Special measures: Inside Diageo’s Casks of Distinction

Words by
Joel Harrison

9th June 2021

Sold exclusively to Diageo’s private clients, only truly unique and very rare Scotch whiskies will find a home in the spirit specialist’s programme

Scotch whisky is not just a drink, it is a story in a glass. From fields of barley through to white-washed-walled distilleries, the final twist in the tale is the magic of maturation, the alchemy that happens in the cask, where liquid gold is made.

This spirit can’t be called “Scotch whisky” until it has slumbered in an oak cask for a minimum of three years, yet it rests often for much longer. And here, in warehouses across Scotland, is where the magic really happens.

It is the job of an oak cask to mature the spirit from a whisky distillery over time, ensuring it develops a golden hue and complex character, and delivers a delicious whisky. 

Special measures: Inside Diageo’s Casks of Distinction
Oak casks give whiskies their unique character

This elemental aspect of whisky-making is crucial to the development of single malt. With each cask being unique, maturing in its own way, the result is a kaleidoscope of casks resting in Scotland’s whisky warehouses. Much of this whisky will be destined for use in famous-name blends. Some will be reserved by the distilleries themselves, combined with other casks from the same distillery, with the same lineage, and bottled as a single malt, to represent the unique qualities of that distillery.

Yet there will be some casks that are anointed as particularly special, that have developed exceptional character and personality, flavour and quality. Casks that stand out; casks of distinction.

And with more than 10 million casks of maturing Scotch whisky, the biggest portfolio of whisky in Scotland, Diageo has an incredible depth and breadth of casks, yet finding those with extra-special qualities is not an easy task.

Special measures: Inside Diageo’s Casks of Distinction
Diageo selects only the very finest casks

James Mackay, Head of Rare and Collectable Spirits at Diageo knows this only too well. “We look for the exceptional,” he says. “That the cask is an exceptional example of a distillery’s style, or that it’s exceptional as it’s not the normal style — but incredible quality is the ultimate factor.”

Those that are discovered to be exceptional are anointed to become part of Diageo’s Casks of Distinction programme, where those special, old, very rare and entirely unique and individual casks find a home.

With more than 10 million casks of maturing Scotch whisky, Diageo has an incredible depth and breadth of casks, yet finding those with extra-special qualities is not an easy task

These rare casks are sold directly to clients via Diageo’s network of private client teams and partners, which, in the UK, is through Justerini & Brooks, the St James’s-based, Royal Warrant-holding fine wine and spirits merchants.

With each Cask of Distinction bottled individually as a unique whisky — typically just a few hundred bottles — this makes the whiskies among the rarest and hardest to find in the world, known only to the top tier of experts and collectors. They can only be purchased from a tiny number of well-connected specialists, including Justerini & Brooks.

“These really are trophy assets, the purest expression of a single malt or single grain whisky’s distinctive quality and character. These bottles are liquid history and selected and designed for those who want to appreciate this side of Scotch,” says Tod Bradbury, Head of Rare & Collectable Whiskies at Justerini & Brooks.

Special measures: Inside Diageo’s Casks of Distinction
Lagavulin hails from the Isle of Islay

“Only the rarest, most exceptional whiskies are deemed worthy of inclusion in the programme, hand-selected by an incredible team of experts from the largest selection of maturing stocks in the business. Of all the Scotch whiskies available today, these are my personal favourites,” he says.

Bottles that have been made available in this venerable collection of rare malts are indeed once-in-a-lifetime releases, such as a 37-year-old Port Ellen from 1981. This single malt, from a highly sought-after closed, or “ghost” Islay distillery —now soon to return — is just one example of the gems that have been uncovered.

Special measures: Inside Diageo’s Casks of Distinction
Dufftown distillery in Banffshire

Another top example of the depth within the collection is a Carsebridge 44-year-old single grain whisky. The chosen cask yielded just 81 bottles and is from another closed distillery. The 1976 vintage has creamy notes of vanilla with a hint of oak spice, with apples, pear drops and notes of toffee.

According to Knight Frank — which compiles a Rare Whisky Index with the help of specialist consultancy Rare Whisky 101 that tracks the auction results of a basket of rare Scottish single malts — the index rose by 11% in the year between April 2019 and April 2020. Widen this out to the past decade and growth has been a staggering 586%. Scotch continues to grow in status and respect around the world and, like the casks in the warehouses of Scotland, two centuries into its own story, Scotch is not just surviving, but thriving.

For more information on Casks of Distinction please contact Tod Branbury of Justerini & Brooks: [email protected]

Diageo is one of the official partners of Sphere's summer 2021 issue. diageo.com