the other coming under not-that-special releases 2020. Hopefully, I’ve not given the game away as I’ve yet to try these and who knows… maybe we’re in for a good surprise.

So far then, there’s nothing special about the Special Releases. The last bastion of hope is the liquid itself. To give us some perspective on these releases I’ve roped in Adam and also Emma from Todo Whisky, where potentially in Spain, these releases are seen as very special; possible because all that Scotland normally sends over is Cardhu. Interestingly, Emma did confirm that this is only the second year that Spain has received the Special Releases, so they are indeed especial and maybe even extraordinario? Fortunately, Emma managed to get ahold of the Talisker to give her opinion.

Lagavulin 12 Year Old Special Releases 2020 – Adam’s review

Colour: Very pale gold.

On the nose: Visceral. Sweet peat, tar, hessian, germoline and malty grist. It’s pretty well-defined. Not a big, fat, broad nose, nor especially deep. There’s not a huge amount of cask here. A little vanilla biscuit maybe. Brackish. Kelp.

In the mouth: A confluence of vanillin sweetness and light toffee fudge with dank, earthy, tarry soil, old rope and smouldering embers. It’s not a bad showcase of Lagavulin distillate but the alcohol is sharp and fearsome; the whole thing seems, if not unrefined, then a little raw.

Score: 6/10

Lagavulin 12 Year Old Special Releases 2020 – Jason’s review

Colour: A lightly faded tan.

On the nose: A salty coastal peat, help and an earthy honey. Port scratching with the emphasis on fatty. Tarpaulin, coal dust, oily and a hint of bubblegum. Rounding it off are brown sugar and dried reeds. Adding water showcases more fruity with the emphasis on apples, oily and limes.

In the mouth: The peat provides a solid foundation. A freshly garden covering of bark, coastal with smoked haddock and salt. More coal dust, kindly, lemon rind and tablet. Adding water brings out cardboard and bacon bits – better at cask strength.

Score: 5/10

Loses a point for taking the proverbial with pricing.

Moving onto the Isle of Skye…

Talisker 8 Year Old Special Releases 2020 – Adam’s review

Colour: Pretty much the same as the Lagavulin.

On the nose: Ooft. Not for me, I’m afraid. There’s a vegetal, cabbage-water, green salty quality to the smoke. Raw dough. Petrichor. Bacon, candied lemons, iodine. This, to me, feels underdeveloped. Undercooked. Immature.

In the mouth: A little rounder than the Lagavulin, but less defined and less complex. Flavours a bit muddled and alcohol violent in its attack. A tiny bit of orchard fruit. Chilli peppers. Vanilla and gingernut biscuits. Sticking plasters and thin, reedy cigarette ash. Fades to lanolin. Just feels like raw spirit. Docking a point for the price too.

Score: 3/10

Adam’s Conclusions

I have a soft spot for Lagavulin. It was my best friend’s favourite. It is possibly the distillery whose whisky I have drunk most with my father (perhaps behind Arran). This one is ok. It is a decent, cask strength, pretty well-defined Lagavulin. I’d describe it as a solid release. But “special”? Really, truly, special? I think I’d have to argue the toss.

As to the Talisker, I’m thinking back to the 2018 release and am pretty gutted that I shelled out for this follow-up. A lot of people have said a lot of very positive things about it, so perhaps it simply isn’t for me, but to my taste it was hugely incomplete, raw, violent and all over the place. Especially at the asked-for price. Considering the quality of 8 year old malts available elsewhere (I’m looking particularly at Kilkerran here, but others, especially independently bottled, also apply), considering the quality that many of the Special Releases have, genuinely, historically hit and considering the quality of which Skye’s oldest distillery is capable, I’m enormously disappointed. This Special Release is the Emperor’s New Talisker.

Talisker 8 Year Old Special Releases 2020 – Emma’s review

Colour: Light hay.

On the nose: Nice peat smoke and light salt notes in the foreground. A touch of tropical fruit, grilled pineapple, bananas, mango. Even a citrus note. There are sweet caramel aromas, with brown sugar notes and a heather note. With a bit of water, the heather and floral notes gain presence. Then the whisky gets fresher and, the peat smoke goes to the background.

In the mouth: Oily and thick at first, there’s a spicy & citrus explosion bursting in the palate. Then it becomes more buttery, with salted caramel cookie notes. A souvenir of licorice. There’s also artisan chocolate and toasted coffee. Slowly, the spicier side comes to the foreground, towards a heated end with a chili touch. The finish is medium, with a bursting start that fades to a spicy, dry, and lightly peated end.

Emma’s Conclusions

I fell in love with the Talisker 8 from the 2018 DSR, but this one doesn’t feel the same. I like the younger Talisker at a higher ABV. Tasting it blindly, I wouldn’t say much against this whisky (I can see Jason stunned while reading this sentence). The finish is shorter than expected, but I quite like this dry finish in Talisker.

The problem here is that I can’t seem to find those Jamaican rum notes in the whisky. Yes, there are some sweet caramel notes, but it could be rum, or a thousand different things. Forgetting the rum thing aside (and the rise in the price it implies), I’d happily have one dram or two.

This is probably a 5 or a 6 in “Malt” scoring system, but for those who do not have that much access to the beautiful wide range of scotch whisky, it gets a 7/10.

Score: 7/10

Talisker 8 Year Old Special Releases 2020 – Jason’s review

Colour: a light haze.

On the nose: a sweet peat leads proceedings, less coastal and more confectionery. Sugary, brown toast, candy floss and rock candy. With time some bacon elements and heather but surprisingly non-Talisker.

In the mouth: a rather confused palate. The sweetness of the peat now feels unbalanced and confused. There’s a clash. Some apples, brown sugar and salty in parts. Grapefruit and a zesty lime but this is the most un-Talisker Talisker I’ve had in memory.

Score: 4/10

Jason’s Conclusions

I’m still taken aback by how inept and soulless the Talisker is in the glass. As a fan of this distillery, we’ve seen an erosion in quality and style in recent times. People might find this acceptable and a neat twist on the No Age Statement Taliskers, but I’m far from happy.

The rum finish doesn’t work here and that’s the bottom line. Whether that’s poor cask choice or bad blending I don’t know. I’m all for experimentation and new horizons. I’m also for the kitchen sink when things don’t turn out too well. In my mind, Diageo has slipped up here. They’ve tried to offer a short finish on what we know is a solid whisky at this age. In doing so, they’ve designed something to drop into the Special Releases format.

Ask yourself why we’ve never had a Talisker finished in rum casks before? The reason is in this bottle and for £89, you’re paying over the odds for something that is terribly mundane and confused.

Fortunately, the Lagavulin is better but we’re seeing so many releases from this distillery at higher strengths and with this cask make-up. The end result is what makes this one so special? Nothing. Those who love Laga will snap it up, although I’ve heard rumblings over the price this year. If you buy this release then you’ll just encourage Diageo to keep pushing up the price.

This is a solid Lagavulin, which I’d pitch circa £75 as being reasonable. However, at £125, its no surprise this is still available and for such audacity, or greed, I’ll deduct a point.

So, what’s special? Frankly, nothing, nada, diddly-squat…

¹ Stephen Hawking, interview, Der Spiegel, October 1988.

The Second image kindly provided by The Whisky Exchange, with the lead being taken by Emma. And we’ve included some handy commission links if you are feeling special and want to support Malt. But please remember to shop around, as these releases by their very nature will be widely distributed.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Anders Larson says:

    I remember a few years ago grabbing the Lagavulin 12 (2015 edition I think) for about $100, which at the time was the most I’d ever spent on a bottle of whisky. I loved it, and at that price I’d circle back. But the recent release is now appearing for about $160-175 around me in Minnesota, which is really unfortunate (and for a 12 year old! I mean, come on…). I’ll have to take solace in the Lagavulin 8 which I find to be solid and a much more palatable ~$45… Skål!

  2. Avatar
    Welsh Toro says:

    I didn’t bother with either of them. I couldn’t see the point of the rum finish on the Talisker and the price is way too high. Most people think it’s no competition for the last two releases. As for the Lagavulin 112 – Well, I’ve been telling everyone I know to stop buying it. It’s increased 25% in price in the last two years without any appreciable reason why and it’s just the same stuff anyway. It was too expensive at £100 but £125 is ridiculous. It’s not rare or special in any way and Diageo are just trying to see what they can get away with. The more people that keep buying all of the overpriced whisky on the market the more the whisky business will try it on. This is just one example of so many. WT

    1. Avatar
      Kian says:

      And then you have TWE basically sticking an extra £20 per year on each vintage of the Laga 12s as if there is some huge difference in quality, and the DE increase takes that greed/insanity to a whole new level – who is gonna pay £375 for a 1996 Laga DE its a £70/80 bottle and always will be as is the 12 Year.

  3. Avatar
    Thropplenoggin says:

    The market is bonkers at present – I’ve just seen a new Ardbeg 25 y.o. priced at £710! – and these ‘Special Releases’ are partaking of the new gold rush. If people are daft enough to pay, they’ll keep charging it, I suppose.

    There is better value at the lower end (10-15 year) if you know what you like and where to look, so that’s where I spend.

    1. Avatar
      Craig says:

      I agree there’s much better value at the lower end, comfortably below £100. I also find people are wary of shouting too much about some of these gems for fear they become more expensive or part of the flipper-mania.
      Just look at how hard it is to get a CS12 springbank at the intended price unless you know someone in trade.
      I imagine that’s also why malt and others refrain from the “best buys under £XYZ” lists like some tend to do for the clickbait.

      1. Avatar
        Thropplenoggin says:

        Well put!

        It’s crazy how these things sneak up – anything with an 18 y.o. age statement on it is now often well over £100 (e.g. Bunna, Springbank, etc.) – and “WhiskyTube” click bait videos play their part in driving up demand, as well as flippers who’ve no intention of drinking the contents.

        Now THE Glenturret is positioning itself for the well-heeled, definite-article-loving THE Macallan crowd. £105 for their 15 y.o., £949 for the 25 y.o.! Bonkers money.

        1. Jason
          Jason says:

          Hi Thropplenoggin

          I could maybe stretch for the 15yo, as the 12 is really good. But beyond that, the prices are just nonsense. Just like Balblair rebranding, any good will or loyalty is lost. We just cannot afford those prices.

      2. Jason
        Jason says:

        Hi Craig

        Yeah, we don’t do the clickbait stuff. Even when we try to bring some value releases or good whiskies that we’ve found – more often than not, they sell out before we’ve even started the article!

    2. Avatar
      Dan W says:

      I agree there is better value in the 10-15 year range. But producers are trying to push these prices up.

      A few months ago I was thinking of grabbing a bottle of the Bladnoch 10 that Ralfy goes on and on and on and on and on about (seriously has he got shares in the distillery or something?) Figuring it would be around the £40 mark and worth a try. I was shocked to see they want £60 for a 10 year old at standard strength.

      So I gave it a pass at that price. But it’s now sold out so others obviously haven’t. Which might mean the price of other 10 year olds will now creep up.

      1. Jason
        Jason says:

        Hi Dan

        Bladnoch isn’t the distillery it was, I miss the old sheep and cattle labels. Simple and honest without any lavish design and packaging. Keeps the prices low!

  4. John
    John says:

    The new labels do make me forget for a bit that these are bottled by Diageo. Luckily I can snap back to reality and remember fancier packaging usually compensates for duller contents.

      1. Avatar
        Dan W says:

        Interesting article.

        The Lagavulin 16 was the first single malt I ever tried 15 years ago, back when it was good. So I have a soft spot for the distillery. I really like the 12 and it’s the only bottle out of their line up I bother with anymore. I know it’s spirit driven and fairly uncomplicated. But I love the sheer power of it. I used to buy it most years. But I’ve not brought the last two releases. Over £100 a bottle is taking the ****

        The thing is though. Many whisky drinkers moaning about the price of the Laga 12 at £125 will happily pay £170 for a 5 year old Octomore.

        Anything over £100 is a serious purchase for me. I only spend that sort of cash on a bottle a few times in a year. I just don’t have that sort of disposable income. I’m not paying that for a whisky that is barely out of nappies.

        Too many people moan about prices getting too high but still pay them. I boycott anything I think is overpriced. If more people did the same. They wouldn’t sell as much whisky and the prices would stop going up.

        1. Jason
          Jason says:

          Hi Dan

          Thanks, there is something psychological about the £100 barrier even today. I agree with the Octomore view as Bruichladdich gets away with blue murder on pricing – people are so wrapped up in the brand that they don’t actually stop to think. These are same folk that criticise Springbank for their local barley prices, which when you think about all the effort that goes into one, are well worth the money!

          Cheers, Jason.

  5. Avatar
    Rob says:

    Totally agree with the Talisker views. The 2018 was sensational and I think they are dining out on that memory with this release. Very disappointing.

    I’ve not tried the Laga, if it was £90 I would have bought one at the same time as the Talisker, but at that price, I’ll pass.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Rob

      I cannot fathom why some really like the Talisker. Maybe we’re missing something? I’m a big fan of the distillery and this release was just a confused car crash.

      Cheers, Jason.

  6. Avatar
    bifter says:

    I’m not a huge fan of rum finished whisky, I don’t like the Balvenie Caribbean 14 nor even particularly the Springbank 18 (better batten the hatches!) So it’s no surprise to hear that this Talisker doesn’t fare any better. I think rum casks are one of those things, like Cognac casks, that sound like they should work but rarely pay off.

    I was once gifted a bottle of Talisker in a wooden box by a relative who doesn’t drink whisky. She had done some work for a company around 10 years prior and had been given this specially commissioned bottling to commemorate their first year of operation. The front label didn’t give anything away but it was lovely stuff, plenty of depth and character, smoke and pepper. It was only slowly that the realisation dawned on me that I was merely drinking the standard 10 but from a decade ago! Years ago I used to hear it suggested that an age statement whisky would often have a good dollop of something older to round it out. I wonder if, among the other reasons for the decline in quality, this practice has pretty much ceased?

    On the point about pricing, yes, these are silly prices. However in recent years practically every producer and IB has increased prices dramatically for single cask or small batch offerings. The Burn Stewart stable, for example, regularly quote upwards of £100 for 10, 12 year old single cask releases of Bunnahabhain or Tobermory. Glenallachie recently flooded the market with (mostly PX-finished) single cask releases, all 9-12 years old and £90 up. As far as I can see, and I’m not someone to cut them much slack, Diageo are just trying to keep up!

    1. John
      John says:

      I’m not a fan of rum finished whisky as well. But I think something most don’t ask is what kind of rum used to be in the cask? If it’s the multi column distilled stuff like Bacardi or Brugal, then it’s more of a gimmick as those kinds of light rum won’t really lend any flavor to the whisky. But what if we start seeing whisky being aged or finished in ex-Jamaican rum casks? Those will be very different.

      I’ve tried the rum they use to season the rum casks for Balvenie 14. It’s a customary blend that’s mostly Barbados rum. It’s flavorful rum but I think the rum needs more kick or needs to spend more time in the barrels to give more rum influence to the whisky.

      1. Avatar
        bifter says:

        That’s a good point. Rum casks introduce a plethora of possibilities, just the rum-casked whiskies I’ve tried haven’t done it for me.

        1. John
          John says:

          I think it will be a while before we see any more proper rum cask aged whiskys. With the rum trend going strong, more rum will start to be aged. Maybe the big boys will start to buy more rum brands/distilleries to get in on the action. Just look at Campari buying Trois Revieres and another Agricole brand. I expect them to roll out some Glen Grants matured or finished in ex appleton casks.

    2. Avatar
      Thropplenoggin says:

      Springbank 18 gets a tough time, but I splashed out on the 2019 – my first £100 purchase – and have enjoyed it immensely. I think Serge on Whiskyfun mentions just how well balanced the blend of 88% ex-bourbon and 12% ex-port is.

      It’s pale and has a wonderful strawberries-and-cream nose, and allows one t experience that Springbank distillate. I’m not sure what people were expecting with that cask make-up?!

      Anyway, I’m now trying hard to find something with a similar profile.

      1. Avatar
        bifter says:

        I was referencing a Springbank I tried at a whisky show and had it in my mind that the 18 usually had some rum casked whisky in it but it was some years ago now. Springbank do like to play around with the cask make-up but I could be thinking of a 15 year old, difficult to recall now. I’d certainly try the Springbank 18 again as there is a lot of batch variation too.

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