Tasting the 2012 Diageo Special Releases at TWE Vinopolis

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Since 2001 Diageo have announced, in October of each year, their Special Release Range. Each series of bottles is picked to highlight the best of their distilleries and are acknowledged to be landmark bottlings, representing the very best liquid Scotland has to offer. On October 1st last year, Diageo hosted the European launch of the 2012 Special Releases, inviting important people from the whisky trade and press to sample the new additions to the family. Following this, on the 6th, 7th and 8th of October Diageo brought these much sought after bottles to our very own Whisky Show, allowing the public (and many of the bloggers who missed the launch event a week earlier) a first look before they went on sale. The result of all this activity is that you can find wonderful reviews of almost all the bottles on many of our favorite whisky websites (including this very blog) or by reading any of the noteworthy papery whisky publications.

You may wonder why we are writing up a tasting of a series of bottlings that has been written up several times already, and moreover why we even went ahead with this tasting at such a late date at all. The answer is twofold – The Whisky Exchange never passes up an opportunity to imbibe great whisky and also I owe Billy a blog post, or he will be taking me to the cleaners! [I thought you owed me a post about American whiskey from 2011? This might do instead… -Billy]

So here it is – After a brief loan to TWE during the Christmas period, Colin Dunn was back as Diageo’s front and centre to take us through eight very special releases.

We are all asked first to pick up the glass number one on our rather lovely looking tasting mats. Dalwhinnie 1987 25 year old, this is the fourth outing for Dalwhinnie in the Special Releases and having been matured in 100% American oak shows all the classic notes of the 15 year old edition, but accentuated by time.

Honeysuckle and coconut are the first notes to jump out, with a sweet smell and feel of Malteser honeycomb that has been warmed in your hand mixed with cinnamon spiced crumble topping. Then, just as I am ready to take a sip, Colin Says “Put your glass down!”. The nose was so sweet, lovely and warming that you can feel the entire room just itching to dive into the glass but alas it is not to be. Not yet anyway.

We then pick up the Auchroisk 30 year old and the Lagavulin 12 year old to compare the noses of these two very distinct whiskies. To me the Auchroisk has a mixture of chocolate orange and pear with some rich heavy spice, while with the Lagavulin’s raw bacon and saline solution, you can almost feel the texture on your palate just through the smell. There is just a hint at vanilla sweetness which, when we come back to the glass later, explodes out.

The palate of the Auchroisk has sweet coffee notes and baked apples with currants. It feels heavy but seems to dissipate gently into a finish where there is a flavour I can’t pick out. Just as I am about to give up searching for the appropriate descriptor one of our fine customers comes to my aid by shouting out that he gets liquorice, the sweet part not the aniseed.  This is the reason to do a tasting!

Instead of returning to the Lagavulin we now pick up the Caol Ila 14 year old. Made from unpeated barley, Colin informs us that there may not be many unpeated Caol Ila releases to come out in the future, as the demand for spirit from the distillery is so high for blending and it is getting difficult to justify stock for this bottling. This is a stark reminder that the company with largest portfolio of malt whisky distilleries is a blending company and malt whisky is still not making the revenues to justify the incredible number of new official bottlings many consumers are wanting.

The Caol Ila is rich and sweet, having been matured in sherry casks, something unusual even for standard Caol Ila. The nose has notes of toffee but also a very rich extra virgin olive oil. There is more sweet treacle on the palate, with that signature industrial feel in texture and a touch of salted caramel coming through. This is lovely sweet Caol Ila and only shows a hint of smoke compared to the 2011 unpeated release.

We are back to the Lagavulin 12 year old and another compare and contrast, this time with the Lagavulin 21 year old. Although I have been looking forward to these two whiskies there is still part of me yearning to go back to the beginning and try the Dalwhinnie!

The noses of the two Lagavulins are almost completely different, whilst also having much in common. In both you find the raw meat and salt encrusted ropes (for me no distillery takes on its surroundings quite like Lagavulin), the peat feeling thick and heavy with a definite farmhouse note. The 12 year old is now a lot sweeter than when we nosed it earlier but it is a very direct sharp sweetness. The 21 has notes of dates and cresote with heavy stoned fruits coming through.

On the palate the 12 year old is bright and clean, with the peat smelling the same as it would when it was freshly cut. The vanilla sweetness is piling through the middle leaving you with remnants of toffee and smoked kippers.  This is in contrast to the 21, with a warmth and weight that makes me think of charcoal dust coming off a fire. There is heavy meaty note like venison sausages with just the right seasoning, and a red fruit glaze. All of this hits an impressive high with rounded chocolate and cigar smoke that lingers on the middle of the palate long after you have finished the whisky.  I unashamedly love Lagavulin and embrace my bias when I say these are wonderful whiskies!

I take a moment to gather my thoughts and then am struck by the fact that Colin has us tasting the Brora. Again, I have been looking forward to this since I opened a 30 year old (the 8th release) at Christmas, but I am now a little concerned that we have forgotten the Dalwhinnie. This concern is soon put to the back of my mind by the sweet buttery nose with just a hint of pineapple, and that lovely candle wax smell found so often from both whiskies produced in the town of Brora. The texture is gorgous and reminds me of boiled sweets. There is a lovely citrus note holding the notes of barley, pear and slight spice together. The sweetness and haystacks make for a very lovely finish. If I am honest, I liked this a lot but much preferred the 30 year old I have at home (and that is still available for £299!).

Finally, we are asked to pick up glass number one again. After waiting five drams to get to it, I am now desperate to try the Dalwhinnie. The fruit on the nose is now more pronounced while the sweet notes now resemble cloudy honey. On the palate the same is true, but the wood is coming through heavily, offering up polished floors and warmed half melted butter. There is a marzipan note that continues on your palate as a dry spice sets in. I like this a lot and by making us wait for it, the whisky seems all the more impressive. I want to sit down with just this bottle and see if I get the same effect.

Colin gives us the choice on what to try next, Talisker 35 year old, the oldest official bottling of Talisker or the Port Ellen 12th Release.  The room votes for the Talisker.

As we begin to nose the Taliker, Colin is explaining the relation of age and quality – or indeed the lack there of. He tells of 50 year old Taliskers that he has tried that tasted of nothing but wood, and how the distillery manager on his first visit to the distillery had said that Talisker doesn’t age well and is at its best at 8 years old.   The 35 year old, however, would suggest that Talisker can be good at any age. The nose is sweet with just the softest touch of salt and white pepper. On the palate it has the signature burst of chili, while having the feel of condensed milk and just a slight note of caramelized onion. There is definite freshness while the texture and sweetness give a nod to the age stament on the bottle. The finish is spicy with more pepper and chili. This is a fantastic Talisker and, although the price is high, a must try for fans of the distillery.

We finish with arguably one of the most controversial whiskies of 2012, the Port Ellen 12th release. Colin introduces this by harking back to the Port Ellen vertical tasting at the very first Whisky Show, where he tells us of the people who travel from around the world just to taste those whiskies and how it has become somewhat of a Mecca of whisky fans across the globe.

The whisky itself was, as with almost all of the special release Port Ellens, of a very impressive standard. There was a touch of alcohol on the nose but this seemed to change and become sweet and phenolic, with crisp apple and heavily grilled mackerel (another resource we are running out of which will soon double in price).  I found dark fruit sweetness with a condensed coconut note and salted milk chocolate feel as it moved around my mouth. There is a definite creosote note in the background and more charcoal, but this vanishes in the finish where you are left with cream, gentle smoke and just a touch of barley.  Over all, this is a lovely Port Ellen balancing the expected flavours well but missing some of the sweet peat from the 11th release.

Diageo caused a big stir last year when they doubled the price of the annual release from £300 to £600, with many people pointing out that both the age of the whisky and the number of bottles produced was the same. Obviously this makes it difficult for many people, including myself, to justify purchasing a bottle to drink. The reality however, is that the price was driven up last year by actions selling bottles of the 11th release for over £800 within weeks of it going on sale. I would rather the company producing the whisky made that extra profit that they can then commit to investing in the industry, with projects such as Roseisle and increasing capacity of distilleries like Caol Ila.

We here at The Whisky Exchange will always endeavour to put on events like this and the Whisky Show, a help for those of us who can’t justify the price for some of these whiskies. Hopefully with new distilleries opening and companies expanding, when all the Port Ellen and all the Brora is finally gone and their prices reach the same as small houses, we will have plenty of new malts to try and, of course, write blog posts about.


Posted in Scotch Whisky, Whisky Tasting Notes
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