Okay, so last night I was lucky enough to attend the press tasting of this year’s special Release from Diageo, the details of all of which are in my last post. It was a fairly merry affair, although I wasn’t socialising much – firstly because on paper we only had an hour and a half to sample nine cask-strength malts, and secondly because I’m pisspoor at networking – as a card-carrying whisky nerd I can be quite nervous around new folk and whisky ‘slebs, and I’m also very poor at feigning interest if I get stuck with someone really boring, which I find particularly excruciating. Not that I encountered any boring people at last night’s tasting, I hasten to add – on the contrary, everyone that I did speak to was great.
Now, I like to think of my readers as intelligent types, with a healthy mix of up-to-date bespectacled middle-aged intellectuals perusing their laptops from the comfort of a big leather armchair in their libraries, alongside the thrusting, iconoclastic young whisky troubadours taking everything as it comes and making up their own minds on lots of important stuff.
Just in case I’m wrong and you’re all a bunch of sad pathetic losers, I should probably direct any angry people to my blog post on Diageo in case some of you want to lambast me for collaborating with everyone’s favourite pantomime villain, or get cross with me for validating them with my presence at their tasting (as if anything I do matters one iota in the grand scheme of things).
Okay, enough nonsense. Let’s get down to my notes from the tasting. I’ll be brief and to-the-point for a change.
Pittyvaich 20yo (57.5%)
A pleasantly, appley, nutty nose, developing biscuity notes. Clean, with a hint of Brasso and some not-unappealing gristy notes. The palate is a good weight, with a nice, light sweetness. A faint metallic edge emerges mid-palate and grows through to the quite short finish, which also has a sappy note.
Verdict: Perfectly pleasant, if not earth-shatteringly amazing. You’d never pick it as 20yo blind, but this is very easy to get along with, and surprisingly palatable for a Pittyvaich, most of whose output is rightly maligned as minging.
Mannochmore 18yo 54.9%
This is the one with the pimped up casks (‘Mix of re-charred ex-sherry bodega European Oak with re-charred ex-Bourbon and new American Oak casks that had also held sherry, filled in 1993 after a short initial ageing in normal refill cask.’)
Very evident sherry oak on the nose – heavy polished wood notes, pepper, dried fruits. Quite spicy. Raisins, plum duff. Also very nutty and orangey. This is continued on the palate, where we have fruity boiled sweets, a lot of woodspice and incredible marmaladey notes - bitter orange peel and also a lot of high-cocoa dark chocolate and mocha flavours. The finish is long and very warm.
Verdict: This is a hit. Very good indeed, one of my faves for the tasting. Big sherry character, but clean as a whistle. I know it’s lame to say so, but I also really liked the packaging, which has a big picture of a kingfisher (I think) on the side of the box.
Benrinnes 23yo 58.8%
A massive nose, really big upfront sherry aromas. Chocolate, coffee, hazelnuts. Develops a sulphury burnt-match character after a few minutes. The sulphur is also there on the initial palate along with a faint hint of brine, before a big, spicy, sherry hit. Lots of fruitcake flavours and a touch of soot, but the burnt match element persists through to the finish.
Verdict: Interesting, but I couldn’t shake the sulphur, which spoiled it a bit for me. I was very much in the minority, though (perhaps that should be the moronity?) - just about everyone I spoke to loved it. It’s definitely an old-fashioned dram, and in fairness I should say that the sulphur seems to come from the spirit rather than the cask, meaning it’s a sort of gunmetally sulphur rather than the really horrible eggy kind of sulphur, and also that the rest of the flavour profile is big enough to compete with the sulphur. This will be big in Germany.
Talisker 25yo 54.8%
A really beautiful nose, with lanolin, linseed oil, bandages, pepper and really clean oak. The very faintest ethereal wisp of smoke. Green apple? Amazing. On the palate, there’s an initial sweet note, then the pepper and spice come in. But this is a very polite, restrained Talisker when compared to some younger expressions from a few years ago. A totally different beast to the feral old 10yo – not a beast at all, unless perhaps a very well-behaved family dog that lets the children pull its tail and doesn’t get cross. The finish is slowly drying, and reveals hints of apricots and peaches.
Verdict: Very refined and drinkable. A definite improvement on last year, but still not up to the lofty standards of the 2007 bottling. If one was to nit-pick one might say that perhaps there were one or two tired casks used which just knock it slightly off course. But still a lovely whisky.
Talisker 30yo 57.7%
Creamy pepper and vanilla on the nose, then cream soda – delicious. Really lovely. Noticeably richer and more assertive than the 25yo. Quite a majestic nose - complex, elegant, contemplative. On the palate? I’ll reproduce my highly professional tasting notes verbatim: “Well, this is fabulous. Graceful, brilliantly balanced. Ooooh. So good.” Not exactly profound or even particularly helpful or insightful – but you get the point.
Verdict: A tiny, faint trace of wet cardboard at the finish isn’t enough to spoil this. Very good, delicious in fact, and again a big improvement on last year, but not quite in the same league as the 2007.
Brora 30yo 53.2%
An interesting nose, sweet initially with condensed milk and tinned pears, then getting a bit tweedy, with a whiff of exhaust fumes before returning to sweet again. Big peppery notes on the palate. Chocolate and coffee again (a lot of the drams this evening had these characteristics), and dusty in a good way, getting pretty warm through to the finish.
Verdict: An old-school dram, with a very long finish. Becomes noticeably sweeter with water. A big improvement on last year’s 25yo (which won’t surprise anyone) and I preferred it to the last 30yo (from 2007), which I found to be excessively butyric (ie it stank of babysick). A return to form, if not quite reaching the dizzy heights of the first few releases.
Port Ellen 30yo 57.7%
Subtle peat influence, trace of honey and faint medicine cabinet aromas. Washing that hasn’t dried quite quickly enough. I will not name the Caskstrengther who came up with ‘Lady B.O.’ as a descriptor for this. On the palate, lots of coal and soot. Very savoury, but with an insistent thread of honey in the background. Very warming, dry and spicy.
Verdict: A very old-school, dry Port Ellen. This is very nice – a return to form after some so-so recent bottlings.
Lagavulin 12yo, 59.9%
A truly lovely nose, with everything you could hope for. Textbook Lagavulin. There’s smoke, plasters, brine, bacon Frazzles…really lovely. The palate is immense, very spicy and smokey, but with generous honeyed sweetness as well that really hits the spot. Huge length, very satisfying finish.
Verdict: Lagavulin 12yo provided a rare ray of light in last year’s Special Releases, and I think I like this one even better. One of the top three on the night. Superb.
For the Caol Ila 10yo Unpeated, I’m just going to reprint my notes from when I tasted it at the Feis Ile as they still accurately represent my feelings for this terrific whisky:
N: Beautiful. Sooooo chocolatey! Also coffee, chocolate cake, sponge, trifle etc – you get the idea. Very, very promising.
P: Really delicious. Crystal clear distillery character, with lemon, cereal, rich chocolate, sherbert and sponge-cake sweetness.
F: Long and lovely. This is a real treat. Last year’s 8yo unpeated was a great whisky, but this is even better.
Overall this was a splendid tasting, with none of the mediocrities or ill-advised Linkwoods of last year’s affair. Our spirits high, myself and the Caskstrength crew repaired around the corner to The Toucan with a few fellow-travellers for a pint of extremely good Guinness and some further dramming – Irish style this time. We had some terrific whiskies including Redbreast 15, a Slane Castle blend, a very inexpensive Dunville’s (!) and a delicious limited edition sherried Bushmills 12yo, but obviously we were all rather well-lubricated by this point, so I’m afraid I don’t have any notes. The Toucan is a must for London-visiting Irish whiskey fans.
Many thanks to Pat Roberts, Colin Dunn and the rest of the Diageo folk at the tasting. This year’s Special Releases are a very welcome return to form.