Every year, Diageo releases a set of single malt whiskies that invariably become the most sought-after scotch expressions of the year. 2021 was no different. Well… that’s not entirely true. Diageo did, indeed, drop eight brand new single malts but they also added a new wrinkle by leaning into storytelling.
Each of this year’s Special Releases is branded with a story that plays into the overall theme of “Legends Untold.” Each bottle has its own title and QR code that will take you to an interactive visual story that plays into the theme of the whisky in the bottle and fables from Scotland. It’s an extra layer of cool added to some already very unique whisky.
Fables aside, there are also eight pretty damn amazing bottles of single malt scotch at play in this year’s set. We’re going to rank each of those bottles based on taste alone (price and availability are not a factor here). It goes without saying that these special one-off whiskies from some of the most beloved distilleries in Scotland do not come cheap — the most expensive bottle is in the thousands. Still, this is the gift-giving and holiday imbibing season so click on those prices if you’re interested in trying one of these yourself.
Also Read: The Top 5 UPROXX Scotch Whisky Posts of 2021
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- We Blind Tested Blended Scotches In The $40 Range And A Clear Winner Emerged
- The Best Bottles Of Scotch Whisky Between $50-$60
- Blind Scotch Taste Test — Which 12-Year-Old Single Malt Whisky Is Best?
8. The Singleton of Glendullan Aged 19 Years, The Siren’s Song
Average Price: $182
This Speyside malt — which is getting pushed pretty hard on the U.S. market right now — is all about the honeyed and heather notes of the region. This expression rested in former bourbon barrels for nearly two decades before it was transferred to a cognac cask. After that final maturation, the whisky was bottled at cask strength.
The nose on this is one of the fruitiest out there, with strong notes of apricot next to dried figs, orange oils, old raisins, and candied fruits that lead towards a rummy fruitcake with a tube of marzipan running through it and a light flourish of fresh heather flowers. The palate really holds onto the fruit with the candied fruits and citrus rinds leading the way as apple cores and stems veer the taste towards a woodier note of cedar with a slight echo of white grape juice. The mid-palate holds onto the sweetness of that juice as the malts kick in with a slight tobacco spice that’s just touched with a hint of dried and candied ginger.
This was fruity. That’s not a bad thing at all. It’s delicious. It’s just that this didn’t quite speak to me as deeply as the rest of the expressions on this list. Also, something has to be last in these rankings. So here we are.
7. Lagavulin Aged 12 Years, The Lion’s Fire
Average Price: $172
This Islay whisky is iconic already and this year’s younger of two special releases from the distiller helps cement that further. The whisky is built from juice aged in re-fill bourbon casks — meaning that the casks had already aged bourbon and then aged single malts at least once before this whisky was filled into them and left for 12 years. That whisky was then vatted and bottled at cask strength.
This opens with a matrix of the sea and land as notes of air-dried sea salt mingle with nori wetted with sushi rice, and a clear sense of green tea with a hint of dried florals that then leads towards dry cacao powder, salted lemon peels, and a very distant line of sea-spray laced campfire smoke with wet sand lurking underneath. The palate takes that sea salt, nori, and lemon and tosses them together for a sharp yet dry and briny mouthfeel that leads back to now-sweetened tea with a hint of waxy saltwater taffy. The mid-palate rushes towards a big billow of dry driftwood smoke that’s emboldened by a handful of smoked and dried ancho chilis.
There’s a lot going on here. While The Singleton above was a little fruity, this feels a little all over the place. It ends up making sense but it’s a baffling road to get there. Delicious, mind you, but it may leave you shaking your head.
6. Royal Lochnagar Aged 16 Years, The Spring Stallion
Average Price: $268
This eastern Highland whisky is another cask strength drop from Diageo. The juice was aged in refill bourbon barrels and left alone for 16 long years. There was no finishing cask. The whisky was simply vatted and bottled as-is.
Soft, soft, soft. That could be the notes on the nose, palate, and finish and we could move on. More deeply, the nose is full of mild notes of dates next to tart apples and orange peels that turn into an apple cobbler of sorts as this very mellow, almost damp, mossy earthiness peeks in. That tart apple and orange zest drive the palate towards a soft malted cookie frosted with light powdered sugar and vanilla frosting. The end warms up with a slight pepper tobacco vibe next to a distant idea of a dry woodpile next to that tart fruit.
This is very interesting and very even-keeled. I really like this. It’s mostly ranked a little lower because I’m not overly familiar with Royal Lochnagar, having only sampled a couple of the expressions over the years. So I’m not 100 percent sure if this is an outlier or perfect example of the distillery. Either way, this is really tasty and easy-going.
5. Mortlach Aged 13 Years, The Moonlit Beast
Average Price: $182
This year’s Mortlach leans into the “beast of Dufftown” moniker the brand has earned by being bold and unique. The whisky in the bottle is a spirit that spent 13 years aging in both refill bourbon casks and new oak. Those barrels were vatted to create this beast of a whisky and it was bottled at cask strength.
This starts off very unexpectedly with a nose full of Thanksgiving dinner — the roasted turkey with sage, thyme, and rosemary leads towards a bowl of cranberry sauce cut with holiday spices and a touch of sweetness next to the bold tartness of the berries while candied fruits, floral honey, and varnished cedar round out the nose. The palate builds on that vibe and adds in a vanilla-chili note that attaches to a dry cedar box full of fruity and sticky tobacco. That spice really leans into freshly cracked black pepper as the fruitier notes from the nose return to mellow everything out on the long finish.
This feels so right now. Big notes of roasted fowl, autumnal herbs, and wintry fruits with a warming woody tobacco vibe feel like you should be snuggled next to a crackling fire and sipping this exact whisky after a big holiday meal.
4. Talisker Aged 8 Years, The Rogue Seafury
Average Price: $120
This year’s Talisker sticks with the classic age statement of 8-years while leaning into the smokier side of the Island whisky. The build on this expression is a marrying of the “Smokiest Reserves” from the Talisker warehouse. That juice is vatted and bottled at cask strength.
You get this medley of smoked fruits on the nose — think smoked plum and apricot — that leads towards a rush of sea spray, iodine, and nori that braces your senses for this billow of wet forest and granite on fire like a mountain overlooking the ocean that’s been set ablaze. The palate calms down only slightly with a pink sea salt that’s been accented with dried roses while that smoke puffs through your sense with a green pepper spiciness and an almost sweet, wet fir tree bark with an earthy edge that almost feels like damp black dirt. That earthiness imparts a soft peatiness to the malt on the end with a slight tobacco chewiness followed by a final kick of spicy smoke.
Last year’s Talisker 8 was my favorite by far. This year’s release is so drastically different from last year’s that it was hard to know where to place it. I really like this but it just didn’t grab me quite as fully as the next three on this list.
That’s not to say this isn’t a thoroughly nuanced and delicious whisky. It is. It just wasn’t my jam this year.
3. Cardhu Aged 14 Years, The Scarlet Blossoms of Black Rock
Average Price: $155
This year’s Cardhu is a subtle malt that’s just touched with wine casks after spending a dozen years mellowing in refill bourbon barrels. Those wine casks are dumped into a vat and then this is, again, bottled at barrel strength.
This feels like a layered fruit tart that starts with almost sour apples and grapes that’s topped with a layer of buttery pastry topped with red berries and pear that’s topped with another layer of buttery pastry that’s then topped with savory lychee that’s then topped with dried orange zest, dried lavender petals, and a drizzle of cinnamon-spiced honey. The palate adds a creamy dollop of vanilla-laced whipped cream with a few lines of buttery toffee and more of those florals. Then the taste veers into a tannic, vinous red wine vibe with a touch of wet cedar and a hint of black peppercorn. The finish arrives quickly as that pepper smooths out into a powdery white pepper and the apple and pear return to softly bring about the short end.
This was goddamn delicious. It has a wonderful balance of sweet, tart, creamy, and spicy that just works. What’s amazing is that while I really dig this, it still wasn’t quite as bold and interesting as the next two.
2. Lagavulin Aged 26 Years, The Lion’s Jewel
Average Price: $2,220
This is a very rare and unique whisky. First, it’s the first 26-year-old Lagavulin released. Next, there are only 7,500 of these bottles in existence. Lastly, the whisky was built from a combination of first-fill Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks. Those barrels were married after over two decades of mellowing and bottled at a very accessible cask strength of 44.2 percent.
The nose on this opens as if you’ve taken a freshly emptied red wine barrel, torn the staves from the metal, and thrown those wet staves onto a campfire and then sat down to eat some figs wrapped in nori and drizzled with rich butterscotch while someone else threw an old boat rope onto that fire and then started up an outboard motor on the dock just a few feet away.
From there, the taste mellows out considerably as a vibe of smoked dates flaked with sea salt takes over and this clear sense of the oil from a sardine can arrives with plenty of salt and black pepper to help it go down easy. The finish mellows even further as this wet and earthy note arrives that’s one part forest mushroom, one part wet green moss, and one part smoldering wet cedar branches with a slight peppery tobacco dryness and warmth on the very end.
Yes, the oldest and most expensive pour is one of the best. That should come as no surprise. What is surprising is the path this whisky takes you down. It’s constantly surprising your senses while giving you this feel of … comfort.
It’s wild yet refined. It tastes old but feels new. It’s birth, death, and rebirth all in one sip.
1. Oban Aged 12 Years, The Tale of Twin Foxes
Average Price: $142
Oban’s location on the Scottish coast next to both the Islands and Highlands allows it to harness the best of both regions when making its whisky. This year’s 12-year release is built on the backs of both ex-bourbon casks and refill bourbon casks, allowing the stronger notes of those new bourbon casks to get a light mellowing from the refill wood. The results are bottled at cask strength.
Briny — that’s the draw here. The nose has this mellow mix of spicy nori crackers that lead towards an old wooden cutting board that’s slick with olive juice, fish oils, salt, and black pepper that you then take a heel of bread to mop up while a slight note of smoked haddock or cod lingers on the very backend. On the palate, a burst of citrus oils arrives to cut through all that umami, oil, and brine as a light malty fruitiness adds a little tart and sweet to the mix with a sense of cedar chips soaked in mild chili oil drives a warmth. The finish lets that spice build towards a dry pepperiness thanks to the wood as the fruit ties itself to a very mild tobacco leaf and another note of that smoked fish sneaks in on the very end.
This took me home. I was raised on the sea (in a little town called Port Townsend) and we fished nearly every day. We smoked a lot of the fish we caught and this brought back all those sense memories and just memories of that time. It damn near brought a tear to my eye. This wins hands down for the transportation sensory experience alone. I honestly cannot detach this from the hefty load of nostalgia it dug up to say truly if it’s the most delicious. All that I know is that it was the most delicious dram of this set for me.