Even with the rise of retailer price gouging in the bourbon world, there are still options out there for those looking to get the best bang for their buck in the world of overproof or cask strength bourbon. When it comes to cask strength scotch, though … well, that can be considerably more tricky. The idea of “value” begins to go out the window as proofs rise in the scotch world, and this is a reality of the industry for a few reasons. For one, barrel proof or cask-strength single malt scotch whisky is relatively more rare as a phenomenon, with a greater percentage of the industry’s output being consumed at a mere 80 proof, or close to it. Secondly, the greater amount of time inherent in aging most scotch brands in comparison with bourbon means a greater investment on the distillery’s part, which translates directly into higher price tags. Suffice to say, you can find some year-round brands of cask-strength scotch for less than $100, but don’t expect to see any limited release going for that amount. This is a category that many drinkers inherently find they can’t afford.
And yet, it’s also a category replete with gems, which is the only reason such luxe pricing can be maintained. There’s nothing quite like great scotch, well matured and at cask strength—it’s one of the world’s finest luxuries. And that tends to be made more than apparent on a yearly basis by Diageo’s annual Special Releases program.
Diageo is of course a global alcohol megalith, owning a wide variety of brands that include the likes of Johnnie Walker, Lagavulin, Captain Morgan, Bulleit Bourbon, Tanqueray Gin, Guinness Stout and beyond. They get the most out of having many classic single malt distilleries under one roof, though, via yearly features like the Special Releases, which assemble dream teams of rare, cask-strength whiskies from distilleries such as Mortlach, Oban, Lagavulin and Talisker. They’re all cask-strength, they’re all pricey, and they’re all quite unique, the kinds of bottles that collectors or superfans of individual distilleries might go out of their way to acquire—made only more true by the admittedly beautiful artwork on all of these labels in the 2021 collection, titled “Legends Untold.” Rarely do I bother to comment on the aesthetics of bottle packaging, but I have to admit that this is another aspect of the overall presentation where Diageo’s overarching influence creates a gorgeous result. Each of these labels is truly a work of art; credit to digital illustrator Ken Taylor who designed them all.
But enough about labels. What we concern ourselves with on a daily basis is the liquid in bottles of scotch, not the artwork on them. With that said, let’s taste through 8 samples of the 2021 “Legends Untold” collection of Diageo Special Releases single malts, and find which of them truly stand out from the pack and justify their price tags. All are available in “limited quantities.”
ABV: 55.5% (111 proof)
Casks: Refill American oak, red wine cask finish
This 14-year-old Cardhu is aged primarily in traditional, reused American oak casks, but also sees some time in red wine casks for its finish. Cardhu still isn’t a distillery I’ve had a lot of experience with tasting, so it will be difficult for me to say precisely how this will affect their typical house style of malt.
On the nose, this one registers honey butter and lighter fruit aromas, with floral notes and something like pears in syrup, along with white grape. The fruit character is lighter and fresher, rather than dark or concentrated as the red wine barrel might make one initially expect. These flavors carry through on the palate, along with a tiny bit of earthiness, but this is distinctly not “peat.” I’m getting honeycomb here, and shortbread biscuits, along with white grape and florals. This is a lighter malt despite the sturdy proof point, delicate on the palate but warming in the chest. It has a nice composure to it, although I have a feeling that at the proof point and price point, many drinkers would probably be expecting something more bombastic in the flavor department.
ABV: 59.7% (119.4 proof)
Cask: Heavily peated refill casks
If the Cardhu 14 was perhaps a bit more on the subtle side than one would have been expecting for an entry in a series like this, then the Talisker 8 is pretty close to the polar opposite. This one more than lives up to the raw power of its illustration, being perhaps the punchiest and most purely intense bottle in this lineup. It’s unsurprisingly the strongest in terms of ABV, while also being the youngest—this is common in scotch, where cool climate aging often results in barrels losing proof over the years as they age. The press kit notes that this comes from Talisker’s most heavily peated reserves, and I can believe that.
On the nose, this one is redolent in sweet smoke, orange, peach, chocolate and plenty of brine and salt. There’s a smoldering woodfire in the glass, and some deeper earthiness, but surprisingly the ethanol itself is actually quite mild on the nose for the proof—it doesn’t have nearly the sting that one might expect. That ethanol shows up in a much more aggressive way on the palate, though, alongside charred wood, campfire, tar and sea air. Hot cinnamon and punchy alcohol attack the palate, but there’s some balance in the bright citrus and saline notes. This is very “maritime” indeed, and would likely be utterly overwhelming to palates not accustomed to both a heavy dose of peat smoke and seaside influences. To those who prize those qualities, on the other hand, this ably fills the role of flavor bomb.
ABV: 54.6% (109.2 proof)
Cask: Refill American oak, cognac cask finish
The nice thing about Diageo’s portfolio of single malt-producing distilleries is that they fill out all the major columns, in terms of common scotch whisky flavor profiles. A few of the more famous distilleries are indeed those known for peat and smoke intensity, but you also have the likes of Singleton of Glendullan to balance them out, and I appreciate that. This is a fairly traditional Speyside malt, albeit finished in brandy casks, which I imagine only amplifies its inherent fruitiness.
On the nose, this one is initially milder and less expressive than most of these other bottles—there are fans out there who would no doubt expect something a bit more assertive for the price point. The aromatics are pleasant, however, with subtle strains of orchard fruit, caramel, chocolate and vanilla. Where this one really blooms is on the palate, however, which comes alive with sweet, rich and fruity flavors. This is quite rich and indulgent, luxuriating in notes of roasted nuts, dark caramel, marzipan, black cherry and dried fruits. Dark honey, cocoa and stewed fruits round out a whisky that is absolutely a crowd pleaser on the palate, if not immediately on the nose. The Singleton 19 is ultimately very easy to like, and this is the sort of fruity and indulgent whisky I always wonder what a non-scotch drinker would think of if they believe all scotch whisky is dominated by peat, as so many still do.
ABV: 56.5% (113 proof)
Cask: Refill American oak
In terms of personal taste, Islay malts are rarely in my personal flavor wheelhouse. Primarily, this is because my palate is typically more sensitive to smoky flavors than most—they have a tendency to register more intensely to me than they do for others, meaning that the particularly peat-forward drams from distilleries such as Laphroaig, Lagavulin or Caol Ila have an unfortunate tendency to strike me as unpleasantly one-dimensional. However, over the course of the last few years I’ve made more of a concerted effort to taste Islay drams, and in the process I’ve acclimated somewhat to the baseline of peat and smoke that is usually involved. They still don’t tend to be what I reach for first in the world of scotch, but my palate finds the smoke increasingly inviting all the same. And this 12 year old selection from Lagavulin feels like a bit of revelatory moment for me.
This is a no-frills Lagavulin malt without any secondary finishing, aged exclusively in refilled American oak. The distillery’s marketing language says it comes from their “fiercest and smokiest” casks, but oddly it doesn’t really seem to revel primarily in those flavors, on either the nose or the palate. This may come down to marketing bloviation, or my own palate growing far more accustomed to peat, but the reality of The Lion’s Fire is that it ultimately displays superb balance.
This one is exceedingly aromatic, combining lovely wood smoke and exotic tea with distinctly autumnal notes of dried leaves and lightly confectionery qualities of marzipan and toffee. It has none of the sourness to the smoke/wood that can occasionally put me off on Islay drams, instead displaying a lovely, deep sweetness to round out whatever sharpness exists in the peat. Salty sweet on the palate, it delivers notes of nut toffee and spicy charred wood, again bereft of the sourness or bitterness I feared might be present. The balance between sweet, smoke, earth and spice is quite lovely, and it’s also extremely drinkable for the proof point at the same time.
To be honest, this feels like an Anton Ego moment for me, straight out of the conclusion of Ratatouille, sending me hurtling back to a Midwestern autumn in my childhood, marked by the aromas of leaves crunching underfoot and a distant woodfire. It’s a beautiful, transformative kind of moment. Seriously great stuff.
ABV: 44.2% (88.4 proof)
Cask: PX/Oloroso seasoned first fill casks
Yeah, you read that right—this is a 26-year-old Lagavulin with an absolutely gaudy $2,400 price tag, which is more than all the other entries in this Special Releases class combined. Unlike all the other selections, which each note that they are available in “limited quantities,” this is the one selection that comes with a bottle count: 7,542, which is actually pretty damn high for any cask-strength scotch with this kind of price point. Unsurprisingly, it’s the weakest of the group, as extra-aged scotch whiskies tend to be. This one went the sherry route, being matured in Pedro Ximénez and oloroso sherry casks. Fittingly, it has the very deep, burnished amber color you’d expect as a result.
After all this time, the smoke here has been smoothed out quite a bit on the nose, being only a distant wood fire now, while elements of the barrel and the fortified wine it once held swim to the forefront. Candied almond jumps out, along with brown sugar cookie and a bit of butterscotch, and hints of dark, syrupy fruit. The nose suggests no shortage of richness, with the complex woodiness you would expect, and the baked fruit of an extra-long maturation. On the palate, this scotch is actually a bit less richly decadent, with the wood contributing a bit more bitter balance—notes of deeply charred oak are met by dark fruit and almond paste, and not quite as much residual sugar as the nose might suggest. It’s quite vinous, though, and suggests a wine reduction with cooked flavors, finishing fairly woody and dry. Complex and mysterious, as one would no doubt hope a $2,400 bottle to be. Still, would I trade one bottle of this in for 16 bottles of that resplendent Lagavulin 12 year? Oh, absolutely—in a heartbeat.
If you’re in the market to drop a few grand on a bottle of scotch, though, you might as well make it one with a lovely label like this.
ABV: 57.5% (115 proof)
Cask: Refill American oak, refill European oak
Amazing how a $250 price tag looks positively reasonable after a $2,400 one, isn’t it? This 16-year-old malt from Royal Lochnagar is a nice change of pace after the Islay selections, with marketing copy playing up its “fresh” elements and spring-like flavors. Certainly a good contrast to the smoke and deep, dark fruitiness of those Lagavulin bottles.
The nose on this one is quite light initially, mellow and rounded, with elements of lighter honey, orange, pear and vanilla. There’s another element of fruitiness that is difficult to place, something that is a bit like melon, although I’m enjoying trying to nail it down. On the palate, the sweet melon is there, complemented by orange but then counterpointed by a more unexpected bit of roast and light coffee, which works better than I would have expected. It’s fairly sweet on the palate, but the x-factor is a tart fruitiness that I eventually decided was akin to sour pear/apple. If your tastes in scotch do indeed run to the fresher and more brightly fruity, this one is quite interesting—compared to the Singleton it’s less rich and desserty in the fruit department, but is instead brighter and more piquant on the palate.
ABV: 56.2% (112.4 proof)
Cask: Virgin American oak
At first glance, one might look at this Oban release and wonder how a distillery with a 14-year-old flagship single malt chooses to put out a “merely” 12 year old limited release for the Diageo Special Releases lineup, but the answer lies in the barrels. Rather than the standard re-used American oak casks, this one seems to have been matured exclusively in freshly charred, or “virgin” American oak, which isn’t often employed for this length of time in maturing scotch whisky—or if it is, often used as a component of a blend, rather than presented solo. Which is to say, this is a whole lot of virgin oak influence, meeting up with Oban’s already unique fusion of Highland single malt/coastal single malt styles.
On the nose, this one unsurprisingly presents with more than a little vanilla bean, combined with orange and a bit of chocolate. The ethanol also seems a bit on the hot side for this entry, considerably more aggressive than some of the other bottles in this lineup, and it’s a tad hot on the initial entry of the palate. Orange, vanilla and chocolate all make big appearances here, along with a big explosion of oak and wood spice, which is slightly drying and balances solid sweetness. This is a big and bold dram, which teeters into overly assertive territory from time to time but improves as it sits in the glass, finding a balance over time between sweetness and roast, along with minor smoke. It’s quite roasty indeed, with an intense, bitter espresso that lingers on the palate and plays nicely with barrel-derived vanillans. The ethanol might still read as intense to some drinkers, but it absolutely does showcase the virgin oak. This might actually be a the rare selection that could use a few drops of water to bring the proof point down a touch.
ABV: 55.9% (111.8 proof)
Cask: Refill American oak, virgin American oak
Mortlach is another one of those distilleries whose malts I haven’t tasted enough on their own to truly form any preconceptions about the distillery’s flavor profile, but this one splits the difference of the traditional aging method and Oban’s use of virgin American oak by using both casks for its maturation.
You can certainly get the influence of the virgin oak on the nose, which has no shortage of freshly scraped vanilla bean to go along with more savory influences. I’m getting honey and pear, along with clove and biscuit, but there’s a distant nutty cocoa and barrel char that hints at the virgin oak as well. On the palate, this one turns quite sweet, with lots of vanilla and confectionery notes at first—lots of nutty toffee—and a texture that is a bit on the syrupy side. There’s a considerable degree of barrel char as well, contributing coffee roastiness to go with chocolate-covered clementines and more chile pepper-like spice and moderate heat. I feel like perhaps there’s a bit of nuance present in this dram that I’m not quite unlocking, or perhaps it’s a matter of those freshly charred casks thrusting themselves into the spotlight. Regardless, this one makes an obvious companion to be compared to the Oban release in this same collection.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.