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Trade War Expands with Whisky as a Weapon

Updated June 5, 2018 – Mexico has now joined the whiskey trade war of 2018, imposing new 25 percent import tariffs on Bourbon imported from the United States in retaliation for the Trump Administration’s new tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. Reuters reports the tariffs were announced in the government’s official gazette, and will take effect immediately along with new tariffs on a wide range of other agricultural products.

Mexico now joins Canada and the European Union in targeting Bourbon with new tariffs of 25 percent, while the EU will impose that tariff against all types of American whiskies. The EU’s tariffs could take effect as early as June 20, while the Canadian tariffs will take effect July 1 following a 15-day consultation period for its citizens to comment on potential changes to the list.

After weeks of posturing by all sides, the United States moved forward Thursday with its steel and aluminum tariffs on imports from the European Union, Canada, and Mexico. Thursday’s announcement in Washington both surprised and enraged leaders in Brussels, Ottawa, and Mexico City, and the tariffs are expected to be a point of contention when U.S. President Donald Trump attends the G-7 Summit this weekend in Quebec.

“The United States now leaves us with no choice but to proceed with a WTO dispute settlement case and with the imposition of additional duties on a number of imports from the United States,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in a statement released after the U.S. announcement. The EU also intends to file a case against the U.S. at the World Trade Organization seeking to have the tariffs ruled a violation of international trade regulations.

While the Trump Administration’s sanctions are intended to help the struggling U.S. steel industry, the American whiskey industry stands to pay the price. Bourbon, Tennessee, and other American-made whiskies accounted for 68 percent of U.S. spirits exports during 2017, according to U.S. Commerce Department data compiled by the Distilled Spirits Council. 2017’s American whiskey exports added up to more than a billion dollars for the first time, but a look at the leading spirits export markets explains why American-made whiskies are being targeted for retaliation.

The top U.S. spirits export markets by value in 2017. Graphic ©2018, Mark Gillespie/CaskStrength Media.

Canada is the largest single export market for U.S. spirits, while six of the top ten countries are EU member nations. Whiskey exports to Canada rose 7.3 percent during the first quarter of this year compared to the same period in 2017, according to Commerce Department export data supplied by the Distilled Spirits Council. According to the trade group, American-made whiskies accounted for 85 percent of 2017’s spirits exports to the 28 European Union member nations, with a value of $667 million. In a prepared statement, Council executives expressed hope for a quick resolution.

“We hope the United States and its trading partners can resolve their differences without subjecting U.S. whiskey exports to retaliatory tariffs.  A trade war will harm consumers, the hospitality sector, small businesses and U.S. farmers that grow the grains used to produce iconic U.S. whiskeys that are enjoyed around the world.”

The retaliatory sanctions were designed to create political pressure on the Trump Administration, with products selected for their links to politically sensitive regions. Kentucky is the largest producer and exporter of Bourbon, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell addressed the dispute during a speech Friday in Louisville.

“I don’t think anything good will come out of a trade war, and I hope we pull back from the brink here,” he said. “These tariffs will not be good for the economy, and I worry that it will slow, or impede significantly, the progress we’re making economically,” McConnell said in a quote by Louisville Business First.

The state’s distillers have an $8.5 billion annual impact on Kentucky’s economy, and Kentucky Distillers Association president Eric Gregory called on politicians from all sides to reach a common-sense solution. “We remain hopeful that continued negotiations will avoid a costly trade war and protect our allies and partnerships around the world, which will continue to benefit spirits producers and consumers for years to come,” he said in a statement posted on the KDA’s web site.

The other shoe has yet to drop. President Trump has threatened to impose additional tariffs on imported products from Europe, Canada, and Mexico to return fire for their retaliatory tariffs, setting up the potential for even more damage to the global whisky industry. The United States is the largest export market for Canadian Whisky and Irish Whiskey, and is the largest export market for Scotch Whisky by value (France is the largest by volume). Should the Trump Administration choose to impose “like-for-like” tariffs in response to the Canadian and EU tariffs, whisky makers in those countries could face significant price increases in the U.S. market.

Irish Whiskey Association president William Lavelle told WhiskyCast that his group is urging the Irish government and EU officials in Brussels to consider the potential economic impact of its proposed tariffs before imposing them, while defending the need to respond to the US actions.

“Irish Whiskey is the fastest-growing spirits category in the world. We’re selling in 135 markets globally, but the US remains our biggest single market, so anything that threatens free trade with the United States is something we’re wary of, something we’re very cautious about and concerned about, and we are hoping we can avoid slipping into a trade war between the EU and the US on whiskey,” he said. The entire interview with William Lavelle can be heard in Episode 703 of WhiskyCast, available at WhiskyCast.com.

This story will be updated with additional information as necessary.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new details on Mexico’s tariffs and additional information.

Links: Distilled Spirits Council | Kentucky Distillers Association | Irish Whiskey Association

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Diageo Juggles Distillery Managers Ahead of Port Ellen & Brora Revivals

May 24, 2018 – As thousands of whisky lovers descend on Islay for the annual Feis Ile, the Islay Festival of Malt & Music, Diageo’s Lagavulin Distillery will likely be one of their early stops. Lagavulin traditionally hosts the first distillery day of the festival on its opening Saturday, but this will be the final open day for distillery manager Georgie Crawford. After the Feis ends next weekend, the native Ileach will step aside at Lagavulin and move a couple of miles down the road to Port Ellen, where she will become the project manager for Diageo’s revival of the Port Ellen Distillery.

When we interviewed her 18 months ago, Crawford expressed a desire to become Lagavulin’s longest-serving manager. “One of them had actually over 40 years of service, and so at my tasting we had (in 2016 for the distillery’s 200th anniversary), 200 of us did the tasting together…one of them was the head of distillation and maturation for Diageo Scotland, so I maybe made a point about him being 40 years and doing his job, and you know, you don’t really need to keep rotating managers,” she said with a laugh.

Georgie Crawford photographed on Islay in October, 2016. Photo ©2016, Mark Gillespie/CaskStrength Media.

That man was Keith Miller, who selected Crawford to head up the much-anticipated revival of Port Ellen announced last autumn. The distillery was dismantled after it closed in 1983, and a number of the buildings have been demolished since then. However, the malt kiln and many of the maturation warehouses are still intact and will form the basis for the revival of production expected in 2020.

With all of the work ahead of Saturday’s opening day for the Feis, Crawford was unavailable for an interview. In a Diageo news release, she said “It has been a real privilege to be the Lagavulin Distillery Manager and to work with the fantastic team there for so many years. However, the opportunity to bring Port Ellen Distillery back into production truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I am thrilled to take it on.”

Colin Gordon photographed at the Port Ellen Maltings in October, 2016. Photo ©2016, Mark Gillespie/CaskStrength Media.

Crawford will be succeeded at Lagavulin by Colin Gordon, who moves over from his present role managing the Port Ellen Maltings next to the old distillery. This will be Gordon’s first assignment as a distillery manager – as it was for Crawford when she moved back to Islay several years ago after more than 20 years on the Scottish mainland. In the Diageo statement, Keith Miller touted Gordon as one of the company’s rising young managers.

“Running Lagavulin Distillery is one of the most highly prized jobs in Scotch whisky and I am delighted to appoint Colin Gordon to the role. Colin is one of our most promising young whisky-makers and he has built up terrific experience and skill in his time with Diageo. I know he will do a great job leading the team at Lagavulin.”

In addition to the moves on Islay, Diageo also announced that Stewart Bowman will become the project manager for the Brora Distillery revival. Bowman is currently part of the management team at Clynelish Distillery, located just across the road from the Brora site in the Highlands. Like Port Ellen, Brora was closed in 1983, and the remaining whiskies from both distilleries have become highly sought after by whisky lovers. Bowman will make his first public appearance as the project manager during a community meeting scheduled for June 5.

Links: Diageo

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The Macallan Opens New £140 Million Distillery

The exterior of The Macallan distillery in Scotland. Photo by Ian Gavan courtesy Edrington.
May 22, 2018
– With a laser light show over the Speyside countryside that apparently had some people in the area fearing an alien invasion, Edrington opened the doors Monday night on the new home of The Macallan, a £140 million ($188 million USD) state of the art distillery adjacent to the old distillery along the River Spey. The project took more than six years from concept to completion, and is part of an overall £500 million ($671 million USD) investment by Edrington in its flagship single malt whisky brand.

“The distillery itself is an architectural marvel,” said The Macallan Creative Director Ken Grier. London-based architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners designed the building, which was cut into the rolling slope of the landscape and uses one of the most complex timber roof structures in the world. The interior is approximately 161,000 square feet (14,960 square metres), and its 36 stills will eventually allow The Macallan to increase annual production by a third to around 14.6 million liters of spirit. The old distillery, which was mothballed after the new stills were commissioned in late 2017, produced around 11 million liters annually at peak output.

Several of the 36 stills inside The Macallan's new distillery in Scotland. Photo by Ian Gavan courtesy Edrington.

The formal opening of the new distillery was delayed until completion of the distillery’s new visitors center, which will open to the public June 2. Tours will be limited to 12 people at a time, and and will span the length of the distillery with a glass wall separating visitors from the production process.

“It’s a true marvel, because you have this incredible glass window, which gives you this uninterrupted view of the River Spey, you have this connection to the (Easter Elchies) house back through the cut from the distillery to our spiritual home, and of course, you have this incredible bar that sits right next to these three wonderful still sets – each with 12 stills in them. So, you have this fantastic flow – this great aesthetic connection in the whole building,” Grier said in a telephone interview for the next episode of WhiskyCast.

The facility was designed to replicate the spirit produced at the old distillery as precisely as possible, though parts of the process were changed after extensive research. While the old distillery used three “waters,” or soaking runs in the process of “mashing” its barley to extract starches, the new facility will use four runs. However, the process was designed with no net increase in water usage from the distillery’s underground spring. In addition, Edrington estimates as much as 95 percent of the distillery’s energy needs will come from sustainable sources, with an on-site biomass energy conversion plant and power generated from the Rothes Distillers cooperative in Glenrothes. That facility takes spent grains products from area distilleries and burns it along with wood chips to generate electricity.

Links: The Macallan

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Redbreast Makes Dreams Come True with “Dream Cask” Irish Whiskey

May 8, 2018 – Fans of Redbreast Irish Whiskey have been dreaming for the past year about a certain cask of whiskey maturing in a warehouse at Midleton Distillery in County Cork, Ireland. Irish Distillers Master Blender Billy Leighton unveiled the Redbreast “Dream Cask” on May 20, 2017 during an online tasting for World Whisky Day, with samples sent to lucky members of The Birdhouse, Redbreast’s affinity group for the brand’s fans. Since then, those who were able to try the whiskey have been pleading for a chance to get their hands on more.

Irish Distillers announced today that those pleas – and dreams – are being answered – albeit on a very limited basis.  816 bottles of the 32-year-old Redbreast Dream Cask will be made available exclusively to members of The Birdhouse at a price of €500 ($594 USD) per 500ml bottle, with notifications to go out to members in countries where available. The bottling will not be available in the United States, where federal regulations do not allow the sale of 500ml bottles.

The Redbreast Dream Cask Irish Whiskey. Image courtesy Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard.

The Dream Cask started out in October, 1985 as Midleton single pot still spirit filled into refill ex-Bourbon barrels, and in 2011, the whiskey from those barrels was moved into a first-fill Oloroso Sherry butt. That cask was tapped last year after 31 years of maturation for samples used in the World Whisky Day tasting, but the remaining whiskey was kept in the cask for another year of maturation.

Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Billy Leighton:


In an interview for the midweek episode of WhiskyCast, Billy Leighton explained the inspiration that came from the release in 2013 of the Redbreast 21-year-old edition.

“We made a bit of a deal about the Sherry component in Redbreast 21, so we had a look at our stocks to see if there was anything still there from the batch of Sherry casks that we used for the very first Redbreast 21, and there were some of them still there. We sampled a few of them…this cask that we picked kind of stood out from the rest of them because of its overall roundness and fullness of flavor. To be honest, for a single cask offering, for it to be Sherry, I would tend to not go for a first-fill Sherry cask because it can be very overpowering. This one, it had everything, it was round, full of that fruity character, but still had that typical pot still spicy character there…it just ticked all the boxes,” he said.

Tasting notes for the Redbreast Dream Cask are available at WhiskyCast.com.

Links: Redbreast


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A Craft Distiller’s Last Call

James Yoakum opened Cooper River Distillers in 2014 in the heart of Camden, New Jersey – just wanting to make good whiskies and rum. He and his team did just that, but they learned an important lesson along the way: size matters. They couldn’t make enough whiskey and rum to meet the demand, but they also couldn’t make enough money to expand the distillery. Faced with that dilemma, Yoakum decided to close the distillery with one final Kentucky Derby party on May 5, 2018.

Links: Cooper River Distillers

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Rare Find Goes on Display at Glenfarclas Distillery

May 2, 2018 – There’s something to be said for looking carefully in the back of old cupboards, closets, and trunks, because one never knows just what might turn up. One of those “cupboard treasures” will go on display at Scotland’s Glenfarclas Distillery during this year’s Spirit of Speyside Festival, after the family-owned distillery acquired the oldest known unopened bottle of Glenfarclas single malt in existence.

A vintage bottle of Glenfarclas single malt Scotch Whisky acquired by the distillery for its archive. Image courtesy Glenfarclas.

The vintage bottle of Glenfarclas single malt Scotch Whisky acquired by the distillery for its archive. Image courtesy Glenfarclas.

While the exact year the whisky was distilled is not known, it has been documented that the bottle was produced in either 1919 or 1920, according to Deborah Stewart of Glenfarclas. “It was given to a Mr. Stephen Dowell, who was the manager of the long-closed Gartloch Distillery down Glasgow direction,” she said in a telephone interview. “That distillery actually closed in 1920, so the bottle was given to him as a gift when the distillery was closed to thank him for his work as manager there.” Dowell held on to the bottle until 1947, when it was passed on to his daughter, who then gave it to Hugh Taylor, her niece’s husband, in 1988 after being hidden away for years. According to Stewart, one of Dowell’s granddaughters found the bottle that year in the back of a laundry cupboard wrapped in a tea towel.

Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Deborah Stewart:

Taylor’s family contacted the distillery recently to see whether it would have any interest in the bottle. Since Glenfarclas has been owned by the Grant family for more than 150 years, the whisky would have been produced by current managing director John Grant’s grandfather. Grant authenticated the bottle last month and acquired it for the distillery’s archives. In a statement, Grant said “I am delighted to bring this bottle containing whisky from the time of my grandfather back to it’s spiritual home, and as such add another chapter to our archive.”

The bottle will be on display only through the festival weekend, as conditions in the distillery’s visitors center are not optimal for preserving such a rare whisky. “We’ll risk it over the weekend, but unfortunately, it’s a bit too warm in the visitors center and a bit too bright…the bottle’s in great condition, but the label’s not perfect any more, and we don’t want it to deteriorate any further,” Stewart said. The bottle will be moved to John Grant’s private archive for long-term storage, and will not return to the visitors center unless an archival display for it can be built.

Of course, with the distillery under family ownership, there’s nothing to rule out extracting a small amount of whisky from the bottle with a syringe to see what it tastes like.

“He could absolutely do that,” Stewart said with a laugh.

Links: Glenfarclas

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Plans Announced for Another Islay Whisky Distillery

April 27, 2018 – Scotland’s “whisky island” of Islay has around 3,000 residents, and could soon have eleven malt whisky distilleries. Elixir Distillers, the London-based independent bottler owned by The Whisky Exchange founders Sukhinder and Raj Singh, disclosed plans Wednesday night to seek planning approval for a new distillery to be located between Port Ellen and the Laphroaig Distillery on the island’s southern coast.

Elixir Distillers co-founder Sukhinder Singh. File photo ©2018, Mark Gillespie/CaskStrength Media.

Elixir Distillers co-founder Sukhinder Singh.

Sukhinder Singh announced the project at a public consultation held in Port Ellen’s Ramsay Hall, and has been working on the project for several years. Through a spokesperson, Singh declined a WhiskyCast interview request until after the planning proposal is submitted for approval, but said in a news release “as soon as I saw the distillery site I fell in love with it. It’s on the holy grail of whisky roads, passing Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg distilleries on the way to Kildalton Cross. Plus it’s in the town of Port Ellen, which as a collector of Port Ellen single malt, has a special meaning. It was just too good to resist.” The proposed site is along the A846 road just east of the Port Ellen Primary School.

The coast of Islay between Port Ellen and the Laphroaig Distillery, where Elixir Distillers plans to seek planning approval to build the island's newest malt whisky distillery. Image courtesy Google Earth.

The coast of Islay between Port Ellen and the Laphroaig Distillery, where Elixir Distillers plans to seek planning approval to build the island’s newest malt whisky distillery. Image courtesy Google Earth.

While an architect’s rendering of the proposed distillery was released, no other details have been made available, nor has a name for the distillery been disclosed. Sukhinder Singh has said in the past that he would like to have a distillery on Islay to ensure future supplies of malt whisky for Elixir, which currently bottles the Elements of Islay single malt series using casks from the eight distilleries currently operating on the island. Elixir also produces the Port Askaig single malt using whisky from an undisclosed Islay distillery, widely reputed to be Caol Ila.

The company’s timeline calls for construction to begin in early 2019 assuming that planning approval is received by the end of this year, with distilling to begin the following year. That would make it Islay’s tenth distillery following the opening later this year of Hunter Laing & Co.’s Ardnahoe Distillery near Port Askaig. In addition, Diageo is currently working on plans to reopen its Port Ellen Distillery, which was closed in 1983. The project was announced last October, and is also pending approval from the Argyll & Bute Council. However, while the distilling equipment was dismantled after it was closed, the owners never relinquished the water rights or the original designation of the site for use as a distillery and continue to use the maturation warehouses and many of the distillery buildings, meaning the approval process should be fairly routine. On the other hand, the Elixir Distillers project is being built from the ground up on previously undeveloped land and will likely require a more extensive review process.

This story will be updated with additional information as available.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show the site of the proposed distillery with information provided by Elixir Distillers.

Links: Elixir Distillers | Argyll & Bute Council

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Gordon & MacPhail Relaunches Single Malts Portfolio

April 16, 2018 – Gordon & MacPhail has long been one of Scotland’s leading independent whisky bottlers, producing around 300 different bottlings each year under 12 different ranges. 50 years after second-generation scion George Urquhart created the Connoisseurs Choice range, that range will be at the heart of the family-owned company’s portfolio relaunch that will reduce the 12 ranges to just five.

“Going forward, we will be able to basically create a lot more simplicity and use only five ranges to keep our offerings a bit tighter,” said Stephen Rankin, the company’s Director of Prestige and one of the fourth-generation family members leading Gordon & MacPhail. He acknowledged the current portfolio had become confusing for consumers, and the restructuring is intended to eliminate that confusion.

“It’s all about becoming even more meaningful to the consumer, ultimately,” Rankin said in a telephone interview. The Connoisseurs Choice range has largely focused on single malt bottlings from distilleries that are not widely available as distillery-issued bottlings, and will continue that focus with an eye to whisky aficionados. Recommended retail prices will vary by market, but will range depending on the specific whisky from $70 USD to $500 USD.

Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Stephen Rankin:


The range will also be the first to use a new bottle and label design that will also be used for the new “Discovery Range” and a new “Discovery Labels” range to be introduced soon. For the Connoisseurs Choice range, gold labels will denote “standard” bottlings, while gray labels will be used for cask-strength bottlings and a red label will be used for whiskies that have been finished in wine or other casks.

A comparison of the new Connoisseurs Choice packaging (L) with the current design (R). Images courtesy Gordon & MacPhail.

A comparison of the new Connoisseurs Choice packaging (L) with the current design (R). Images courtesy Gordon & MacPhail.

The “Discovery Range” will come from Gordon & MacPhail’s extensive inventory of casks from distilleries around Scotland, with labels denoting them as either smoky, ex-Sherry Cask, or ex-Bourbon cask malts. While not describing it as an “entry-level” range, Rankin does acknowledge that it will serve as an introduction to the Gordon & MacPhail portfolio.

“As the consumer comes into whisky, they will begin to understand what style of whisky they begin to like,” said Rankin. “For example, is it that sweeter Bourbon-style maturation that they’re enjoying, is it a richer Sherry-style maturation they’re enjoying, or are they enjoying the smokier components from a whisky? Well, the Discovery Range will actually help people go ‘you know what, I really like that one and I understood it was sweeter, so right, I’m going to try this section here which is Bourbon-matured whiskies.'”

The “Distillery Labels” range will bring together single malts from distilleries Gordon & MacPhail has been bottling under its own labels for many years, such as Linkwood, Mortlach, and the “George & J.G. Smith’s” Glenlivet. The company has agreements with many distilleries to have its own casks filled with new make spirit and matured either at the distillery or in Gordon & MacPhail’s own maturation warehouses in the Elgin area.

Gordon & MacPhail will also be giving its Private Collection range a facelift later this year with new packaging. The Private Collection label is reserved for single cask bottlings that are at least 35 years old and bottled at cask strength, with the most recent example being the 1956 Linkwood released last month. The “Generations” range will continue to be reserved for the oldest whiskies in the company’s inventory, with only four bottlings released since the 2010 debut of that range with a 70-year-old Mortlach. Since then, two 70-year-old Glenlivet casks were released in 2011 and 2012, and a 75-year-old Mortlach cask was released in 2015. No plans have been disclosed for the next release in that series.

Links: Gordon & MacPhail

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Diageo Planning £150 Million Investment in Scotch Whisky Tourism

April 16, 2018 – With Scotch Whisky-related tourism at record highs, Diageo has announced plans to invest £150 million pounds ($214.9 million USD) in upgrades to its visitors centers at 12 malt whisky distilleries around Scotland over the next three years. The project also will include the first-ever brand home for Johnnie Walker to be built in Edinburgh leading up to the brand’s 200th anniversary in 2020.

In a Diageo news release, Global Scotch Whisky Director Cristina Diezhandino said “new generations of consumers around the world are falling in love with Scotch and they want to experience it in the place where it is made and meet the people who make it. This investment will ensure that the people we attract to Scotland from around the world go home as life-long ambassadors for Scotch and for Scotland.”

A warehouse book exhibit at Caol Ila Distillery on Islay. Photo ©2018, Mark Gillespie/CaskStrength Media.

A warehouse book exhibit at Caol Ila Distillery on Islay. Photo ©2018, Mark Gillespie/CaskStrength Media.

More than 440,000 visitors stopped at the 12 distilleries in 2017, up 15.2 percent from the previous year. While all 12 distilleries will have upgrades to their visitor facilities, Diageo plans to emphasize what company executives are referring to as the “Four Corners” distilleries: Glenkinchie, Caol Ila, Clynelish, and Cardhu. The Speyside distillery has been referred to as the “home” of Johnnie Walker for many years because of its links to the John Walker & Sons family as the first distillery they purchased from the Cumming family in 1893. However, all four distilleries now contribute a significant amount of their annual production to the various Johnnie Walker expressions, and the expansion plan calls for them to be “linked directly” to the new Johnnie Walker center in Edinburgh. Diageo is likely to draw upon its experience with recent upgrades to the Guinness Storehouse experience in Dublin, which has become one of Ireland’s leading tourist attractions with more than 1.7 million visitors annually.

Specific plans for each distillery, along with a location for the Edinburgh center, were not disclosed in the Diageo announcement. However, the announcement also touted Diageo’s plans to use that facility to expand its “Learning for Life” program aimed at creating hospitality sector jobs for young Scots, which began in 2012 and has helped provide job training for more than 1,000 previously unemployed people. The company will also set up a separate scholarship and mentoring program for young entrepreneurs with a special emphasis on residents of Kilmarnock, which was John Walker’s home town and remained the primary bottling site for Johnnie Walker until the plant was closed in 2010.

In addition to the planned upgrades at the “Four Corners” distilleries, the visitors centers at Lagavulin, Talisker, Royal Lochnagar, Oban, Glen Ord, Dalwhinnie, Blair Athol, and Cragganmore will also be upgraded. There are also plans to open a new visitors center at the Port Ellen Distillery when it reopens after being closed since 1983 along with Brora Distillery. However, since that distillery is directly across the road from Clynelish, it is likely that Brora will share the upgraded facilities with Clynelish.

WhiskyCast has requested interviews with Diageo executives to get more information about the project. This story will be updated with additional details as they become available.

Links: Diageo | DiscoveringDistilleries.com

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No Port Ellen, Brora In Diageo’s 2018 Special Releases

April 13, 2018 – Diageo has unveiled nine of the ten whiskies that will be released later this year in its annual Special Releases series of limited-edition Scotch whiskies. However, two cornerstones of the 18-year-old range are missing from the initial announcement: the venerated Port Ellen and Brora distilleries. While one of them could appear as the final whisky in the 2018 series, which Diageo plans to reveal as a “surprise” closer to the release date, this will be the first time in many years that both distilleries will not be included in the Classic Malts Special Releases series.

“Port Ellen and Brora have become so, so unbelievably rare and precious that what we see is the opportunity to take it out of the Special Releases and really give it its own platform,” said Diageo Global Brand Ambassador Donald Colville in a telephone interview. “We will be doing releases of Port Ellen and Brora throughout the year…we just won’t be doing them under the banner of the Special Releases because they’re almost taking a step away in terms of price, in terms of rarity, in terms of what they are…they’re no longer really in line with what the Special Releases are and always were to be about a range of affordable to expensive single malts, ” he said.

Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Donald Colville:

Port Ellen 37 Years Old 2017 Release. Image courtesy Diageo.

The 2017 Port Ellen from the Special Releases series. Image courtesy Diageo.


The spirits giant announced plans last October to bring both distilleries back to life after they were closed in 1983 by Diageo predecessor DCL. Port Ellen’s equipment was removed from the Islay distillery, while Brora’s was kept largely intact. Vintage single malts from both distilleries have traditionally been among the rarest and highest-priced releases in the series, with the 2017 Special Releases lineup including the oldest Port Ellen yet, a 37-year-old single malt distilled in 1979, and a 34-year-old Brora from 1982. Colville acknowledged that the reopening of both distilleries gave Diageo executives a chance to re-evaluate their ongoing role in the Special Releases series.

As for the nine whiskies announced today, the oldest is a 48-year-old Carsebridge single grain from yet another one of the distilleries that closed in 1983 during an industry-wide restructuring in the wake of excess inventory and slumping sales. The Lowlands grain distillery had been a fixture in Scotch Whisky history since opening at the turn of the 19th Century, and was one of the six original distilleries that made up DCL.

Caol Ila has been represented in the series several times with a rare unpeated Islay single malt, and will have a 15-year-old unpeated malt this year along with a rare 35-year-old malt bottled at 58.1% ABV. Lagavulin will once again have a 12-year-old bottling, while Talisker will have its youngest age-stated release in many years with an 8-year-old edition. Colville described it as a throwback to when the Walker family and its partners in DCL acquired the distillery in 1916 and started bottling Talisker as an 8-year-old whisky.

Speyside distilleries Inchgower and Pittyvaich will have 27 and 28-year-old whiskies respectively, while a 21-year-old Oban and 14-year-old Singleton of Glen Ord will represent the Highlands.

Pricing and market availability for the nine whiskies announced today was not disclosed, and will be revealed closer to the release this autumn. In the past, not all of the whiskies in the series have been made available in the United States, which requires the use of 750ml bottles while almost all other markets use the European Union standard 700ml bottle size.

Editor’s note: This story was updated following an interview with Diageo’s Donald Colville.

Links: Classic Malts


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