Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Diageo $pecial Releases
One of the great things about being in a whiskey club is you can pool resources and taste things you would never be able to afford on your own. At the LA Whiskey Society, we benefit from that pooling (as well as some members' immense generosity) and are lucky enough to get to taste some great stuff. Recently, we tasted the latest line up of Diageo special releases. This is stupid expensive whisky from some of the most heralded distilleries in Scotland.
This is one of those reviews I debate about posting. On the one hand, these things are so expensive that it's sort of silly to review them, because no matter how good they are, I wouldn't recommend anyone buy them unless you just won the Powerball or something. On the other hand, I figure people might want to know how they taste (and to engage in therapeutic schadenfreude if they suck), so here they are, in order of my least favorite to my favorite of the bottles we tasted. (There are two bottles in the collection that we didn't get to, a 17 year old unpeated Caol Ila and a 12 year old Lagavulin). I've also included links to the LA Whiskey Society entry for each whisky so you can see how some of my colleagues rated them.
Dalwhinnie 25, distilled 1989, 48.8% abv ($400)
This one was pretty standard stuff with typical malt and vanilla notes and a slight touch of acid. It was good whisky, but it was very straight forward and not very interesting. Several people commented that it didn't taste much different from the 15 year old Dahlwinnie you can get at Trader Joe's for about an eighth of the price.
Dailuaine 34, distilled 1980, 50.9% ($650)
One of the more obscure distilleries that made it into the special releases, the Dailuaine 34 was light and fruity on the nose with a touch of peat. The palate opened with light peat and sweet notes. This was a nice, light, peaty malt but nothing particularly special.
Clynelish Select Reserve, 56.1% abv ($900)
This one has no age statement but is said to include whiskies at least 15 years old. It was very true to the Clynelish profile with creamy malt and sea water notes. An on-profile Clynelish is always good, but this one wasn't better than many much cheaper on-profile Clynelishes available from independent bottlers.
Pittyvaich 25, distilled 1989, 49.9% abv ($550)
The Pittyvaich Distillery operated for less than 20 years, and while I've had a few, I can't say I have a firm impression of the distillery. This one was probably the sleeper hit of the night. It had typical bourbon cask vanilla and malt notes but also a savory, mineral quality that gave it complexity and depth along with very slight floral notes. There's something great about the purity of a malt that is able to show complexity without peat or sherry, and this one definitely did it.
The Cally 40, distilled 1974, 53.3% abv ($1,350)
This is a 40 year old single grain whisky from the Caledonian Distillery in Edinburgh which closed in 1988. This was another sleeper hit as few people, myself included, ever seem to expect much from a Scotch single grain. On this one, a pure bourbon nose was matched at first sip with sweet bourbon caramel, turning spicy and then ending with a taste of honey (tasting much sweeter than wine). The late honey on the palate gave it an almost Canadian Whisky type of profile, but like the best Canadian Whisky ever. The finish was drier with spice and coconut. It was sweet and delicious and fun to drink.
Brora 37, distilled 1977, 50.4% abv ($2,300)
I'm a huge fan of the peated distillate that came out of the Brora Distillery in the late 1970s, and this one hits the mark. It's got that characteristic mixture of fuel like peat notes, grassy malt notes and ocean air, along with a touch of lemon rind late in the palate. It's perfectly balanced with no single element dominating. Back in the heady days of the late 2000s, this was really, really expensive, but not totally unreachable, especially with a group of friends going in together. Tasting a great Brora again brings a tear to my eye.
Port Ellen 32, distilled 1983, 53.9% ($4,000)
In the pantheon of closed distilleries, I usually prefer Brora to Port Ellen, but this 37 year old Port Ellen aged in a combination of European oak casks, including some sherry, is a near perfect specimen. The nose starts with a blast of peat followed by oak and a touch of sweet sherry which grows as you smell it. The palate also starts with peat, then reveals dry sherry which is remains present but never in an overwhelming way. There are dried pineapple notes and plenty of peat. The finish is an old fireplace, or maybe even the smell of just lit firecrackers after they explode (aka my neighborhood on the Fourth of July), along with an old, dry red wine. Everything about this is rich, thick and wonderful.
Well, I would love to have been able to tell you that these whiskies sucked, but that just wasn't the case. The Pittyvaich is definitely the best bang for your buck, but it's still a really big buck and more than I would ever pay. Sadly, except for that Pittyvaich, the "cheaper" whiskies were the more disappointing ones.
Prices aside, Diageo has always done a pretty good job with these special releases. They know they have some great whisky on their hands, and they are going to make sure anyone who wants it pays dearly for the privilege.