In which we get wood from the Special Releases (figuratively, of course).

Last week I spent a fascinating few minutes speaking with Keith Law, at Diageo’s launch of their Special Releases. We were talking about wood, the choice of wood, not only for what the casks had previously contained, but also what wood was chosen in the first place. Scottish Single Malt distilleries have their hands tied somewhat; the definition of Scotch states it has to be aged in Oak Casks. Some of the British distilleries, such as Silent Pool (that I had the opportunity to talk with a few months back) have taken the opportunity to experiment with wood, as they are less restricted; they’re aging gins, liqueurs and whiskey in casks made from a range of wood, from apple and pear, right through to maple. 
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My discussion with Keith quickly entered incredibly technical realms, which I’ll leave to Ben at Ample Dram to discuss; with concepts and talk of interactive maturation, and aldehydes, eugenols and esters being flung around, my head started to spin. That may have been the whisky, but the idea that with grain whiskies one could really show the cask influence more clearly excited me; imagine a port casked single grain. That this could highlight differences more than even with malt, it may bring forth an aspect of “whisky education” that would be hugely beneficial.
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There are 9 editions in this years Special Releases and the reason for my discussion on wood is that of the 9 Releases, 5 were intensely influenced by wood, either in their production, or their tastes. Now, don’t get me wrong – a great frustration is when I see a set of tasting notes that list both wood and malt as flavours; I reckon there might be a bit of barley sugar in there too. But sometimes, one finds whiskies where wood is overwhelmingly the major influence, such as was the case here.
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We started our tasting with The Cally 40 year old – a single grain whisky from a closed distillery. My first impression was of an incredibly high quality rum – my uncle, in Barbados, keeps a barrel at home with a cask strength rum in it, along with prunes, slightly bizarrely; yearly, the prunes are baked into a truly amazing cake and the rum ages quietly through the year. Being Barbados, the maturation is quick due to the high evaporation rates and the wood flavours are intense – this had all those familiar flavours, the stone fruit, the heady vanillins and a hint of liquorice , and a deeply rich molasses type sweetness.     Next came the Pittyvaich 25 year old; not a distillery I’ve been familiar with before, only open from 1974 to 1993, I was looking forward to trying this. Although a standard tasting reference I use, this immediately hit me with sweet shop smells – especially flying saucers, and the chocolate covered foam bananas one finds in Glasgow’s best corner shops. It has a surprisingly and pleasingly savoury palate after the nose, almost herbal, with a fantastic sweet marmalade finish. 
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Dailuaine is not usually one of my go to drams; recently I’ve shown a few of the independent bottlings from Dailuaine at tastings and when it’s done well, it can be quite wonderful, they’ve gone down very well with the crowds. This one, a 34 year was done exceptionally well. From an initial nose of pure British summer, meadows, cut grass, even, according to Ample Dram, leather on willow and cricket teas, fresh cut wood and sawdust, with a fantastic palate, sharp fruits and rich leathery, tobacco notes, finishing with red berries and cracked black pepper – genuinely a stand out dram of the night. The Dalwhinnie 25 year old was very pleasant, but not a stand out dram on a night of such class – the nose had some spice, and fresh fruitiness, and a finish of proper orange boiled sweets, almost marmalady again.
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The Clynelish Select Reserve returns for a second year, and stands a difficult task of being the only special release without an age statement – how does one justify a £550 tag, on a whisky with no age. Talking to Jim Beveridge, a master Blender, his aim was to recreate the classic Clynelish of the 80’s – full of wax and subtle smoke – most of the casks chosen were from the early to mid 80’s, making this predominately 30+ years old, but on their own, it simply didn’t have the impact he wanted and was a little ashy, so he added some younger casks from the 90’s to balance the older flavours. The youngest whisky in there is 15 years old and it was simply felt a better representation not to put an age statement on the bottle than mislead with a 15 year old tag. On the nose it was completely reminiscent of church candles, that beeswax and paraffin smell, along with just a hint of smoke, with a dark fruit note running through it, then apples in caramel on the palate, running through to salted caramel and honey on the finish. I worry about using caramel as a tasting note – in no way do I mean the e150a issue, but simply that wonderfully warm, rich, buttery sweetness, it really made this whisky another stand out for the night.
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The Lagavulin 12 Year old didn’t have the familiar seaside bonfire smells I’m used too – it was much softer, more fruity, a woodland bonfire, definitely smelling greener than i would have expected, with a fantastic palate of smoked maple syrup, green wood and raspberry jam, finished on dark tannic chocolate.     I own an early edition of the Caol Ila Unpeated, an 8 year old, but this 17 year old was instantly familiar – fizzy sweets, like blue raspberry belts, and that tanginess carries through to the palate – lemon refresher chews, although it becomes drying, and faintly smoky on the finish.
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The last two, I must confess, were something of a dream for me to be able to try. People wax lyrical regularly about Port Ellen and I was exceedingly keen to try it, but there’s something of the romanticism and mystery around Brora that pulls me more – especially loving the Clynelish so much, the “little sister” to the brooding Brora. This was a 37 Year old, 1977 Brora, and immediately hit me with a dryness, a minerality in the nose, like epsom salts, and the old school pharmacy, where they made their own drugs, and had coloured bottles in the windows. There was a smokiness too, but not overwhelming, with a suppleness, a smoothness, like well used chamois cloths in there too. On the palate, there was a blend of herbs and fruit, apple and rosemary, and a constrained smoke, going through to a sweet nuttiness on the finish, with hazelnut praline and macadamia brittle. Of all the whiskies of the night, price not withstanding, this would be my go to whisky as many times over as you asked me.
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The Port Ellen was a younger release than previous years – a 32 year old from 1983, a good year to be born, but a bad year for Port Ellen; it’s final year of production. For every bit of dry minerality in the Brora, there was a dampness to this, an alkalinity, like old lime cement, and wet earth in forests – burning wood that had just been collected – almost floral in it’s smoke too. On the palate there were crisp apples, and a lemony sharpness, with a strong backbone of liquorice running through it, almost a sweet and sour combination of flavours, leading to a stoned fruit, damsons and plum finish, with spices and black pepper through to the end.
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All in all, it was a fantastic night – the food was superb, Neal’s Yard cheese is always a winner and the venue at the Magazine Restaurant at the Sackler Gallery in Hyde Park was stunning, but the three whiskies which really stood out for me were the Brora, the Dailuaine and the Clynelish, all genuinely special drams.

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