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Diageos Special Releases 2013-2015: Port Ellen all-time high & sensational Pittyvaich

The most significant whisky event of the year is Diageo’s Special Releases in late autumn. The world’s largest spirits company didn’t invent modern single malt but has spread the gospel more than anyone else. Classic Malts were born in 1988, the core consisted of Lagavulin, Talisker and Glenkinchie. Later on Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie and Oban closed the ranks.

We can thank Nick Morgan for it. He introduced malt whisky in a company where everything revolves around blends like Johnnie Walker.

– When Distillers Company became United Distillers in 1980 we looked with new eyes at the entire company. A market for malt whisky began to emerge. Our strength was diversity, so our offer to the consumer was based on taste linked to regions. As with wine, cheese and coffee. We started with six Classic Malts but back in 1993 the programme expanded with the Flora & Fauna series. And in 1995 Rare Malts came about with whisky from abandoned places which later was supplemented by rare vintages from active distilleries. The Rare Malts didn’t cover the Classic Malts though so in 2001 Special Releases started up. First up was 100 bottles of 28-year-old Talisker for £495 which sold out quickly.

Special-Releases-2015-Bottles

The company sits on a third of Scotland’s malt capacity with its 28 distilleries. A majority unknown malts that rarely reach the public are only visible in Special Releases. Typical of Diageo’s treatment of its distilleries is to endeavour to insert originality into the distillates. Certainly there is lack of inspiration in the form of Strathmill and Auchroisk among others. But more detailed opposites as Mortlach or Benrinnes where the distilling layout is provocative and awkward (and uneconomical) shows that taste identity is a strong driving force. The company has always been serious about its releases, no piffling instead a no nonsense straight-line where it picks the best casks from the earth’s richest whisky stocks and puts together usually refined editions.

– The quality requirements are rigorous, says Nick Morgan. All distilleries make their own spirit with a distinct character so our blenders will have a rich palette to work with. That big corporations would be something negative is a misconception. The size allows us to run 28 distilleries!

For me as a whisky expert Diageo’s annual release of fine whisky is a yearly highlight. Interest among common whisky folk, however, has died off. When in 2013 Diageo shock raised the prices it made the whisky economically inaccessible to most people. A Port Ellen for 1,500 pounds isn’t something you buy by chance. I got the third release from 2003 for a mere 110 pounds in 2007. The background to the prize bomb is double-edged. Several editions sold out instantly and then appeared at auctions which multiplied the prices. The conclusion was that the pricing was wrong, according to Diageo which nowadays take the money themselves. And that’s fair since it’s their own whisky! The target audience is new, Special Releases no longer turns inwards to whisky lovers but outwards to a general public dressed in cash. This year’s Port Ellen for 2,400 pounds is simply meant as a gift for someone born in 1983 (!). Imagine all those expectant 32-year-olds who will receive this extinct Ileach!

All notes on Special Releases 2013/15 will come in a special report (June).

The Diageo blender team is the industry’s most invisible, even though they provide the world with more whisky than anyone else. The collective is made up of 12 individuals who ensure that 200 products keep their shape, both single malts and blends. Dr. Jim Beveridge is overall boss responsible for the Johnnie Walker line, sixth Master Blender since the start in 1820. The successful blend was created by founder John Walker’s son, Alexander, who in 1857 began to experiment in the basement of the shop in Kilmarnock, different pot and column distilled whiskies were mixed and became the family’s first blend. Head of the malt division is Maureen Robinson, who together with her “whisky specialists” Keith Law and Craig Wilson give us a rich catalogue of single malts. Keith Law is the one doing the practical work putting together the Special Releases assisted by his colleagues. First the stock is inventoried to locate distilleries not released over the past 2-3 years. A short list of candidates is e-mailed to the marketing people in London who bounces back the ones they want. The blender team requests samples from the warehouses and analyzes each whisky on the basis of aroma and flavour.

– This year, we went through several hundred samples, says Maureen Robinson. We screen the samples within the team, nosing each cask rating the best as top-notch. The individual casks are brought together into a whole that is checked again. At the same time, we calculate how much whisky each batch will produce.

The preparatory work is essential. Much time is devotes to filter out individual casks which are then weighed to determine how many litres each container holds. Keith Law explains:

– It’s important that the proportion of whisky from each cask is correct so the test blend will be representative of the final product. We deselect whisky with strong character or casks with a deviant style.

If the team disapproves with the test pilot it is broken to pieces again and Keith have to start over with a different mix of casks.

– The mix sometimes needs to be tweaked, some parts removed, other added. With this year’s grain whisky The Cally we were lucky. Few casks were rejected because they weren’t good enough. The majority were excellent. After 40 years, however, the levels were very low in the refill casks, we had to use as many as 42.

Keith was 17 years old when he on 13 August 1979 began at the Caledonian Distillery in Edinburgh. His father was responsible for the craftsmen, from painters and coppersmiths to joiners. His uncle Bill was a cooper, but had just emigrated to America. Most of the family’s acquaintances worked there. Caledonian was nicknamed “The Cally” by the workers.

– I thought it was pretty cool to be in the same place as my dad. I was in the lab, working on quality control. We nosed new make. Caledonian was very sweet in style, slightly creamy. Regularly, we received samples from Cambus, Port Dundas, Cameron Bridge and Carsebridge, which just closed. Grain whisky has subtle differences, not the wide array of flavours as with malts. Some are sweeter and lighter, others are a bit heavier in style.

The opportunity to do a whisky from his old workplace made Keith very happy:

– A great honour, the development has been fantastic. Especially as the whisky is becoming more precious, we don’t have much left.

 

The core of Special Releases is the smoky legends of Port Ellen and Brora. Everyone wonders when they will run dry. Both distilleries are long closed and the casks are becoming fewer.

– We still have a wee bit of casks of Port Ellen, says Maureen Robinson. Which will suffice at least a couple of more years. But it’s more about quality; if they are not up to standard, there will be no more.

Endurance depends more on the content than the number of casks in stock, and it seems Brora will survive Port Ellen, the mainland casks simply have more bounce. But all is not gold that glitters, comments Keith:

– Some Brora’s speak of the cask, very very woody. The distillery character can be overwhelmed, especially if it is a delicate whisky. But Brora and Port Ellen often cope better because the smokiness gets the distillery character to shine through. Most casks are good with a depth of smokiness and woody richness.

The rejuvenated Port Ellen of 2015 is more than welcome, casks from its last spring alive have been assembled. But this doesn’t mean the older vintages are gone, claims Keith forcibly:

– We fight of course against vanishing stocks. The whisky is getting older by the day, while the volume evaporates. The reason we did a 1983 Port Ellen is simply because we can! The dozen refill sherry butts were filled during three days. Definitely one of the best Port Ellen we made to date.

Keith Law has studied the chemistry during fermentation and maturation. First in a microbiology lab in Alloa, then at Diageo under Jim Beveridge. That smoke can survive over 30 years in the cask is not really surprising, he says:

– Peat-reek is a composite chemistry. Some smoky components are volatile and will disappear over time. More stable smoke particles will instead concentrate as alcohol evaporates and the strength drops. Additionally, the cask itself can make the whisky smokier. The wood substance guaiacol adds a spicy or smoky flavour. Oak can either reveal, suppress or enhance flavours.

When working with peated whisky of normal age it is all about getting away from the oak. That’s how Diageo picture Lagavulin. The 12-year is a classic that has been around since 2002. This year’s edition consists of 122 refill American oak hogsheads that let the distillate through, explains Keith:

– Compared to the 16-year the 12-year-old is punchier, it highlights and enhances the inherent range of smokiness that is Lagavulin. It’s well-matured but there isn’t a lot of wood in there. The extra four years add sweetness and smoothness to the mouthfeel.

Another “house whisky” in the series is Caol Ila unpeated. This is the world’s largest peated malt distillery, but once a year they make a “Highland style” whisky with minimal peat content to complement the blenders’ palette.

– An opportunity to explore Caol Ila’s freshness underneath all the peat, says Keith. Without the smoke there is an interesting fruity side to the spirit.

Smoky Caol Ila also has that freshness but when you remove the smoke it’s for all to see.

– The 17-year has been matured in first fill bourbon barrels with a vanilla/toffee sweetness which has enhanced the whisky’s own sweetness making it richer.

 

For the second year in a row, Northern Highlands distiller Clynelish is included in the Special Releases. Select Reserve is Jim Beveridge’s “baby”, as the malt team puts it. JW’s master blender sat down with Keith in the lab and directed this flavour-lead whisky. They have looked for Clynelish’s inherent waxy qualities.

– We paced many types of oak casks and ages, says Keith. The waxiness was found in refill oak which dominate the blend of 24 casks. Youngest whisky is 15 years and it comprises four different ages. Once we got the recipe bolted down, it was up to me to locate the right casks and assemble the whisky.

Mixed ages allow the blender to juggle with wider differences in character just as when a blended Scotch is produced. Other Special Releases are vintage bound, explains Maureen:

– When working age-tied with vintage malt, we try to make the best whisky with the given cask material, not to meet a set flavour profile as in the case of the Select Reserve.

When the team is planning this year’s constellation it is the quality of the casks that are crucial but equally important is the spread of flavours.

– We don’t want the styles to be too close to each other, comments Keith. There should be some smoke, some heavier varieties and obviously fresher lighter whisky.

Dalwhinnie is on the lighter side, less sweet than the other eight malts.

– The 25-year is floral and perfumy. Rather interesting as younger expressions are quite heavy. But Dalwhinnie matures very well and tend to become more delicate.

Dailuaine was one of the favourites at the London launch in October. Fourth time lucky in the series, but absent the last six years. Something of a favourite among blenders, says Keith:

– It’s meaty and robust, a heavier old-style whisky similar to Mortlach. Very useful for a blender. After 34 years big and full-bodied with deep rich flavours, a complexity that comes from wood and spirit. If the new make is heavier and richer it will take longer time for the wood to carve out depth and complexity, the distillate needs time to dig deeper.

The great talk during the launch party was Pittyvaich. Many were pleasantly surprised by a maligned distillery killed off in 1993 because the whisky didn’t develop as expected.

– The heart of the 25-year-old comes from refill oak which lets the distillery character through. Pittyvaich is fruity with a cereal background. We added newer 1st fill barrels from the same year to get a sweeter creamier taste. The interaction between the cask types is interesting. The panel tested two versions. Some liked the oaky one but the majority went surprisingly for the variant with slightly less oak.

It was the second time around for Pittyvaich and the malt team got taste for more. Keith is eager to return in a few years with another bottling. The 2016 Special Releases are soon completed but the project is of course top secret. No outsider knows what to expect. Lagavulin and Caol Ila will return and we’ll see both Brora and Port Ellen again. But the rest will be a surprise. Until then, enjoy the 2015 editions!