It’s that time of year again. I was recently fortunate enough to attend the Scottish launch of Diageo’s annual high-end stocking filler extravaganza, or, to give them their boring name: The Special Releases 2012. It was held in the jaw-plummetingly plush Drummuir Castle which, if you’ve never been there, is a bit like being in an episode of Monarch Of The Glen. Except with more middle aged men complaining about pricing structures and allocations and less grizzly highland ghillies or constantly reappearing long-lost relatives. It’s quite a fun night in some lovely surroundings with the full power of Diageo’s hospitality machine constantly battering you about the head like velvet pillow laced with 1970s Brora. Their plan is ingenious, gather together a bundle of cantankerous and grumble-prone retailers, point them in the direction of a wall of ancient and rare single malts, tell them to help themselves, then shepherd them all to another room to quaff the new bottlings, then feed them a three course Michelin star meal, then promptly return them all to the first room and tell them to continue with part 1. The result is an exceptionally fine communal hangover and a nagging, but ever so bewildering, feeling that you’ve somehow been tricked into having a good time. One thing Diageo do exceptionally well is hospitality, for a company that absorbs so much flak, they certainly know how to look after people when they want to, something they never really get much credit for. For my part, it was largely a big heap of fun, mainly because I’m not a retailer (thank God) and therefor don’t have to fight a constant uphill struggle against the booze-monolith that is Diageo, or any of the other hulking great drinks companies for that matter. Instead I simply wandered about casually quaffing the best part of a bottle of 32yo Mortlach and winding up as many people as I considered realistically possible. There was one dismal moment whereupon I wounded the inside of my mouth on a particularly sharp roast potato during dinner but it was otherwise a mirthsome evening. Anyway, what follows are my notes for this year’s releases. I never published notes for last year’s so, where possible, I’ve included some of those as well for comparison. I won’t be cramming them all into one ungainly post so we’ll do it in two (or maybe three parts) I haven’t decided yet, we’ll see how the tasting goes. But enough wittering from me, on with the scribbles…
Lets start with the Caol Ila.
Caol Ila 14yo 1997 OB Special Releases 2012. 1st Fill European Oak Sherry casks. 5958 bottles. 59.3%. 70cl.
Colour: A woody chardonnay
Nose: Big. A lot of cream, fudge, linseed oil, touches of old rags and a background boiler smokiness. Quite a pungent wee bugger at first but enthralling none the less. Big notes of watercress, mustard seed, coal fires, butter, cabbage and cut grass. Very entertaining and more enjoyable on first impressions from previous examples that I’ve tried in this series. With water: some soft antiseptic, watered down bleach, plasticine, very acrid, a little salty and even quite aggressive in some parts. Water doesn’t seem to do it too many favours. With time some nice notes of lemon rind emerge but its not enough really.
Palate: Soggy brown bread, sunflower seeds, vinaigrette, alcohol, touches of tcp, lots of sea salt, an old chip wrapper and something slightly sappy. Not as striking at the nose really. Even becomes a little cheesy and acrid in some parts. Lets try with water: not much change, some nice notes of white balsamic vinegar, rapeseed oil, touches of hummus and a pepperyness like chewing rocket. Not bad but not stellar either.
Finish: A decent length, lemony, bready, slightly yeasty and very acrid but also a little too mono-dimensional for me.
Comments: I like the fact that this is a big, distillate driven malt that seems to display some quite old-style characteristics at times but it’s just a little to imbalanced and wacky for me. I’ve never been too struck by these un-peated Caol Ilas and this one just feels too much like hard work.
Lets compare it to last year’s bottling..
Caol Ila 12yo OB Special Releases 2011. 64.7%. 70cl.
Nose: At first it is really just like a super high octane mix of tequila, sugar syrup, salt, coal and bay leaves. Quite difficult to get underneath that blanket of alcohol. Some white pepper, some lemon juice and sea breeziness but I think water is pretty essential here. With water lots of sea greens, minerals, pebbles, wet rocks, oysters, lemon juice, hints of fresh coriander, wet grains, smoked salmon and stables. Really excellent nose, very chiseled, clean and direct.
Palate: This is much better than the 2012 release, buttery, lemony, herbal and fresh, even at full strength it is quite sippable (if only in small sips). The first impression is one of having just brushed and flossed my teeth, these slightly fresh menthol notes are quite pleasing, add to that white pepper and a little lemon wax and its pretty tasty. With water: big, peppery, green and salty now with notes of green peppercorns in brine, hints of green phenols and youthful peat, coal smoke, tar and a little mead. Gets increasingly savory with brown bread, crushed malt and green apple peelings. More of that lively minerality as well.
Finish: Long, salty, savory, slightly medicinal and sharp. Keeps you on your toes.
Comments: This is easily superior to the 2012 release in my opinion, I think the mix of refill and first fill american oak suits the very specific kind of distillate that is Caol Ila Highland much better. I think you can still buy this one in some places.
Lagavulin 12yo OB Special Releases 2012. 31656 bottles. 56.1%. 70cl.
Colour: White wine
Nose: Typically Lagavulin 12, a big furnace of antiseptic, tar, kippers, brine, wet earth, green peat, seaweed and pepper. Even with out water this is a wonderfully vocal whisky. Big notes of fresh lemon juice, white pepper, touches of hay, all kinds of seashore notes and some herbal liqueur aspects. With water: becomes much more herbal with big notes of tarragon, rosemary and thyme, also a dirtier smokiness, boiler sheds, tar, kreel nets and more industrial qualities. Some really nice interaction between big menthol qualities a heavy notes of hessian and barbeque sauce.
Palate: Lovely, rich, mineral laden peat with big notes of lemon juice, chocolate limes, oysters, caraway, tar, all kinds of drying medical qualities, dried herbs and bonfire smoke. I always find these Lagavulin 12s quite direct and simple but their brilliance lies in their potency, balance and raw power to evoke a place and mood, crashing waves on a shore and all that jazz. With water: mint, eucalyptus, peat resin (whatever that may be), bunsen burners, more caraway, minerals, silage (no I’ve never eaten silage it’s just an impression), touches of orange juice and marzipan. All the while this big bassline of coastal saltiness is rumbling away underneath.
Finish: Salt, old style peat, engine oil, tar, cured meats, salted mutton, peppermint tea, greengages and seaweed.
Comments: I haven’t tried Lagavulin 12 for quite some time and it’s easy to forget just what a great series of whiskies these have been and continue to be. I didn’t try it on the night because there seemed little point as it would have crushed the lighter and older malts. I think these are the sorts of bottles that when put aside of 20-40 years of bottle aging will really start to shine like diamonds. Everyone focuses on collecting the Port Ellen releases, I’d love a full set of these baby’s to be honest with you.
Lets see what difference a year makes…
Lagavulin 12yo OB Special Releases 2011. 56.1%. 70cl.
Colour: White wine
Nose: Perhaps a little sharper than the 2012 release, maybe more of a salt n vinegar or pickled onion tang about this one but it’s otherwise almost the same whisky. The menthol is a little richer here at first nosing with more restrained saltiness and an oilier, heavier peat phenol profile. Frying bacon, salted almonds, sundried seaweed (it exists), anchovies and finally a growing, fat saltiness. With water: sea greens, sea salt, brine, white wine vinegar, hints of cigar smoke, boiler sheds, smoked mussels and taramasalata. The oiliness of the phenols remains joyously intact.
Palate: Again, incredibly similar but the peat has a more jelly-like, oily and mouth-coating presence with crushed green peppercorns, kippers in lemon juice, bay leaves, TCP, iodine and mouthwash. With water: green, peppery, wild, herbaceous and thick with soft notes of cola cubes, root beer, tcp, liquorice and pork scratchings. I think this one is just a notch bette than the 2012 release.
Finish: Long, earthy, green, sticky peat just lingers for ages with this one, salt, pepper, seaweed, crab meat, coke, mint and olive oil all knocking about in an old vinegar bottle. Brilliant.
Comments: See above for all the praise. I like this one even better than the 2012, that oily concentration of the peat and coastal characteristics is just that bit tighter and more focused. Really brilliant whisky, bursting with distillery character.
Tomorrow we’ll get stuck into some of the older ones. Stay tuned…