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Diageo Special Releases 2021

Aggiornamento: 5 ott 2021

These have ranged from full bottles such as from Ukrainian Scyfion to more regular press samples such as the Glencadam sets. Being offered samples is incredibly useful for us reviewers, as it allows us to pass on experiences beyond our own spending choices, be that on full bottles or whisky tasting events. I often make conservative rather than risky choices when buying full bottles and end up sticking largely to familiar distilleries, much to my personal frustration at times.

Without samples we would not have been able to bring you the wonderfully eccentric world of Eastern European wines and wine cask finishing from Scyfion. Press samples come with no expectations, no requirements, no proof of engagement in the way that paid collaborations on social media do. We don’t commit to review them at all. And we certainly don’t feel obliged to give them a good score. That’s the independence that Malt is renowned for.

I was offered a tasting pack from the Diageo 2021 Special Releases. This range represents a selection of whiskies that never enticed me enough to make a purchase. The launch is usually a very glitzy affair with the great and the good amassed to experience the releases that Diageo feel are extra special from the distilleries within their portfolio. Mark attended the 2016 event and gave a flavour of the pre-covid glamour. Mark also gives a good review of the background to the range. In summary, it was historically quite an event, not least due to the rare release of old Port Ellen and Brora from the Diageo stocks.

Interestingly, the 38-year-old Brora released in 2016 would have set you back £1,450 but can still be found on collectable sites for about £800 extra. The 40-year-old released out with the Special Releases range in 2019 can be picked up for £4,500, a whopping £3,000 extra for just 2 more years in the cask.

The status whiskies from the closed distilleries have been dropped from the Special Releases since 2017. The trend has also seen, on average, younger whiskies making their way into the range over the last five or six years. In 2021, the only whisky over 20 years is Lagavulin, whereas in 2015 only Caol Ila (17 years old) and Lagavulin (12 years old) were below 20 years old. The Clynelish in 2015 was a NAS, but prices would suggest its components were mostly older than 20 years.

In reality – for most whisky drinkers – it is not the well-aged collectible or investable whiskies that deliver excitement about the annual release, but the mid-range age statements from familiar workhorses. Even for the likes of Talisker, the price can deaden the palate to an extent, and has been a factor in scoring previous releases such as Talisker 2019 and Lagavulin & Talisker in 2020;

Malt is all about value and I thought I’d do a bit of number crunching. I wanted to explore the relationship between the “specialness” of the annual outturns and the prices charged. I don’t think we can aggregate sufficient reviews to give any meaningful indication of quality but – using age as a variable – can give us an overall picture or rarity and desirability. Looking at the graph below, we can see the massive price hikes between 2010 and 2017. These were driven ever skyward by the inclusion of the rare, closed distilleries of Rosebank, Port Ellen, Brora and the like, which account for the majority of the cost in each release.

Perhaps more noticeable is the abrupt change in direction in 2017, after which no further rare malts were included in the Special Releases. Diageo manoeuvred these into an ultra-premium range of decades-old one-offs, the “Prime and Ultima.” This comprised sets retailing for more than £20,000 in the UK. What we can also see from the graph is that the ages are dropping off, and the resulting prices have dropped a lot too. However, in 2021 you are certainly paying more for less; that may be largely driven by the extreme price for the Lagavulin 26 year old. I think that – no matter the general usefulness of the chart – it does indicate that the range peaked in 2017 and is on a steep decline.

Since 2018 the labels have become more flamboyant. 2021 sees mythical beasts in the “Legends Untold” theme, which has an air of Game of Thrones about it. The success of the Game of Thrones series in attracting non-whisky drinkers was not lost on Diageo. The Special Releases were themed “Rare by Nature” with all sorts of animals in 2019 and 2020. It all seems like an exercise in distraction to me.

More positively, the availability of these whiskies is good, with 3,000 to 5,000 bottles being the average outturn per distillery previously. This year there is over 7,500 of the most exclusive Lagavulin 26, and I assume significantly more of the undisclosed “limited quantities world wide” of this year’s release.

Despite the fanfare, the range does not sell out that quickly and many bottles can still be found on the shelves of large retailers from 2017 through to 2020. Some 2018 bottles are still available in Diageo’s own online shop. Perhaps that is in part due to the “special” prices that the Special Releases also command; these are perhaps roughly 20% to 25% above similar whiskies in the core range. That does make the range relatively un-flipped. Each year word gets around the whisky community quickly relating to the ones that are good the ones to avoid. Word of mouth, therefore, can still drive the sales.

Often, with any whisky outturn, early voices of opinion differ significantly from those reviews that come out after a little time. This feels as though the initial views are driven by the neck-pour or a particular bottle, whereas the later reviews have had a bit more time and air to open-up.

Let’s also mention the packaging on the press pack, which is extremely over the top, but probably equally extremely low key compared to previous in-person launches. This pack represents the opposite of a blind tasting; this is sensory pre-conditioning to a tasting and comes with an immersive web-experience for each release which I skipped. When the box arrived, it would be an understatement to say I was quite taken aback.

Let me tell you how concerned I was that the packaging would influence my opinions: I called Malt’s editor to make sure a review would be acceptable, and then I drove a 140 mile round trip to drop off the second half of these samples to my friend George aka WhiskyDodie . George tasted the samples blind and wrote his tasting notes before I revealed the contents of each bottle; to say he was a bit taken aback at the reveal is also an understatement! Whatever the result, please don’t say Malt doesn’t go above and beyond to bring you impartial reviews!

Never underestimate the influence of the environment within which the tasting occurs. This is something to reflect on with this reviewm and indeed as you encounter other reviews that pop up on any given day that a press embargo ends.

As part of the PR launch, I had a quick chat with Ewan Gunn, Senior Global Brand Ambassador, Diageo Scotch Whiskies. It was a one-to-one, so I was comfortable asking some of the pertinent and challenging questions to him:

Malt: What drove the cask selection this year? It seems more naked.

Ewan: The collection was developed by Dr, Craig Wilson, who also blended the two Rare by Nature releases in 2019 and 2020. We are, as a business, aiming to focus on and present distillery character generally, and that is certainly the case with this release.

Malt: Is that driven by cask availability; higher volume but less good casks?

Ewan: Not at all, we do aim to be very judicious with wood. We are probably ahead of the curve in wood management having our own bodega to manage and season casks. We are very refined at getting the right amount of seasoning including using bespoke blends of sherries to give character and getting just the right amount of penetration of the fortified wines into the wood.

Malt: Since repositioning the closed distilleries in the ultra-premium range the Special Releases have become somewhat younger and perhaps a little less anticipated. Is the range running out of steam?

Ewan: Well, I certainly don’t agree that the range is running out of steam. It has evolved certainly; Dr. Craig Wilson has created more of a coherent collection of whiskies than the Rare Malts or previous Special Releases were. That has been reflected in the packaging and experience to bring these bottles together into a single collection. We certainly expect people will buy the complete set, but acknowledge that not everyone can afford that. The average age has declined, but age alone cannot be a measure of how special a whisky is. Pricing is still a focus, and sometimes the range will evolve to ensure that prices are accessible. We want the range to attract new whisky drinkers and please existing ones. The stocks of the closed distilleries and the market price were such that it was unsustainable to keep them within the Special Releases going forward.

So, do this year’s releases offer a glimmer of hope for the range? Let’s find out.

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