The Diageo Special Releases come with a long history. And no matter how hard I try, I can’t help but judge them from within that frame of reference. I wasn’t old enough to be drinking whisky when the Special Releases were first launched over two decades ago. But when I first got introduced to them, they were something very different to what the Diageo Special Releases 2023 are today.
So, let’s start there. What are the Diageo Special Releases 2023? Well, this year’s theme is ‘Spirited Xchange’. (No idea why they chose this alternative spelling.) Single malt whiskies from 8 distilleries. Some well-known, like Mortlach, Talisker and Lagavulin. Others a little more obscure, most notably Roseisle. They’ve become a marketing exercise focusing beyond the liquid, luring (new) drinkers in with elaborate tales of “cultural exchange of flavours, craft and artistry.”
Artists were commissioned to create artwork for each of the Diageo Special Releases 2023, the labels aspiring to be “visual tasting notes, placing the expression at the centre of the experience and exploring the flavours that emerge from the local spirit casks.” For example, the Mortlach was finished in ex-Kanosuke casks, so the artwork was made by Japanese illustrator Kouzou Sakia.
Collectability seems to be at the heart of the evolution of the modern-day Diageo Special Releases. To be fair, the Special Releases were always sought-after by collectors – mostly because of the standout whiskies that were included. Not because of their custom labels. It wasn’t until recently that collectors were targeted much more openly, starting with the first ‘Rare by Nature’ series in 2019.
Before, the Diageo Special Releases were simply a range of whiskies launched at the same time, not linked through an overarching theme. The whiskies were often inherently special because of the content inside the bottle, not because of packaging or elaborate marketing stories. The reputation of the Diageo Special Releases is built on the quality and rarity of many of its earlier whiskies. And this rarity is completely missing from the current iteration of the Special Releases.
All the truly exclusive and rare whiskies from Diageo have moved to the Prima & Ultima range. As a result, the Special Releases are now a stripped down version of their former selves. It’s not surprising to me that last year’s Special Releases are still easily available. And those from two and three year ago are too. It’s becoming more rare for Special Releases to quickly sell out.
Some leading whisky shops in the Netherlands won’t be stocking the Diageo Special Releases 2023 at all. Certain others have bought less. That’s their response to the rising prices (I’ve included all prices below just this once). For example, the recommended retail price for the new Lagavulin 12 Years Cask Strength is closing in on 200 euros. And the new Clynelish 10 Years is priced even higher. I can’t help but wonder how sustainable this current course is. It feels like something may need to chance for the Special Releases to have a long-term future.
Something that I’ve been wondering is why Diageo created the Prima & Ultima series to begin with. Why take that aura of exclusivity and rarity away from the Special Releases? What I’ve been told is that they wanted to make the Special Releases more accessible and (relatively) affordable for new drinkers. But that has never been what the Special Releases were about.
Of course, I understand Diageo not letting go of the Special Releases. They’ve created and curated a valuable brand that is worth protecting. But wouldn’t it have made more sense to keep the integrity of the Special Releases intact, and to launch a new, affordable range just below it? Because in all honesty, the moniker Special Releases doesn’t truly fit anymore.
Looking at the Diageo Special Releases 2023, there are two whiskies that I’d feel warranted calling a Special Release. Firstly, the Glenkinchie is of sufficient age AND the oldest-ever released by Diageo. Secondly, it’s pretty cool that they’ve included the inaugural release from Roseisle. But the other six whiskies? We’ve got two whiskies without an age statement, which always makes it hard to properly evaluate their specialness. And the other four have matured 10 to 14 years – not very noteworthy indeed.
Sometimes I try to put myself in the shoes of new whisky drinkers. Those that haven’t been tainted with the experience of the early Special Releases from Diageo. How do they view the current version of this iconic series? What would be a reason for them to buy the Diageo Special Releases 2023? I find those questions hard to answer. And that’s not a knock on the quality of the releases, but rather on the value they represent.
I still have love for the Special Releases. They used to represent a highlight on the whisky calendar. Honestly, they still kind of do. I look forward to tasting the Diageo Special Releases 2023. But I critique because I care. I can’t help but think something needs to change for the Special Releases to be fully embraced again. By retailers, fellow whisky enthusiasts, and by myself.
Mortlach The Katana’s Edge (58%, OB, Diageo Special Releases 2023)
Finished in a combination of ex-Kanosuke Japanese whisky and ex-Pinot Noir casks
Recommended retail price: €304,99
Nose: Baked pastries, a hint of tree bark and some licorice, but mainly darker fruits. Blackcurrants. Plums. Raspberry. Slightly muted though. Also a whisper of chocolate, leather and brown toast. Taste: A rather thick mouthfeel. The cloying nature of the Pinot Noir is present, as are the dark fruits. Then aniseed, more plums, a touch of cloves and charred wood. Some pencil shavings too. Finish: Medium length. A touch of menthol, spices and chocolate.
Initially not very beastly. Especially the nose, but the palate is pretty well-behaved too. The Mortlach The Katana’s Edge is a bit atypical, so you’d need to wrap your head around that, although some of the distillery’s more meaty characteristics are recognisable at times.
Talisker The Wild Explorer (59.7%, OB, Diageo Special Releases 2023)
Finished in a combination of White, Tawny and Ruby Port Casks
Recommended retail price: €144,99
Nose: Opening up on hints of smoked paprika powder, cured meats and a gentle coastal breeze, as well as some seaweed, dried red fruits (dates, raisins) and chalk. The gentle wood smoke is accompanied by a touch of iodine. Taste: Pretty classic Talisker. A distinct pepperiness accompanied by wood smoke and a sweetness that presumably comes from some of the ex-Port casks. Not too much wood influence though. Some damp oak too, as well as a good pinch of salt and dried fruits. Finish: Medium to long. The pepperiness lingers. The salty smoke too.
I understand the goal was to create a cross between the Talisker Port Ruighe and the Talisker 57° North. And they might just have succeeded. Good whisky that doesn’t lean on the ex-Port casks, but doesn’t shy away from it either.
Clynelish 10 Years The Jazz Crescendo (57.5%, OB, Diageo Special Releases 2023)
Matured exclusively in ex-bourbon American Oak cask
Recommended retail price: €204,99
Nose: This is pretty much textbook. Waxy exactly like you want your Clynelish to be. Fruity with touches of white grapes, unripe bananas and zesty lemons, as well as vanilla-flavoured sweets, a hint of wet pebbles and just a whiff of sea breeze. Taste: Somewhat waxy, but not extremely so. The fruits take centre stage here. Almost to a tropical degree. But there’s a honey-esque sweetness to underpin everything, along with some peppery spice, walnuts and a pinch of salt. Finish: Medium. Sweet and waxy with some coconut shavings.
I couldn’t be happier master blender Stuart Morrison decided to just let Clynelish be Clynelish. No elaborate, intricate cask recipes. Just ex-bourbon American oak. The Clynelish 10 Years The Jazz Crescendo is my favourite of the bunch by quite some distance. Would’ve bought a bottle for sure, but it’s too expensive.
Oban 11 Years The Soul of Calypso (58%, OB, Diageo Special Releases 2023)
Finished in Caribbean Pot still Rum Casks
Recommended retail price: €173,99
Nose: Opening up on gentle hints of bananas and an overall ester-y fruitiness with a hint of grasses and herbs. Slightly funky, one might say. Also a whiff of orange zest, charred lemon peel and tinned apricots. Then poached pears too. Maybe not the most balanced nose of the bunch. Taste: Quite an aggressive, almost hot arrival. A good pinch of salt accompanied by spices, charred oak and a distinct nuttiness. Water calms things down somewhat, elevates the cereal notes too, but there’s still not much of the fruitiness that was promised on the nose. Just a tad of citrus. Finish: Short to medium. Lingering spices, eucalyptus, almond paste and a delicate sweetness.
My least favourite of the bunch. The Oban 11 Years The Soul of Calypso feels not quite finished, no pun intended. Adding water is recommended. It really does elevate this single malt, just not quite to extreme heights.
Lagavulin 12 Years The Ink of Legends (56.4%, OB, Diageo Special Releases 2023)
Finished in Don Julio Añejo Tequila casks
Recommended retail price: €194,99
Nose: A sort of creamy saline solution – I know that doesn’t sound very appealing, but bear with me – with hints of charred citrus. Briny oysters too. Also a whiff of driftwood, honeycomb, bonfire smoke, and oregano, as well as a touch of barbecued beef. Taste: A fatty mouthfeel. (Thumbs up, always.) Then an initial sweetness as well as pickled lemons, followed by cracked black peppercorns, earthy peat smoke, a few pinches of salt and orange pith. Finish: Medium to long. Lingering spices, quite dry and fairly sweet.
Lagavulin’s Cask Strength whiskies are revered, but I’ve never been one of its devotees. It doesn’t help peat isn’t my go-to whisky style. This year’s edition is once again very good, although maybe not in the context of previous releases. Much sweeter, I’d say.
Roseisle 12 Years The Origami Kite (56.5%, OB, Diageo Special Releases 2023)
First fill ex-bourbon and refill casks
Recommended retail price: €144,99
Nose: There’s a nice mixture between wood-influenced vanilla elements and fruity citrus notes. Pastel de nata with pomelo and yuzu, along with hints of chaff, meringues and crème caramel. A sliver of almond oil too, and maybe even some candle wax. Taste: Buttery mouthfeel. Notes of peanut skins, charred oak and a slight spicy bitterness kind of overshadow some of the more fruity, Speyside-y elements. But they’re there. Just somewhat hidden. Think honeycomb, some chocolate, and stewed apples. Finish: Medium. Nicely integrated sweetness.
I could’ve done without the spiciness and nutiness on the palate. Not my two favourite flavour characteristics. Other than that, the Roseisle 12 Years The Origami Kite is an agreeable introduction to this unknown distillery.
Singleton of Glendullan 14 Years The Silken Gown (55%, OB, Diageo Special Releases 2023)
Finished in Chardonnay de Bourgogne French Oak casks
Recommended retail price: €154,99
Nose: Opens up on pastry, grass, vanilla and sugared cereals, but also gentle stone fruits, green apples and some pear skin. I could be the power of suggestion, but it certainly seems buttery and creamy, two key characteristics of Chardonnay wine. Taste: The palate follows a similar pathway, albeit with an added spiciness. Think white pepper. Good mouthfeel. Fairly creamy. Layers of sweetness. Butterscotch. Cotton candy. But also some walnuts, gentle orchard fruits and a tinge of grapefruit. Finish: Medium length and somewhat drying. A whisper of salted butter, toffee and apple peel.
The influence of the ex-Chardonnay wine casks is very restraint, and the Singleton of Glendullan 14 Years The Silken Gown is all the better for it. The wine cask seems to have had a positive influence on the mouthfeel as well. It’s not very unique per se, but very pleasant overall.
Glenkinchie 27 Years The Floral Treasure (58.3%, OB, Diageo Special Releases 2023)
Matured in refill American & European Oak barrels and butts
Recommended retail price: €409,99
Nose: Very elegant, supremely delicate. The floral notes weave in and out. It is somewhat leafy also, but there are touches of melted butter, some warm apple compôte, and a hint of orange zest too. Maybe not the most complex, but neatly integrated and sophisticated. Taste: The creamy texture is enjoyable. It certainly doesn’t give away its age. Not as delicate as you might expect. The European oak provides some wood spices, there’s plenty of fudge, a whisper of ginger, some crème brûlée and a tinge of orange marmelade. Finish: Medium length. Lingering oak tannins, some char, then settling into sweeter notes like honey. Even a touch of aniseed.
A whisky with two faces. One elegant, sophisticated. The other more brash, displaying some youthfulness. The Glenkinchie 27 Years The Floral Treasure is good, but maybe not quite living up to expectations.