Diageo ‘Elusive Expressions’ Special Release Whiskies
by Ken Gargett
Sometimes, people have really good ideas. Not something I normally say about marketing departments of any kind, but whoever first came up with the concept of the annual Diageo Special Releases deserves all the credit that can be showered upon them. A fabulous idea and one that other regions, spirits, and producers could adopt and adapt.
The first Diageo Special Release was back in 2001.
The Special Release is a selection of whiskies that fans of great malts eagerly await each year.
Each annual release consists of eight to ten whiskies, eight for this latest Collection. Diageo has more than 30 distilleries, some more active than others, from which it can source these whiskies. Collectors around the world will chase each Release with the same fervor others may save for the annual DRCs or tickets to Springsteen. I’d like to think that collectors drink and share these gems, but we all know that some will be squirreling these bottles away, much like dusty old books full of stamps, as a philatelist might (do people still collect stamps, these days?).
The annual Release usually occurs in the UK in October, then at varying times throughout the rest of the world. For example, the 2022 Releases, which is what we are looking at here, was many months later in Australia. So it is worth noting that should you go seeking this particular Release, you might be lucky, but you are far more likely, if you wait a few months, to come across whatever we see from 2023.
So don’t let timing put you off. Whichever Release you find, grab it. What these Releases do is allow lovers of great whisky to sample malts from famous distilleries, made in styles that vary from the regular offerings. Hence, Exclusive Expressions.
Your typical regular bottling will sit around 40% to perhaps as high as 44% or 45% alcohol, and they will have been chill-filtered. I know some of our readers are, shall we say, unexcited by this. The Special Releases are bottled at cask strength, considerably higher than the standard bottlings.
They will not have been chill filtered. The whiskies in this latest Release all sit around 55 to 58%, give or take. The whiskies may also have a different maturation process to what that distillery normally offers. Perhaps an age statement that is not usually produced by that distillery. Anything that provides a point of difference.
Also, the annual Special Release will often include a whisky or two from a distillery that is not usually commercially bottled. This is the sort of stuff that sends whisky lovers into a frenzy.
The 2022 Collection provides something else. As well as the seven malts from familiar distilleries, the eighth whisky in the Collection is not a malt at all, but rather a grain whisky and from a rarely seen distillery. While they have done this in the past, it does not happen often.
The packaging is truly spectacular. Works of art in and on the bottle. This was done by illustrator, Ken Taylor, and digital visualization artist, Kevin Tong. I haven’t a clue what a digital visualization artist is or does, but the results are fabulous.
If I may briefly digress, as this will not be relevant to general whisky lovers, though it speaks to the care and excitement accompanying the Release. The set of media samples arrived in packaging exceeding anything I have ever seen in several decades of doing this. Beautifully crafted in an octagonal container, it was a little like peeling an onion to get to layer after layer, before all the whiskies and paraphernalia were revealed. Impressive stuff.
The labels are wonderfully presented, conjuring up myths and legends. Love the Golden Eyed Guardian that is Clynelish 12; Mortlach has an evil-looking owl, called The Lure of the Blood Moon; and Cardhu 16, a beautiful pheasant called the Hidden Paradise of Black Rock. All have stories and explanations. Lagavulin 12 evokes memories of Harry Potter with The Flames of the Phoenix. Oban 10, The Celestial Blaze, has a rabbit that looks like a combination of General Woundwort from Watership Down and the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog from Monty Python’s ‘Holy Grail’. And so it goes.
There is little point in reciting the history and details of each of the distilleries involved in this latest Release – not least because it would make this piece the size of a book. May I suggest Dave Broom’s superb “A Sense of Place”, aptly described as a journey around Scotland’s whisky. A must-have book for whisky lovers.
The whiskies for 2022, in no particular order. I have given scores as an indication of my thoughts of the whiskies, but I would happily drink any of these. A superb collection and preferences at this level will come down to your personal likes and dislikes. I adore those peaty, smoky notes from a great Islay, for example, but I have friends who cannot bear them. Australian prices for those buying individual bottles –
Oban 10yo, 57.1%. $180. From the Highlands, this was matured first in refill and new American oak, before being finished in Amontillado-seasoned casks.
A pale straw color, notes of flint, peaches, matchsticks and campfires. A hint of nougat. There is excellent length and power here. That old saying about whisky being fire and ice – well, this one brings the fire. The most fearsome of the Collection. If the rip-roaring style is your thing, you’ll adore this. The team describes it as a “great dram for the hip flask when out on the hills, or by the campfire at night”. Could not agree more. 93.
Clynelish 12yo, 58.5%. $350. Another Highlands whisky, it was matured in refill American oak, then finished in Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso-seasoned casks.
Yellow gold hue. There are gentle florals here and hints of hand-rolled cigars. A touch of white pepper. Fragrant with those floral notes and spices. A hint of vanilla. This is immaculately balanced and with a lovely lingering finish. A malt note is ever-present and there is an underlying sweetness. A warm and comforting style. Mid-winter, a glass of this next to a roaring fire would be magic. 94.
Talisker 11yo, 55.1%. $199. Again, from the Highlands, this was matured in and blended from a mix of first-fill ex-bourbon casks, refill casks and what are described as wine-seasoned casks.
A famous distillery, while this whisky might not be made in the usual standards mode, it is impossible to escape that peat and iodine note. A pale bronze color, love the nose. As well as gentle peat and smoke notes, we have orange rinds, cinnamon, nutmeg and mandarin. There is leather and a lovely saline touch as well. Even some gentle tropical touches start to intrude on the palate, which is supple, perhaps surprisingly powerful, and very long. 93.
Glen Ord 15yo, 54.2%. $205. Another Highlands whisky, which is actually labeled as “The Singleton”, this was matured in refill American and European oak, then finished in old wine casks.
Deep bronze, there is a mellowness to this which makes it immediately appealing. Stonefruit, peaches, biscuity notes, a palate that is supple and seductive with notes of oranges, white chocolate and mandarins. A soft sweetness which is finely balanced. Impressive length and a structure that gives the whisky some formality. Good complexity throughout. The longer this is in the glass, the more that emerges. 94.
Lagavulin 12yo, 57.3%. $230. From Islay, a famous name if ever there was one. This whisky is matured in and then blended from a mix of refill and virgin oak casks. Both are American oak.
Pale gold. There is a warmth here, that edges out from under the classic notes of smoke and peat. Citrus, stonefruit, woodsmoke, ginger, iodine and lemongrass, though they play a secondary role to that gorgeous peat. A dense texture with richness and power. Hints of white chocolate emerged on the palate. A fine example for the uninitiated to decide whether they like that traditional Islay smoke/peat or not. I most certainly do. 93.
Cardhu 16yo, 58%. $299. From Speyside, this whisky is matured in re-fill and re-charred American oak before being finished in Jamaican pot still rum-seasoned casks.
A pale yellow with a tinge of green. The nose exhibits spicy notes with saline and oystershell characters. Herbs, ginger, lemon grass, orange rinds and a minerally backing. A character not unlike a vanilla lemon slice. Notes of campfires and matchsticks. This is of moderate length with the flavors very much upfront. For me, thoroughly enjoyable, but it would have been a smidge more impressive with extra length and focus. 90.
Cameronbridge 26yo, 56.2%. $599. Matured in refill American oak casks. This is the grain whisky mentioned above. The distillery is in Fife, north of the Firth of Forth (say that quickly three times). They describe themselves as “roughly halfway between Edinburgh and St Andrews, as the crow flies”.
In tasting these, I made certain I did not know details so as not to be influenced. So when all was revealed and I discovered that my preference of the entire Collection was the grain whisky, I was a bit nonplussed. Conventional wisdom, and typical biases, suggest that it should not have been so, though I guess it speaks to the superb quality of this whisky and what grain whiskies can achieve (but we all knew that already).
I took some comfort in the fact that this was the oldest of the range and smaller comfort in that I had preferred the most expensive of the range (again, not sure that is a good thing, at least not for the bank manager).
An appealing pale lemon and bronze color. This whisky is complex, balanced and refined. We have notes of citrus and mandarin, white chocolate and a hint of truffles. Vanilla and oatmeal and a touch of oak. Stunning stuff. Great length and of all the range, this showed elegance above expectations. A superb whisky that will impress even the most entrenched malt drinker. 97.
Mortlach NAS, 57.8%. $425. From Speyside, this is matured in refill American oak, before it is finished in virgin Tawny port and red muscat-seasoned casks. This is the only non-age statement whisky in the Collection, which might raise some eyebrows when looking at the price and where that sits compared to others.
Bronze gold. The nose immediately offers lovely notes of butterscotch, mango, peach, chocolate, florals and raisins, along with touches of teak and ginger. The teak, ginger and mango, along with notes of toffee, are to the fore on the palate. Powerful, balanced, wonderfully complex and very long.
I have seen suggestions querying the balance offered by the whisky. I saw no such issues. Exuberant yes, but for me, the richness and style is complete with nothing out of place. Possibly a little younger than some in the line-up or is that just one’s innate cynicism when we see NAS, but even if so, not an issue at all. Loved it. 95.
Little wonder that this annual release is so popular with whisky lovers around the world. And speaking of around the world, I’ve recently noticed that the release is widely available at Duty Free shops at major airports so keep a look out there.
For more information, please visit www.diageorareandexceptional.com/ww/special-releases-2022-elusive-expressions