I love scotch. Scotchy, scotch, scotch. And if you’re reading this, you probably do as well. So take note – this fall, Diageo released its hotly anticipated 2016 Special Releases collection. For true single malt enthusiasts, this portfolio of whisky, while expensive and in very limited supply, is a windfall of malty ecstasy. The bottles range from $135 to $4000, and include unusual and limited edition releases from working distilleries, as well as some of the last drops of juice from long defunct operations. Some of the whisky is very old, such as the Cambus 40 and the Brora 38, while the Lagavulin 12 lies in the age range that most are used to drinking. All are bottled at cask strength, so the ABV soars close to 60% in some cases (the Caol Ila 15 is 61.5%), and are non-chill-filtered with no coloring added. In other words, this is some pure single malt magic.
The Special Releases collection’s roots can be traced back to the 1980s when the Classic Malts was first released. In 1995, the Rare Malts collection was introduced, which lasted for 10 years. But the demand was high for cask-strength, hard to find single malts, so in 2001 the Special Releases collection was born.
Three whiskies in this series – Port Ellen, Brora, and Glenkinchie – are the oldest from the distilleries ever to be released in the Special Releases collection. Now, as any whisky lover knows, age doesn’t necessarily equal quality. In fact, there are many younger, non-age-statement single malts out there that are held in extremely high regard. On the other hand, there has been a bit of a backlash to removing age statements, both in the UK and here in America – take Elijah Craig’s change from being labeled a 12-year-old bourbon to NAS (although it’s still very good, let’s be clear), or The Glenlivet replacing its 12-year-old expression with the NAS Founder’s Reserve. So it’s nice to see that each release here, with the exception of the Cragganmore, is given an age statement. But considering how complex and good the Cragganmore actually is, it’s also proof that there’s much more to a whisky than how long it’s been inside a barrel.
“The unveiling of the Special Releases range is a moment I look forward to year after year,” said Diageo head of whisky outreach Dr. Nick Morgan in the press release. “The variety and quality of whiskies in the collection is simply fantastic, and once again we’re confident enthusiasts will discover new favorites in unusual and rare releases…” I was able to sample these whiskies, and while all are very good, there are some truly outstanding ones among the bunch. The Auchroisk 25 is a lovely, light, and fruity single malt, with hints of pear on the nose and a crisp, fresh palate with notes of honeydew and strawberry that open up with some water. The Glenkinchie 24 is also excellent, with strong alcohol that turns into malty marzipan on the nose when water is added, and marshmallow and candied orange on the palate. The Cambus 40 is very interesting, a single grain whisky instead of a single malt. This might be the first of its kind that I’ve sampled, and it’s lovely, with a sweet corn and cherry nose and a vibrant, nutty palate with hints of grapefruit, kind of like a Scottish version of Irish whiskey.
Ewan Morgan, Diageo Reserve’s national program director, has a few favorites of his own as well. He points to his two favorites, the Brora and the Cambus, as being some of the most exceptional whiskies in the collection. “Most whisky geeks will tell you with inexorable fervor that the glory days of Brora were ‘68-’73,” he said, “when they were producing a heavily peated style… But in my opinion the real, less phenolic DNA of Brora falls outside this era, although the heavy smoked variants are indeed exceptional whiskies. So, geeks, you can put down your pitchforks.” He goes on, quite poetically: “On the palate this is like a used newspaper that’s contained lemon and salt seasoned fish and chips, standing by a gently smoldering campfire, by the sea, with a gigantic idiotic smile on your face. The gentle spice on the finish wraps up quite possibly the most transcendent Brora I’ve ever had the privilege of trying.” Regarding the Cambus, Morgan said that when he first tasted it blind, he thought it might be an old Irish single malt (I concur), given how fruity and chewy it is. “This is the most viscous tropical fruit bomb you’ll ever experience from any whisky,” he said. “But wait! There’s even more to reward those with a patient palate: green tea, blackberry, and vanilla custard with rhubarb compote. For those of you who belittle or even shun single grain whiskies, I challenge you to hunt this unicorn down and prepare to have your mind (and palate) blown.”
The question is, who will actually buy theses whiskies? The Lagavulin 12 and Caol Ila, both under $150, are within reach of anyone willing to splurge a little bit. But the Port Ellen 37 ($4000) or the Brora 38 ($2200) will most likely be purchased by collectors, who will hopefully actually drink the whisky instead of hoarding and reselling it. After all, what good is any whisky doing sitting in the bottle? Whisky is meant to be enjoyed by those who can find it – afford it – especially when you’re talking about unicorns, to use Morgan’s term, such as these. Take a look at the gallery for a list of the entire 2016 Special Releases range, and how many bottles were released.