Review: Port Ellen 32 Years Old Limited Edition 2015

Port Ellen 15

And, for last: The unicorn, Port Ellen 32.

After years of incrementing the age on the most-treasured release of the Diageo Special Releases — Port Ellen — the company has taken a step back. While 2014’s edition was a 35 year old distilled in 1978, this year’s is a 32 year old distilled in 1983, the year in which Port Ellen was shut down.

In other words: We’re getting to the end of the line of Port Ellen, so if the price tag doesn’t put you off, it’s time to pick up a bottle or two.

This 2015 edition of Port Ellen, aged in refill European oak, is a bold expression of three-decade-old PE that won’t offer many surprises to fans of this distillery’s style. The nose features sharp citrus and tons of smokiness, a chewy blazer from the get-go that pours on the peat. While prior expressions of old Port Ellen utilize smoke almost as an afterthought, here it’s a touchstone that defines the spirit.

Water helps to settle down a spirit that is loaded with barbecue smoke and juicy sherry notes. Tempered, it shows a far more nuanced fruit character, including classic banana, peach, and some golden raisins. The smoke takes a back seat, as it should on this spirit.

Still, I can’t help but feel that in the five years that passed between when the last edition of Port Ellen was distilled and this one was, something has been lost. A whisky from a distillery’s final year of production may mean a magical rarity — but it may also mean you’re getting something from the final season of Lost. Were things going south at Port Ellen, things which necessitated its closure? Were corners being cut? I don’t have the details, but I do feel like the magic seems to have seeped out of this whisky a bit in those five lost years.

It’s still a good whisky, mind you. Just not $3500 good.

107.8 proof. 2964 bottles produced.

A- / $3500 / malts.com

Review: Lagavulin 12 Years Old Limited Edition 2015

Lagavulin 12

A perennial part of the Diageo Special Releases, this is 15th time Lagavulin 12 has appeared in the collection.

At this point you probably know what you’re getting with the Lag 12 — a slightly younger, higher-proof version of the classic Lagavulin 16. Hot and peaty, with sweet smoke and lots of iodine, it’s a mammoth Islay with all the classic notes of the sea. Hints of overripe fruit, green banana, and oily petrol all mingle together in a classic expression of this heavily peated whisky. The finish is scorching and lengthy. Water tempers the beast and coaxes out the sweeter, more rounded notes.

As I said with last year’s review, nothing much changes with this 12 year old edition of Lagavulin, and perhaps that’s as it should be. “Special” or no, it’s a reliable standby if you’re looking for an overproof Islay.

113.6 proof. 2964 bottles produced.

B+ / $135 / malts.com

Review: The Cally 40 Years Old Single Grain Limited Edition 2015

The Cally 40

Not every release in the 2015 Diageo Special Releases is a single malt — this one’s a single grain whisky.

The Cally was made at the Caledonian Distillery in Edinburgh, which was shuttered in 1988. The nickname stuck around, though, and Diageo kept a few barrels on hand to see how well single grain whisky could age into its fourth decade. Distilled in 1974, this is the oldest expression of The Cally ever released and reportedly only the second time Diageo has included a single grain release in the Special Release collection.

Immediately exotic, the nose mixes camphor with intense butterscotch sweetness and vague floral notes — a curious hint of things to come. The body is as powerful as the build-up hints at. The attack is all butterscotch — super-saturated with Demerara sugar — spiked with cinnamon and cloves. The medicinal and austere camphor notes build as that initial sugar rush fades, the whisky taking on a pungent character as it builds to a fiery finish. Here the fruitier elements of the whisky come to the fore — baked (burnt?) apples and nectarines — along with some gentle rosemary and thyme notes. A scent of nutmeg closes the door as The Cally 40 fades away — undoubtedly the best and most unusual single grain whisky I’ve ever experienced.

106.6 proof. 700 bottles released in the U.S.

A / $1200 / malts.com

Review: Dailuaine 34 Years Old Limited Edition 2015

Dailuaine 34

This is my first experience with Dailuaine, and it’s quite a unique one. A Speyside distillery that’s been running off and on since 1852, nearly all of Dailuaine’s production ends up in Johnnie Walker blends. A rarity in the Diageo Special Releases, this 34 year old bottling (aged fully in ex-American oak casks) is the oldest official release of Dailuaine ever — by 12 years! — and the first time since 2009 that any official single malt has come from the distillery.

At over three decades in cask and two grand out of pocket, this better be a good whisky, no?

I’m happy to report that it is. The nose is dusty, deep, and rich, both woody and coal-fired, with notes of dark brown sugar and lightly vegetal overtones. The palate loads up from there, featuring notes of candied nuts, some menthol, clove-studded clementines, and a touch of floral character on the finish — rose petals, predominantly. The finish is quite warming, though it isn’t particularly high in alcohol, those fruity citrus notes giving it a bit of a hot cider character on the back end. The whisky lingers for the long haul, showcasing a melange of flavors that work together harmoniously.

This is one I kept going back to, a unique whisky that has tons of depth to explore.

101.8 proof. 700 bottles produced.

A- / $2000 / malts.com

Review: Caol Ila Unpeated 17 Years Old Limited Edition 2015

Caol Ila 17

Last year’s unpeated Caol Ila has been stretched from 15 to 17 years of age. Distilled in 1997, this second review in the 2015 Diageo Special Releases showcases the heart of Islay, sans the peat.

The nose is quite salty and laden with iodine, slightly smoky — secondhand peat, perhaps. Hints of citrus waft up beneath. On the palate, the Caol Ila is a little closed off, lightly herbal and malty, but heady with alcohol. Water brings out the smoky elements more than anything else, along with substantial herbal notes — cinnamon and nutmeg, plus some mint. Nougat is big on the body, plus some curious notes of caramelized carrots and orange blossoms.

There’s no shortage of activity and excitement in this whisky, but I still feel like it’s trying to find a way to completely gel. How many more years that will take is anyone’s guess.

111.8 proof.

B+ / $140 / malts.com

Review: Clynelish Select Reserve Limited Edition 2015

Clynelish

Every year Diageo reaches into its Scotch whisky vaults and produces a series of ultra-expensive limited edition treasures called the Diageo Special Releases. As always, what arrived in Europe at the end of 2015 is finally making it to the U.S. in early 2016.

For 2015 nine whiskies are being released. We received six of the lot for review (sadly, the frequently appearing and perennial favorite Brora is not among them). Starting today we’ll be running through the lot of six, with one Special Release review every day. First up: Clynelish Select Reserve.

This edition of Clynelish is much the same as last year: A mutt of a whisky. The spirit is aged in first-fill bourbon barrels, rejuvenated and refill American oak hogsheads, and ex-bodega and refill European oak butts. So a big mix of everything, all of which is at least 15 years old. (That said, it carries no formal age statement.)

The sherry hits the nose first, spicy, oily orange peel notes with touches of mint and hints of sandalwood. On the palate, a melange of fruit flavors hit — more citrus, banana, and some tropical notes — before it segues into some lightly nutty characteristics, balanced with a touch of drying, savory herbs. Water smooths out some of the racier (and sometimes rougher) edges of the malt, showcasing its rich sweetness, soft grains, light honey, and caramel-meets-malted milk notes. All in all, it’s a lovely way to conclude a beautiful little dram.

112.2 proof. 600 bottles in the U.S.

A- / $860 / malts.com

Review: Tullibardine Sovereign, 225, 228, 500, 20 Years Old, and 25 Years Old

Tullibardine Sovereign Bottle ShotTullibardine is a Highlands based distillery, largely overlooked in the U.S. but widely available if you take a spin around the internet.

Tullibardine has changed hands and directions more than once (the whisky we reviewed only 4 years ago is long since off the market and the company has been sold and rebranded everything since then). So, today we’re taking a look at the complete lineup of Tullibardine, a distillery which dates back to just 1949.

Before we get going, you might be curious about the three expressions with numerical monikers — 225, 228, and 500. These refer to the sizes of the barrels in which these whiskies are finished, in liters — Sauternes, Burgundy, and sherry, respectively.

More on each expression in the tasting notes below.

Tullibardine Sovereign – Entry-level Tullibardine is this NAS whisky, which is aged in first-fill bourbon barrels for what looks like 6 to 8 years based on my impression of the spirit. There’s plenty of grain to go around here, but it’s tempered by nice honey notes on the nose and body, some butterscotch, and an overall gentle hand that blends toasty wood notes with its barley base. It’s not something I’d drink solo but it’s a totally fair base for mixing. 86 proof. B- / $46

Tullibardine 225 Sauternes Finish – NAS, but finished for 12 months in 225 liter Chateau Suduiraut Sauternes casks. A bit doughy, it’s a spirit that balances a basic grain profile with notes of green apple and citrus — classic notes associated with Sauternes finishing — then finishes off with notes of pie crust and cinnamon toast. Aside from the flash of fruit, it’s surprisingly restrained for this finishing style. 86 proof. B / $56

Tullibardine 228 Burgundy Finish – Finished for 12 months in Chateau de Chassagne Montrachet red Burgundy casks, 228 liters in size. No real hints at Burgundy here, rather it’s a whisky loaded with honey, vanilla, and baking spices that weave in and out of the spirit. There’s an awful lot to like here, with various notes offering cake frosting, strawberry, and malted milk. A fun little whisky to sip on, it manages to use its youth to its advantage. 86 proof. B+ / $56

Tullibardine 500 Sherry Finish – Finished for 12 months in 500 liter Pedro Ximinez sherry butts. This is a fairly classic, though simple and youthful, sherry-finished malt, balancing a toasty caramel nose with some sharper citrus notes underneath, particularly evident on the body as it develops. The finish is soothing with gentle grain, malty caramel, and just a hint of cloves. As with many of these NAS whiskies, this is a fine everyday dram, but it’s not cut out for serious exploration. 86 proof. B / $56

Tullibardine 20 Years Old – Now we’re getting into the old stuff. This whisky spends 20 years in first-fill bourbon barrels, which give it a depth of flavor and density that the above four whiskies just can’t muster. The nose offers some curious hospital character, with slight mushroom and forest floor notes. The body has some of this brooding wet earth character, mixed in with notes of heather, dark chocolate, walnuts, and savory spices. The finish recalls a bit of that Listerine character and more granary notes. 86 proof. B+ / $140

Tullibardine 25 Years Old – 25 years in oloroso sherry casks give this a dark, burnished color and a dense nuttiness that is only hinted at in the younger spirits. Notes of butterscotch, flamed orange peel, and barrel char notes lead the way into a body that offers touches of banana, nougat, coconut, and cocoa powder notes. The finish brings up the classic Tullibardine grain character, ending with a touch of powdered charcoal. 86 proof. B+ / $300

tullibardine.com