Review: Highland Queen Blended Scotch 3 Years Old

highland_queen__68997_origProduced by the same parent company that owns the Tullibardine single malt distillery, this young blend drinks right about where you’d expect, considering its sub-$20 pedigree and obvious youth.

The nose is initially a little odd — hot, but — and stick with me for this — with a funky yet crystal-clear tomato sauce character. It isn’t exactly off-putting, but it does seems wildly out of place. On the palate, things at least settle down a little. Notes of iodine, burnt sugar, licorice, and mothballs alternately arise over the course of a session, none making much of an impact. The finish is laden with camphor and vague vegetal notes.

Generally safe to pass unless the rock bottom price tag is appealing.

80 proof.

C- / $16 /

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 /

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 /

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 /

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 /

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 /

Review: Clynelish Select Reserve Limited Edition 2015


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 /