Imagine being in the midst of the Scottish heartland. While the Atlantic Ocean rages on one end, a rolling wind cuts through the fields of grain on the other, creating undulating waves on both landscapes. It is unsurprising that the nation’s sublime geography, which includes mountains, lochs, valleys and islets, serves as a backdrop to countless mythological tales and folklore. But it is also the environment’s uniqueness that renders it perfect for producing one of the world’s finest luxuries: whisky.
Global alcohol megalith Diageo is by far one of the most dominating companies in the industry, owning a wide variety of brands across spirits, beer and wine. Ever since starting its Special Releases series in 2001, Diageo has been offering an annual line-up of unusual, distinctive, often older, unrepeatable cask strength bottlings (who could forget Port Ellen and Brora?) as well as showcasing lesser-known distilleries from its extensive portfolio.
Legends Untold is the overarching theme for Diageo’s 2021 Special Releases, comprising eight bottles from the Highlands, Isle of Skye, Islay and Speyside. It is said, in ancient fables, that otherworldly beings have fiercely protected the heartlands of remote Scottish distilleries. While the first guess may be the Loch Ness Monster (affectionately known as Nessie), the marine creature does not make an appearance. Instead, a fiery lion, a gallant selkie, an enchanting siren and twin foxes, among other mythical creatures, emerge on the faces of the bottles of eight coveted spirits hand-selected by master blender Dr Craig Wilson.
“We have delved into the core characteristics of several classic distilleries for the Legends Untold collection,” Wilson said in an announcement. “Taking inspiration from the mythical creatures of this year’s collection, we have revealed new depths of flavour and embraced the essence of each whisky’s unique profile, revealing the legend it brings to life.”
Speaking of bringing things to life, renowned digital illustrator Ken Taylor was tasked to do exactly just that. The packaging features his striking signature style and interpretation of the mythical creatures, which is reason enough for it to be considered a collectible on its own. The bottles are accompanied by a QR code that unlocks a multi-sensory experience which leads fans through a mixed-reality tasting experience.
We were fortunate enough to taste all eight whiskies under the guidance of Diageo Malaysia brand ambassador Chong Wai Keng in March and began with the most prized bottle among the octet — the Lagavulin 26 Year Old.
The “King of Islay” is represented by a lion guarding a jewel and, oh, how it embodies a precious and brilliant gem through and through. It owes its distinguishing deep amber hue to being fully matured in first-fill Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry-seasoned casks. Red apples, pear and almond, wrapped by soft spices and complex woodiness best describe this decadent scotch. A splash of water opens it right up, releasing creamy vanilla notes and bolstering its fruitiness. While there are not many spirits that can hold up to 2½ decades in wood without losing their identity, the 26YO is still redolent of the classic Lagavulin.
The 12 Year Old, known as the stalwart and cornerstone of the Special Releases series, is included this time round as the Lion’s Fire. Dubbed the fiercest and smokiest of all Lagavulin offerings, it is a no-frills malt aged exclusively in refilled American oak. It is incredibly aromatic, with citrus and sea elements such as lemon, salt and iodine at the forefront. Picture a bonfire by the beach. Lovely wood smoke gently envelops the palate, leaving a trail of earthiness with chocolate touches. It is not particularly sweet, but one can understand why the 12YO is a cult favourite.
If sweetness is what you are looking for, however, then the 19-year-old Singleton of Glendullan is your perfect match. This fairly traditional Speyside malt started off in refilled American oak but has been finished in cognac casks, not a particularly common choice in Scotland. But the result is as alluring as the Siren’s Song depicted on the bottle, and what a stirring melody this spirit sings. While its sweetness is milder on the nose with subtle strains of vanilla and orchard fruit, it comes alive with honey, caramel and butter on the palate. Luscious, rich, indulgent and round, the Singleton 19 is very likeable — a trait that reflects the illustration exactly.
For something a tad subtler, the Cardhu 14YO offers a more refined sort of sweetness. Since it has seen some time in red wine casks, a rosy hue tinges this easy-to-drink dram. Unlike the rest of the bottles that depict mythical creatures or animals, the imagery for the Cardhu is a tree with scarlet blossoms. It boasts the best of Speyside, but its sweetness and spiciness are very elegant. It registers lighter white fruit aromas that carry onto the palate — think pears and white grapes backed with honeycomb, biscuits and vanilla. It may not be a showstopper, but that does not nullify its enjoyability in the slightest.
Fans of “The Beast of Dufftown” are in for a surprise, as the limited-edition Mortlach is not as you know it. Instead of the usual sherry casks, the 13YO combines virgin and refilled American oak. This is not to say, however, that it has lost its ferocity (a howling wolf is portrayed on it, after all). The Mortlach is a savoury and meaty spirit that starts with biscuit and nutty notes on the nose. Mellow at first, it grows robust with vanilla on the palate, with a surprising kick of chilli-pepper in the swallow. Its density is tangible and its character memorable.
Matured exclusively in freshly charred American oak, the Oban 12YO is a punchy single malt considerably more aggressive than most of the bottles in the lineup. This selection can be described as a duel between land and sea. Orange notes make a big appearance, as do salt and smoke. It is bold and hot, with spices that overarch the battle. The ethanol is pretty intense, too; so, a few drops of water are recommended to bring the proof point down a notch.
It is not often that Royal Lochnagar makes an appearance in the Special Releases, but the 16YO’s presence here certainly renders the collection whole. Imagine a gallant stallion galloping through flowery meadows. It is fresh, lithe and nimble, featuring light honey, crisp fruits and mint sprigs. It is sweet on the palate, but grows piquant with a nice tartness. Compared to some of the rich and dessert-like drams, this bright and fruity Highland malt is a nice change of pace.
Finally, we come to the Talisker 8, quite possibly the punchiest and most intense bottle in the collection. The strongest in terms of alcohol by volume, it is matured in Talisker’s smokiest peated refill casks. Its raw power is likened to the illustrated sea monster as a rich and briny smoke bursts forth from the glass. Saccharine notes immediately give way to smouldering earthiness and salt-and-pepper spiciness on the palate, balanced with some citrus. It is a flavour bomb that perfectly captures Talisker’s bold character and seaside influence.
To purchase the collection, email Moet Hennessy Diageo Malaysia at [email protected].
This article first appeared on May 2, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.