Today we’ll tackle the mid-fielders in this years releases. Each year there are the mid-aged malts from distilleries that are more commonly associated with bulk and blending than with exceptional single expressions. In the past we’ve seen Glen Spey, Port Dundas, Benrinnes and Pittyvaich to name but a few. This year sees the return of Dalwhinnie and Auchroisk at respectable ages.
One thing that these types of bottling flag up for me is a missed opportunity. The quality of these whiskies is often very high and they are no doubt respectable bottlings. But you can’t help but feel that a Glenlochy, Millburn or Clynelish might have been more favourable for special release status than the distilleries that often seem to be chosen. Of course they are hoping for knock on sales on to their existing brands in lower price brackets and there are none of these for long aged, closed distilleries. That stock is, tragically in my view, earmarked for the likes of Blue Label and other high end blending releases. I had a fascinating conversation with one of the Diageo blenders at the launch. He spoke about how in larger markets of the far east, South America, India and even some sectors of Europe and the US, blends are a drinker’s whole world, single malts don’t even factor in. To them, true passion for whisky is manifest in new expressions of Buchannan’s or Johnnie Walker. This is something that we are all perhaps aware of, and financially the implications of what that means for the majority of single malts in Diageo’s portfolio are pretty clear. The industry is the way it is and there isn’t a lot those of us who love single malts can do about it. There has been a big move in recent years to defend blends, to somehow deify them as better than malts, as works of art. Even if we don’t accept that we malt drinkers are told we should be grateful for blends as we wouldn’t have malts without them. Well, to be honest, I reject all those claims. Attending events such as this one only reaffirms my frustration and general dislike of blends. Many can be great drams no doubt, and for me Diageo produce the best examples hands down. But they will never, in my opinion, match the depth and complexity of good quality single malts. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the high end blend market is the graveyard of great malt whiskies. My frustration or dislike of blends is not born of snobbery or malice, it is merely the rumination of someone a little vexed at the direction this industry has taken over the years. Mercifully, there is no shortage of great malts still to be had, as these special releases annually prove, however, you can’t help but think what might have been or what has been sacrificed at the blending altar over the years. Anyway, lets be grateful for what does get bottled rather than what doesn’t, no point crying over blended malt.
Dalwhinnie 25yo OB Special Releases 2012. Rejuvented American oak hogsheads. 5358bottles. 52.1%. 70cl.
Colour: Light gold
Nose: At first a wonderful combination of beeswax, furniture polish, wet leafs, honeysuckle, digestive biscuits, buttered toast and hints of menthol. A wonderfully inviting nose that combines great freshness and real maturity. Touches of wood spice but not a shred of over powering oak to be seen otherwise. Hints of cocoa, coal dust and more wax. Not sure that it really needs water but lets try all the same… water doesn’t hurt it at all it seems. Now we have more coal, wax, minerals, wet moss, graphite, wild flowers and green tea. Becomes very delicate and beautifully restrained with water.
Palate: Very consistent with the nose, a wonderful honied sweetness that dries towards the swallow with tobacco, mint leaf, mint tea, demerara sugar, glazed hazelnuts, tiramisu, nutmeg and cinnamon. Superbly biting, fresh, alive and drinkable with touches of wood smoke, cured meats, molasses and treacle. Really delicious and almost perfect at cask strength but, as with the nose, lets add water… gets a little oilier in texture and more drying with a little more bite from the wood, dark chocolate, black tea, touches of medicine, pineapple drops and marzipan.
Finish: Long, complex, earthy, waxy, drying, slightly salty, fresh, herbal and gently sooty. Brilliant.
Comments: I loved this when I tried it at the castle first time round and it’s even better in the cold light of day on a fresh palate. I think this is the real sleeper hit and probably the best value one of the lot this year. I liked the other Dalwhinines in this series from previous years but this one just seems to hit that perfect balance of age, maturity, freshness, drinkability, wood impact and distillery character. Brilliant cask selection and a wonderful whisky.
Auchroisk 30yo 1982 OB Special Releases 2012. Refill US and European Oak. 2976 bottles. 54.7%. 70cl.
Colour: Light Amber
Nose: Quite antique on the nose, lots of leaf mulch, resin, old cognac, dusty books, wood spice, cloves, touches of tar, sultanas and stewed apples. Hints of custard, aged rums, mead, wax and old dessert wines. Nice but not particularly distinctive or complex, its just good old malt whisky at first nosing. Goes on with some nice notes of mirabelle and quince with touches of fruit compote and dried herbs. With water: softer and more luscious with notes of fresh figs, prune juice, flat cola, horse stables and some very nice garden fruits.
Palate: The oak is very biting here, quite a big, staunch chalkiness with tannic chocolate notes, flints and a thick earthiness. Hard to get through that really. Touches of very rich game, meat broth, bay leaves and over aged pinot noir. It’s good but the aggression of the oak is a bit overpowering, Lets try with water: water simmers the oak down to very warming spiciness and brings our more chocolate, treacle, malt extract and black tea with notes of fruit syrup and caraway. Also touches of chartreuse and other sweet herb liqueurs.
Finish: Quite drying, gently tannic, woody, earthy, mulchy and full of dried mushrooms, hints of truffle and olive oil.
Comments: I like it but it’s nothing like as good as the Dalwhinnie. It still feels like just a decent old malt that wears its wood on its sleeve. Again, I refer to my comments at the top, I’d rather they bottled Glenlochy, Clynelish or Coleburn than Auchroisk, I really think it suffers from a little lack of personality.
Lets do the Lagavulin today as well. I’m in the mood for some peat after that…
Lagavulin 21yo 1991 OB Special Releases 2012. 1st fill European Oak Sherry. 2772 bottles. 52%. 70cl.
Nose: A super clean mix of crisp smoky bacon, sea salt, preserved lemons, engine oil, old phenols, peat oils and smoked wax (if such a thing exists). This bears instant resemblance to the old 21yo from 2007 but it is quite a bit lighter to my mind with a much more elegant, organic earthy/leafy quality. Wet soil, seaweed, pebbles, minerals, mutton, some kind of concentrated peat liqueur, creosote and tar. A wonderfully concentrated and elegant mix of sherry and peat in this one. With water: gets gristier, smokier and kind of younger with more of these leafy tobacco notes and touches of kippers, brine and more seaweed.
Palate: Quite restrained in strength the gristy, oiliness of the peat comes shining through though, notes of game, cannabis, smoked oats, dried seaweed, green olives, anchovies, chartreuse, tar and rancio. Lots of mulch, old pipe tobacco, tcp, iodine, menthol and then some quite heavy, earthy dirtiness, the good kind. With water: more salty, briny and green with more notes of green olives, mixed peppercorns, camphor and a resinous, lingering peat. Wonderful whisky.
Finish: Long, earthy, peaty, syrupy, leafy and coastal with lingering, thick, dark fruity embers from the sherry glowing in the background.
Commetns: Another great lagavulin. I don’t think it approached the majesty of the old 21yo but it is a real class act and a masterclass in the balancing act of matching heavy peat with sherry. I love it, highly quaffable with or without water.
It’s fortunate that I just so happen to have a sample of the original 21yo to hand. I already wrote notes for it quite some time ago but lets give another quick whirl for sake of comparison.
Lagavulin 21yo 1985 OB 2007 Special Releases. 6642 bottles. 56.5%. 70cl.
Colour: Light copper
Nose: This is obviously the same distillery but it just has everything from the 2012 version only in far greater concentration, its meatier, earthier, saltier, richer, oilier and peatier in spades. These huge notes of herbs, game, cured meats, wax, peat oils, farmyards, manure, hay, dunnage warehouses, tar, all kinds of medicine, metal and even flickers of green and tropical fruits. I had forgotten what a masterpiece this one really is. ~Water just serves to magnify the herbs, the mint and meat with a more mossy, earthy quality to the peat and the phenolic aspects.
Palate: This one is just on another planet all together. Beautiful, beautiful sherry and peat, its perfectly dirty, intense, syrupy, mouth coating, fat, oily, dense and powerful. One of those rare malts where the flavour completely dominates the high alcohol and you barely register that its over 56%. With water: there’s not much point going on. Censored.
Finish: Jam packed, endless and brilliant. A big parade of all thats gone before.
Comments: Some people will love the more delicate approach that the new 21yo has to this particular style but I think this first 21yo is really utterly uncompromising and so intensely flavoured. It just seems to be a bottomless peat bog of personality and character. I know there are those that dislike it but for me it’s up there with the best of the special releases. Only the early Brora 30s can touch it as far as I’m concerned.
Score: 95/100 (that’s 1 point up from last time, and quite right too).