“This ongoing collection basically gives people the opportunity to build their own liquid library,” says Ewan Gunn, global brand ambassador for Diageo Scotch whisky. “We view these as almost an archive of some of the pivotal moments in Scotch history. When you look at some of the whiskies that form parts of Prima & Ultima, they really do mark some of the opening lines and closing chapters of some of the greatest Scotch whisky stories ever told.”
Diageo has over ten million barrels of whisky aging in Scotland, from a bigger, more diverse range of distilleries than any other producer. This means that when they open up the vaults to find truly distinctive casks for a collection of this kind, they can bring out a more varied assortment than anyone else in the business.
The latest instalment does not disappoint, and it includes a 1977 Brora, aged in American oak (48.2% ABV); a 1996 Clynelish, aged in Pedro Ximenez/Oloroso European oak (52% ABV); a 1997 Lagavulin, aged in refill American oak (50.7% ABV); a 1992 Pittyvaich aged in experimental Pedro Ximenez/Oloroso-seasoned European oak; a 1996 Oban, aged in European oak (55.2% ABV); a 1978 Port Ellen, aged in American oak (53.4% ABV); a 1985 The Singleton of Dufftown aged in American oak (47.7% ABV); and a 1976 Talisker, aged in American oak hogshead, and rested in a puncheon (50.9% ABV).
The fourth release has been curated by Dr Emma Walker, who has been with Diageo since 2008, and is currently the master blender responsible for Johnny Walker, the bestselling range of blended Scotch whisky in the world.
Emma says, “It is a privilege to introduce the fourth release of Prima & Ultima, which I have personally selected from Scotland’s reserves of exceptionally aged single malt scotch whisky. Each of these whiskies have been watched, influenced and marked as outstanding. As well as being exceptional, these rare whiskies were each distilled during a specific, unrepeatable moment of note or change at each of the eight iconic distilleries.”
Emma is keen to stress that she works as part of a team of twelve blenders, saying, “We recognise that we are so lucky. We get to work with this amazing inventory of whisky, it’s almost like this is our library of flavour. It’s such an honour to be able to do that; to get to know our inventory so well, to understand what’s happened at the distillery, what’s happened in the maturation – who’s been involved in creating those flavours – how it all comes together, and that’s what makes it so special.
“Just being able to look at that, pick up these stories, tie them with our own journeys through whisky, and to be able to bring that together, for people to try – people to collect – and be able to enjoy as well, when they want to take that time to have something so amazing. That’s what’s behind this, we get to know those amazing whiskies, and then we get to bring them to life in different ways with different stories.”
A particular highlight of this Prima & Ultima release is the 1978 Port Ellen. Considering its legendary reputation, it might be surprising to realise that the Port Ellen distillery has only been in operation for 16 of the last 93 years. But on further consideration, that scarcity is part of what has fuelled the fascination in its output. The distillery has been shuttered since 1983, one of the victims of the mass wave of closures that saw the demise of distilleries across Scotland, during a glut in supply. But despite this considerable impediment, it remains one of the most recognisable names in Islay whisky.
Following the successful revival of the Brora distillery, which also closed in 1983 but was restored and went back into production in 2021, Diageo intends to resurrect Port Ellen. With reconstruction well underway, and new stills already being tested, it is expected that the reimagined distillery will be filling casks again next year. They have planned a whole range of experiments from fermentation, through the stills, and with the casks as well, a prospect greeted with considerable excitement from Diageo’s blending team.
While there is a new generation of Port Ellen whiskies to anticipate, the old stock is inevitably becoming ever rarer. The Port Ellen in this release contains whisky from the three last remaining American oak hogsheads filled in 1978. Hinting at a more personal reason for this selection, Emma notes, “One of the things I love about this is that it’s very rare to have a whisky that has the same year of birth as yourself.”
Ewan says, “For me it’s classic Port Ellen. There’s the ashy smoke, which you expect, but for me it walks the line between is it oily? Is it creamy? It’s got a foot in both camps. It’s not overtly coastal, like a Talisker, but it’s filled with that sense of place.”
Emma suggests, “It’s almost got that scent of petrichor, like when it’s been raining on a beach.”
A gentle maturation has resulted in a whisky sweet with the luscious fruitiness of red berries, counterposed by subtle minerality, and the bitterness and astringency of orange blossom water, and on the finish, you realise that a hint of menthol has emerged.
Emma explains, “You only really see that on highly aged casks, where younger whiskies are green and sort of fresh, it goes through those stages where something else happens later in the maturation, and you start to get that lovely menthol note that sort of cuts through, and balances out that unctuousness. It’s that bit of magic. It’s a black box. We’re not sure how that happens, but it’s amazing when it does.”
A limited number of sets of the Prima & Ultima 4th release are available worldwide, and only 50 have been allocated to the British market. Some bottles in the collection will subsequently be available as single purchases, but those where stock was most limited will only be available as part of the complete set.
• Justerini & Brooks is accepting registrations of interest to purchase the collection until 11 October, the price is £45,580