It’s time for whisky #7 out of 11 in the 2014 Diageo Special Edition releases, this one a 21 year old from Rosebank, a now-defunct distillery in the Lowlands. This whisky was distilled in 1992. Rosebank promptly shuttered in 1993 — which means there’s not much left to go around.
One of the more exotic and full-bodied expressions in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases, this malt offers an initial nose of fresh-baked brioche, touched with cinnamon. Huge on the palate, it kicks off with fresh malt, caramel, and light chocolate notes, then takes a deep dive into toasted marshmallow, light citrus, and a maritime character that builds as the finish takes hold. One of the most purely pleasurable malts in the 2014 releases, the through-line from cereal to fruit to seaside character in this whisky makes it a pure delight and one worth taking a deep dive into as you explore its charms.
One of my top picks — if not the top pick — among these 2014 releases.
110.6 proof. 4,530 bottles produced.
A / $500 / malts.com
Onward to the 6th whisky in the 2014 Diageo Special Edition releases, a 25 year old from Cragganmore, a Speyside distillery best known for its younger single malts.
This 25 year old was distilled in 1988 and aged in a mix of refill European and American Oak casks.
Quite malty on the nose, the Cragganmore 25 opens up after a time to offer floral notes, dried fruit, and some nuts — perhaps a bit of orange peel, too. It’s nice for a time, but it soon threatens to be overpowered by a touch of raw, pungent alcohol character. The body continues the theme, starting off with dense grains mixed with chewy malt. On the palate it’s backed up with notes of baked apples, more raisin notes, and fresh citrus on the back end. There’s an alcoholic undercurrent here from time to time, but a little water helps to temper things, revealing a nice little vanilla caramel character as well.
102.8 proof. 3,372 bottles produced.
A- / $500 / malts.com
#5 of 11 in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases is this rarity from Strathmill, located in Speyside. Strathmill is predominantly used in blended whisky, making this old expression exceedingly rare. The whisky has spent 25 years in ex-Bourbon barrels and is bottled at cask strength.
This is classic, beautiful Speyside at the perfect age. Liquid gold in color, its nose offers heavily spiced grains — almost gingerbread in character — touches of almond, honey, and hints of fresh mint. Elegant and restrained, it’s a pretty lead-in to a body that ranges far and wide. Fresh-cut grains, cut apples, and burnt sugar lead in to cinnamon and clove notes as the finish starts to build. The finish is drying and slightly aromatic, while echoing notes of honeyed biscuits, menthol, and more spice. Fantastic stuff.
104.8 proof. 2,700 bottles produced.
A / $475 / malts.com
Yesterday we experienced Caol Ila’s unpeated expression; today it’s the full monty, and bottled at a full 30 years of age — the oldest Caol Ila ever released by the distillery itself. #4 in the 2014 Diageo Special Releases is a peat bomb straight outta Islay, distilled in 1983.
After 20 years or so, peated whiskies tend to settle down, and this Caol Ila is no exception. The nose offers notes of sweet citrus, mesquite smoke, and dense toffee. The body continues the theme, with gentle smokiness settling over notes of rum raisin, quince, licorice, and bitter roots. When the smoke settles, it leaves behind a bittersweet character that is paradoxically at once racy and soothing, a maritime whisky that is starting to feel its age — and I mean that in a delightful way.
110.2 proof. 7,638 bottles produced.
A- / $700 / malts.com
Caol Ila is an active Islay distillery, and any Scotch nut knows that means peat and lots of it. But once each year Caol Ila makes unpeated whisky, just for kicks. This is one of those releases, a 15 year old “Highland style” spirit distilled in 1998. This expression, #3 of 11 in the 2014 Diageo Special Edition series, was aged fully in first fill ex-Bourbon casks.
This is the cheapest whisky in this year’s series, and likely the most readily available. It’s also one of the least dazzling, though it’s certainly palatable.
The nose is a curious mix of oregano and fresh bread — together these give the spirit a bit of the essence of a pizza parlor. This doesn’t really prepare you for the palate, which is blazing with heat up front and rough on the throat on the back. In between there hints of golden raisins, bright heather, and, yes, wisps of smoke, but they’re hard to parse before the sheer booziness of the alcohol knocks you down a peg.
Water helps considerably. With tempering, the Caol Ila Unpeated reveals notes of fresh sweet cereal, marshmallow, almond, and a bit of rose petals. With water, the whisky becomes almost enchanting, transformed from its hardscrabble punchiness into something approaching delicate.
B+ / $120 / malts.com
Whisky #2 of 11 for Diageo’s 2014 special releases is a familiar one: Brora 35 Years Old, which is being issued for the third time in three years.
Distilled in 1978, this is a classic expression from a long-shuttered distillery. (Shuttered in 1983, there can’t be much Brora left out there.)
The nose is a beautiful, old Highlands classic, offering a melange of fruit, Sauternes, nuts, and wisps of smoke. The whisky attacks the palate with buttery sweetness, bright fruit — apples, citrus, and a bit of banana — then mellows out as the woodier, more maritime notes take hold. The distinct salt and seaweed notes are stronger here than in recent years, with the finish pushing on toward iodine and more smokiness than the nose would indicate. It’s this fireside character that lingers for ages, until you cut it again with a sip of that sweet nectar that comes on like sweet relief.
Simply gorgeous and hard to put down (as always), if you enjoyed Brora’s 2013 or 2012 special edition releases, well, pull out your wallet.
97.2 proof. 2,964 bottles produced.
A / $1,250 / malts.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]
One of the most anticipated annual events in Scotch whisky is now upon us: Diageo’s Special Releases, antiquities both old and new (mostly old) from some of Scotland’s most storied distilleries. We’ve covered these releases for a few years, and 2014 (as each is formally labeled) presents us a bigger bounty than usual: 11 whiskies from some old friends and some new ones, too.
We’ll be reviewing one spirit a day for the next 11 days, so keep coming back to get the lowdown on the whole series.
Our first Diageo 2014 review is from Benrinnes, an active Speyside distillery that was best known for a curious triple distillation method, unusual for Scotland. This was abandoned in the 2000s, but this 21 year old would have undergone the process back in 1992 when it was distilled. There are no ongoing, distillery-issued Benrinnes bottlings produced today, so this release (the first in five years) comprises just a handful of the few casks that will get the “official” seal.
At 21 years old, Benrinnes showcases a mild, malty nose redolent with nuts, toast, and fresh grains. The palate is something else entirely. Huge fruit notes start things off: apple cider, currants, and orange peel. There’s a somewhat musty undertone to this, but it’s beat out by the other elements. The body is chewy and oily, the finish lasting, warming, and grounded by its grainy roots — just hinting at smoke at the very end. This is a whisky with a lot going on — but fortunately the fruit and the malt elements remain in harmony throughout the experience. None of the characteristics here are entirely unexpected, but the way Benrinnes brings them together is well worth considering.
113.8 proof. 2,892 bottles produced.
A- / $400 / malts.com
The Glenmorangie Private Collection continues to grow, with Tusail the latest launch from this Highlands producer. The focus on this one isn’t a special barrel-aging regimen (typical for Glenmorangie), but rather it’s a unique type of barley used to make the whisky. In Glenmorangie’s own words:
The 6th release from Glenmorangie’s award-winning Private Edition, Tùsail is the product of a carefully-selected parcel of Maris Otter barley, floor-malted by hand using traditional techniques, and non chill-filtered. A rich winter variety of barley first introduced in 1965, Maris Otter was bred specifically to meet the demand for a high quality brewing malt and recognized for its ability to impart rich, rustic malty flavours. Now used only by a select few who continue, like Glenmorangie, to uphold an ethos of sacrificing yield for quality by using only the finest ingredients, the result is a whisky celebrating the variety’s renowned taste profile.
This is an exotic and curious expression of Glenmorangie. The nose features cereal notes backed by lots of sugared fruit — pears, tangerine, and some honey on the back end. The body is driven heavily by the grain, but it’s tempered with notes of cinnamon toast, pears (or pear-sauce, if that exists), and a bready, malty chewiness. The finish is racy and hot, really a bit of a scorcher at times, pushing a bit of fruitcake character blended with pear cider. Ultimately, Tusail isn’t quite as balanced as I’d like. I understand the desire to showcase the grain, but said grain just isn’t integrated well enough with the fruity components of the spirit, leaving behind a whisky with two faces. Both are interesting, but they seem to still be struggling against one another for dominance.
B / $125 / glenmorangie.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]
That weirdly dimpled bottle belongs to Grand Macnish, a venerable — but seldom seen in the States — brand of blended Scotch whisky that hails from Glasgow. Several expressions are produced, with this newly released “Black Edition” being a non-age-statement spirit that is aged in double-charred bourbon barrels.
A little brutish on the nose, it offers a punch of raw alcohol notes, followed by a modestly malty, grainy, and lightly peaty character that builds as you breathe deeply. On the palate, both of these elements are present in ample proportions, complemented by sawdust and some honey character, the latter mostly evident on the back end. The finish isn’t entirely appealing, with a somewhat raw and tough character that comes across as a bit weedy and overbearing. Some smoky elements eventually emerge, particularly as the whisky gets some air into it. On the whole, though, there’s just not much to see here except a standard, almost workmanlike example of a basic blended whisky.
C+ / $25 / macduffint.co.uk
Grain whisky fans can get excited. Here’s a new blended grain whisky that’s whipped up from some really old stock — by some industry pros. Details are a bit scarce about the inaugural product from this new label — “Sutcliffe & Son” — but here’s what we do know.
[The Exceptional is a] … small batch Scotch Whisky created by Don Sutcliffe, managing director of Craft Distillers and 35-year veteran of distilled spirits marketing, in collaboration with Willie Phillips, for 23 years managing director of The Macallan. A blend of remarkable aged grain whiskies, including a barrel of 30-year-old from the Carsebridge Distillery, long since closed. Finished in first-fill sherry casks.
Big cereal notes attack the nose, with an undercurrent of sherry and citrus. As can often be the case with grain whiskies, it’s a bit tough to sink your teeth into at first, those toffee- and caramel-scented cereal notes really muscling everything else out of the way. There’s some essence of mint, jasmine, and coal dust that phases in and out while sipping this spirit, but the finish remains stuck with the granary. Drying and a touch dusty, it’s almost stark in its austerity and simplicity, until finally The Exceptional Grain lets go of its grip and releases just a hint of sweetness at the very end to soften things up. It’s an intriguing whisky, but one that takes some warming up to.
86 proof. 1500 bottles produced.
Also of note: An Exceptional Malt and Exceptional Blend are currently in the works for release this year.
B / $90 / craftdistillers.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]