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An Enchanted Fantasy World: Diageo Special Releases 2021

Note: We would be providing more updates as more information is released about each bottle. Stay tuned to this space!


What you need to know

  • The annual Diageo Special Release a number of high quality and rare limited edition expressions that are highly sought after by collectors. More importantly: they are affordable!
  • This year's release features bottles from Singleton-Glendullan, Cardhu, Oban, Royal Lochnagar, Mortlach, Talisker and two from Lagavulin.
  • The stand out bottle appears to be the 26-year-old Lagavulin fully matured in first-fill sherry casks. 


(Image Source: Whiskynotes)


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.

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 more fantasy-themed. 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.

Let’s take a closer look at this year’s new releases.



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 was matured exclusively in refill cask 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.



Second, we have a 12-year-old Lagavulin that was matured also in refill casks, and bottled at cask strength. This appears to be a pretty classic expression with nothing peculiar to add.




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 and refill casks. Once again, this should follow closely to the distillery character of delivering a sweet fruity apple-ish and somewhat briny flavour profile



Fourth, we have an elegant 13-year-old Mortlach that was aged in refill and – less commonly so- virgin oak casks. Mortlach 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.

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



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. 



Next up, we have an 8-year-old Talisker selected from their “smokiest reserves” and bottled at a strong 59.7%. No cask style has been mentioned. 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.



We then have the 14-year-old Cardhu that was matured in an unknown cask type, then finished in presumably red wine. It will also be interesting to see how the malty and honeyed distillery character of Cardhu interacts with the rich sweetness and dryness of red wine.



We also have a 19-year-old Singleton from Glendullan Distillery that was finished in Cognac-seasoned casks. 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.



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. 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.


My Take

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. 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.