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A closer look at Diageo’s Special Release 2021- Legends Untold

The annual Diageo Special Release- which started 20 years ago- showcases a number of high quality and rare limited edition expressions typically from various Classic Malts distilleries, alongside some really rare and highly sought-after whiskies from mothballed distilleries. Their bottlings tend to be cask strength and in their teenage years.


(Image Source: Diageo)

These are essentially a highly collectible range of annual releases from Diageo. The range of available distilleries have faced some shake-ups recently, with Port Ellen and Brora (closed distilleries) disappearing since 2017, and the long-running unpeated Caol Ila release disappearing since 2018. What a shame because this was pretty much the only way for the general public to get their hands on unpeated Caol Ila expressions!


The unpeated Caol Ila Special Release edition

Perhaps this is why in the recent couple of years, Diageo’s marketers have stepped up their game and put some thought into the bottle art. There’s usually a visual theme in the whole series now.

In 2019 and 2020, the “Rare by Nature” series saw vines, jungle plants, retro flowery motifs and striking etchings of wild beasts.


This year’s series is titled Legends Untold, with a fantasy-inspired theme. Bottle labels feature an elf, several enchanted creatures like a burning lion (why?), a sea dragon, a silver horse, an enchanted tree and fairy tale artefacts.

The series is put together by Diageo’s master blender Craig Wilson, and includes 8 whiskies in total- a Royal Lochnagar, two Lagavulins (one 12 years old and one 26 years old), an Oban, a Mortlach, a Talisker, a Cardhu and a Singleton of Glendullan. A QR code is printed on each label which would take one on a “multi-sensory” experience of legends and tales from the various distilleries.

Full details have not yet been released, but it appears that one could either purchase specific bottles, or purchase a special tasting set that consists of 200 ml samples from each in the series.


A very over-the-top tasting set (Image Source: Malt Review)



Each “hardback novel” looks like this (Image Source: Malt Review)

If you are able to obtain the tasting set, you would receive a rack of 8 “hardback novels”. Each “novel” would carry a sample of the whisky within.

These whiskies would be available at major retailers in the middle of October.

Let’s take a closer look at each bottle:


Royal Lochnagar 16 Years Old – Spring Stallion


First up, we a little-known Highland distillery called Royal Lochnagar. Their taste profile is generally maltier and drier with notes of almonds and dried fruit. This bottle was matured exclusively in American and European oak refill casks which allows the spirit to showcase the distillery character better – more on refill casks later. This one was also bottled at a pretty good age of 16 years, unlike the more commonly released expressions from the distillery. This comes in at 57.5% ABV and would retail for roughly £200.

Diageo’s official tasting notes:

The very mellow and rounded nose swirls with subtle aromas. The top notes are lightly fruity, suggesting orange zest and green apple. They are encased after a while, in a hint of puff-pastry, all resting on a mossy and lightly woody base. Adding a splash of water adds to the fruit, now firm white grapes, and brings up the spiciness.


Lagavulin 12 Years Old – Lion’s Fire


Second, we have a 12-year-old Lagavulin that was matured also in refill American oak casks, and bottled at cask strength of 56.5% ABV. This appears to be a pretty classic expression that pushes for the distillery character, rather than another sherry-crazed expression that is getting increasingly common with many peated whiskies. This would retail for roughly £130.

Diageo’s official tasting notes:

Mild, drying and soon, wonderfully aromatic; clean, fresh and maritime, with top notes of sea air and Himalayan salt, supported by fragrant smoke-dried Lapsang Souchong tea, mineral salts and light cleansing salve. Beneath these lie drier notes of cocoa powder and dried seaweed, with a squeeze of lemon zest, this salty sweetness imbued with wood-smoke from a distant bonfire on the shore.


Oban 12 Years Old – Tale of Twin Foxes



Third, we have a 12-year-old Oban. The last time this expression appeared in the Special Release series was in 2018. This was matured in ex-bourbon freshly-charred American oak casks and bottled at 56.2% ABV. Once again, this should follow closely to the distillery character of delivering a sweet fruity apple-ish and somewhat briny flavour profile. This would retail for roughly £105.

Diageo’s official tasting notes:

Mellow, with elusive yet unmistakeably maritime top notes of crispy edible seaweed, crystal salt and coarse black pepper on a wooden trencher, perhaps accompanied by very lightly smoked fillets of white fish. After a while a spoonful of sweet chilli sauce is added to the platter while with a drop of water, light olive oil becomes the top note.


Morthlach 13 Years Old – Moonlit Beast


Fourth, we have an elegant 13-year-old Mortlach that was aged in refill and – less commonly so- virgin American oak casks, and bottled at 55.9% ABV. This is a more unusual Mortlach due to this cask selection. Morthlachs are often paired with sherry casks as it is known generally for its richness and ability to stand up to long maturation in sherry casks. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how the distillery character interacts with the vanilla and nutty notes of virgin oak. This would retail for roughly £135.

Diageo’s official tasting notes:

A mellow and rounded nose-feel lulls the senses, then introduces a first soaring note of freshly oiled wood. Next, rising through this, savory and meaty notes suggest the beast within yet also carry a sweet tartness, suggesting roast pheasant with redcurrant jelly. The senses are heightened as these pitch perfect aromas in turn reveal a deeper moorland base-note, rich in heather pollen and freshly crushed herbs. A drop of water completes the anticipation, bringing out a sweet, fruity hint of lime.


Talisker 8 Years Old – Rogue Seafury



Next up, we have an 8-year-old Talisker selected from their “smokiest reserves”, matured in heavily peated refill casks (we guess this means that the casks used to contain heavily peated whisky) and bottled at a strong 59.7%. Typical Taliskers tend to be moderately peated and slightly briny. This expression appears to be much peatier than user. Combined with the cask strength ABV, this will have a lot of oomph. This would retail for roughly £90.

Diageo’s official tasting notes:

The mild nose-feel gives little hint of the furious spirit soon to emerge. The top notes are sweet and maritime, an early cereal hint of porridge oats rapidly giving way to more cleansing and maritime aromas that suggest briny seaweed, crystal salt and iodine, on a base of mountain smoke. A drop of water softens things, increasing the maritime character.


Cardhu 14 Years Old – Scarlet Blossoms of Black Rock


We then have the 14-year-old Cardhu that was matured in refill American oak casks, then finished in red wine casks. Bottled at 55.5% ABV. It will be interesting to see how the malty and honeyed distillery character of Cardhu interacts with the rich sweetness and dryness of red wine. This would retail for roughly £120.

Diageo’s official tasting notes:

The mild nose is fresh and lightly fruity, as gentle aromas of white grape and lychee frolic with sharper hints of green apple, pear and a trace of orange zest, all enrobed by a hint of buttery pastry. Rising above these, a light spicy note reveals more of the wine-seasoned wood. A drop of water introduces a light note of meadow flowers, which become distinctly honeyed with time.


Singleton of Glendullan 19 Years Old – Siren’s Song



We also have a 19-year-old Singleton from Glendullan Distillery that was finished in Cognac-seasoned casks, then bottled at 54.6% ABV. Glendullan is known typically for its smooth, sweet, fruity and vanilla-ish flavour profile. Therefore it would be interesting to see how the Cognac cask finishing would add a dimension of flavour – perhaps there would be some nuttiness with dark fruits and chocolate. This would retail at roughly £140.

Diageo’s official tasting notes:

Mild in feel, the nose shines with top notes of dried fruits suggesting dried figs and apricots or crystalized angelica and orange peel, while beneath this there is the dry scent of a light fruitcake, iced with spirited notes of vanilla scented marzipan. More buttery notes emerge with a drop of water, which also brings up the spiciness.


Lagavulin 26 Years Old – Lion’s Jewel


Finally, we have the most valuable and oldest in the series – a 26-year-old Lagavulin that was aged in strong, strong sherry casks that are first-fill PX and Oloroso, bottled at . This is unusual – Lagavulin is almost always matured exclusively in ex-bourbon casks.

This one is also likely to be very smooth after all these years of maturation. The expression is labelled as “cask strength” although the ABV is 44.2% which attests to the duration of maturation and large portion of alcohol lost to Angel’s Share. This would retail at roughly  £1,650.

Diageo’s official tasting notes:

On the mellow nose a finely woven wine-woody aroma of great complexity takes time to yield its individual secrets. Light, fresh and vinous top notes mingle with the linseed oil of an artist’s studio then fade into a warm suggestion of sun-bleached polished mahogany, backed by dry edible seaweed, with sweeter hints of baked fig and butterscotch. Further in, the aromas grow more pungent, oily and fragrantly smoky; like going fishing, with background aromas of tarry rope and boat engine. If a little water is added, their intensity is reduced, while a note of clean linen survives best.


My Take

You may have noticed that the first four expressions were aged in “refill casks”. What are they, and what is the influence of such casks?


Reused casks at Bruichladdich.

Essentially, refill casks are casks that have already been used at least once to age single malt. This means that much of the oakiness and vanilla flavours has been used up by the original fill. The effect is that its influence on the final whisky tends to be much more subtle. Just think of it as a teabag that has already been used to make several cups of tea. One could use the same teabag again to make more cups of tea, but the flavour will be a lot milder. In this way, using refill casks allows the character of the spirit itself to really shine through without being dominated by oak influence. Refill cask-matured whisky tend to be paler in colour and more spirit-forward in flavour, with less of the big, bold, oaky flavours you would see from a first-fill cask.

For long-time drinkers of whisky, the subtlety and nuance you can get from a refill cask is something to appreciate. 

We like Diageo’s annual Special Release for its consistent quality, occasionally interesting cask styles, generous cask strength expressions and most importantly- their affordability. It is likely commonfolk like me would be able to purchase one of these bottles to drink.

This year’s the fantasy-themed bottle art also does not seem to have the faintest relation to the liquid. But hey, the marketers have to do their job. I would also much prefer if Diageo could bring back the unpeated Caol Ila and several rare malts from mothballed distilleries.

Lamentations aside, this year’s most prominent expression would clearly be the 26-year-old Lagavulin. I am not the biggest fan of sherry-matured whiskies and do not see myself obtaining this one.


How would a cognac-infused Glendullan taste?

Instead, I would be keen on the Cognac-finished Singleton of Glendullan to have a taste of a well-matured and smooth Speyside-stile spirit with a Cognac twist.