In the history of Malt we have often accepted samples from various suppliers.
These have ranged from full bottles such as from Ukrainian Scyfion to more regular press samples such as the Glencadam sets. Being offered samples is incredibly useful for us reviewers, as it allows us to pass on experiences beyond our own spending choices, be that on full bottles or whisky tasting events. I often make conservative rather than risky choices when buying full bottles and end up sticking largely to familiar distilleries, much to my personal frustration at times.
Without samples we would not have been able to bring you the wonderfully eccentric world of Eastern European wines and wine cask finishing from Scyfion. Press samples come with no expectations, no requirements, no proof of engagement in the way that paid collaborations on social media do. We don’t commit to review them at all. And we certainly don’t feel obliged to give them a good score. That’s the independence that Malt is renowned for.
I was offered a tasting pack from the Diageo 2021 Special Releases. This range represents a selection of whiskies that never enticed me enough to make a purchase. The launch is usually a very glitzy affair with the great and the good amassed to experience the releases that Diageo feel are extra special from the distilleries within their portfolio. Mark attended the 2016 event and gave a flavour of the pre-covid glamour. Mark also gives a good review of the background to the range. In summary, it was historically quite an event, not least due to the rare release of old Port Ellen and Brora from the Diageo stocks.
Interestingly, the 38-year-old Brora released in 2016 would have set you back £1,450 but can still be found on collectable sites for about £800 extra. The 40-year-old released out with the Special Releases range in 2019 can be picked up for £4,500, a whopping £3,000 extra for just 2 more years in the cask.
The status whiskies from the closed distilleries have been dropped from the Special Releases since 2017. The trend has also seen, on average, younger whiskies making their way into the range over the last five or six years. In 2021, the only whisky over 20 years is Lagavulin, whereas in 2015 only Caol Ila (17 years old) and Lagavulin (12 years old) were below 20 years old. The Clynelish in 2015 was a NAS, but prices would suggest its components were mostly older than 20 years.
In reality – for most whisky drinkers – it is not the well-aged collectible or investable whiskies that deliver excitement about the annual release, but the mid-range age statements from familiar workhorses. Even for the likes of Talisker, the price can deaden the palate to an extent, and has been a factor in scoring previous releases such as Talisker 2019 and Lagavulin & Talisker in 2020;
Malt is all about value and I thought I’d do a bit of number crunching. I wanted to explore the relationship between the “specialness” of the annual outturns and the prices charged. I don’t think we can aggregate sufficient reviews to give any meaningful indication of quality but – using age as a variable – can give us an overall picture or rarity and desirability. Looking at the graph below, we can see the massive price hikes between 2010 and 2017. These were driven ever skyward by the inclusion of the rare, closed distilleries of Rosebank, Port Ellen, Brora and the like, which account for the majority of the cost in each release.
Perhaps more noticeable is the abrupt change in direction in 2017, after which no further rare malts were included in the Special Releases. Diageo manoeuvred these into an ultra-premium range of decades-old one-offs, the “Prime and Ultima.” This comprised sets retailing for more than £20,000 in the UK. What we can also see from the graph is that the ages are dropping off, and the resulting prices have dropped a lot too. However, in 2021 you are certainly paying more for less; that may be largely driven by the extreme price for the Lagavulin 26 year old. I think that – no matter the general usefulness of the chart – it does indicate that the range peaked in 2017 and is on a steep decline.
Since 2018 the labels have become more flamboyant. 2021 sees mythical beasts in the “Legends Untold” theme, which has an air of Game of Thrones about it. The success of the Game of Thrones series in attracting non-whisky drinkers was not lost on Diageo. The Special Releases were themed “Rare by Nature” with all sorts of animals in 2019 and 2020. It all seems like an exercise in distraction to me.
More positively, the availability of these whiskies is good, with 3,000 to 5,000 bottles being the average outturn per distillery previously. This year there is over 7,500 of the most exclusive Lagavulin 26, and I assume significantly more of the undisclosed “limited quantities world wide” of this year’s release.
Despite the fanfare, the range does not sell out that quickly and many bottles can still be found on the shelves of large retailers from 2017 through to 2020. Some 2018 bottles are still available in Diageo’s own online shop. Perhaps that is in part due to the “special” prices that the Special Releases also command; these are perhaps roughly 20% to 25% above similar whiskies in the core range. That does make the range relatively un-flipped. Each year word gets around the whisky community quickly relating to the ones that are good the ones to avoid. Word of mouth, therefore, can still drive the sales.
Often, with any whisky outturn, early voices of opinion differ significantly from those reviews that come out after a little time. This feels as though the initial views are driven by the neck-pour or a particular bottle, whereas the later reviews have had a bit more time and air to open-up.
Let’s also mention the packaging on the press pack, which is extremely over the top, but probably equally extremely low key compared to previous in-person launches. This pack represents the opposite of a blind tasting; this is sensory pre-conditioning to a tasting and comes with an immersive web-experience for each release which I skipped. When the box arrived, it would be an understatement to say I was quite taken aback.
Let me tell you how concerned I was that the packaging would influence my opinions: I called Malt’s editor to make sure a review would be acceptable, and then I drove a 140 mile round trip to drop off the second half of these samples to my friend George aka WhiskyDodie . George tasted the samples blind and wrote his tasting notes before I revealed the contents of each bottle; to say he was a bit taken aback at the reveal is also an understatement! Whatever the result, please don’t say Malt doesn’t go above and beyond to bring you impartial reviews!
Never underestimate the influence of the environment within which the tasting occurs. This is something to reflect on with this reviewm and indeed as you encounter other reviews that pop up on any given day that a press embargo ends.
As part of the PR launch, I had a quick chat with Ewan Gunn, Senior Global Brand Ambassador, Diageo Scotch Whiskies. It was a one-to-one, so I was comfortable asking some of the pertinent and challenging questions to him:
Malt: What drove the cask selection this year? It seems more naked.
Ewan: The collection was developed by Dr, Craig Wilson, who also blended the two Rare by Nature releases in 2019 and 2020. We are, as a business, aiming to focus on and present distillery character generally, and that is certainly the case with this release.
Malt: Is that driven by cask availability; higher volume but less good casks?
Ewan: Not at all, we do aim to be very judicious with wood. We are probably ahead of the curve in wood management having our own bodega to manage and season casks. We are very refined at getting the right amount of seasoning including using bespoke blends of sherries to give character and getting just the right amount of penetration of the fortified wines into the wood.
Malt: Since repositioning the closed distilleries in the ultra-premium range the Special Releases have become somewhat younger and perhaps a little less anticipated. Is the range running out of steam?
Ewan: Well, I certainly don’t agree that the range is running out of steam. It has evolved certainly; Dr. Craig Wilson has created more of a coherent collection of whiskies than the Rare Malts or previous Special Releases were. That has been reflected in the packaging and experience to bring these bottles together into a single collection. We certainly expect people will buy the complete set, but acknowledge that not everyone can afford that. The average age has declined, but age alone cannot be a measure of how special a whisky is. Pricing is still a focus, and sometimes the range will evolve to ensure that prices are accessible. We want the range to attract new whisky drinkers and please existing ones. The stocks of the closed distilleries and the market price were such that it was unsustainable to keep them within the Special Releases going forward.
So, do this year’s releases offer a glimmer of hope for the range? Let’s find out.
Oban 12 Years Old 2021 Special Release – Review
From freshly charred American oak casks. 56.2% ABV. £105.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Grassy and herbal, light butter toffee, vanilla, meringue, sugary and sweet, no char detectable on the nose.
In the mouth: Bang, super fruity and rich, pick’n’mix jellies, fizzy sour sweets, M&S Colin Caterpillars, getting more complex on the finish with oak spices, a hint of charr, blood orange and a pinch of salt on the extra-long finish.
I’d say this has a lot going on, best taste profile too. Plus, it’s pretty hard to get Oban at cask strength sadly. At the distillery the bottle-your-own is only 20cl, and many whisky enthusiasts have gone right back for a second bottle of that having tasted it. This will be very popular.
George’s blind notes:
On the nose: Apple concentrate, Turkish delight icing sugar left over in one of those travel container tins, agave syrup, grassy notes, with hints freshly boiled condensed milk
In the mouth: bang straight away very sweet, where’s my teeth enamel gone? vanilla, lemon posset, hints of rose hip tea, tinned grapefruit, a hindrance of wood and the remnants of single cream added to fruit cocktail syrup. On the finish, Short, oak, sweet, then very drying in the mouth
Oh man, seems light this has been heavily influenced by a white wine cask and it seems like a very fresh and young Chablis that your friend bought you as they don’t like spending more than a fiver at LIDL.
Cardhu 14 Years Old 2021 Special Release – Review
Refill American oak finished in red wine casks. 55.5% ABV. £120.
Colour: Pale gold, without even a slight red wine tinge.
On the nose: Rounded and approachable, bruised red apples, wholemeal bread dough, cheap vanilla fudge, caramelised sugars, strawberry boiled sweets, crushed raspberries, baking spices, sugar donuts with more red fruits with water.
In the mouth: Very, very flat, slow delivery, a flash of artificial strawberry before peppery jalepeno spice and a bitter finish. Water brings out a lot more simple red fruits lifting the overall experience. Water a must.
Well, probably the only place you’ll encounter Cardhu at these higher strengths is in the special releases, as all core expressions are 40%. Last year’s expression is still widely available. I’m a bit over red wine with all the young STR whisky around these days. Not bad but not special.
George’s blind notes:
On the nose: Unripe flat peaches, barley syrup, coconut water.
In the mouth: Cinder toffee stored from one of those market stalls slightly not at its best, sour lychees, black Gaeta olives, Midori melon liqueur, Apple Sourz™. Very short finish, dry, oaky tannins.
This seems again influenced by a white wine cask.
Royal Lochnagar 16 Years Old 2021 Special Release – Review
Refill casks. 57.5% ABV. £200.
Colour: Rich gold.
On the nose: Sweet and rich, unbaked biscuit dough, ground ginger, allspice, icing sugar, dusty plasterboard, pre-mixed filler, window putty with water and time it gets richer and more distinguished.
In the mouth: Medium bodied, smooth, just enough oak, sweetness builds but the finish on this dram is the key here fruity bright, rich effervescence dancing across the tongue. Something ethernal that I can’t pin down that makes this quite alluring. Delicious.
The Royal Lochnagar 12 at 40% is an oft-overlooked dram that is remarkably tasty. Beyond that, the 175thAnniversary NAS gave a full strength hit but – at £250 – sat on the shelf for a long time. Other releases of Lochnagar include a charity auction release where bottles all fetched North of £350 plus fees, but this release was 26 years old. This presentation of Lochnagar is certainly rare. More importantly, it has an alluring quality and fantastic finish.
George’s blind notes:
On the nose: Wafts of warm cut hay on a damp day, honey dew melon, gorse bush in full bloom.
In the mouth: Plum frangipani: boom. Then directly sharp, some hints of red peaches and raspberries. Finishes short again, light oaky tannins, with an after taste of freshly cut tobacco leaves.
Glendullan 19 Years Old 2021 Special Release – Review
Refill American oak and a cognac cask finish. 57.5% ABV. £140.
Colour: 18 carat gold.
On the nose: Cognac and brandy, minerality, a little gravitas, freshly painted walls, oak spices, coffee house, granite.
In the mouth: Cognac smoothness; this spirit is so light, it has so little presence that the cognac and French oak have overwhelmed it. Only a slight hint of fruity malt and fresh Kingsmill White bread.
There is quite a bit of Glendullan available from independent bottlers from the Single Cask to That Boutique-y Whisky Company and James Eadie all keenly priced. As per my recent Cognac Cask Review the balance between the cask and the whisky is a delicate one. This perhaps falls too far to the cask, with the overall saving grace being that cognac is unlikely to impart anything unpleasant, just overpower. Not bad but not special.
George’s blind notes:
On the nose: Dark strawberries over ripened and gooey, nail varnish, and black fruit strudel.
In the mouth: Black forest fruits, Canderel™ sugar, burnt toffee praline, zabaglione pudding, hints of aged oak and liquorice. Finishes sweet at first, tingling to a sourness just like hitting one of those Wham bar sherbet bits. not that enjoyable
Mortlach 13 Years Old 2021 Special Release – Review
Refill and virgin oak. 55.9% ABV. £135.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Spray furniture polish, buttery toffee sauce, bright and herbal, spiced bread sauce, Sellotape, with time grassier and more herbal with hints of fruitiness.
In the mouth: Mortlach body, salt’n’pepper fatty pork belly, cayenne, black peppercorns, savoury with sweetness from a trendy ketchup. Roasted pineapples and rapeseed oil. Finish is short, with cask spices lingering longest, a bit dry and chalky
We are commonly presented Mortlach in sherry casks, which works great with the full-bodied and meaty profile that is loved by so many. This presentation is strange in that I think it will split the Mortlach core fans, some of whom will no doubt miss the sherry and sweetness whilst the others will appreciate the rare naked presentation. A very interesting dram, but I’m not sure I’d want a whole bottle.
George’s blind notes:
On the nose: Woody, aged teak oil from a harboured boat, black grapes and dewberries.
In the mouth: Baked apple and black currant crumble, melamine polish, and subtly tannic. Drying, tannic finish, with a light wood influence and black tea.
Lagavulin 26 Years Old 2021 Special Release – Review
Pedro Ximenez and Seasoned Oloroso Casks. 44.2% ABV. £1,650*
On the nose: Restrained smoky peat that speaks of refined age, a sweet backbone that is not too distinctly sherry. Classic leather armchair in a cigar lounge, wood lined drawing rooms, but a brightness too. Very inviting. With time TCP and first aid kits, and rubber bumpers from Inverness
In the mouth: Peat smoke, quite a light body, rich toffee, vanilla, a little fruit, the peat is the star hear and it’s a real vintage character that speaks to age well beyond 26 years. Herbal smoke, with cough medicine, tiger balm, and TCP emerge along with crushed limestone.
This has a great character that reminds me of 1960’s and 1970’s blended whisky, especially Logan Deluxe that contained a healthy proportion of Lagavulin. The peat seems older than 26 and perhaps some very old casks that dropped below 40% have been used as top-dressing for this release. A distillery with a cult following. This expression is a great experience, but I think some would be hoping for more sherry given the declared cask make-up. Clearly a point has been deducted for this dram which appears to be £1,000 a bottle overpriced, lucky to be only a single point reduction really.
*I challenged Ewan on the price of this release. He acknowledged the high price but felt that it was reasonable and reflected the available stock of Lagavulin at this kind of age. Just 7,500 bottles will be spread around the world, and some markets will only get a few bottles. Ewan also thought it was unlikely that there was any whisky much older than 26 years old but was going to check. Unfortunately we could not confirm this for Malt readers before the editing deadline.
George’s blind notes:
On the nose: Spent pipe tobacco, hints of dill, pontefact cakes.
In the mouth: Woooaaahhhhh man its a watered down ashtray, hints of darker fruits plums and elderberries, the ashen notes take over again followed by hints of leather polish. Finishes very ashen again, drying, then a subtle sweetness the teeters at this medium finish.
Talisker 8 Years Old 2021 Special Release – Review
Heavily peated spirit in refill casks*. 59.7% ABV. £90.
Colour: Very pale gold.
On the nose: Custardy malt, the peat, which drops off to leave much more freshly homemade custard, unripe pears, white grapes, Staoisha anyone?
In the mouth: Uncomplicated, juicy sweetness, then another wave of thick rich peat which is more herbal and organic than smoky, brine and a touch of orchard fruits.
Unusual for Talisker, which is renowned for a more delicate and refined approach to peat. It’s an uncomplicated crowd pleaser and very refreshing to see honest presentation of whisky. Whilst I can see this being very popular, I can’t help but think you’d be just as well buying indie bottles of Bunnahabhain Staoisha for less than £50.
*Ewan explained that these are refill Talisker casks refilled with Talisker spirit, however the casks that displayed the heaviest peat character were selected from the parcel for this release. So, I assumed these are the least active in taming the peaty spirit.
George’s blind notes:
On the nose: Peat, there a fresher green fruit nose, youthful yellow apples, but weirdly some exotic fruits, dragon fruit so not too sweet, hints of banana custard, maybe some vegetal notes too.
In the mouth: Angostura bitters, sour limes, its punchy, some salinity, its metallic (yeah like liking a copper pipe – I’m a plumber), also a little filthiness like some machine oils. Finishes long, it’s ashy like burning embers, it’s still a bit briny and salty with that metallic taste.
It reminds me of Kilkerran Heavily Peated.
Lagavulin 12 Years Old 2021 Special Release – Review
Refill casks. 56.5% ABV. £130.
Colour: Very pale gold
On the nose: Peat with a heavy malty backbone, mezcal, unripe sour green apples, beach sand, crushed chalk, citrus peel.
In the mouth: Full-bodied rich lemony peat and bready malt. Honest whisky. So good a full strength. A bit peppery, real autumnal bonfire on the finish. More orchard fruits and citrus with water but not improved overall.
My preferred presentation of Lagavulin is not smothered in sherry. A stark naked Lagavulin that showcases the quality of the distillate. Cracking. I’ve half an eye on the Lagavulin 8 though which might be a suitable value alternative?
George’s blind notes:
On the nose: Man, its medicinal, an iodine bandage, tobacco smoke, but there is a nice balance of fruit coming through pears, almost hints of rhubarb – I like it. Even tropical fruits like mango and pineapple.
In the mouth: It’s a more oily texture, some creaminess, there is a taste of roasted coffee grounds, not too much on the ashen front, there is a hint of chalkiness to it and hints of marshmallows On the medium finish it is tannic, charred with subtle wood and a fading fruitiness.
It’s got a bit of Campbelltown to it or it’s a tame Laphroaig.
For me, the press pack is the product. Or, as an absolute minimum, it should be offered alongside full bottles. What makes this collection special is the ability to taste them side-by-side and appreciate these as a set. In 2010, a complete set would have set you back around €1,500, whereas in 2021 a set will cost you €3,000. Very few consumers will buy the set, and few of those that do will open them. We all deserve to be able to taste, compare, and contrast the different expressions presented in this set, rather than picking a single bottle to treat ourselves too. The tasting set would be a great gift; a real talking point, and a way to appreciate all of the effort that has gone into creating the random but visually pleasing theme could be appreciated at length.
Let me say this: I do not wish the end of the Special Releases, but it feels like they are – to use Ewan’s phrase – “evolving” away from what we have come to expect. Instead of slaying of the mythical beasts, I beseech Diageo to consider releasing circa 5,000 complete sets of miniatures in 2022 to compliment a slightly smaller outturn of full bottles. Doing so would make these expressions open to many, many more keen whisky drinkers and potentially new whisky enthusiasts too. One must look only at the success of whisky advent calendars to see there is a market for sets of tasting packs. With the Special Release, it could be Christmas in September.
Ewan Gunn revealed that a small but significant number of sets were sold by Diageo in 2020 on the company website, and he thought there may be a good chance that some sets may be available from this year’s release too… so keep your eyes out if you want to treat yourself or another significant person in your life.
Graph calculated using data from Diageo Special Releases 2010 (scotchmaltwhisky.co.uk) , https://www.whiskynotes.be/ , WhiskyIntelligence.com » Blog Archive » Diageo Special Releases 2012 at Milroy’s of Soho – Scotch Whisky News – whisky industry press releases, newsletters, events, tasting notes, bottlings and comments., and Diageo PR. Prices in Euros or were adjusted from GDP using average exchange rate for given year.