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Scotch Whisky

How To Acquire Diageo’s Prima & Ultima Collection Of Ultra Rare Scotch Whiskies

Prima & Ultima is Diageo’s annual release of rare whiskies from its extensive inventory. In its third year in Europe, the program will debut this year in the United States. The upcoming US release, scheduled for November, showcases some of Diageo’s rarest whiskies. They will be offered on an invitation-only basis to Diageo’s Private Client service members and a handful of select retailers. The expressions are already available in Europe.

The term “prima” denotes that each expression represents a first for the whisky or the distillery. In contrast, “ultima” means that the whisky represents the last available stock in Diageo’s cask inventory.

Four of these whiskies, Lagavulin (1993), Royal Lochnagar (1981), Singleton of Glen Ord (1987) and Talisker (1984), will all be available in the US. The other four expressions, Mannochmore (1990), Brora (1981), Port Ellen (1980) and Cragganmore (1973), will only be available to European clients but may eventually become available to American collectors in the auction aftermarket. All eight whiskies are bottled at cask strength with no added color or chill filtration.

Recently, I sat down with Dr. Craig Wilson (CW), Diageo’s Whisky Platform Manager and Master Blender, and James Mackay (JMc), Head of Rare & Exceptional Spirits at Diageo, to discuss the Prima & Ultima program and this year’s crop of releases. Tasting notes follow the end of the interview.

Craig Wilson has a life-long interest in flavor from his time as an environmental chemist, biologist and chef. He entered the whisky industry after earning a Ph.D. in Brewing and Distilling at the prestigious Heriot-Watt University.

A long-term member of the Whisky Specialist Team, he has won multiple awards, including the prestigious ‘Master Blender of the Year category at the Icons of Whisky in 2017.

With over 12 years as a Master Blender, he has proven expertise, exceptional attention to detail, and a passion for unearthing remarkable whiskies. He is among the most highly regarded and respected Master Blenders in the Scotch Whisky industry.

James Mackay first visited a distillery in 1972 (at Brora, aged one, with his great-uncle who farmed the nearby estate). He began his wine & spirits career in the early 1990s, in the Philippines, in partnership with Whyte & Mackay owners Andrew and Katherine Tan. James then moved to Taiwan to launch Glenfiddich and Balvenie and then to Hong Kong as a brand strategy consultant working with Moët-Hennessy, Pernod-Ricard and Bacardi as Richemont luxury group.

James joined Diageo in 2015 to establish a new private client business catering to private collectors and family offices before becoming Diageo’s Head of Rare & Exceptional Spirits, a global role based in Amsterdam.

JM: Diageo has millions of casks of maturing whisky. What’s the process for narrowing down each year’s selections for the Prima & Ultima releases?

CW: The selection process for each release of Prima & Ultima is unique to the Master Blender that curates it. For this release, I drew on my experience in nurturing and restoring the rare spirits of Diageo’s distilleries, including Brora and Port Ellen. I selected the most exceptional ‘firsts’ and ‘lasts’ of their kind.

JM: Do you start from scratch each year, or is there a short list of expressions that haven’t made the cut yet but will be considered for subsequent releases?

CW: During my whisky-making journey, I’ve been lucky enough to discover some incredible casks maturing across the distillery warehouses. In this third release of Prima & Ultima, I’ve selected some rare finds that I’ve personally marked as outstanding. Some of these were casks I’d previously discovered, and some were found during the curation of Prima & Ultima. Rest assured, these represent the pinnacle of each distillery’s maturing casks.

JM: Are the Prima & Ultima expressions always bottled “as is” directly from the cask, or do you consider whether their aroma and flavor profile might be enhanced by an additional barrel finish? Are there any expressions that received any other cask treatment?

CW: None of the Prima & Ultima releases have received additional cask finishes. They are, in fact, more than that. The whiskies have been in their secondary casks for many years, often longer than their initial casks. Some of them result from experimental work carried out into various cask interventions, such as the Mannochmore and Royal Lochnagar from the third release.

JM: Whiskies from lost distilleries have a special place in the Prima and Ultima releases. Do you apply the same criteria as those whiskies from operating distilleries, or are there other factors that you consider?

CW: The quality of the liquid is the only criterion in choosing whiskies for this collection. The critical difference would be that we often select casks from a much smaller pool of remaining stock with closed distilleries, so we need to be even more discerning. This fact is reflected in the much smaller volumes we can bottle for this collection.

JM: Historically, these one-off casks were sold to independent bottlers. Over the last several decades, Diageo has begun bottling them for sale to collectors and whisky enthusiasts or selling them as entire casks under the Casks of Distinction program. What brought about this change to how you handle these rare casks? How do you decide whether to bottle them as part of the Prima & Ultima program or sell them as Casks of Distinction?

JMc: Diageo has bottled high-quality casks as collectible single malts for almost three decades, starting with the Rare Malts series in the mid-90s. Prima & Ultima is, in some ways, the spiritual successor of Rare Malts.

The Casks of Distinction program is more recent, launching in the last five years, and offers private individuals a different way to acquire rare, top-quality whisky. By its nature, it appeals, in another way, to a select community of individuals.

JM: How do the whiskies featured in each year’s Prima & Ultima releases impact the marketing and consumer demand for other expressions from those distilleries? Do they have an impact?

JMc: Compared to the core range of our single malt distilleries, Prima & Ultima appeals to a much smaller audience and is produced in even tinier volumes. However, there is no doubt the interest and critical acclaim for a distillery’s Prima & Ultima bottling are encouraging people to explore and reacquaint themselves with other expressions from the same distillery.

JM: What was the genesis of the Prima & Ultima program?

JMc: At Diageo, we have a significant breadth of distilleries and stocks. Previously we’ve celebrated this with releases such as the Rare Malts series from 1995 to 2005. At the time, few appreciated the whiskies’ value. Now many of the Rare Malts expressions have become iconic treasures, and the demand and interest in rare and collectible Single Malt Scotch Whisky have dramatically increased. Therefore we felt the time was right to launch Prima & Ultima.

JM: How does the Prima & Ultima program compare to Diageo’s annual Scotch Whisky Special Releases? Are the Prima & Ultima expressions rarer, more expensive whiskies than what gets featured in the annual Special Releases?

JMc: Diageo’s Special Releases series is an annual program of cask-strength limited-edition Scotch whiskies, available globally at most specialist whisky retailers. Each year it offers a new theme to bring the true distillery character and unique whisky to life through evocative storytelling and beautifully designed packaging.

Prima & Ultima offers connoisseurs the opportunity to build a coherent collection of ultra-rare vintage Single Malts, each one a First and Last of its kind. Curated so far by myself, Dr. Jim Beveridge OBE and Maureen Robinson, Prima & Ultima is aimed at the community of private collectors looking to build an exquisite liquid library of outstanding quality, character and provenance.

Below are descriptions and tasting notes on the eight whisky expressions featured in this year’s Prima & Ultima releases from samples generously provided by Diageo.

Lagavulin, 1993, 28 YO, 50.1% ABV, 700 ml, $3,000

Lagavulin is among the best-known of Islay’s iconic distilleries. This bottling is a blend of the last two 1993 casks of Lagavulin. One cask was matured in a PX/Oloroso Sherry seasoned butt and the other in a refill American oak hogshead. A total of 642 bottles were filled.

On the nose, the whisky offers a classic aged Lagavulin nose of rich cold smoke, red and black fruits of cherry, raspberry and cassis/elderberry, and the savory maritime notes of salty air, seaweed and iodine. The characteristic medicinal notes are there but are less overt. The phenolic notes in Lagavulin become less pronounced, rounder, earthier, and better integrated as the whisky ages.

On the palate, there is the weight and oily viscosity typical of Lagavulin. It’s sweet and spicy. The Sherry cask influence is evident in the raisin, cherry and fig notes. There are additional notes of caramel, a bit of light molasses, some wood spice notes of cinnamon, and a touch of pepper, with a lingering savory note.

The finish is long and smooth, with a candied sweetness and the dried fruit, cold smoke and medicinal notes typical of Lagavulin.

Mannochmore, 1990, 31 YO, 45.1% ABV, 700 ml, £870/$1,000

Mannochmore is a Speyside distillery located near Elgin. With an output of 3.2 million liters, it is among the region’s largest. Its malt is a significant component of many Diageo blended whiskies, including its flagship, Johnnie Walker.

This bottling of Mannochmore is drawn from a single experimental batch, which was matured in refill ex-bourbon casks for a few years and then transferred to a very active virgin barrel of European oak. The result is a darkly colored, intensely flavored whisky. A total of 317 bottles were produced.

On the nose, there are pronounced citrus notes of dried and candied orange zest, bordering on English style, slightly bitter marmalade. There are additional aromas of golden raisin and just a hint of dried apricot, along with pronounced notes of well-seasoned oak, old leather, cinnamon spice and a touch of furniture wax.

On the palate, it’s slightly sweet and a bit drying. It’s fruity and spicy, with pronounced dried orange zest/marmalade flavors and spice notes of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. There is a very slight but lingering bitterness.

The finish is long, creamy and slightly drying, with lingering citrus and cinnamon notes and a mild but noticeable, bitter note on the end.

Talisker, 1984, 37 YO, 51.9% ABV, 700 ml, $3,500

The Talisker distillery is the oldest working whisky producer on the island of Skye. Until the opening of the Torabhaig distillery in 2017, it was the only producer. Historically, Talisker has been a peated whisky with a prominent maritime character and a trademark note of freshly ground black pepper on both the nose and the palate.

The whisky was matured in a combination of re-fill hogsheads made from ex-bourbon casks and one ex-Sherry European oak butt. A total of 968 bottles were filled.

On the nose, there is light smoke, followed by Talisker’s characteristic savory/maritime notes reminiscent of a beach at low tide. There are some fruity notes and the trademark Talisker black pepper.

On the palate, the whisky is smooth, oily and viscous, with a noticeable weight. It’s rich and fruity, with pronounced orchard fruit notes of apple and Asian pear, along with cold smoke, a savory/saline character, a bit of earthiness and a pronounced pepperiness that features both black pepper and chilis.

The finish is long, sweet and smoky, with a lingering pepperiness and a savory maritime note.

The Singleton of Glen Ord, 1987, 34 YO, 49.1% ABV, 700 ml, $1,200

Glen Ord is a Highland distillery located in the heart of Black Isle, north of Inverness. With a capacity of 5 million liters, it is among Diageo’s largest distilleries. It produces a 12 YO, 15 YO and 18 YO single malt bottling.

The single malt expressions of the Singleton of Glen Ord are reserved for export to Asia. The malt is also a component of many Diageo blended whiskies, including Bells and Johnnie Walker. This bottling is drawn from the last casks of 1987 Glen Ord. A total of 1,047 bottles were filled.

The Singleton of Glen Ord is a light, complex, layered whisky. It’s exceptionally floral and aromatic. It undergoes a long fermentation from a clear wort. The distillation is slow, maximizing the copper contact. Additionally, the water in the shell and tube condensers is run hot to slow down the condensation and further maximize the copper contact. Most of the condensation occurs in the after-coolers attached to the condensers. A high cut point also favors pronounced floral and fruity aromas.

It has pronounced notes of orchard fruit and newly cut hay on the nose, along with light peat notes of cold smoke and earth. There are additional aromas of caramel, cinnamon spice, vanilla and a bit of candied ginger.

The whisky is creamy and smooth on the palate, with a distinctive fruity sweetness of orchard fruit and a touch of tropical fruit notes. There are additional spice notes of cinnamon, nutmeg and some ginger.

The finish is long, smooth, sweet and fruity, with a mild but lingering ginger pepperiness.

Brora, 1981, 40 YO, 44.1% ABV, 700 ml, £9,000/$10,400

Brora is one of only a handful of distilleries that have been resurrected. Largely disassembled, it has been rebuilt and recently put back into production after being closed for almost four decades. Its historic whiskies are eagerly sought by collectors and command ultra-premium prices at auctions.

Historically, Brora made heavily peated whiskies, but according to Diageo, these bottlings are from whiskies produced shortly before the distillery was closed and were less peated. The lighter peating allows other flavors in Brora, particularly the fresh and candied fruit that sometimes shows up in Brora bottlings, to become more apparent — revealing a different side of the whisky. This bottling represents the last available 1981 Brora whisky and is drawn from a combination of American oak hogsheads and a Sherry butt. A total of 354 bottles were filled.

The whisky is very aromatic on the nose, with pronounced floral aromas of dried heather and a faint, lingering smokiness. There are also distinctive candle wax notes. Those waxy aromas stem partly from the rancio character of the ultra-aged whisky. Waxiness, however, has always been a characteristic of Brora whiskies regardless of their age. It’s a feature that it shares with its next-door neighbor, Clynelish.

The whisky is smooth, with a noticeable palate weight. It’s sweet and fruity, on the palate, with a discernible waxiness and a subtle smokiness. There is also a slight savory note. The finish is long and sweet, with lingering notes of nutmeg, light smoke and a mild pepperiness.

Royal Lochnagar 1981, 40 YO, 52.5% ABV, 700 ml, $6,000

Royal Lochnagar is the smallest of Diageo’s distilleries and one of its most photogenic. Located in the highlands, just a mile from Balmoral Castle, it received Queen Victoria’s first Royal Warrant for a whisky.

The whisky was matured in refill hogsheads of American oak. A total of 1,047 bottles were produced.

Royal Lochnagar is a very floral whisky, with distinctive aromas of honeysuckle, heather, lavender, jasmine and rose petal, along with notes of red and black fruits and rancio notes of wax and leather.

It’s smooth, creamy, honey sweet, with a noticeable palate weight featuring flavors of orchid and tropical fruits, lemon and orange citrus zest, and some malty/cereal notes. There are additional notes of caramel, some oak wood and spice flavors of cinnamon and ginger.

The finish is long, sweet and fruity, although slightly drying, with a pronounced and lingering spicy finish.

Port Ellen, 1980, 41 YO, 59.6% ABV, 700 ml, £9,550/$11,500

Port Ellen is another legendary distillery, which was dismantled and only recently rebuilt and returned to production. Collectors eagerly seek its iconic whiskies and pay premium prices for them. The 1980 Port Ellen is the oldest Port Ellen released by Diageo and represents the last of the 1980 stock. A total of 555 bottles were filled.

Although the still designs at Port Ellen and Lagavulin were different – Port Ellen’s stills were onion-shaped with tall necks while Lagavulin’s stills were squat and short-necked – the two distilleries shared a similar style. Unlike Lagavulin, however, Port Ellen tended to be a little smokier and more peppery and briny but slightly less medicinal and oily.

Although both distilleries used a similarly peated malt, the cut points at Port Ellen differed from those at Lagavulin. Port Ellen also tended to use less active, re-fill barrels, so the whiskies received less cask wood influences. That’s also why Port Ellen whiskies have been able to age for such a long time without getting overly woody.

There is smoke, dried seaweed and hints of brine on the nose. There is also an earthy, slightly herbal note and a touch of sweet tropical fruit.

The whisky is rich and smooth, with a distinctive candied sweetness on the palate. It’s savory and smoky, almost meaty, with notes of butterscotch, hints of dried tropical fruit, and a noticeable pepperiness. The finish is long, featuring sweet and salty caramel notes, cold smoke and a lingering, earthy peatiness.

Cragganmore, 1973, 48YO, 44.8% ABV, 700 ml, £5,950/$7,000

Cragganmore is among the smallest of Diageo’s Speyside distilleries. Its production is around 1.2 million liters. Historically, most of its production was earmarked for the Old Parr and White Horse blends, but it has been increasingly bottled as a single malt.

Cragganmore is an extraordinarily complex and layered whisky that is hugely underappreciated. This 48-YO expression of Cragganmore is the oldest ever released. A total of 351 bottles were filled.

The whisky is very aromatic on the nose, featuring aromas of fresh grapes/wine must, almond/marzipan and stone and tropical fruits.

On the palate, it’s sweet and very creamy. There are notes of candied orange zest, some caramel, dried tropical fruits, especially mango, stone fruit notes of peach and nectarine, cassis and some slight milk chocolate notes. The finish is long, sweet, nutty and fruity, with a slight lingering tartness.

This year’s Prima & Ultima releases live up to their name. The bottlings represent among the last casks available of each of these expressions. In many cases, they are also the oldest expression of the whisky that Diageo has ever released.

They are certainly not cheap. The entire collection of eight bottles will run you about $45,000. Individual bottles are priced between $1,000 and $12,000. The indicated pricing is Diageo’s suggested retail price. Actual pricing may differ.

The Mannochmore, Brora, Port Ellen, and Cragganmore expressions will not be available in the US but can possibly be purchased via UK mail order vendors.

American whisky enthusiasts interested in acquiring the US releases can register their interest with Diageo. Additional information and European registration can be found on Diageo’s dedicated Prima & Ultima website.

These are one-of-a-kind whiskies, part of Scotland’s whisky heritage. If you can afford it, grab one. You’re unlikely ever to have another chance.

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