Classic Malts of Scotland
In the 1980s “dark days” of Scotland’s malt whisky malaise, United Distillers and Vintners (now Diageo) pulled off a brilliant bit of marketing magic by redefining malt whisky as a deluxe offering and classifying the malts into six geographic regions with regional flavor profiles. The “Classic Malts of Scotland,” comprised of six quality brands including Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Glenkinchie, Lagavulin, Oban, and Taslisker, revitalized a sagging Scotch whisky marketplace and launched modern-day Diageo into Scotch’s version of the “pole” position. However, not one to rest on their barley laurels, Diageo has expanded the Classics line to include annual releases of double-cask matured versions from their “Distiller’s Edition” portfolio.
2023 Distiller’s Edition
The 2023 series brings us Cragganmore in Port Casks, Dalwhinnie in Oloroso, Glenkinchie in Amontillado, Lagavulin in Pedro Ximenez, Oban in Montilla Fino, and Talisker in Amoroso, along with all new labels. Diageo describes the update as “a new label design for each malt which incorporates stylistic elements representative of each distillery and its core expressions.” Because my samples came in a beautiful box with “plain” labels, I’m unfortunately unable to show you these new labels.
This brings me to one bit of housekeeping before we move on: I received these samples compliments of Diageo and their PR agency in exchange for my honest feedback and review. While life might be easier if I were on the take like a dirty cop (I’m not), all of my reviews are honest. We have a strict policy about honest reviews (good or bad), so receiving media samples will NEVER affect the outcome. That said, I need a drink…
Before we dive into the Scotch, let’s first define “double-cask matured.” In my mind, “double-cask matured” signifies that the whisky is concurrently aged in two types of casks and blended into the final bottling. However, according to Diageo’s PR agency, these secondary casks are used for the final six months to impart flavor. While I consider this a finish instead of “maturation,” I will use Diageo’s definition for consistency in this article.
Now then, let’s dive into the good stuff!
Cragganmore is a Speyside Scotch whisky distilled in Ballindalloch in Banffshire, Scotland. Located along the river Spey, this distillery produces whisky using lightly peated malt, long fermentation times, and oddly shaped stills. This results in a very meaty and rich new-make spirit. After maturing in ex-Bourbon barrels for most of its life, this Cragganmore bottling is transferred to port-seasoned casks for several months and then bottled at 40% ABV.
The nose opens with a burst of Meyer lemon that fades into notes of shortbread cookies and melted vanilla ice cream and ends with mellow notes of generic unflavoured hard candy. On the palate, this Scotch is loaded with notes of Buttercream; it’s rich and oily with a nice full body. I taste that Ex-Bourbon influence, but the port cask adds a nice underlying sweetness. It tastes somewhat like a chocolate croissant that had been drizzled with a little bit of raspberry reduction.
Dalwhinnie is a lesser-known Scotch whisky brand in the Diageo portfolio. Dalwhinnie is a lightly peated Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky that’s distilled at one of the highest elevation distilleries in Scotland – it sits approximately 1000 ft. above sea level! This 15-year-old release spent the last bit of its life in Oloroso-seasoned casks, accentuating some of that peatiness and bringing out more nutty and savory notes.
I’m not finding any peat in the aromatics of this dram – it has muted notes of strawberries and a touch of lemon. However, I mostly smell sweet malt, likely from the sherry. The palate is very unassuming! It starts very softly, but as it sits on the tongue, it opens to reveal a mellow peat, creamsicle, salted cashew, and a peppery backbone.
Glenkinchie, one of just six distilleries in the Scottish lowlands, is a relatively unknown and oft-overlooked brand of Scotch whisky. This expression, a non-age-stated Single Malt finished in Amontillado seasoned casks, is bottled at 43% ABV. The nose reveals toasted marshmallows, lemon bars, subtle raisin notes, and other dried fruit. The very soft palate exhibits subtle notes of lemon, cayenne pepper, and toasted oak, with warm spice throughout the taste.
Lagavulin is arguably one of the most well-known distilleries on the isle of Islay. Some attribute Lagavulin’s current fame to being the favorite Scotch of the fictional character Ron Swanson of Parks and Recreation (portrayed by actor Nick Offerman). Lagavulin produces a briny, smokey/peaty, and subtly sweet whisky. This Distillers Collection release is first matured in ex-Bourbon, then finished in Pedro Ximenez seasoned barrels.
I’m immediately greeted by the beautiful ashtray aromas typical of Lagavulin. It’s salty and ashy with iodine and rubber, all mixed into one. The PX, while present, has been “mutated”; it’s more akin to a “peated sherry” (this is not an actual thing). The palate is aggressive with charcoal-grilled burnt steak, burnt rubber, vanilla, sourdough biscuits (not cookies), and spice notes.
Oban is like the cilantro of the Scotch world (love/hate) – it’s either super peaty or not peaty at all, depending on individual taste. I don’t find Oban even remotely peaty; it’s a typical Highland dram. This release was double matured in Montilla Fino seasoned casks, and the nose shows charred vanilla, raspberry, and slight notes of salinity coming from the Fino casks. The palate starts with burnt, salted meat, followed by muted notes of vanilla, popcorn butter, and more raspberry.
Talisker is unique as the oldest of only two Scotch distilleries on the Isle of Skye. Technically, it could be considered a West Highland Scotch much in the same way that Orkney isn’t a recognized region in and of itself; despite being “island” whiskies, they technically fall under the banner of the Highlands. This Talisker release is double matured in Amoroso sherry seasoned casks.
The peat on this Talisker release is much more subtle than I was expecting; it’s nearly undetectable. The only aromatic I picked up is smoked salted caramel. On the tongue, it’s an oily dram that tastes like I took a bite out of a barrel – very oaky and char-heavy. Not a lot of flavor variety in this one.
At the end of the day, these are each unique Scotches deserving of consumption. My overall favorite, hands down, is the Lagavulin. It’s (almost) everything I want from an Islay scotch. However, I just want it at cask strength (typically between 50% and 75% ABV) because I’m a proof chaser.