Updated: Jan 6
The 2014 Diageo Special Releases, a time before mystical creatures and a whole lot of storytelling ~ (Image Source: WhiskyNotes)
There was a time when the Diageo Special Releases didn’t involve mystical characters; wolves, elves, dragons, you name it. In fact, the Special Releases range was born out of a successful run of Diageo’s Rare Malt Selection, which itself was also a relaunch of The Classic Malts and at the time Diageo was known as United Distillers. We’d be taking a page out of Alice in Wonderland if we were to jump down that rabbit hole and trace the back story of United Distillers, so that’ll be for another day. The point is this select range has existed for awhile and whose objective is to shine a spotlight on some lesser known distilleries.
And to that end, it has more than achieved its purpose. Before the series, which is usually unveiled annually its curated lineup, the world hardly appreciated the likes of Port Ellen or Brora – now considered to be of legendary status.
The Rare Malts Selection was released to showcase the expansive array of distilleries under Diageo's stable, many of which enjoyed little fanfare at the time. Things have changed since, and the world has come to recognise the high quality of some of these malts, such as Brora and Port Ellen, albeit alittle too late. (Image Source: Whisky Auctioneer)
Today, the whisky world is that much more knowledgeable of what’s out there and so there’s less value in Diageo attempting to retain its original goal spotlighting some lesser known malts. Instead, the spirits giant now focuses on telling stories through these premium malts, be it through different cask experimentations or perhaps mythical creatures on its labels.
But for today, let’s turn back the clock and go back to some of the earlier days on the Special Releases and discover another distillery that has now garnered something of a cult following – Rosebank.
Back in the day, distilleries were nowhere nearly as picturesque as they are today. None of that visitor experience centers that we enjoy today. They were purely treated as workhorses for popular blends such as Johnnie Walker, before the movement towards appreciating the individual single malts that make up these blends. (Image Source: Scotch Whisky.com)
Much like Port Ellen and Brora, Rosebank owes its allure in no small part to its mothballed status as a distillery. There’s something about never knowing what you have till it’s gone – that applies unsurprisingly to whiskies as well.
Collectors and fans alike relish tasting drams of the sacred trio because they know each ml they consume, is another ml wiped off from the history books. Once drunk, it’s gone. That is until Diageo reopens them in 2022, I suppose. But you get the idea, there’s a real scarcity value here because these distilleries no longer exists and the stocks remaining are what is left of them – no more to be produced in their original form.
The new refurbished Rosebank Distillery set to reopen in 2022. (Image Source: The Spirits Business)
The distillery was founded on the banks of a waterway known as Forth & Clyde, which supplied water needed for whiskymaking. When the waterway became defunct due to poor upkeep and persistent choking issues, the then owner refused to pay for an upgrade, resulting in its closure. There was at one point, a lifeline that could have saved Rosebank, had it been chosen by United Distillers (later renamed Diageo) to be included in its Classic Malts Selection, but the spirits giant instead went with another Lowland distillery, Glenkinchie, as the Rosebank’s proximity to a stagnant canal made it a poor tourist attraction.
Lowland malts have not been particularly popular with drinkers and have largely been overpowered by the oomph that's been served by Islay and Speyside malts. (Image Source: Paste Magazine)
One aspect that’s always intrigued me about Rosebank is its commendable achievement as a Lowland malt. Now, don’t get me wrong, the location itself is not an issue, but Lowland malts tend to be much more mellow and malty, as opposed to your average Islay or Speyside malt where “bigger is better” – y’know really strong, bold, intense flavors galore. Consequently, the Lowland malts have found it hard to be the flavor of the decade even. As the hit TV-series Friendstheme song goes, “It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear. When it hasn’t been your day, your week, your month, or even your year”.
As such, you can understand the remarkable feat that Rosebank has achieved, ironically long after they’re gone. Which is I suppose the fate of many an artist. But it is Rosebank’s characteristic gentle floral bouquet, light fruitiness and soft malty tones that has certainly allowed this special little Lowland malt to build its enviable reputation upon. Perhaps just a couple of decades too late.
So on this fine night at one of Singapore’s more established whisky bars, I revisited a classic – the 21 Year Old Rosebank, 1990, from Diageo’s 2011 Special Releases. This Rosebank bottling is a vatting of malt matured in a refill American oak cask and a refill European oak cask.
Colour. Is liquid sunshine a color? Let me try again, a canary gold resembling sunflower oil.
Liquid sunshine. (Image Source: You Beauty)
On the nose. A very gentle yet viscous. You really have to pay some proper attention to draw out these soft notes, yet at the same time their presence is very apparent. To give you a better sense of the task at hand, it is comparable to detecting the olfactory notes of butter – there’s a thickness to it but the notes are faint.
Untamed, fresh floral meadows, scents drifting in the wind. (Image Source: HGTV)
On closer nosing, I get light florals, daisies, carnations, marigolds, some light grassiness as well. There are some deeper notes of clotted cream, butter and vanilla pods. It really smells like what you would find in a field of wildflowers surrounding a farmhouse. Very fresh, very clean, yet at the same time there’s a wonderful untamed quality about it. Free-spirited if you will.
Clotted cream, vanilla pods, malty biscuits, with light touches of orchard fruits fill the nose of the malt. (Image Source: Baker Bettie)
There’s some more gentler notes of caramels, toffee, lavender that resides in the backseat. From time to time, I get little citrus zest that springs forth, oranges and grapefruits. Also some sweeter orchard fruits, peaches and nectarines.
Light touches of citrus zest on the nose as well. (Image Source: Pure Flavoring)
This being one of the oldest Rosebank bottlings, it certainly has much in the way of complexity. It is very gentle for the most part but even the faint floral, fruity notes are bountiful and opulent, if only that it takes time and attention to appreciate.
On to the palate. The first thing that is noticeable is how buttery and waxy the texture is. It’s medium-bodied but fairly viscous, there’s a good silky smooth mouthfeel to this. It is surprisingly very consistent with what you get on the nose, if just more intense.
A buttery texture is the first thing you notice, alongside with icing sugar and malty bready notes that are not too far off from some sugar glazed donuts. (Image Source: Tasting Table)
The flavors are much more noticeable on the palate. It is sweet like icing sugar and also malty, reminding me of sugar-glazed donuts. It has a delightful resemblance to baked confectionaries, vanilla spongecake, earl grey cookies, vanilla cupcakes and macarons. Despite the sweet maltiness, it never gets cloying. In fact, it keeps its grassy lightness and freshness – very refreshing.
I get my peaches from Georgia. (Image Source: Land O'Lakes)
There is a pronounced creaminess as well, and ripened orchard fruits. It has notes of apricot, honeydews, melons, and light touches of lemon zest. Oodles of peaches and cream or even fruit yoghurt with a spoonful of honey.
Grassy chlorophyll notes reminds me of wheat grass. (Image Source: Smart Sexy Paleo)
The grassiness is reminiscent of wheat grass, freshly cut grass, the distinctive presence of chlorophyll. Also light bits of white pepper. It is overall fairly warming and big in presence but never overpowering, the flavors while intense are never sharp.
Slight oak-y bitterness and some drying astringency similar to coffee grounds. (Image Source: Crema)
The finish is medium length, good warmth, fairly clean and refreshing. The white pepper is more apparent here, as is the citrus zest. Closing notes of oak-y dryness and bitterness, comparable to coffee grounds.
This was my first experience with Rosebank, and I have over the years heard a fair bit about this particular bottle and was quite excited to finally try it. As whiskies became in vogue again the past few years, the Lowland area has seen quite the revival with distilleries coming online – Eden Mill, Daftmill, Kingsbarns, the historic Lindores Abbey, just to name a few. What is interesting is that they seem to have revived a classic Lowland confectionary sweet and malty style of whiskies, which despite the chronological gap, tastes remarkably consistent with Rosebank.
A new breed of Lowland whiskies have been brought to life in whisky's ascent to (re)popularity.
These Lowlanders have a distinctive gentle meadow, flowery, orchard fruit character, carried through with a waxy, buttery body, that is completely on the other end of the spectrum from the classical Islay and Speyside malts, where they are big, bold and punch-you-in-the-face intense.
The Rosebank 1990 would go great with brunch, maybe some pancakes and maple syrup. (Image Source: Inspired Taste)
Here it is much more syrupy, almost like a brunch sort of malt. It’s very enjoyable the clean, fresh flavors which would seem to go with pancakes and maple syrup or a chocolate croissant. But I think what this adds to the vocabulary of Scotch enthusiasts is that it will make you revisit your notions of Scotch and certainly expand your palate’s library. Perhaps a Lowland revival is in the works?
I thoroughly enjoyed the 1990 Rosebank 21 Year Old and it really lived up to my expectations of a meadow-y field of florals kind of whisky.
In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed this bottle, it lived up to what I had expected and finally gave me an idea of what the fuss is with Rosebank – it is the perfect embodiment of a classical Lowland style whisky. I love how despite the three decades time gap between this historic distillery and the newer members, it’s as if nothing has changed. It will be interesting to see what the new Rosebank set to reopen in 2022 will bring.
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This iconic bottle really lived up to its expectations. I thoroughly enjoyed it and its meadow-y floral fresh farmhouse style is one that is sorely missed in today's Scotch. Bigger isn't always better, sometimes gentle, graceful complexity is a much needed refreshing change of palate.
Really enjoyable dram, wish I had it for brunch! If you have the chance, I strongly encourage you to try some of the classic Rosebank bottlings like this one and expand your imagination of Scotch whiskies and also catch a glimpse of what Scotch malts were like before whisky became a thing (again). You’d best catch it while it’s still around!