Whisky Loot at the 2020 Diageo Special Releases

Up Close Photo of the Diageo 2020 Special Releases from Whisky Loot

The unveiling of Diageo’s Special Releases range is always one of the most eagerly awaited events in the whisky calendar. 

The Special Releases are an annual series where Diageo lifts the lid on its more secretive locations, and reveals the astonishing depth of its whisky reserves. The drams are always presented at cask strength, often at great age and are strictly limited in the number of bottles available. These whiskies are regularly ranked as some of the very best you are ever going to encounter. 

The series has been running since 2001, but no two outturns are the same, and the Special Releases have certainly never encountered a year with the challenges of 2020. 

What are the Special Releases?

The unveiling of Diageo’s Special Releases range is always one of the most eagerly awaited events in the whisky calendar. 

Diageo, by far the biggest player in Scotch whisky, own no less than 27 different whisky distilleries in Scotland. Whilst there are a fair few single malts from these distilleries on the market, the majority of them quietly produce whisky for Diageo’s huge range of blends, including the famous Johnnie Walker brand. 

The Special Releases are an annual series where Diageo lifts the lid on its more secretive locations, and reveals the astonishing depth of its whisky reserves. The drams are always presented at cask strength, often at great age and are strictly limited in the number of bottles available. These whiskies are regularly ranked as some of the very best you are ever going to encounter. 

The series has been running since 2001, but no two outturns are the same, and the Special Releases have certainly never encountered a year with the challenges of 2020. 

The Tasting

It takes extraordinary circumstances to stop Diageo from putting together an awesome night out to launch its Special Releases… and a worldwide pandemic fits the bill! 

Nevertheless, Diageo rose to the challenge admirably, and laid on a superb virtual tasting for the delectation of Australia’s whisky trade. Before the big day, we were shipped beautiful wooden boxes containing samples of the whiskies, individual glasses and a tasting journal. They even threw in a can of delicious olives and a bar of decadent Valrhona chocolate – pretty special for a Monday night!

We were first introduced to the tasting by Andrew Macfarlene, Diageo’s National Business Manager of Reserve & Prestige, before Brand Ambassador Katie Nagar took charge, leading us through each of the whiskies with expert tasting notes and detailed distillery information. 

Which leads us neatly onto… 

The Line-Up

As ever, the 2020 Special Releases line-up was packed with stellar Scotches. The 2020 range continued last year’s theme of “Rare by Nature”, with each of the bottles and boxes exquisitely adorned with flora and fauna native to Scotland. The outturn consisted of:

Dalwhinnie 30 Year Old 

Highland distillery Dalwhinnie is the entry point for so many whisky drinkers (including some of the Whisky Loot team) and features as one of the three whiskies in our ‘Intro to Scotland’ pack, the first in our playlist. You can get a full bottle here.

With this in mind, we were all excited to try this older edition, which has aged for 30 years in refill Hogsheads, fully twice as long as the standard bottling. These kinds of supremely aged drams are what the Special Releases are known for.

Our tasters found notes of warm malt, heather honey, slight oak char, strawberries and vanilla custard. We were off to a great start!

Singleton of Dufftown 17 Year Old

It’s said that Rome was built on seven hills, but Dufftown was built on seven stills. 

Known as the global capital of Scotch whisky, Dufftown is now home to six active whisky distilleries, including this one, which bears the town’s name. 

This is one of Diageo’s biggest distilleries (and was the sister to Pittyvaich, more about that later…) Dufftown has historically been associated with the Bell’s blend, but recently received its own single malt under the Singleton brand. 

The Special Releases dram was aged in refill American oak hogsheads for 17 years, and bottled at 55.1%, showing off the distillery’s house style. The Whisky Loot team discovered flavours of salted caramel, granny smith apples, dry white wine and waxy lemon rind. An intriguing, almost savoury dram. 

Cardhu 11 Year Old 

 

Next up we travelled to Dufftown’s Speyside neighbours, Cardhu, a distillery that enjoys a particular popularity in Southern Europe (pick up a full bottle of their 12 year old here). 

This Cardhu was aged in a mixture of former Bourbon barrels, and new and refill American oak casks, before being bottled at a warming 56%. Again, this maturation was perfect for illustrating the natural flavours of the spirit itself. 

The dram revealed sweet, juicy apple and pear notes, accompanied by buttered malt toast, pineapple, funky honey, bright oak and some thick vanilla custard. This was a big hit with our tasting team. 

Cragganmore 20 Year Old

  

Another well aged Speysider, from another favourite distillery of ours. Like Dalwhinnie, Cragganmore’s standard 12 Year Old bottling also features in our “Intro to Scotland” box, and you can grab yourself a full bottle here

This bottling has been aged in a combination of refill, and new, freshly charred casks for two decades, and weighs in at 55.8%. The final result was a whisky rich in notes of honey, chilli, dusty oak, tinned peaches, white chocolate and vanilla. 

Cragganmore’s entry piqued the interest of the tasting team, earmarked as one of the best in the outturn. 

Pittyvaich 30 Year Old

The rarest whisky in the line-up came from “Ghost” distillery Pittyvaich (ghost is the term Diageo use to describe spirit from closed or demolished distilleries). 

A sister distillery to the earlier featured Dufftown, spirit from Pittyvaich is particularly rare, being only operational for 28 years; from its establishment in 1975 to its closure in 1993. This means that there is very little stock around, and this whisky would have come from Pittyvaich’s last few years of operation. 

The whisky itself has been fully aged in first-fill Bourbon casks for its three decade maturation, and clocks in at a respectable 50.8%. Our expert tasters found notes of banoffee pie, dark honey, milk chocolate and drying oak. A sweet, decadent whisky, and a real taste of liquid history. 

Mortlach 21 Year Old 

We are staying in Dufftown with Mortlach, famously known as “The Beast of Dufftown” for its notably meaty and muscular spirit. This is created by a unique distillation regimen which sees the spirit distilled 2.81 times! 

For the Special Releases, Diageo have picked out this ripper dram, aged for 21 years and finished for a time in Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez casks. The whisky is presented at a generous 56.9%. The only Sherried whisky in the range, we were excited to see the effects of this maturation on Mortlach’s distinctive spirit. 

The Whisky Loot team found notes of rum and raisin ice cream, weighty malt, sweet wine, toasted nuts and some cracked black pepper. Both fruity, and a little savoury. 

Talisker 8 Year Old

The youngest juice in the line-up, but also one of the most interesting! For this bottling, the Skye distillery’s spirit was finished in former Caribbean Pot still rum casks, a first for Talisker, and a move that caught the attention of whisky drinkers around the world. 

This dram is bottled 57.9%, and its age statement of 8 years is a throwback to the old Talisker 8 Year Olds that were around in the 1980s. 

Sweet and savoury, this bottling won the hearts of our tasters immediately, who detected notes of funky molasses, full peat smoke with sea spray, dark chocolate, burnt brown sugar and peppery spice. 

We're big fans of Talisker's spirit, and you can pick up a bottle of their Port Finished Port Ruighe through this link.

Lagavulin 12 Year Old

Perhaps the most “straightforward” of this Year’s Special Releases, this bottling from the famous old Islay distillery was aged for 12 years in refill American oak casks, and bottled at 55.1%. 

At this stage in the tasting, through the wonder of modern technology, we were seamlessly transported to Islay, where Lagavulin Distillery Manager Pierrick Guillaume was on-hand to explain this dram and give his expert opinion. Despite the early morning back in Scotland, Pierrick was more than ready to articulate his thoughts in conversation with Ewan Gunn, Diageo’s Senior Global Brand Ambassador, in a Q&A following the tasting. 

Like Pierrick, we found this whisky utterly delicious. An excellent rendition of Lagavulin’s spirit, it was a little bit coastal, seriously peaty, and with a solid kick of ashy wood smoke. Peaches, lemon rind and tobacco leaf offered a fragrant, fruity balance. 

A wonderful way to finish the evening. 

Whisky Loot's Packs

At Whisky Loot, we'd much rather spirit was being drunk and enjoyed by whisky lovers, than sitting on a shelf gathering dust. With this in mind, we've taken the radical decision to open up these bottles and put them into our premium tasters and packs. 

We've created two packs, both of which contain some of our favourites from the Special Releases Tasting:  

 

Whisky Loot's Diageo 2020 Special Releases Explorer's Edition Tasting Pack
The Explorer's Edition, which contains Cardhu 11 Year Old, Cragganmore 20 Year Old and Talisker 8 Year Old.

 

 

 

The Collector's Edition, which includes Dalwhinnie 30 Year Old, Pittyvaich 30 Year Old and Mortlach 21 Year Old.  

Read What Our Whisky Experts Thought

Spirits Specialist Tim’s Top Three:

  1. 1. Cardhu 11 Year Old
  2. 2. Talisker 8 Year Old
  3. 3. Cragganmore 20 Year Old

Tim’s Thoughts:

“It was amazing to see some young bang for buck expressions in unusual/atypical casks. Just goes to show that cask selection is so often more important than purely age in developing unique, interesting and well integrated whiskies.”

Chief Operating Officer Gus’s Top Three:

  1. 1. Talisker 8 Year Old
  2. 2. Cardhu 11 Year Old
  3. 3. Mortlach 21 Year Old

Gus’s Thoughts:

“Great event put together by Diageo under difficult circumstances. The selection didn’t disappoint, with a very strong showing from the younger aged whiskies in the range.”

Head of Sales Ryan’s Top Three:

  1. 1. Talisker 8 Year Old
  2. 2. Lagavulin 12 Year Old
  3. 3. Cragganmore 20 Year Old 

Ryan’s Thoughts: 

“Virtual tastings don’t get much better than this. Expert-led with a trip to Islay and some outstanding whiskies, this is a night that will live long in the memory. They even threw in some olives!”

Whisky Writer Seamus’s Top Three:

  1. 1. Talisker 8 Year Old
  2. 2. Cardhu 11 Year Old 
  3. 3. Lagavulin 12 Year Old

Seamus’s Thoughts: 

“The Diageo Special Releases never fail to impress, and this was no exception. An excellent line of spirits that is a testament to cask management and whisky reserves at the company. Wonderful to see that even on the biggest stage, Diageo is still open to experiments, as shown by the truly delicious Talisker rum-cask.” 

 










 

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