It’s funny remembering the past couple of years of whisky tastings. Every once in a while, I cast my mind back to the beginning, back to when I attended my first events for this site.
I was doing this recently – when writing this recent post for the 2nd anniversary of this site – and I realised that one of the very first events I went to was a whisky tasting with Colin Dunn at Milroy’s of Soho for the 2011 Diageo Special Releases. To say it was a lucky first event to attend is softening the point. To be at a whisky tasting with a don of the whisky industry, trying some of the rarer whiskies in the market in the venue where I first fell in love with whisky, all seems a bit random but fortuitous.
I still remember nervously going up to Colin afterwards to introduce myself and get his advice on the new venture I was undertaking – it seems like a lifetime ago. Colin was his usual effervescent self and gave me loads of tips, possibly thinking he may never come across me or my site again. How wrong he would have been – I’ve stalked him ever since. Well, okay, not actually! But we have naturally run into each other many a time since then as he is frequently hosting or attending events across the UK.
Anyway, the point is this: that first tasting of the Special Releases remains a special memory in my mind because it was just that – special.
And so it was with great excitement that I headed to this year’s event. I’d missed out on last year’s as I was away in India and so was keen to try as many as possible of the 10 that make up the 2013 collection. This year those are: Brora 35 year old; Caol Ila Stitchell Reserve; Cardhu 21 year old; Convalmore 36 year old; Lagavulin 12 year old; Lagavulin 37 year old; Oban 21 year old; Port Ellen 34 year old; Singleton of Dufftown 28 year old; and, Talisker 27 year old.
What I didn’t bank on was the sheer number of people who I’d find myself wanting to catch up with at the event, meaning my tasting notes are a bit, well, limited.
Saying that, I suppose one of the best things about whisky is when you’re surrounded by happy people, enjoying the same drams and find yourself so caught up in the air of it all you actually just forgot about notes.
Or, I should just admit that I’m really bad at concentrating on nosing and tasting when I’m in a big, buzzy room. Billy Abbott (aka: Cowfish and resident TWE Blogger) is very good at that. Which is why I’d recommend checking out his post on the 2013 releases if you want the full-out, in-depth tasting notes for each one!
Still, I was able to summon enough focus to make notes on a few that really stood out for me.
Topping the list of favourites was the Convalmore 36 year old. As background, Convalmore is a closed distillery from Dufftown (one of the seven stills of Dufftown), which has been shut as long as I’ve been alive – since 1985 – so it’s one you don’t see very often. Diageo is releasing 2,980 bottles from European Oak refill casks for this year’s Special Releases and it will cost £600.
I was struck by just how delicate it was on the nose for 58%. I needed to give it time to work through the subtleties and managed to find a quiet corner to think about it for a few minutes. It was nutty, and slightly acidic, with a good bit of punch after it had aired but nothing so overwhelming for the ABV. Butterscotch and pine trees led the nose for me.
On the palate, it was buttery with a great, heavy woody spice. There was vanilla cream and cinnamon and nutmeg (I wrote ‘brown spices’) but after a few seconds on the palate, it moved into a fruity, creamy layer.
Next in the top list for me was the Caol Ila Stitchell Reserve. It is the first time Diageo has named one of its Special Releases after a member of its team – in this case, after Billy Stitchell, who has been manager for 15 years and is the last of five generations in his family (dating back to the 1880s) to work at the distillery. Ahead of his retirement, the company has released this unpeated Caol Ila made from a mix of refill American oak, rejuvenated American oak and ex-bodega European oak casks.
The colour was of light straw and the nose had a lovely buttery, vanilla note with some tannic elements that reminded me of tea. It was malty too with a nice oiliness. On the palate, I found this to be filled with nutty notes – roasted hazelnuts for me. It was really oily and felt great on the palate, with very little burn for the 59.6% ABV. At £70, this is the least expensive of this year’s releases and I’m very tempted to try and pick one up.
One that surprised me on the night – in a good way – was the Oban 21 year old. Made from rejuvenated American oak and second fill ex-bodega casks, there will be 2,860 bottles on sale at £225.
Oban was actually one of the whiskies I came onto early in my whisky life (along with Balvenie, Dalwhinnie and Springbank, thanks to the recommendations of the folks at Milroy’s) and I used to always have a bottle of it around. But it had been a while since I’d tasted one and this was a lovely incarnation.
With the colour of amber agate, the nose was sweeter than I expected at first: loads of Honey Nut Cheerios for me. There was honeycomb and butter and just a bit of a drier, grassy note at the back. On the palate, it was really peppery and warming, giving a full-on, tip of the tongue heat like a chili spice will do. It was a bit drier than I’d have guessed after the sweetness of the nose but this helped give it real balance. There was a rich, saltiness to it too, making it very appealing for me.
Okay, okay…I of course tried those really limited editions too. The first – Port Ellen – is being released with only 2,958 bottles, while there will be 2,944 bottles of the Brora and 1,868 of the Lagavulin.
However, these all fell into the categories of: “Wow, I’m just going to stand here and enjoy these,” rather than the “I’m going to stand here and make serious tasting notes on these.”
Of the three, I can say the Lagavulin was my favourite. It was extremely elegant, with a lovely balance of sweetness and punchy notes. There was a good peppery depth to the palate that made me think “black” and then “the sea”. Again – not the most useful, but I was trying to ‘be at one’ with the whisky.
For the Port Ellen, I noted it was creamy, with delicate notes of marzipan and lemon peel on the nose, and a full-on but slightly bitter grassiness on the palate, edged with a bit of sea salt.
And the Brora? I know I very much enjoyed it. I remember chatting with Matt Crow – one of Diageo’s master blenders – for ages about it. I just didn’t quite get to making so many notes.
To conclude: the Special Releases – because of my initial contact with them back at Milroy’s in 2011 – will always be that wee bit more special in my mind’s eye.
Yes there will be commentators saying they are overpriced. This is the great debate of the whisky industry right now – pricing – and I’ve no doubt many people will be weighing in on this topic more and more. But equally the yearly releases also show off a great round-up of flavours, styles and ages that are present in the Diageo staple.
I’d only hope that people will end up buying these to drink, rather than to invest in. This is an incredibly classy collection of whiskies and it would be a shame if they only gathered dust in some collector’s loft. So if you do pick one of these up, I say: celebrate the fact they’re special, by enjoying them at a special time and saying thank you to the whisky angels for bringing along more delicious whisky.