When the wine and spirits giant now known as Diageo first launched its Classic Malts Selection line of single-malt Scotch whiskies in America in 1989, those six exemplary new drams (Glenkinchie 10-, Dalwhinnie 15-, Cragganmore 12-, Lagavulin 16-, Talisker 10-, and Oban 14-Year-Olds) more than doubled the number of extraordinary malts available at the time. In that bygone era, even the most sophisticated watering holes proffered little else from the Highlands to spark the imagination than a basic (albeit flavorful) trio consisting of Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Glenmorangie. Moreover, relatively few Scotch whisky drinkers (much less imbibers of a more general variety) were even aware that rare malts could be obtained; only the true aficionado understood that these strangely named distillations represented something far more significant than obscure brands of blended Scotch.
Given the comparative ignorance of the age and the limited potential audience for these precious initial bottles, Diageo’s decision to launch its six Classic Malts represented a leap of commercial faith. Yet the firm’s confidence proved well-founded, and one might argue that the ongoing success of the program—as well as those of other distillers—has to some extent been fueled by Diageo’s enterprise, which has contributed to the expansion and refinement of America’s taste for single-malt Scotch whisky, the market for which exploded in the 1990s.
The Classic Malts line remained unchanged for the most part during the last decade and a half, until last year, when Diageo revamped the selection by adding the Talisker 18-Year-Old, Caol Ila 12- and 18-Year-Olds, and Clynelish 14-Year-Old. But what has whetted the thirsts of Scotch drinkers even more than the debut on U.S. shores of the beloved Caol Ila and Clynelish is the additional release of three new Rare Editions—limited edition, very-small-quantity bottlings for which Diageo ransacked its cellars. Fortunately for enthusiasts, this plunder includes a Cragganmore 10- ($100–$150), a Caol Ila 25- ($200–$250), and a Lagavulin 12-Year-Old ($100–$150)—all of them corkers, if you will. Each is cask-strength, though none is technically single-cask: These three offerings are sourced from small batches of very similar special casks, and so they display the same distinct traits and unique flavor profiles that characterize single-cask whiskies. They are also, by their nature, very limited in production: Only between 142 and 215 cases of each whisky are available in the United States. Once the supply runs out, these magnificent malts are gone forever.
The Cragganmore 10-Year-Old is particularly interesting, exposing as it does the fallacy that whisky has to be old to be good. The quality of the spirit, after all, depends less on the number of years it was aged than on the cask it was aged in—or, more specifically, on the grade of sherry that originally occupied that vessel. In this case, the cask has imparted a bright, fresh, and fruity sweetness that derives not only from the sherry wood, but also from Cragganmore’s slow distillation process, which yields a lighter, sweeter malt.
Lagavulin 12-Year-Old exudes the intense smoke, seaweed, and iodine essences that have established for Islay malts their devoted following. However, this special dram from one of the region’s signature distillers exhibits intriguing complexity in the glass, showing a tangy fruitiness accompanied by a salty bite and savory-sweet licorice.
Nevertheless, of the three, the Caol Ila 25-Year-Old stands apart. Long prized by connoisseurs for its unusually light body, which contrasts with an intense smokiness, Caol Ila has produced a unique bottling that flaunts deeper-than-usual woodiness—a rich amalgam that blends, among other essences, hints of pine and cedar. This graceful character results from aging in second-fill Bourbon casks, the esters of which enhance rather than overwhelm the whisky.
Although the available quantities of these Rare Editions are somewhat discouraging (potential acquirers will want to act quickly), whisky lovers can take heart in the knowledge that Diageo plans to release further Rare Editions bottlings in the future. According to Nick Morgan, marketing director for Classic Malts, “We are going to carry on doing this on an annual basis, and we are going to rotate the product that we offer on the basis of the inventory we have available and whether we’ve got whiskies we think are good enough to stand beside the core products.” Words to comfort us when these three superb whiskies are mere fading memories.