In the whisky world there aren’t many more hotly anticipated launches than the annual Special Releases, a capsule collection of fine, rare and limited edition whiskies that arrives each October from Scotch giant Diageo.
Hand-picked from the company’s portfolio of 28 working distilleries across Scotland – as well as from the stocks of several more that are, tantalisingly, no longer in production – the eclectic mix is always a combination of the niche and the lionised, with a price tag to match. The 2017 range of 10 bottlings starts at £90 for a cask-strength Lagavulin 12yo (56.5% abv/ltd ed), rising to £2,625 for a bottle of 37-year-old Port Ellen from Islay (51% abv/2,988 bottles).
The woman charged with selecting these whiskies is master blender Maureen Robinson, a twinkly Scot with a self-deprecating manner that belies the power she wields. “However well I know a distillery, I always find there are new things to discover,” she says, nosing an aromatic Blair Athol 24yo (58.4% ab/£400/5,514 bottles). “That’s what makes this job so interesting.”
And that’s why enthusiasts love the Special Releases, too, because they offer the chance to taste famous names in unfamiliar guises: a Caol Ila, for example, that’s unpeated, or a Lagavulin bottled at 12 years, rather than 16.
Robinson and her team also do a great job of shining a light on some of the lesser-known distilleries that play a key part in blends such as Johnnie Walker. This year I was enchanted by the Convalmore 32yo (48.2% abv/£1,200/3,972 bottles), a Speyside malt with radiant notes of scented wax and apricot that make it much sought-after among whisky blenders.
Even grain whisky, which is often dismissed as mere stuffing for blends, gets its moment in the form of Port Dundas 52yo (44.6% abv/£775/752 bottles), a deep amber dram with an indulgent, coconutty character akin to a bourbon. (It’s also the oldest ever Special Release.) And then there are curiosities such as Collectivum XXVIII (57.3% abv/£150/ltd ed), a finely tuned vatting of malts from all 28 of Diageo’s distilleries.
Like it or not (and there are some who don’t), the scrum around Special Releases also has a lot to do with investment potential. Star performers are invariably Port Ellen and Brora, two “silent distilleries” that went out of business in the early 1980s; if you were lucky enough to snap up the first Special Release of Port Ellen in 2001 for £110, you’d now have a bottle worth £4,500.
I’m usually a fan of Brora, but this year the Port Ellen has it for me, with its unexpected overtones of sweet hay, which only give way to the more familiar chocolate/coal smoke when you add water. Next year it will doubtless be different again, but as Robinson says, that’s the joy of whisky tasting – there’s always something new to discover.