It’s autumn, which means it’s time for one of the most important events in the whisky calendar, the annual unveiling of the Special Releases, the limited-edition line-up of whiskies from some of Diageo’s most sought-after and investable distilleries.
This year’s flight of 10 whiskies will hit the shops in mid-October, but I had a preview back in August and the first thing to say is that the class of 2016 is a venerable one: one of the 10 whiskies is the oldest-ever expression of its kind, and two others the oldest ever bottled in the Special Releases collections.
The most talked about will inevitably be the 37-year-old from Islay’s famed silent distillery Port Ellen (distilled 1978, 55.2 per cent abv, 2,940 bottles, £2,500). This exceptionally concentrated single malt really flies with a drop of water, opening with zingy grapefruit zest, iodine and fresh linen, before taking a darker turn into tarmac, pipe smoke and crystallised orange clad in bitter black chocolate. It’s the oldest Port Ellen ever released and it’s the most expensive bottle in this year’s collection too.
The Port Ellen impresses, but the one that seduces is the Brora 38-year-old (distilled 1977, 48.6 per cent abv, 2,984 bottles, £1,450), with its sweet and slightly musky notes of incense, waxed jackets and miso. This bottling from the famous (and also silent) Highland distillery will no doubt be pounced on by whisky lovers and investors alike.
Lowland distillery Glenkinchie has also been released this year as an unusually elderly 24-year-old (distilled 1991, 57.2 per cent abv, 5,928 bottles, £300), resulting in a liquid that overlays the fruity/floral characters so typical of Lowland whisky with drier, more aromatic notes of tobacco, juniper smoke and vetiver.
The oldest release of all this year is not a single malt, however, but a 40-year-old grain whisky from the rarely seen Lowland distillery Cambus (distilled 1975, 52.7 per cent abv, 1,812 bottles, £750). Almost outrageously voluptuous, with thick butter toffee, dried mango and a heady bourbon-cask character, this is a compelling example of what grain whisky can achieve with age.
Another of my favourites from this year is the enigmatic Linkwood 37-year-old (distilled 1978, 50.5 per cent abv, 6,114 bottles, £600). Bright and scented at first – with the Speyside distillery’s characteristic crisp red-apple note, as well as a touch of violets and aniseed – it gradually develops more depth, with thyme, leather, liquorice and black tea coming to the fore.
The unpeated Caol Ila 15-year-old (distilled 2000, 61.5 per cent abv, limited release, £90) is also an unusual delight. With the smoke dialled back to almost nothing (almost), the grassy, maritime characters spring forth as citrussy and tangy as a Margarita cocktail. A whisky that leaves you smacking your lips.
This year’s lot also includes a meaty no-age-statement from Speyside distillery Cragganmore (55.7 per cent abv, 4,932 bottles, £400), a Mannochmore 25-year-old dusted with nutmeg (distilled 1990, 53.4 per cent abv, 3,954 bottles, £250), a delicately fruity, aperitif-style Auchroisk 25-year-old (distilled 1990, 51.2 per cent abv, 3,954 bottles, £280) and a Lagavulin 12-year-old with some seriously rolling smoke (57.7 per cent abv, limited quantities, £80).