While the past year has been a strange one, there are some things that have rolled on barely affected. One of those is the yearly Diageo Special Releases. They popped up on time in 2020 and now they’re here again. While the make-up of this year’s eight-bottle range has been known since early in the year, we can now finally reveal more about the whiskies, the range and what it’s all about. Presenting the Diageo Special Releases 2021 – Legends Untold.
The Story of the Special Releases
For those of you haven’t encountered this yearly release of limited–edition drams, you can find out all about them in my What are the Diageo Special Releases article. In short, it’s a collection of whiskies that has appeared each year since 2002 (after a smaller release in 2001), and which has slowly evolved into a showcase of lesser-known distilleries in Diageo’s portfolio – they own more distilleries in Scotland than any other whisky maker – as well as new takes on more familiar names.
The past few years have seen some major changes in both the make-up of the collection and its intention, The Prima and Ultima range has taken on the role of super-high-end-whisky showcase, leaving the Special Releases as a more accessible way to get your hands on some very special drams from Scotland’s biggest whisky maker.
After the slightly less focused releases of the past couple of years, 2021’s Special Releases are much more unified in purpose – they are there to tell stories. Alongside the whiskies themselves, which we’ll get on to in a minute, they have also created a multimedia experience to accompany each dram. Scan the QR code on the back of each box or tube with your phone, and you’ll be confronted with an augmented-reality experience that invites you to pop your dram on the table and listen to stories, as read by Scottish actors Lorne MacFadyen and SIobhan Redmond, and accompanied by imagery from acclaimed digital artist Ken Taylor:
The overall line-up is very much a continuation on from the past couple of years. The Port Ellen and Brora of earlier releases are still gone – very much now part of the new Prima and Ultima Collection – and the unpeated Caol Ila that used to be a cornerstone of the Special Releases has not returned.
We do have the Talisker 8 Year Old that has become a new fixture, as well as the most stalwart of SR entries: Lagavulin 12 Year Old. Along with those we have six whiskies which look at two specific aspects of Diageo’s whiskies: what if you strip cask-forward whiskies back to their raw components, and what if you add layers of cask character on top of things that are usually a little more naked?
I decided to kick off with the Royal Lochnagar for a couple of reasons. Not only is it a favourite distillery of mine, but it’s also not been that common to see it as part of the Special Releases. On top of that, it was the most standard of all the maturations in this year’s range – refill European and American oak, the classic mix of sherry and bourbon casks. This is definitely a whisky where they’re not trying anything weird and wonderful and are just showing what the distillery does best.
Nose: Crisp apples and crunchy pears, with a surrounding blanket of green grass and meadow flowers. Gentle mint cream notes are joined by white grapes, sweet sultanas and touches of beeswax polished oak. White melon, fragrant oak, candy bracelets and stewed apple notes develop.
Palate: Thick and buttery pie filling to start – sharp apples with mint springs. Oak and lemon peel are followed by sultanas and sponge cake. Sharp apple is balanced by candied almonds, and buttery frangipane. Floral notes build as it sits: honeysuckle and violet.
Finish: Green leaves, mint creams, butter mints and damp grass.
Comment: The sherry casks are dialled back, giving a touch of sticky fruit, while the bourbon casks allow the grassy and fruity Royal Lochnagar spirit to shine.
Moving on, we hit the first of the stunt casks – while this Glendullan has started off in refill American oak, it has been finished in Cognac casks. This is not a particularly common choice of cask in Scotland and even less common in Diageo’s warehouses – they might have every sort of cask under the sun hiding away, but they rarely let Cognac casks out.
Glendullan is still not that often seen outside of the USA, but its normal fragrant and floral character is very well suited to refill casks, and a Cognac finish shouldn’t overwhelm it.
Nose: Candied fruit, sharp apples and buttered pastry – a part-baked pie with a dusting of sugar. Fruity jelly – orange and lemon – is joined by spiced pear, lemon drizzle cake, sultanas and muscat grapes. Lemon madeleines, trail-mix fruit vanilla cream, and oatmeal and raisin cookies follow.
Palate: Sweet, butter-rich caramel sauce leads to sultana-studded fruit sponge cake, polished oak and soft baking spice. Mint cream builds, followed by fruit: fresh, baked and puréed apple, a touch of brown banana and poached pear. Brown-butter toffee-studded cookies and green leaves sneak in at the end.
Comment: The sponge cake notes I often find overpowering in Cognac finishes are very well controlled here, adding a sweet and candied dimension to the fruity Glendullan spirit.
While it’s massive in the USA, other than its regular 14-year-old and Distillers Edition, we don’t see a lot of Oban. It’s been an occasional part of the Special Releases, but other than that, it’s rare to see a new expression, especially as it almost never appears as an independent bottling – Diageo guard their stocks very carefully.
I originally popped this into my tasting line-up a bit later, but on rereading the casks used I realised that ‘freshly charred American oak’ didn’t mean new casks, but instead rejuvenated casks – old casks that have been stripped of their inside layer and recharred to give them new life. They don’t have the oomph of virgin oak, and I moved it back a bit, hoping for something that showcases the Oban character more than a new cask might.
Nose: Butterscotch, browning leaves, orange zest and touches of treacle to begin. Butter toffees and stewed apple are followed by incense touches. The butter notes sit at the heart while balanced citrus pith and peel, and a grind of black pepper fill in the around the edges.
Palate: An immediate hit of sweet orange and lemon is drenched in toffee sauce. Salt and pepper touches sit alongside sharp apple and buttered fruit loaf. Spice builds – black pepper and a tingle of cinnamon. Fruity jelly – apple and pear – is hit with a squeeze of lime, a touch of cask char and a drizzle of salted caramel.
Finish: Butter toffee and salted caramel linger, fading to reveal candied lemons.
Comment: A dive into the heart of what makes Oban tick – orange-forward citrus notes, a hint of smoky char and lots of sea spray. Generally the brininess is more restrained, but here it’s amplified and perfectly balanced by the sweet and fruit notes.
Within Diageo’s portfolio, Mortlach has one major aspect that separates it from the rest: it’s all about sherry casks. The 12-year-old has a bit of American oak in its make up, but the other bottles in the distillery’s range are focused around rich sherry-matured flavours, which pair up well with Mortlach’s meaty spirit.
This whisky, however, is the exact opposite, stripped back and focused on virgin oak and refill casks. It could be a bit of a shock for traditional Mortlach fans, but as my favourite whisky from the distillery is the now-discontinued (and probably sold out – there wasn’t much of it) 100% bourbon-cask Mortlach 25 Year Old, I am intrigued.
Nose: Brown-sugar-dusted oatmeal cookies, gingery spice and fruity boiled sweets. Nutty notes develop, along with toffee, caramel sauce and a wisp of wood smoke. Floral notes float around, accompanied by digestive biscuits.
Palate: Nut brittle, candied lemons and vanilla cream, all accompanied by chocolate sauce and hints of raisin jam. Spice builds along with some darker oak notes, brown sugar and custard. Baked apples and pears bring up the rear.
Finish: Vanilla cream and apple sauce is followed by building and lingering spice.
Comment: Even with the sherry stripped out, Mortlach is a still a bit of beast. Meaty spirit with loads of weight and some well-balanced creamy cask character.
Cardhu gets a lot of stick in the whisky geek community. While some of that is from the ‘Pure Malt’ debacle of more than a decade (have a Google if you are interested in the wonders of categorisation and consumer confusion) it is also a soft and easy-drinking drinking whisky, something that is the opposite of what many more geeky drinkers are looking for. However, it continues to go from strength to strength, and has now broken out of its Mediterranean heartlands of popularity and turned its eyes to the rest of the world.
Despite that, it is still a very safe whisky – mixtures of bourbon- and sherry-matured spirit combined to create stereotypically sweet and spicy Speyside drams. This release, however, adds in something that is rare in the Diageo line-up: a red-wine finish. I am famously not the biggest fan of red-wine-matured whiskies, and have enjoyed the more recent distillate-focused Cardhu Special Releases, but series curator Craig Wilson is usually thankfully restrained when using finishes…
Nose: Pear, Danish butter cookies and warm baking spice to start. Buttery notes build – a classic of wine casks for me – joined by berry fruit, cream and even more spice. White fruit notes develop – melon and grape – as well as soft floral notes and candied-peel-studded fruit loaf.
Palate: Sweet white grape and vanilla cream lead, with contrasting warming cinnamon spice. Black-pepper notes develop along with ripe pear, gentle char and stewed apple. Grape and raisin-jam notes build, with a bucket of spiced apple and toffee sauce on the side.
Finish: Apples and pear with a touch of char. Lingering cinnamon spice.
Comment: Craig Wilson has used his wine casks well – this is definitely Cardhu, but its classic Speyside sweet-and-spiciness has had a surprisingly elegant blanket of fruit and spice draped over it. A rare red-wine cask that I can appreciate.
While we can lament the loss of the yearly Caol Ila Highland bottling in the Special Releases, its replacement by eight-year-old Talisker is something that we can’t complain about. This the third release as part of the Special Releases and they’ve all shown different aspects of the Skye distillery’s salt-and-pepper, smoky, maritime style.
The maturation is described very simply here as ‘heavily peated refill casks’. I’m very pleased I had a chat with ambassador Ewan Gunn before diving into writing up the range, as this is not a whisky matured in casks that once held heavily peated whisky, as that suggests. Instead, Craig Wilson and the blending team took a parcel of Talisker casks and tested the phenol levels in the matured spirit, choosing only those with the highest readings – the smokiest casks – for this release. Talisker with dialled up smokiness? Count me in.
Nose: Rich and briny smoke bursts out of the glass: beach bonfires and buttery biscuits. Austere mineral and gravel notes are contrasted by puréed orchard fruit; fresh salt-and-pepper sea breezes are set against rich and earthy peat smoke. Barley sugar and fruit jelly notes develop, joined by damp green ferns.
Palate: A burst of sweetness pulls back to reveal intense smoke, liquorice and anise. Chocolate, spice and damp earth build, with the chocolate notes becoming creamy as salted caramel and green, leafy notes also develop.
Finish: Sea breezes and beach bonfires, just as at the start of the nose – full circle. Sweet apple sauce and a touch of crashing wave lingers.
Comment: This does exactly what it says on the tin – lashings of smoke and all the seaside Talisker character you could want. A stepping stone to the Islay distilleries’ bigger smoke, but well integrated with the salt-and-pepper spiciness of Talisker’s spirit.
This cornerstone of the Special Releases, appearing in every line-up since the first full release in 2002. The annual release originally shocked by showing Lagavulin 16 Year Old’s rich and dark smoke wasn’t the limit of the distillery’s powers, instead pushing a fresher, sea-drenched style. While we now have the punchy ongoing 8-year-old to keep us going between Special Releases, it’s still a must-have for Lagavulin fans.
It’s all very simply put together: 12-year-old, cask-strength Lagavulin from refill American oak casks. Do we need anything more complicated?
Nose: Singed lemon zest, lemon biscuits and lemon drizzle cake – lots of lemons. Sea breezes build along with medicinal peat and a touch of barbecued meat – smoky beef brisket with a sweet glaze. The medicinal notes build, and the smoke splits, sweetening on one hand and getting quite green on the other – burning leaves by the barbecue pit.
Palate: The candied lemons from the nose are joined by liquorice and a big burst of brine. Peppery spice pushes through the middle mellowed by a touch of butteriness. Chocolate limes, leather satchels, spiced orange studded with cloves and barrel char notes follow.
Finish: Earthly smoke, sweet mint and chocolate touches.
Comment: I thought it might be just me, but Ewan Gunn agreed – this is the most Caol Ila-y Lagavulin we’ve both tried in a while. The chocolate-lime notes are classic Caol Ila for me, but it’s backed up by the Lagavulin meatiness and crashing waves. A well selected Lagavulin that ticks even more Islay-spirit boxes than usual.
It wouldn’t be a Special Releases line-up without at least one big hitter – a 26-year-old Lagavulin you say? Matured solely in first-fill oloroso and PX sherry casks? Well, okay then.
There aren’t that many spirits which can hold up to two-and-a-half decades of big sherry maturation without losing their identity, but I have lots of hope for Lagavulin – it works well with sherry and is good at turning casks to its will rather than the other way around.
Nose: Sweet peat, tarry ropes and bung cloth. Singed apples and pineapples hide under the smokiness, with a touch of fresh and zingy mint and menthol. Then it’s time to dive into sherry-cask fruit, with sultanas leading to stewed plums and surprisingly gentle notes of dark fruitcake. Layers of spice build: nutmeg, cinnamon and clove.
Palate: Soft and fruity barbecued apples and grilled pineapple, all backed up by soft cinnamon spice, mint and bubble tar. Sweet pink shrimp sweets and liquorice are followed by black pepper spiciness, a touch of bitter barrel char and lashings of sweet baked apples.
Finish: Smoky barbecued fruit, hints of tar and lingering spice.
Comment: You can call this as a Lagavulin even before your nose gets to the glass. The casks have added their dark and fruity character, but other than allowing the distillery’s punchiness to soften, they have in no way masked the classic Lagavulin feistiness. Evidence that first-fill sherry casks don’t have to create sherry monsters, even with 26 years in wood.
How do I get hold of them?
We expect the whiskies to land in mid-to-late October and they are available to pre-order now – just head to our Diageo Special Releases 2021 page, click through and order away.
If you want to see what’s happened in previous years, we’ve got details and tasting notes for all the releases since 2008 here on the blog: 2008 pt1/2008 pt2, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.
To learn more about the series’s history, head over to our Diageo Special Releases – what are they? post.
We still have a few bottles from previous year’s releases – you can find them on our Diageo Special Releases page.