For those who cherish the art of fine whisky, Diageo’s annual Special Release series has always held a unique allure. The 2023 edition, intriguingly named “Spirited Xchange,” promises to rekindle the magic that has defined these exceptional releases for over two decades.
Has the 2023 Diageo Special Release “Spirited Xchange” put special back into these releases?
This annual bottling was created in 2001 as a follow on from their Rare Malts (a bi-annual release) and to date 39 distilleries and two blends have featured in the releases. Originally aimed at the “educated” consumer who would pay a bit more for a bottle, but still at a price you could afford to drink them, it has showcased some relay interesting whiskies over the years. Some may complain about the release prices being high and whether the whiskies were exceptional, but certainly there have been some really interesting bottlings. Whilst these arguments are common amongst whisky drinkers, most would agree that bottles from these releases are well worth drinking. In recent years several bottlings have failed to sell out immediately and there is an argument that it may pay to wait a year or so to buy them as prices fall (on the secondary market). Certainly, they do not appear to be a good “investment” whisky except perhaps if you flip them, so maybe the original concept of a whisky you will want to drink still holds?
This year’s release has been created by Malt Master Dr. Stuart Morrison and is an “unexpected collision of craft and culture”, ahem. However, at a recent tasting The Cask Connoisseur attended, one wondered whether the “marketing hype” was actually fairly sound. The tasting notes on the bottles were pretty accurate and the artwork on the packaging, even the names of the bottles, reflected the tasting attributes. Despite the expressive and stunning artwork, with the current trend of package artwork providing an excuse to increase the cost of the whisky inside, this is not the case. The overall impression is the pricing is fair for the quality of the whisky contained, particularly given the recent price increases generally. The age of a whisky is no longer a good guide to expected quality so the inclusion of NAS and 10-12 year olds is perfectly acceptable. They all are a whisky you will want to drink, maybe only for a special occasion, but you will not be disappointed. If you are a fan of a particular distillery, then these are an expression you will want to buy. All express recognisable characteristics of their particular distillery, some more than others, some more subtly. All have complexity and depths that are well worth exploring.
The overall impression is that these are special whiskies, and that Diageo has re-found enthusiasm for the original concept. In conversations post-tasting the impressions and feelings were that this year’s releases are the start of a new journey in a different direction and that next year’s release will be even better.
Below are some further comments on each individual expression. Diageo’s malts.com currently has some quite extensive information on each, and it would be fun to compare your own thoughts with the descriptions on the “official” website. If you are a member of their Malts Club, you will receive free postage and effectively a 10% discount through their points system.
Clynelish 10 year old 57.5% ABV £160 “The Jazz Crescendo”
Matured in American oak ex-bourbon casks, with notes of honey, caramel, and vanilla. Exhibits the characteristic oiliness of this distillery.
Glenkinchie 27 year old 58.3% ABV £340 “The Floral Treasure”
Finished in refill American and European oak barrels and butts, with notes of floral aromas, spiciness, and sweet fruit. Well-aged Glenkinchie is well worth buying and not often released – a very underrated lowland distillery.
Lagavulin 12 years old 56.4% ABV £155 “The Ink of Legends”
Finished in Don Julio Anejo Tequila casks (part of Diageo), with notes of coastal peat, juicy fruit, citrus, and herbal smoke. A stalwart of Special Editions, this is a lovely and smooth example of Lagavulin. A peated whisky that non-peat enthusiasts will enjoy.
Mortlach NAS 58% ABV £250 “The Katana’s Edge”
Finished in a combination of ex-Kanosuke Japanese whisky and ex-Pinot Noir casks, with notes of fruity, spicy, and savoury (umami) flavours. This was the favourite on the night and probably the “pick of the bunch”, despite the price. Exhibits exactly what you want from Mortlach with perhaps even more complexity.
Oban 11 year old 58% ABV £140 “The Soul of Calypso”
Finished in Caribbean pot still rum casks, with notes of mango, spices, sugar cane, and maritime character. The nose was not characteristic of Oban, perhaps contributing to this being the least favoured of the night. The palate though does exhibit characteristics of Oban although you need to get past the “is this rum?”. Adding a few drops of water is well worth it although it increases the thoughts of it being a rum.
Roseisle 12 year old 56.5% ABV £120 “The Origami Kite”
Matured in first-fill ex-bourbon and refill casks, with notes of vanilla, orchard fruits, and gentle spice. Roseisle was built to provide malts for blending and this could be considered a “first release”. It is the most intriguing bottle this year as there is no “history” to compare it with or whether it is characteristic of the distillery’s production. Roseisle was designed to be “flexible” with its style of malt production.
Talisker NAS 59.7% ABV £120 “The Wild Explorador”
A distillery first expression, matured in a combination of Ruby, White and Tawny port casks. A meaty, smokey bacon, peated, pepperiness coupled with expected maritime influences along with a sweet smoothness created by the mixture of cask finishes. One for Talisker and peat lovers.
The Singleton of Glendullan 14 year old 55% £120 “The Silken Gown”
Finished in Chardonnay de Bourgogne casks, with notes of golden fruit, silky texture, and rich sweetness. This was the second favourite on the night and one of the best Singletons ever sampled. Singleton is a brand bringing three distilleries together. The aim being to produce malts for specific markets (Europe, Asia, North America). Whilst it was pretty smooth on first tasting, adding a couple of drops of water is well worth it, bringing to mind the advertising catchphrase of a certain chocolate, “why have cotton when you can have silk”. If you are looking to impress with the first whisky of the evening/flight this is exceptional and more than handles that task. Often the first whisky of the night can feel anonymous later, this one certainly holds its own and will be remembered.