The time has come. Every autumn, Diageo, proud owner of 28 Scottish single malt whisky distilleries, unveils a small and highly desirable collection of limited edition single malt Scotch whiskies destined for the world’s top bars and the collections of single malt whisky connoisseurs.
Nine such single malt whiskies, all at natural cask strength, are being released this year.
Two of them have once again been drawn from the lovingly preserved but sadly diminishing stocks of distilleries long since closed.
Others are unusual bottlings from distilleries still in very vibrant production: generally older (thus rarer) than the widely distributed expressions, but sometimes younger.
Brora distillery, on Scotland’s north-east coast, opened in 1819 and closed in 1983. The iconic status of its peated, Islay-style single malts has matured as stocks dwindle. This year’s distinguished and memorable release, at 30 years old, delivers all the key characteristics of the classic Brora: exquisite sweetness, rich fruitiness and magnificently appetising savoury smoke. But the quantities are tiny: a mere 2,958 individually numbered bottles.
Across Scotland on Islay, Port Ellen distillery also closed in 1983, so its stocks, too, are irreplaceable, and fading out as the years go by. In 2009, a 29 year old Port Ellen won the supreme Scotch whisky award at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, being awarded a Double Gold Medal and named Best Single Malt Scotch. This year’s example – a venerable, dignified Port Ellen of great complexity and depth, according to those who have tasted it – is 31 years old, and comes in an edition of fewer than 3,000 individually numbered bottles. The many devotees of this highly prized single malt generally ensure that stocks sell out within weeks.
Two Speyside whiskies in this release seldom become available at any age, still less at 20 years plus. The rare Auchroisk has been released after 20 years in a mix of American and European Oak Casks, making it a “poised, sweet and astonishingly sophisticated dessert whisky”, say tasters. A 21 year old Glen Spey joins it, with an unusual background: it has matured in new American Oak casks that had also held sherry, which gives the finish some “drying oak checked by subtle, creamy vanilla and note of powdered chocolate”.
A third Speyside single malt whisky is familiar at 12 years old – but rarely seen at 21. This Cragganmore, with fewer than 6,000 individually numbered bottles, has emerged from refill American Oak casks filled in 1989. It is judged to be “fully mature, yet retaining all of Cragganmore’s complex character; worthy of long contemplation”.
Founded in 1837 and one of the few surviving Lowland whisky distilleries, Glenkinchie, in the Lammermuir hills south of Edinburgh, makes a aromatic and flowery dram when tasted in its 12 year old personality; here, at 20 years old, Glenkinchie still delivers its scented and floral promise on the nose, a lightly sweet, then crisp acidity with delicate fruits on the palate, and a cleansing and slightly drying finish – for some, the perfect aperitif.
Hebridean big hitters
Finally from the islands in the west come three famous and much acclaimed single malts. Talisker, the award-laden single malt from the Isle of Skye, arrives this year in a 30 year old release of 3,000 individually numbered bottles available world-wide – the fifteenth and equal oldest limited release to be offered by the distillery. At this great age, some of the pepper has faded: this is judged to be “a more mature, reserved Talisker which is also confident, consistent and clearly in its prime. … An interesting and complex whisky, with aromas that change constantly and a lively taste, followed by a long finish, with roasted malt, the ghost of black pepper, and some nutmeg in the smoky and savoury aftertaste.”
On Islay, the ever-popular and relatively youthful 12 year old Lagavulin, from refill American Oak casks filled in 1998, is the ninth of a series of special 12 year old releases at natural cask strength. Lagavulin fans will not be surprised by one taster’s description: “Unpredictable and energetic; among the most appetising and savoury of all whiskies. A fine, punchy expression of Lagavulin”.
From the Sound of Islay, Caol Ila in its unpeated style is a familiar player in the annual Special Releases. This year it comes with 12 years in 1st fill Bourbon oak casks. Here’s an opportunity for an interesting comparison with its more familiar 12 year old peated twin brother, which this year took the much sought-after IWSC Trophy for the best single malt scotch whisky at 15 years and under. Tasters enjoyed its “smooth sweetness, refreshing acidity, peppery spiciness”.
Diageo spokesman Nick Morgan said of the 2010 Special Releases: “Some of these single malts are priced accessibly. Others, inevitably given their age and rarity, are very expensive. We know some people buy them as investments. But all are engaging, distinctive single malts made for enjoyment now, and of course in the case of Brora and Port Ellen, they will never be made again. As before, we’ve combined some familiar bottlings with some unpredictable ones.
“It’s also worth mentioning that some exceptionally elegant packaging can be found on the rarer Special Releases. This year’s original Glen Spey and Auchroisk designs continue that tradition.”
|Auchroisk||Mix of American & European Oak casks||20||58.1||< 6000||£115|
|Brora||A mixture of American & European Oak refill casks||30||54.3||2958||£280|
|Caol Ila||First fill Bourbon oak casks||12||57.6||< 6000||£52|
|Cragganmore||Refill American Oak casks||21||56||< 6000||£135|
|Glen Spey||New American Oak casks that had also held sherry||21||50.4||< 6000||£120|
|Glenkinchie||Refill American Oak casks||20||55.1||< 6000||£125|
|Lagavulin||Refill American Oak casks||12||56.5||limited quantities||£59|
|Port Ellen||Refill American & European Oak casks||31||54.6||< 3000||£250|
|Talisker||Refill American & European Oak casks||30||57.3||< 3000||£230|