Tasting the 2014 Diageo Special and Rare Whisky Releases

Whisky. We’ve got a serious love hate relationship. I love drinking it, but hate when I drink more than I should. Fortunately my job allows me to enjoy whisky more than the average chap, ‘for work’, which makes me feel less guilty about my affection for the amber liquid. Recently I was invited by the Diageo Single Malts Whisky team to do a tasting of the 2014 Special and Rare whisky releases. We assembled at The Stables, Randwick Racecourse’s private members club with Mr Sean Baxter, the National Brand Ambassador for JW and Classic Malts.

As I greeted Sean I looked down at small trolley he was towing and the boxes that were sitting upon it. “Not something you’d want to traipse through the city late at night is it”, I said. “No not carrying $15,000 odd worth of whisky”, he replied. Some notable highlights included the exceptionally rare Port Ellen 35YO, a Brora 35YO and a Singleton 38YO among a handful of slightly less rare but equally as impressive bottles.

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The Special and Rare Whisky Release is a series of small annual releases of limited edition, very old and unusual bottling’s from famous and closed distilleries. The chosen whiskies come in very small numbers, thousands, sometimes hundreds of individually numbered bottles distributed across the world. With such scarcity, they are often highly collectible fetching eye watering prices at auction, suitable for consumption immediately or to be stored for investment purposes. To say I was excited and honoured to be trying such a standout selection of whiskies was an understatement.

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Sean picked a handful of whiskies from the 17 strong collection and walked us through a tasting, touching on the heritage of each distillery, the flavour profile and food pairing options – aided by the cured meats, salt and pepper squid and cheese board sitting in front of us. Sean instructed us to sip the whisky first, letting it touch our lips and palette gently, then we added a few drops of water to open each dram and discussed the changing characteristics. Here is the list we tasted and Sean’s highly emotive tasting notes, because I just don’t feel even remotely qualified to comment! Enjoy.

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Rosebank 21 Year Old ($555):

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The Rosebank 21YO was distilled in 1992 at the Lowland distillery, Rosebank, which closed in the following year. Following a maturing process in American Oak the 21YO was put into 4,530 individually marked bottles especially for Diageo’s Special Releases.

Nose: Margaritas on the sunny coast, salt and lime with dripping agave and honey. Wafting rose water and orange blossom, the smell of sweet fragrant frangipani crushed underfoot. Icing sugar dissolving on cut fruits, pink grapefruit and Fry’s Turkish delight.

Palate: Clean and fresh but still spicy and complex. Boiled sweets with char and a pervasive dryness.

Benrinnes 21 Year Old ($450):

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Hailing from Speyside, the Benrinnes 21YO is only the fourth ever bottling from the distillery, an important building block in the top end of John Walker & Sons releases. This whisky highlights perfectly the impact of ex-sherry barrels and extended copper conversation through non-conventional distillation techniques.

Nose: Iberico fat, butter, rum and raisin, burnt molasses, Anzac cookies, Vegemite on toast, oiled canvas.

Palate: Super salty and savoury. Golden pastry, meaty, warming with wooded spice and heaps of length. Rich mahogany. Dense chewy salted toffee.

Singleton of Glendullan 38 Year Old ($1400):

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The Singleton 38 is a fabulous representation of the classic sherried Speyside style. Glendullan sits within the ‘Garden of Scotland’ and truly captures the essence of Speyside’s rugged beauty.

Nose: Scooping melon balls and mango slices into pavlova shells. It opens up into  creamy vanilla bean ice cream, brittle toffee and shortbread biscuits. 

Palate: Oiled and mouth-coating, rich and rounded with a creamy-sweet toffee that darkens into a charred caramel. A dash of water pulls out more spice which develops into a long and slightly drying finish. Pine resin and sandalwood rounds out the complexity towards end.

Brora 35 Year Old ($2200):

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The Brora 35 is the equal-oldest ever whisky from this deceased distillery, coming from refill American Oak and European oak barrels filled in 1978. Only the tiniest of stock remains of this hugely important peated highland style. Literally, a piece of history.

Nose: Perfumed candles, melted wax, barley sugars on the drive to church, old school boiled lollies. Faint smoke.

Palate: Really oily, coating. Hot Milo. Pepper, burnt honey, citrus cake.

Caol Ila 30 Year Old ($800):

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Following sampling a number of distilleries I knew little of nothing about it was nice to arrive at a one with products I was more than familiar with! The 2014 collection also includes an interesting Caol Ila 15YO unpeated ($130) which I can highly recommend to any Caol Ila fans. The 30YO exudes a stunning display of both Islay and distillery character despite three decades in refill American and European oak. Sean’s value pick out of the whole list!

Nose: Unmistakably Islay despite tons of age. Dad burning off green lantana, surprisingly vegetal with heaps of freshness. The smell of rain on the way.  Hidden butters and dark brown pastry.

Palate: Again, massive. Coating, oily and decadent. If Brora was the smell of candles this is the taste of blowing them out. Thick, with a heavy tactile sweetness. Awesome. 

Port Ellen 35 Year Old ($4100):

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This bottle is the rarest of rare, one of 2694 bottles worldwide. The crown jewel amongst precious gems. The 14th release from the closed distillery, matured in refill European Oak and refill American Oak casks filled, filled in 1978. This is the oldest Port Ellen ever released and simply put, one of the most amazing whiskies in the world.

Nose: Sweet smoke cured meats with honey roasted carrots and parsnips. Wet hessian sacks belting back bushfires. Rich butter and decadent stripped vanilla beans, glassy chocolate ganche drizzled over poached pears.

Palate: Life changing. Ginger and orange whisky marmalade on burnt buttered toast. Rich and decadent with a long oily finish. Incredible complexity with each breath changing and developing the flavour. Luscious buttery sweetness combines with wafting smoke.

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It was a real privilege to taste the Port Ellen, quite surreal considering its one of the most desirable whiskies in the world. Sean’s notes describe the palate as life changing and there really is no other way to describe it, it’s leagues above any whisky I’ve ever tasted. Stored properly (and away from inebriated people who might think it’s a good opportunity to crack the bottle) I think the Port Ellen would be a pretty solid investment, as does Sean. Once the final Port Ellen release comes out next year people will realise that it’s finally the end of all Port Ellen whisky. The demand for it can only rise over the next 10 years. If you’ve got a spare $4100k you could be looking at $15-20k in 5 years time, predicts Sean.

The 2014 Special and Rare Whisky Release is an amazing selection of whiskies, catering to all palates and budgets (within reason!). While it’s easy to overlook the bottom end of the spectrum with the likes of the Port Ellen and Rosebank I must say that Benrinnes 21YO was a real highlight for me, as was the Caol Ila 30YO. I think the most enjoyable aspect of enjoying these whiskies is understanding the history of each distillery and contemplating the rarity as you drink. The experience of tasting such profound whiskies far outweighs the profound cost.

You can shop the entire 2014 Special and Rare Whisky Release collection at Dan Murphys.

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James is the Founder and Editor of The Versatile Gent.

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