Our yearly tasting calendar is a varied list of events, taking in everything from whisky to spirits and liqueurs, with even an occasional foray into the world of fizzy wine – tickets to our next tasting, Growers’ Champagne with Dawn Davies MW are on sale now. However, there’s one that’s become a regular fixture and is anticipated through the year – The 2015 Diageo Special Releases with brand ambassador Colin Dunn.
In short, the Special Releases are a yearly collection of limited releases that pulls casks out of the dusty corners of Diageo’s extensive warehouses and gets them out into the world. There are some names that you’ll recognise and a few from distilleries whose whisky rarely sees the light of day as a single malt. It’s a privilege to try them, and Colin’s yearly visit always sells out quickly.
Colin’s long been a friend of The Whisky Exchange, known for his no-nonsense banter and horrific pun-making, and his Special Releases roadshow sees him taking them around the country, getting as many people as he can to try this range of whiskies that don’t get opened and enjoyed anywhere near enough. We’re one of his first stops and had seven of the nine bottlings from 2015 on the tasting mat.
‘It’s not every day you can say “Let’s start with a Port Ellen”… here we have Port Ellen in a leather coat’
Nose: Cracked pebbles, chamois leather and seaside notes – ozone-heavy sea spray, damp seaweed and fresh rock pools. Smoke sits at the back, with fruity peat, ham and raisins, balanced out by green and leafy notes.
Palate: Wax, sweet smoke and liquorice – an aniseed-scented aromatherapy candle? Leathery notes build, along with sweet raisins, smoked ham and singed baked apples. The apples intensify to the point of going overboard into overripe sweetness, but are tempered by barrel-char smokiness and dunnage-warehouse earthiness.
Finish: Sweet and earthy, with soft peat smoke, nutmeg, chocolate cake and cherry sweetness.
Comment: An austere Port Ellen, with lots of minerality rather than the rich sweetness that has appeared in recent years.
‘Laphroaig is dirty peat. Ardbeg is sweet peat. Lagavulin is oily peat’
‘In the evening I like some Lagavulin with Grand Marnier and Lapsang Souchong tea, poured over dry ice – Smoke on the Water’ [this was not the last pun of the evening…]
Nose: Ash and lemons, abandoned beach bonfires, damp forests, and medicinal notes of bandages and freshly peeled sticking plasters. The citrus continues to grow, becoming zesty and sharp, with the medicinal nature becoming more like swimming pools. While it’s punchy and not as rich and heavy as some years’ releases, it has sweet vanilla hiding underneath the provide a respite.
Palate: Lots of minerality and austere smoke – cracked stone, burnt tree stumps and rock-lined firepits. It gets richer as it sits, but is balanced by more bitter flavours – chocolate, caramel and pungent wood smoke, with a background of barrel char. Spice dances around underneath, with cinnamon and black pepper providing heat.
Finish: Liquorice, pine and rich earth, fading to cinnamon spice and menthol.
Comment: An in-your-face and zingy whisky, avoiding the weightier flavours that the distillery is often known for and focusing on smoke, zest and minerality – Lagavulin in its purest form.
‘The Cally has picked up what I like to call “a Japanese nose”. I could smell it for hours’
Nose: Freshly varnished wood, model glue and polish – classic old grain whisky character. Behind those lighter notes sits a mature dram: salted caramel and vanilla toffee spiced up with freshly cracked black pepper.
Palate: Rich and thick toffee, more sea salt, and baked apples sprinkled with raisins. As it develops in the glass, concentrated fruity flavours start to come to the front – orange squash (with real fruit) and unsweetened blackcurrant juice.
Finish: Lots of spice – liquorice root and cinnamon – fading through nutmeg to a gently tannic and pleasantly sour end.
Comment: A well-looked-after grain whisky – at this age, the cask influence can often become too much, but this whisky shows the toffee character of American oak and well-balanced spice without going too far.
‘This whisky is a perfect balance of grain and European oak casks’
Nose: Floral notes to start – sugared flowers, rose bushes and honeysuckle in full bloom. Weightier flavours of Portuguese custard tarts with singed edges, sugar and spice, and little flashes of dried fruit come in behind that, along with slightly sour and yeasty notes – salted lemons and sourdough bread.
Palate: More savoury than expected, with sharp fruity notes, dry spice and layers of spiced baked apple and a touch of sour-apple skin. Water softens things and reveals hidden depths: vanilla, dusty spice and rich dried, poached and baked fruit – apples, pears and raisins. Spiced fruit sponge cake sits at the back.
Finish: Liquorice and menthol, lime skin and green leaves fade to spicy notes and a touch of rich vanilla.
Comment: Some people found this to be more sherried than me, but I felt it was, as Colin says, an excellent balance of distillery character and cask. The sherry casks have added weight while allowing the fruitiness of Dailuaine’s spirit to shine through.
‘Pittyvaich has the whackiest Gaelic name of any distillery: it means “place of the cowshed”. It was originally built to make gin…’
Nose: Flowers and nuts off the bat – honeysuckle, rose, hazelnuts and almonds. Sweetness develops, with the almonds gaining a sugary shell, a sprinkling of icing sugar and a balancing squeeze of lemon. Polished tables with a hint of beeswax sit behind the sweetness along with sweet white grape juice.
Palate: Sharp and spicy to start, with little of the nose’s sweet and floral character. However, with some time in the glass and a drop of water, the freshly sawn oak and sappy twigs soften to reveal sweet and zesty apples and spice – cinnamon and nutmeg.
Finish: Spiced apple and its skin, slowly fading to liquorice and black pepper.
Comment: An inviting and fruity nose leads to a spicy body that shows the whisky’s age. A drop of water is essential, despite its relatively low cask strength, revealing layers of fruit and spice.
‘I asked Michael Jackson, the whisky writer, to tell me about Clynelish. “Do you drink sherry?” he asked me. “Clynelish is the manzanilla of the north.”‘
Nose: Hugely waxy – the classic Clynelish character dialled up to 11: melting tea lights, floral candles and a tiny bit of waxed jacket. Sweet-shop sweetness sits alongside thin vanilla custard, with candy necklaces and marshmallows joined by foam strawberries and hints of violet. Water brings out a sherbety fizz and candied lemons.
Palate: Waxed lemons, Love Hearts, floury apples and custard tarts lead. Creamy notes develop, with vanilla toffee providing sweetness, and cinnamon and clove giving a spicy contrast. The sweet-shop notes from the nose also build, laying down a fragrant, sweet and floral backdrop.
Finish: Menthol and flowers appear initially, before fading slowly to freshly polished tables and sweet orange juice.
Comment: An over-the-top Clynelish that focuses on the waxy and floral side of the distillery’s character – the rumour is that older spirit has amplified those flavours, with some younger whisky added to temper the vatting into a well-rounded dram. If you like your whisky waxy, then you’ll love this.
‘Whisky’s like wine: it can have a sleeping period. A few years ago, Brora was getting a bit woody – too tannic – but now it’s come back’
Nose: Sweet waxed fruit, mulching straw and muddy farmyards, with hints of violets and gentle, earthy smoke. As the whisky develops in the glass, maritime ozone and sea spray appear, along with richer notes of leather, driftwood and smoked ham.
Palate: Sweet and gently floral, with polished tables, freshly cut boards and a wisp of smoke. Delicate fruit emerges from behind the spice and smoke – baked apples, lemon and raisins – along with the ham from the nose and sweet-cured bacon. The sweetness slowly fades on the palate, leaving barrel-char bitterness, bung cloth and earthy dunnage warehouse floors.
Finish: Charcoal smoke and lingering liquorice.
Comment: For me, this is the perfect balance of Brora character – sweet, fruit and floral with a hint of farmyard, earth and smoke.
To close the evening, Colin gave us all an extra, secret dram. It split the room, with many loving it and many really not enjoying it. It was Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, Jim Murray’s World Whisky of the Year – a whisky that perfectly demonstrates how personal taste is. As Colin said, to close the evening:
‘None of you need Jim Murray to tell you what to drink. You need me to tell you what to drink! In the end, it’s all opinion, and everyone has their own. Have an open mind. Have new experiences. And go to The Whisky Exchange!’
I think we’ll let him come back next year…