THE STORY BEHIND THE SPECIAL RELEASES...
In the late 1980s, the Scotch whisky industry witnessed one of the most high-profile corporate takeovers in the UK’s history when The Distillers Company were taken over by Guinness. In 1987, United Distillers was formed (a formation of Distillers Company and Arthur Bell & Sons, both owned by Guinness). Just one year after, when taking stock of the vast array of maturing casks amassed by their predecessor, the new owners faced the realisation that they needed to focus on upmarket malts and raise the profile of their brand portfolio. Single malts had slowly been generating more interest since the early 80s, with thanks primarily to Glenfiddich who two decades prior heavily promoted the category.
By 1988, single malts were fashionable and in a bid to establish a high-profile single malt portfolio, United Distillers introduced ‘The Classic Malts of Scotland’. The Classic Malts was a relaunch of six single malt Scotch brands, Lagavulin, Talisker, Oban, Dalwhinnie, Cragganmore and Glenkinchie. The series concentrated on illuminating regional differences in the whiskies and was regarded as a pivotal movement in introducing newcomers to the world of single malt scotch whiskies. As interest in single malt whiskies continued to climb, one product of this was the ‘The Rare Malt Selection’, a series of older, rarer single malt releases from operational and lost distilleries from 1995 to 2005. As with the Flora & Fauna series, they were often from lesser-seen single malt distilleries. However, there remained a demand for distinctive, often older, unrepeatable cask strength bottlings and by the turn of the millennium the company, now Diageo, was looking for something to fill this request.
"Such bottlings allowed collectors, connoisseurs and enthusiasts to enjoy and experience remaining older stocks, and/or unusual expressions of a distillery’s character - a treasure trove of priceless malts. To satisfy this demand, the Special Releases series was born in 2001, and the annual collection - with familiar names and some surprises - has been eagerly awaited by enthusiasts ever since."
Dr Craig Wilson, Master Blender at Diageo and Curator of the Special Releases
Diageo's Special Releases were borne out of this demand, a small annual release of limited edition and usually natural cask-strength whiskies. They are highly sought-after and collectible expressions of magnificent single malts from famous and closed distilleries. All very rare, hard to find and assuredly special, there will never be sufficient supply to meet demand. Each annual chapter in the collection offers an intriguing experience for the whisky enthusiast and are eagerly awaited by collectors and lovers of fine whisky alike.
THE EARLY YEARS...
In 2001, the very first special release, a Talisker 28 Year Old, set the precedent for the new programme. Only 100 bottles were released exclusively through Oddbins who sold out in a matter of hours. In quick succession, the Port Ellen 22 year old and a second Talisker at 25 years old were released only to sell out just as quickly. Originally released for £110, this Port Ellen can now be found for upwards of £4,000.
After a successful launch, Diageo introduced seven single malts to the second edition of the programme from Talisker, Port Ellen, Brora, Lagavulin, Dalwhinnie and Oban. This chapter featured the first introduction of Brora and Lagavulin, both of which went on to become stalwarts in the Special Releases portfolio.
In 2003, ten remarkable single malts joined the annual parade from Talisker, Port Ellen, Brora, Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glen Elgin, Glen Ord, Glenury Royal and Lagavulin. The main attraction an exquisite 50 year old bottling of Glenury Royal paying homage to this distillery’s forgotten legacy.
DEVELOPING THE RANGE...
One of Diageo's inaugural releases from their 2001 Special Releases, Port Ellen became a mainstay for the programme featuring in every annual release until 2018. The Special Releases played an integral role in building Port Ellen's reputation and desirability amongst whisky enthusiasts. The annual programme also featured a key milestone for the distillery, launching its oldest ever expression (at the time of release) in 2016 at 37 years old.
2017 saw the last appearance of Port Ellen in the Special Releases line-up, perhaps not such coincidental timing as the news broke of Diageo's plans to reopen and revive the Islay distillery.
Brora first appeared in the Special Releases portfolio in 2002 and like Port Ellen made quite the impression on droves of whisky enthusiasts. Each release, as rare and sought-after as the last, became undoubtedly one of the most anticipated expressions in the annual chapters.
Alongside Port Ellen, Brora was absent from the 2018 line-up. Spirits giant, Diageo, also released plans for their reopening with it likely that Brora will open its doors in 2021.
Talisker, one of the original Special Releases, became a regular contributor to the annual collections over the years. Like Lagavulin it sometimes got two bites at the cherry with two aged expressions released in the 2006 - 2009 series'.
A firm favourite and regular to the scene it was a big surprise when Talisker was suddenly absent from five of the annual collections. Talisker returned to the fold in 2018 as a more affordable expression (RRP £80) and received such acclaim it was praised as arguably the best of the collection.
The final survivor of the first 'proper' collection of Special Releases in 2002. The 12 year old expression was introduced as an affordable option in the annual series. Alongside regular appearances of the 12 year old, the Special Releases sporadically featured some more exclusive and rare well-aged expressions from the distillery. One of the oldest expressions of Lagavulin was released as part of the series in 2013 at 37 years old.
The 37 year old Lagavulin released in 2013 was chosen by Dr. Craig Wilson as one of his favourites from their complete archive.
GREAT STORIES TO TELL
Since its initial launch in 2001 we have seen many developments in the Special Releases selections, including some interesting experimentations and unusual distillery offerings. Each selection tells a different story and explores a taste of history from some of Scotland's most interesting distilleries.
“I think we’re in a golden age of whisky at the moment, where our understanding of the processes has progressed at a tremendous rate. Also, we’re working with more esoteric cask types all the time, giving us a much larger palette of flavours to work with, which ultimately is what it’s all about as a blender… the developments in [our] selections reflect our position at the forefront of making great whisky and pioneering new and exciting expressions.”
Dr. Craig Wilson, Master Blender at Diageo and Curator of the Special Releases
The Special Releases have always been a treasure trove for collectors and enthusiasts to find distinctive and often older cask-strength bottlings from Diageo's portfolio. Examples include the introduction of Oban at 32 years of age in 2002, a single malt which is rarely seen outwith its regular distillery offerings. Over the years the Special Releases has also broken records with their well-aged malts including (at the time of release) the oldest expressions of Port Ellen, Brora, Glenury Royal and Glen Ord,
As excitement around the Special Releases intensified, Diageo's whisky specialists began exploring more alternative variations in their single malt portfolio. In 2008, more stories unfolded with an unusual triple release of the same 12 year old Linkwood, however, this was given a further 14 years maturation in variously sweet red wine, port and rum casks. A first for the annual collections, a truly remarkable blended malt was released in 2017. Collectium XXVIII was a creation by master craftsmen Keith Law from the finest reserves of all 28 active distilleries in Diageo's portfolio.
Alongside finding unusual expressions and old favourites in a new light, the Special Releases has given a platform over the years for some rare appearances from lesser-known distilleries such as Mannochmore, Convalmore and Pittyvaich. 2011 also saw the first introduction of a grain whisky to the series with a 20 year old Port Dundas while 2014 surprised fans with the introduction of a no age statement expression from Clynelish distillery. Special it was indeed and a big hit among whisky buffs!
The most recent chapter in Diageo's Special Releases was announced in September with the unveiling of their 2020 Special Releases, find the line-up here.