Last year’s review of the 2021 Diageo Special Releases examined just how special the releases really were. It was a critique of flavour over flamboyance, and I believe the conclusions stand today. One question remained: where the annual Special Releases sat within the Diageo product portfolio in modern times? Again, I would have to say that remains unclear in 2022.
Diageo have a retail website in the UK – malts.com – where most of their distilleries feature, and also many of their ranges of spirits such as Flora and Fauna, and the 2021 Special Releases… all of which remain available and discounted online. You can also find the commercially successful “Game of Thrones” editions, which are only partially limited edition, and are looking a lot more like a core range these days. There, too, you can find the “Four Corners of Scotland” range, a sort of whisky regions of Scotland without, of course, Campbeltown, the one region where Diageo is not represented.
All of the Diageo blends are also featured on malts.com including Johnny Walker, J&B, Haig Club, Copper Dog, etc. As such, we can see that malts.com come caters to everyone, for the new entrants to the whisky journey (such as with GoT range) and to those looking for something for a special occasion with some premium Johnnie Walker Blue Label releases.
Diageo also have a separate Rare and Exceptional website, there are some top end core releases here such as Mortlach 20 and the now ultra-preimmunised Talisker 18. These bottles sit alongside the Prima & Ultima range including a 1984 Convalmore or 1980 Brora, both “price on application.” The Brora Triptych collection is £30k plus but is also listed as P.O.A. Some of the higher end Special Releases from 2020 and 2021 linger on here too, failing to sell out in recent years. Browsing on this site feels like looking at whisky for other people. This is the web equivalent of shop assistant assessing your net worth as you walk through the door.
At the 2022 press launch for this year’s Special Releases there was a lot of talk of the series constantly evolving and moving to a new place but, despite almost all the press questions being focussed on where the range should be positioned, the brand ambassadors would not be drawn. Yes, average age statements are down again this year, and yes, the packaging and drama is turned up yet another notch.
From looking at these two websites, it’s clear that the 2022 Special Releases sit more comfortably on malts.com with the more financially approachable bottlings and less with the Rare and Exceptional bottles. However, Diageo seem unwilling to allow that new reality to occur just yet. In some ways they are hanging on to the golden days of the Special Releases as much as many whisky drinkers are.
Personally, I’m quite comfortable with my internal positioning of the new releases as more mid-range curiosities. You should regard these as interesting alternatives to the core range, not dissimilar to the Distillers Editions: affordable yet interesting, a long way from an ultra-premium collectable. The whisky loch of the 1980s is now long gone; the long-in-the-tooth whisky drinkers will still reminisce about 30 year old single malt for £50 in every whisky shop in the land. But, many of today’s whisky drinkers have picked up the habit recently enough not to see whisky though such rosy tinted lenses. I am taking this year’s release in such a vein and will compare it critically not against what has gone before, but against other similar contemporary releases. I think that is a fair approach.
This year the range is titled “Elusive Expressions” and continues to deliver atypical expressions from Diageo’s portfolio of distilleries. The artwork is again bold, with a strong connection to last year’s “Legends Untold,” using the illustrations of Ken Taylor and visualisation by Kevin Tong.
The press pack is even more elaborate this year, and once again the product team at Diageo have excelled with it. Again, I would appeal to Diageo to that this would be a great product for general release. It’s a shame this is restricted to press contacts again this year.
One improvement in the range is the inclusion of 20cl bottles of selected expressions, making it more affordable to pick up a selection of smaller bottles rather than just a single bottle from the range. The Talisker, Glen Ord, Cardhu, and Lagavulin will be offered individually in 20cl. This is especially important as the Special Releases continue to move towards a focussed, coherent collection with a wider outturn that the random rare bottles of old. Where last year’s releases were very spirit forward and a little stark in places, this year overall is more of a balance between spirit character and cask influence.
Singleton of Glen Ord 15 Year Old – Review
Refill and American oak casks then finished – or “double matured,” which is Diageo parlance for a finish – of greater than a year in seasoned wine casks. 54% ABV. £120 (70cl); £38 (20cl).
Colour: Rose gold.
On the nose: Soft honey, sweet malt, gorse flowers, a fruity funk, aromatic fruit.
In the mouth: A little bitter at first and then juicy plums flash across the palate, with water carrot cake, definite lactic cream cheese frosting, orange blossom, more funky rich fruity spirit; the finish is a little dry and tannic, but not unpleasant.
A grower, not a shower. Ord is a good distillery, and its medium weight spirit often forms the backbone of quality blended malts. It’s a lot more characterful that the Singleton distillery of Glendullan selected last year. A very minimal amount of information here with “wine cask finish,” as though all whisky tastes the same. I’m not going to go further with any bashing as I did enjoy every mouthful. But do remember that the 2019 SR 18 Year Old Ord can still be found online for just £18 more than this RRP.
Cameron Bridge 26 Year Old – Review
Refill American oak casks. 56.2% ABV. £275 (70cl).
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Light vanilla, soft fudge, cinnamon, oak, pencil shavings, icing sugar, clean and crisp.
In the mouth: Soft light vanilla, soft caramel, aromatic but gentle woos spices, polished oak, spices building, Sichuan pepper, star anise.
Firstly, for the geeks out there, apparently Cameronbridge distillery was originally known as Cameron Bridge in 1887 or around then. So, the re-name is to reflect that and not to separate it from Scotland’s largest polluting distillery Cameronbridge. Secondly this dram really grew on me, especially enjoying the clean crispness when switching back from the richer expressions. Textbook grain, perhaps missing another layer of flavour for a higher score.
Oban 10 Year Old – Review
Refill and virgin oak then in Amontillado seasoned casks. 57.1% ABV. £105 (70cl).
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Sweet stone fruit, a funk from the sherry, fruity ripe fig and a square of dark chocolate. Sherbet Dib Dab, maraschino cherry. Very sweet.
In the mouth: Sweet fruity and funky, pink grapefruit, earthy blood orange, blackberry, plum. Baklava, some Middle Eastern spices developing, rose water, cherry clafoutis, jelly babies and oak across the finish, which is a little tannic and a slightly creamy note of salted cashew nuts. The spirit remains a little spirit-y and prickly throughout even with water.
There is a lot to like in this unusual presentation of Oban. The spirit certainly shows through, but the sherry feels a little disjointed and that may be because of the seasoned casks in use here. Still very interesting.
Cardhu 16 Year Old – Review
Refill and re-charred American oak casks then finished in Jamaican post still seasoned casks. 58% ABV. £160 (70cl) £50 (20cl).
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Sweet rich rum, soft brown sugar, vanilla, a little spice, some slight fruity funk from the rum, Brûlée top.
In the mouth: Soft and light, malty with aromatic fruits, slightly vegetal, pineapple fronds, some more funky fruit up the back of the nose, brown sugar, bitter woody finish that is a little jarring.
Morish and complex, this whisky benefits those who take a large swig and don’t try to unpack it. The rum seasoned casks seem to bring a little too much wood spice to this which doesn’t quite work for me. Still a strong…
Mortlach Non-Age Statement – Review
Matured in refill American oak then virgin oak, tawny port, and red muscat seasoned casks for at least a year. 57.8% ABV. £250 (70cl).
Colour: Warm gold.
On the nose: Corned beef, plum chutney, sweet malt, wood spice, crushed white grape, ham fat, twiglets.
In the mouth: Yeast, Bovril, madeira chicken gravy, roasted veg, pecorino cheese rind, spiced baked apple, roasted plum chutney, celery, Wensleydale cheese.
Rich, exceptionally complex, I’m sure at the end of a bottle you would still be unpacking the layers of flavour, but nevertheless impossible to justify the price. As I was drinking this I thought perhaps the NAS element was to reach a lower price point for the range. Sadly, the opposite is the case. £250 for what is essentially a liquid ploughman’s lunch. -1 point for value so…
Clynelish 12 Year Old – Review
Matured in refill American oak then in Pedro Ximenez/Oloroso seasoned casks for longer than two years. 58.5% ABV. £175 (70cl).
Colour: Warm gold.
On the nose: Burnt sugar, boiled sherry, toasted oak.
In the mouth: Rubber, burnt sugar, new car tyres, lots of wood spices, flat Coca-Cola, chewy cola bottles, cheese rind, coffee grounds, dark chocolate, burnt toast, a ripe funky fruit and damp bracken.
This is a little bit of a strange one because the nose and palate were both off-putting for me. Too modern, engineered and forced. But at the same time a bit of water and a large mouthful was entirely enjoyable. I think if this was an indie bottling at half the price, labelled Highland Malt Whisky with an illustration of a cat on the label everyone would be delighted. As an official bottling at a high price, it’s less palatable.
Talisker 11 Year Old – Review
From American oak ex-bourbon first fill, refill, and wine seasoned casks using the least peated stocks. 55.1% ABV. £110 (70cl) £35 (20cl).
Colour: Pale gold
On the nose: Smoky salty, crispy dried bladderwrack, raw grist, flapjack, fondant icing, wood smoke.
In the mouth: Soft sweet and smoky, malty, a slight fruity funk, gentle funky peat too, sweet apple sauce, grilled pear, crushed limestone, and a spicy finish, which is quite short.
Perhaps the dram I was most hopeful about, but it didn’t land for me. A lightly peated expression, in the main, is worth a premium bottling if it reveals or showcases another aspect of the spirit otherwise covered by the peat. This is just a softer version of the core product. Not sure where the wine comes in either. Importantly, this is a year where I have really been loving lightly peated whisky so for this not to land is a real surprise.
Lagavulin 12 Year Old
From heavily peated American oak refill and virgin oak casks. 57.3% ABV. £135 (70cl) £42 (20cl).
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: BBQ bacon, sweet chestnuts roasted on an open fire, buttered dark toast, cornbread, mineral crushed chalk, charred oak, toasted barley.
In the mouth: BBQ candied bacon, salty, multigrain crackers, charred lemon, rich malt, porridge with brown sugar, iodine and slight medicinal notes, eucalyptus, a ripe fruity funk going on too, BBQ pineapple, deep earthy peated compost.
For me this is accomplished Lagavulin spirit boosted by virgin oak casks, and really quite tasty.
The press zoom was rushed; four samples and a cocktail to be tasted in 30 minutes along with video and virtual reality walk throughs. The language was very vague during the press call, using phrases like “a long time” and “lots of this,” “quite a bit of that,” in response to questions. Clearly, Diageo were not to be drawn on details of ratios of casks, or actual lengths of finishes. The mystery is obviously not just an artistic aspect of this release.
Overall, the content of the session was interesting and there is a cocktail element and graphic novel thing going on that I have quite frankly ignored for this review, but it will be prominent online once the embargo is lifted. Most online attendees were guarded about their opinions, choosing to reserve judgement and tasting notes for the future.
Fortunately, CJ of Single Malt Vault was also on the call and dropped me a message to suggest tasting all the samples later in the evening on zoom. When tasting together, with more time, we speculated about prices as the final details had not been released. As you can imagine our guesses were wildly off; perhaps we were too optimistic? Nevertheless, these prices are not too far away from equivalent bottlings still available today, and the overall quality of the releases this year is improved along with the complexity of the various finishes. With the exception of Mortlach, I have not felt it necessary to make price a factor in scoring adjustments.
Samples and media provided by The Story PR (thestory site) on behalf of Diageo which, per Malt editorial policy, does not affect our notes or scores.
Surely if these aren’t selling anymore, the whole venture is now futile? They don’t seem premium enough to entice the very wealthy (low age statements and middling prices) but still too expensive to entice your discerning whisky fan. I’ve only ever bought 2 or 3 – just too expensive and better value on the IB market
Absolutely. A very boring selection and far too expensive, considering the offer, to even hazard a punt.
I do think that is the case for many whisky drinkers but I can imagine these are quite an easy sell in whisky shops. Consider the non-whisky drinking partner going into the shop looking for a special gift that’s a bit special. These bottles still have shelf-appeal in that not-uncommon situation.
Agreed Graham, I think the target is perhaps not the whisky drinker directly, but as you say someone looking for a gift fur a whisky drinker
You guys have generous partners!
Perhaps these releases work somewhat in that context but that market is limited and if these aren’t directly appealing to core whisky fans there is a disconnect.
My wife is certainly generous but unlikely to spend more than £75 on whisky no matter how much of a good boy I’ve been.
However I was recently in an unassuming whisky shop whilst a gent’s wife picked up whisky to the value of £500 for his birthday. Equally a number of people in my whisky club routinely spend £300+ on whisky for family gifts and business clients.
I think it’s easy to forget how much liquidity there still is around.
Those sort of people, as nice as they are, are going to be fine. But at Malt we need to focus on the more frugal majority. Diageo on the other hand seem prepared to let us ‘eat cake’.
They are letting us eat cake Graham, or is it caka? If I got given one of these as a present I’d be well disappointed knowing how well the money could have been better spent. There is nothing ‘Special’ about this collection whatsoever and it has Diageo bean counter written all over it.
There is plenty of whisky out there more reasonably priced than these “Elusive Releases” with a last minute finish. At these prices, all of these releases need to perform very well to justify the costs. FOMO failed…
With inflation squeezing disposable income, there will be three probable outcomes for the consumer IMO: boycott, product substitution or limited purchasing for those who can afford it.
Either way any distillery from now on will have to work much harder than a lazy cask finish and a cartoonish label to sell their whisky.
Diageo get a lot of hate from whisky fans and rightly so as too much of their product is watered down, over marketed, overpriced and over engineered whisky and their higher almighty attitude towards whisky fans that they know better than their consumers. Despite the fact these whiskies are cask strength there is no ‘natural colour and non-chill filtered’ statements on the labels which leads me to suspect that none of it is or (along with their evasive attitudes towards questions on these whiskies’ caskings) Diageo still fails to understand that this is a positive sales point that they should be publicising to whisky aficionados (though they may not want to publicise it for fear of devaluing their bog standard releases).
I was amused when I looked up the Cameron Bridge release on the Whisky Exchange and saw it was £275 whilst advertised at the bottom of the page were two Indie bottlings from Hunter Laing and Signatory which were the same age or older for significantly less money (the HL was 26yo for £105 and Signatory was a 37yo for £235).
The marks here either show that these whiskies were doing some pretty heavy lifting and that despite being heavily marked down over their pricing they were still exceptional whiskies or they weren’t marked down enough for their absorbent prices. Perhaps separate marks for the whisky alone and then a mark with the price taken into account is preferable but I know everyone has different ideas of what constitutes good value so I understand that this could be difficult.
Either way this was an interesting and informative review nonetheless.
I note the Cameron Bridge prices you commented on, and whilst there are cheaper releases out there the prices are creeping up. I did not adjust that score for the price. It’s good whisky, classic, but the price is at the higher end of the range.
The only score adjusted for price is Mortlach. I guessed the NAS element was so that they could hit a lower price bracket not a higher one. I double checked my notes and guessed £80 so was quite taken aback at £250.
The other prices are steep but not entirely out of step with some bottlings in the industry sadly.
Another year and still no Roseisle…
Sarcasm aside, it’s another little boat that Diageo have missed: the buzz around the new distilleries. Kilkerran, Kilchoman and Arran are well established now, but Ardnamuchan, Annandale, Daftmill, NcNean, Lindores, and Torabhaig have generated a lot of excitement with their bottlings. A Roseisle single malt whisky at cask strength would have sold out in seconds and got everybody talking.
Great point. They could have called it the Tale of the Modern Monster!
Perhaps the issue is around gradual ‘evolution’ whereas maybe a revolution is required for these annual releases. Some innovation. Roseisle would certainly fit with that.
Would you recommend the lagavulin special release, my husband drinks the 16 yr old one but wondering if the special release one is worth purchasing.
Yes. It’s a little overpriced but I’m sure any Lagavulin fan will enjoy it. A 7/10 is a good strong score on Malt.
Lauren, I’m not sure I agree with Graham and here’s the reason why. I’ve always enjoyed Lagavulin 12 but it was overpriced even at £100 three years ago. I really don’t think it’s worth a penny more. There is absolutely no justification for it to cost £135 apart from lining the pockets of Diageo’s shareholders at the customer’s expense.
The other thing is that it has a completely different flavour profile to Lagavulin 16 which has a lovely sherry flavoured smoke. Your husband might like it if he is wide ranging whisky drinker because Lagavulin 12, with its high alcohol volume, is really aimed at quite serious whisky drinkers; or at least it was before the price became an obscene rip-off.
I still buy Lagavulin 16, which is a very fine whisky, but I’ve stopped buying the 12, which is a younger whisky (albeit with higher abv) and far easier for Diageo to produce but costs £60 more. That’s almost a ratio of two for one with the Lagavulin 16. Personally I’d take the 16 and spend the saved £60 on a excellent bottle of wine or a nice meal.
Good whisky? Yes. Worth it? Hell, no.
That’s my 2 cents worth.
I can see where you are coming from but this Laga 12 is good, albeit overpriced. Not enough to mark it down though.
As a gift it has the packaging marking it out as special and is familiar but very different from the 16. It makes more sense as a gift that for you or I buying it for a regular drinker. And whilst the value still sits with the 16 despite the price rise, there’s not much excitement getting your usual tipple as a gift.
I appreciate I’m sounding almost an apologist for Diageo right now but it is what it is. Treat yourself to the 20cl and give it a go.
the last thing that is special with the Special Releases is the price. The series became obsolete when Brora and Port Ellen were driven to price regions no mere mortal could or would afford first and then were removed completely.
With that move the claim to beeing special was removed.
Well, why not a Cardhu 10 yo from a rum barrel or a Singleton of Dufftown 9 yo from a calvados cask… all good and well, even interesting in itself. But not at special premium hyper uber prices.
With the end for the annual Port Ellen and Brora releases Diageo should have ended the series.
I do not know how good you Swedish is but the passage above the video translates as:
“In the extended version of The Two Towers, Boromir stands in a burned-out Osgiliath reclaimed from the forces of Mordor and shouts that “This city was once the jewel of our kingdom!” What the armies of Mordor have done with Osgiliath, Diageo has done with Special Releases.”
A bit less martial here
“Maybe the Special Releases are like a world-class athlete who hangs on just a few years too long. We all remember when they were at the top of their game, posting incredible feats and slaughtering world records. Now that they’ve been caught up by reality and time, it’s actually become kind of sad to see them struggle. Just like that athlete, it might be time for the Special Releases to retire.”
The Special Releases as a vehicle to sell standard malts with a little twist for much too much money bores me.
As the principle behind most of the whiskies that are relased as Scotch whiskies today whisky itself bores me more and more. Mediocre offering with fancy stories and/or fancy packaging… life ist to short for that.
Thanks for taking the time to produce such a great comment. I do certainly think the Special Releases are different from their first incarnation after the Rare Malts. Diageo describe the change as an evolution. I think keeping the ‘Special Releases’ name is confusing many time-hardened whisky drinkers. A relaunch with a new name would make more sense but I expect the Special Releases name is still too valuable to Diageo. With regard to price, certainly at the higher end but given I just spotted an 8yo Indie Stoisha for £130 I don’t think they are wildly overpriced.