The annual appearance of the Diageo Single Malt Special Releases always holds plenty of promise. After all, the company has a lot of whisky to choose from. It runs more than two dozen distilleries in Scotland and holds the stocks of four others that have been closed.
This latest release doesn't disappoint. There's a full spectrum of flavors, age statements that represent a generation and a price range of more $3,000. And while some of the malts are familiar, two distilleries (Strathmill and Glendullan) have broken into the prestigious fold for the first time.
The 2014 collection has recently arrived in the United States after debuting last fall in the United Kingdom. The selection of whisky numbers 11 expressions from 10 distilleries and spans the Lowland, Highland, Speyside and Islay regions.
The age leader is a 38-year-old from Glendullan, followed by three other whiskies with at least three decades in wood. But a youngster of 12 years (Lagavulin) chimes in as well. And, for the first time, the list includes a non-age-statement malt (Clynelish). Maturity isn't the only criterion of rarity either. Three of the distilleries (Brora, Port Ellen and Rosebank) are long closed, and supplies are necessarily dwindling.
High prices and low output go hand-in-hand when so many rare malts are involved. The most precious is the Port Ellen 35 Year Old ($3,300), and the least expensive is the Caol Ila Unpeated 15 Year Old ($120). The Lagavulin 12 Year Old has the greatest distribution, with 31,428 bottles. The Benrinnes 21 Year Old is least available with only 2,892 bottles.
If there's anything lacking here, it's the company of a great cigar. We decided to rectify that with a couple worthy smokes. The results follow. The order of malts is by price.
Padrón Family Reserve 44 Years Maduro (6 inches by 52 ring gauge; $31.30; 92 points; Cigar Aficionado February 2015) A box-pressed torpedo with a dark wrapper and opulent draw. It's rich and sweet with coffee bean and toast complemented by notes of chocolate and graham cracker.
Partagás Lusitania (7 5/8 by 49 ring gauge; £25, 93 points; Cigar Aficionado February 2015) A dark wrapper and flat head make this a very attractive double corona. Notes of semisweet chocolate harmonize with bitter orange peel, leather and freshly cut pine.
Caol Ila Unpeated (120.78 proof, or 60.39 percent alcohol by volume; 15 years old; $120 a 750-milliliter bottle) The anomaly here is that an Islay malt should be made without peat. The island's effect is still present in the maritime influence.
APPEARANCE: Light corn-silk color. Comes down in huge, slow droplets.
NOSE: Candied, honey aroma with a perfumed, floral component.
PALATE: Chewy compilation of honey, citrus, cereal and sea salt.
FINISH: Enduring finish that extends the palate and adds a bit of Stilton cheese.
With Padrón: The sweetness of each component complements the other, with the cigar getting a bit of pear. Cigar's heartier notes clash a bit with the Caol Ila. Fair/Good
With Partagás: The cigar far out weighs the whisky in body, but the usual match-body rule is broken here to good effect, with the Caol Ila awakening the Partagás's lighter side, and the malt's salt perking up. Good
Lagavulin 12 Year Old (108.8 proof, or 54.4 percent alcohol by volume; 12 years old; $130 a 750-milliliter bottle) A regular in this collection, Lagavulin is another Islay, but this time with all the implied peat.
APPEARANCE: Light corn-silk color. Delicate legs.
NOSE: Hard to cut through the blast of peat. Some toast and nuts.
PALATE: Peat is still big, but surprising fruit, honey spice, cocoa, toffee, caramel and herbs show through. Huge.
FINISH: The peat smoke permeates a forever finish of all of the above.
With Padrón: The cigar accentuates the fruit and honey on the malt. Lagavulin gives back to the Padrón's toasty notes. Good
With Partagás: While the spirit is willing, the smoke isn't quite as much. The Lagavulin's candied aspects take off, but the Partagás flattens out. Fair/Good
Benrinnes 21 Year Old (113.8 proof, or 56.9 percent alcohol by volume; 21 years old; $400 a 750-milliliter bottle) This Speyside malt was produced with a unique, partial triple-distillation process (abandoned in 2007). It also is aged in Sherry wood.
APPEARANCE: Very light copper. Medium-thick, slow legs.
NOSE: Fruity-floral with graham cracker and cinnamon notes.
PALATE: So much bigger than its nose. Toasty, spicy, fruits, yes, but no flowers and little delicacy. Don't pair with a salad.
FINISH: Malty, toasty notes hang on the longest.
With Padrón: Whisky's toast grows with the cigar. Padrón gets bigger and more full bodied with more toast. Good
With Partagás: The two match well, but the cigar is the big winner, showing more of its promise with the addition of the malt's toast. Out come cocoa and toffee. Good
Strathmill 25 Year Old (104.8 proof, or 52.4 percent alcohol by volume; 25 years old; $475 a 750-milliliter bottle) Strathmill joins the series for the first and the Speyside malt does itself proud. It's an important of the J&B Scotch blend.
APPEARANCE: Very light lemon-lime color. Quick, thick legs.
NOSE: Intoxicating notions of flower and fruit with a honey backbone.
PALATE: Big fruits—tropical, berries—with Tupelo honey. A bitter/sour burst keeps this from becoming cloying. Candy for grownups.
FINISH: Slowly dries out, giving this malt a well-rounded character.
With Padrón: The whisky dries a bit with the cigar making it a tad bitter. The Padrón grows wheatier, with a little, graham cracker influence. Fair/Good
With Partagás: The cigar gives the whisky roundness right from the start (no waiting for the finish). The Partagás gets a little kick of fruit, if needed. Good
Rosebank 21 Year (110.6 proof, or 55.3 percent alcohol by volume; 21 years old; $500 a 750-milliliter bottle) The lone Lowlands entry, this Rosebank was created in 1992, the year before the distillery was closed for production.
APPEARANCE: Corn-silk color. The thinnest, slowest legs.
NOSE: Very floral, perfumed nose with an interesting tutti-fruiti note.
PALATE: Sultry mix of fruit, herbs and spice, carrying floral and pleasing bitter notes. Rightly described as an aperitif whisky.
FINISH: Shortish finish that remembers the fruit and brings on toast.
With Padrón: Very well balanced pairing with the whisky becoming less of the morning malt that it is by itself. The chocolate of the Padrón pops right up. Very good
With Partagás: You expect the cigar to get a bigger oomph from the whisky (which it doesn't), but what is unforeseen is how lively the Rosebank becomes. Fair/Good
Cragganmore 25 Year Old (102.8 proof, or 51.4 percent alcohol by volume; age; $500 a 750-milliliter bottle) It's been half a decade since this Speyside graced the Special Releases. The spirit from the short, flat stills earns its return.
APPEARANCE: Light yellow, with a touch of green. Quick medium-size legs.
NOSE: Nuanced nose of honey, fruit, herbs and licorice.
PALATE: Big, but still subtle whisky, with a range similar to the nose, but never bombastic. Very elegant.
FINISH: Medium-length finish that re-enforces just how civilized this malt is.
With Padrón: Again the nuances of cigar and malt balance well. The Padrón establishes a fine nut flavor and the Cragganmore's honey gets a boost. Very good
With Partagás: Another good balance. The cigar lifts off with caramel and toffee. The whisky opens up and shows off its fruit and honey with a bit of hard candy. Very good
Caol Ila 30 year Old (110.2 proof, or 55.1 percent alcohol by volume; 30 years old; $700 a 750-milliliter bottle) The other shoe drops, this time with the classic peaty side of this Islay malt. This bottling combines American and European oak influences
APPEARANCE: Lemon-lime light color. Medium-width, quick legs.
NOSE: Peat is there, but not overstated. A sweet, toasty smokiness.
PALATE: Brilliant balance of subtle peats and expressive fruits. Honey, berries, toast, licorice: an opinionated oldster.
FINISH: Sit back and let the palate roll over you. Jam and toast.
With Padrón: The whisky's sweetness shines forth with the cigar. The Padrón gets a lessened effect, but still takes on some of the Caol Ila's fruit. Excellent
With Partagás: The cigar becomes pleasing plump with hearty, toasty notes. The whisky is less subtle about its many charms, especially the latent peat. Very good
Clynelish Select Reserve (109.8 proof, or 54.9 percent alcohol by volume; no age statement; $800 a 750-milliliter bottle) The assumption here is that you shouldn't ask a lady's age, but this Highlands malt, the first non-age-statement malt of the series, is said to have a minimum age of 16 years.
APPEARANCE: Corn-silk color, Medium-sized quick legs,
NOSE: Luxe notes of dried fruit, honey and buttered rum.
PALATE: A flavor safari with lots of complex fruits (berries and dried pears), toast, maritime notes, cheddar and spice. Add water.
FINISH: Lasting finish of nuts and toast and then a revisit from the fruit.
With Padrón: The nuts on the cigar are shown off to great effect. The Padrón gets slightly fruity. The Clynelish gains a strong dose of toast in the bargain. Excellent
With Partagás: This is where the Clynelish's full range of flavors hits on every cylinder. The fruits, toast and salt are there from the start. Spice arrives with the suggested water. The cigar becomes fuller and boasts of its cocoa. Excellent
Brora 35 Year Old (97.2 proof, or 48.6 percent alcohol by volume; 35 years old; $1,250 a 750-milliliter bottle) Another silent distillery and a stalwart in the Special Releases series, this Highlands plant was actually the original Clynelish before it was moved to a new location in 1968.
APPEARANCE: Bright, lemon color. Slow, thickish legs.
NOSE: Tropical fruits, candy, Christmas cake.
PALATE: So complex, with notes from the nose, plus salt flavors and a soupçon of peat. Licorice bursts through with a drop of water. Some malty undertones.
FINISH: Forever finish that includes all of the above.
With Padrón: The cigar starts to tingle with the addition of the whisky. Lots of nuts and toast as well as spice. The Brora displays its maltiness even more. So glad they saved some for this pairing. Excellent
With Partagás: The cigar smoothes out under the influence of the whisky and becomes positively creamy. The Brora wakes up a bit from its long slumber with additional spice and meaty fruits. Good/Excellent
The Singleton of Glendullan 38 Year Old (119.6 proof, or 59.8 percent alcohol by volume; age; $1,250 a 750-milliliter bottle) Another debut in the Special Releases, this Speyside malt makes up a third (with Dufftown and Glen Ord) of the Diageo Singleton trio. An unusually high alcohol content for its age.
APPEARANCE: Brassy color. Quick, thin legs.
NOSE: Grape-like, subtle fruit notes with a bit of lipstick and some spice.
PALATE: Big spicy/licorice introduction to something that is sprightly and malty. Lots of energy for its age.
FINISH: The repeating finish is the winner here with complex candies and tangerine.
With Padrón: Spice and oiliness on the cigar is huge. The whisky gets maltier and more full of energy. But through it all, both partners are in perfect balance. These are made for each other. Excellent
With Partagás: Sweetness on the cigar is in full bloom here, with cocoa and cherry. The whisky is spicier and full of fruit as well. A very different pairing than with the Padrón, but almost as good. Excellent
Port Ellen 35 Year Old Distilled 1978 (113 proof, or 56.5 percent alcohol by volume; 35 years old; $3,300 a 750-milliliter bottle) Port Ellen is now an Islay malt-supplying facility for all of the island. It stopped producing whisky in 1983, but thanks to the Special Releases it lives on for now.
APPEARANCE: Very light amber. Takes a while to give up the thick legs that ultimately roll along.
NOSE: Almost none of the expected smoke. Nuanced candy and Christmas spice.
PALATE: The smoke shows up in the mouth, but it's more about marvelous spices-ginger, anise, nutmeg-and subtle herbs. Classic elegance.
FINISH: Finish goes on and on until it elicits tangerine.
With Padrón: The subtly of this pairing is so clever that it is hard to determine where one component begins and the other ends. Lots of salty, chocolate, candy-bar notes from each. Wishing you had enough to pull an all-nighter. Excellent
With Partagás: Warm is the word that describes this pairing at the start. Then sweetness appears on the whisky, and the cigar becomes chocolaty and leathery in turn. A very rich woodiness also appears on the Partagás. Excellent