The evening of the Diageo Special Releases is always a key date in the calendar for whisky aficionados. Now into its 16th year this is when Diageo shows off the latest releases of fine and very rare whisky – with price tags to match. The Port Ellen, a deceased distillery, is now being offered for £2,625 a bottle. The company used the occasion to launch a new product, a blend, called Collectivum XXVIII which got the thumbs up from Philip Hunter.
Each Diageo Special Releases whisky was tasted full cask strength and then diluted, with some surprising results.
Fine whisky rarely yields all her secrets at a first taste and usually requires a little water to reveal subtler flavours that may be obscured by more powerful ones at full cask strength. Yet there are a few exceptions and one such singular beauty showed up among 10 rare natural cask strength Scotch whiskies released for the occasion from Diageo and its original distillers, some of which sadly no longer exist.
This was the annual Diageo Special Releases, an initiative that started in 2001 to present exceptional rare whiskies worth collecting at a variety of prices roughly in the range of £100 to £3000 the bottle.
This year every one was a gem in its way with considerable range in style and one or two examples of how the grain as well as the grape can be a wonderful counterfeiter, simulating flavours we might not expect. But first let us ruminate over the outlier in my opinion, the Lagavulin single malt from Islay, at 12 years old the youngest on bottling of the 10 and yet at full strength the most complete. A triumph of simplicity, it holds an inner smokiness comfortably within its fire. The tasting notes mention cleansing soap and wet wool, which doesn’t entice, but mercifully I could not detect them. Remarkably though its clearly delicate fabric was completely ruined by a few drops of water, which could be a weakness if it did not drink so well neat. One for the cabinet and actually good value at £88.95 a bottle.
All the others showed up well upon modest dilution and indeed offered up different tastes at each turn. I was initially most taken by the Port Ellen, at 37 years the equal oldest Port Ellen ever released. On another night, this might have been my star but this was not another night. There were several others with similar light woody style and the chamois leather cited in the notes was a chimera. It was also the most expensive and you would have to like it more than me to fork out the £2,625 per bottle.
One that really did stand out for me was the Port Dundas, at 52 years the oldest on show and at 44.6% also the weakest at cask strength. It was an absolute peach and yes there was some peach on the palate although the notes reported nectarine. It had spent all that time on bourbon wood which meant that it gained some oaken bourbon character, oozing a charming unctuous oiliness that leans a little towards fine old brandy. This is £775 a bottle and one can begin to see why, especially after a second dram.
The Blair Athol 23-year-old single malt was even more brandy like on the nose and could have been mistaken for a Metaxas at that point, albeit a finer one than I have had so far. That was at its full 58.4% cask strength and its taste morphed remarkably upon even a little dilution in a way a brandy never would. We then found sweet mellifluous honey flavours unleashed with a lovely top of caramel and I could even detect the baked banana and crème brûlée in the notes, although I could not accept their declaration of mint and garam marsala. This was the most striking example there of a whisky opening up to water, the opposite of the Lagavulin, and its score on my card at least went up with every successive dilution down to about 30% alcohol. By the end I deemed it well worth the £390 a bottle for this experience.
The Collectivum XXVIII stood alone in being a blend, the first ever in this series of special releases and comprising all 28 of Diageo’s operating malt distilleries as the Roman numerals of its name indicate. It is a triumph of that fine blending art. Unlike some of its less illustrious and yet better-known relatives, the Collectivum exhibits a restrained almost refined smokiness that never threatens to overwhelm the delicate flavours emerging as just a few droplets of water are added.
The trick of fine blending is more than just a numbers game. It is not just a matter of limiting the stronger flavours to give room for the subtler ones, but of selecting carefully those that work well together and enhance rather than inhibit each other. That much I learnt from the whisky’s expert blender and I can confirm that he has got it spot on there. Mellow toffees and vanilla come to the fore as the water is added and the smokiness fades further into the background. After all that I was pleasantly surprised by the price tag of £149.95 for the bottle.
There is not space to introduce the others, except to say that the evening was a sublime advert for whisky with its wide spectrum of flavours exhibited during the dilution – with that one exception. It is a spirit that instils bonhomie more than any other, especially at this exalted level and it was little wonder that we all departed in exuberant form, eager to engage the night.