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Diageo's Special Release Whisky Tasting 2014

I was lucky enough to be invited to Diageo's Special Release tasting on Tuesday evening on the 4th of November. The event was held at the very chic Magazine restaurant in Kensington Gardens. The venue lent itself very nicely to the style and exclusivity of the nectar we would be tasting.

I started with the Cragganmore 25 year old, Distilled in 1988 and matured in refill American oak barrels and then bottled at natural cask strength of 51.4%. With its soft texture and spicy notes of heather, it was a great way to start, although at £299 RRP, I was not convinced.

For the first time, Singleton of Glendullan made an appearance with a 38 year old expression. It was bottled at a whopping 59.8% which is exceptionally high for a whisky of such age. This however did not dominate this delicious malt. It was not overly wooded (which I expected) but maintained a light almost restrained nose but then came alive on the palate. A surprisingly good whisky and commanding a £750 RRP.

On to the next, I tasted the Rosebank 21 year old. I had been looking forward to this one ever since I was invited. Distilled in 1992, this is some of the last whisky to be produced by this Distillery. This was a light, citrusy whisky buy still held ceremony on the palate with loads of fruit and woody textures which became almost tropical with a drop of water. This rare beauty has a RRP of £300, which is not much more than previous releases and worth every penny!

On the same table, I was told to taste the Benrinnes 21 year old next to the Rosebank 21 as they enhanced each other. The big meaty and earthy characters of the Benrinnes were an exact contrast to the light Rosebank, but on returning to it, I noticed more depth in the Rosebank which I hadn't before. Benrinnes, true to fashion, have aged this expression in first fill sherry barrels adding roasted coffee, vegetal notes with a hint of smoke. A very bold whisky perfect for those who, like me, enjoy sherried whiskies. RRP £240.

I then went on to taste the Brora 35 year old, distilled in 1978. This was one of my favourites from last year and I was very keen to see how different it would be. I was not disappointed. It was much lighter and more elegant, but still displaying a depth only whisky at this age has. It has been aged in both American and European oak and bottled at 48.6%. Perfect harmony in a glass and at £1200 RRP, it should be!

Next, I tasted the newcomer, Strathmill 25 year old. It is rare that you find a bottling from this distillery especially at this age. It might have been that it was following something of the class of Brora or the tasty garlic prawns which were being served, but this just didn't do it for me. It seemed a bit out of place among so many incredible whiskies. A bit edgy and green for my liking and not much to speak of on the finish. I would expect a lot more for £275 RRP. Classic case of "just because it's old, doesn't mean it's good".

I then moved on to the biggest surprise of the night in the form of the Clynelish Select Reserve. A non age statement whisky as it is a blend of 5 whiskies the youngest of which is 16 years old and 5 different oak treatments. I thought this was a very well blended malt surpassing all others on complexity. Very youthful and vibrant tropical fruits with a creamy texture. I even suspected a whips of smoke, but that might have come from the handful of Parma ham I'd shoved into my parched mouth. This whisky had a great balance right to the everlasting end right from fruit to spicy oak. At £500 RRP it's a tough sell but a great whisky none the less!

I then delved into the peated malts and went straight for the Port Ellen 35 year old. This is the 14th release from this lost Distillery and one of only 2964 bottles. I was disappointed by the 13th release as I found it over wooded and chewy. This year however, it was a very pleasant experience. Having said that, I still don't get what all the fuss is about. It is a good whisky by all accounts but at £2200 RRP, it is a whisky I will never be able to taste again.

I then went over to the Lagavulin 12 year old. Now this is a gem. Bottles at 54.4% and with a RRP of only £80, this is a drinkers whisky. One to be enjoyed for what it is and what it is, is the embodiment of Islay for me. Perfect symmetry between that sooty, smokiness and that American refill oaking. A firm favourite and always reliable. And with unlimited availability, there is no reason you couldn't try if for yourself.

I finished comparing the two Caol Ila's. One being the 15 year old unpeated release and the other the 30 year old peated. I decided to taste them alongside each other to better understand the idea behind the unpeted version. The standard 12 year old can always be found in my whisky cabinet as I love the smoked meatiness and creamy texture that Caol Ila does so well. I found the unpeated rather bland. I get what Diageo are trying to do, but for my money, Caol Ila should be smoky. RRP £75.

The 30 year old on the other hand was incredible. I found sweet notes of tobacco and fresh bamboo shoots and even citrus. Very vibrant for a 30 year old whisky. The peat became more apparent towards the finish as it outlasts the fresher notes. But you are left with a very contented afterglow of a bonfire just gone out. RRP £425.

Aljoscha Wright