Scotch whisky fans were denied their usual festival fun this month, with the annual festivities in Speyside, Campbelltown and Islay all playing out in more restrained, virtual form. But they can at least console themselves with the prospect of a string of stellar new bottlings, whose planned 2020 releases won’t, it seems, be derailed by the small matter of a global pandemic.
The renowned Fèis Ile festival should have been reaching its boisterous conclusion on the Scottish island this weekend. Home now to nine distilleries, Islay’s ever-growing reputation has been buttressed by the re-opening of a handful of previously mothballed distilleries, including the highly collectable, ‘ghosted’ Port Ellen. Closed in 1983, this vaunted distillery is set to reopen in 2021 – and a series of rare bottles are being released in the build up.
The ‘Untold Stories Series’ started with a 39-year-old last year, with a run of 1,500 bottles retailing at £4,500 each. The second release, a 40-Year-Old single malt drawn from 9 selected 1979-vintage casks, yielding 1,380 bottles, will hit selected retailers later this year priced at £1,600 a piece.
Across the Irish Sea, Redbreast, a Single Potstill Irish Whiskey produced by Irish Distillers at its renowned Middleton Distillery in Cork, has just released the third in a series of annual limited-editions. The latest addition to the ‘Dream Cask’ series is a 28-year-old, ruby-port-matured offering, the first time any Redbreast expression has spent time maturing in port wine casks. Bottled at 51.5%, in 500ml bottles priced at a €490, the release is available via an online ballot hosted on Redbreast’s private members club, The Birdhouse.
Back in Scotland, the Dalmore distillery in the far north boasts some of the oldest stocks of maturing whisky anywhere in the country. To prove it, it keeps a slow but steady stream of fascinatingly old, and extremely well matured releases flowing from its warehouses under the watchful eye of master blender Richard Paterson.
Last year, three rare 60-year-old decanters were released to mark the distillery’s 180th anniversary. This year, 51 decanters of a 51-year-old have been put onto the market. The whisky was first matured in ex-Bourbon casks before being split between Port Colheita 1938 casks, Matusalem Sherry casks and first-fill Bourbon casks, and being given a final maturation in specially selected Bourbon barrels. The price tag? £51,000.
The Aberfeldy distillery in Perthshire has more reasons than most to pray for a speedy re-opening of public visits. Many distilleries now offer a ‘bottle your own’ option when visiting their sites, selecting a cask from which visitors can draw the liquid and fill their own bottles. But Aberfeldy has thrown down the gauntlet to its Highland neighbours by taking the concept to the next level via a 40-year-old offering, its oldest ever whisky. The first of three super-aged casks in a series of self-fill bottlings from the distillery, it retails for £2,500 a pop, and will likely be eagerly awaited by Scotch aficianados once life returns to some sense of normality.
Further down the road, other noteworthy releases slated for the second half of the year include a 50-year-old from Glenfiddich; a new Macallan bottling; a much anticipated partnership between the Islay single malt Bowmore and Aston Martin; and rare releases from two lost Lowland distilleries – a triple-distilled, single cask bottling from Rosebank; and an old release from the now-demolished Littlemill. Both are likely to become collectors’ items.
And it’s not just whisky producers lining up special releases for 2020. Perhaps the most innovative take on ageing is taken by the Colombian rum producer Dictador, via its ‘2 Masters’ series. Working with some of the most respected producers across the drinks industry, very old Colombian rum is extra-aged on-site in casks provided by such esteemed sources as Sauternes grand cru classé Château d’Arche, and Scottish single malt Glenfarclas.
The next release in the 2 Masters series comes via a partnership with Royal Tokaji, whereby a 1977-vintage rum has undergone additional maturation in Hungary, picking up the sweet fruity notes of this celebrated wine. Bottles will be available in selected retailers from September for €750 (£670).
At a time of such uncertainty and unease, there’s something reassuring in the patience, planning and forethought shown by the world’s great distillers, who stand as bastions of stability. At least 2020 looks set to prove itself a distinguished vintage in the world of spirits – solace, distilled.