‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.