Winter is here. But so is the Game of Thrones single malt whisky collection – a collaboration between leading spirits company Diageo and HBO – to help keep you warm.
To celebrate the eighth and final season of critically-acclaimed TV series Game of Thrones, Diageo has teamed up with its television network creator HBO to create a limited-edition set of single malt whiskies inspired by the fantasy world. This is a collection of eight different whiskies, each of which represents seven of the more iconic Houses of Westeros as well as the Night’s Watch.
The new collection follows closely on the heels of the shambling White Walker by Johnnie Walker, a blended whisky named after the enigmatic undead villains from the TV show. But unlike that expression, this is a set of all single malt whiskies featuring some of the more popular active distilleries in Diageo’s portfolio.
Some of you might be thinking that Diageo’s merely riding on the coattails of a crazily successful blockbuster series, and you may well be right. But if you look beyond the marketing theatrics – speaking both as a Game of Thrones fan and a lover of whisky – the collaboration makes perfect sense. How so?
Game of Thrones – A Song of Ice and Fire
First and foremost, let’s set the backdrop.
If you’ve been following the series, the epic finale season of Game of Thrones is going to centre around the continent of Westeros. As fans already know, the map of Westeros is really just a rearranged and reimagined one of the British Isles. And how the Westerosi all have specific regional accents that mirror those of Britain. That the world of whisky today owes its origins to Britain – in particular Scotland and Ireland – is beyond shadow of any doubt. So there’s a link here.
Then there’s the making of whisky. George RR Martin’s epic novel series upon which Game of Thrones is based on is called A Song of Ice and Fire, an oblique reference to the years-long seasons of summer and winter that Westeros endures. But it’s also a great analogy to the process of making Scotch whisky that we’ve come to love. It takes sunshine to grow the barley for malt, and fire to mash and distill. Then the spirit spends years in oak casks to mature over long, cold Scottish winters.
That’s another link.
If you delve even deeper into the collaboration, you’d realise that the marketers from both Diageo and HBO tried really hard to marry the unique characteristics and history of each whisky distillery to the “Houses” of Martin’s fictitious world.
Don’t believe us? Let’s take a look.
House Stark – Dalwhinnie Winter’s Frost (43% ABV)
Diageo’s Dalwhinnie may not be one of Scotland’s northernmost distilleries, but by virtue of its remote location in the Grampians – it’s one of two highest working distilleries above sea level – it experiences some of the coldest climate in the whole of Scotland. And that suits House Stark, whose motto is ‘Winter is Coming’, just fine.
In recent history too a fire swept through Dalwhinnie closing the distillery for years before it was rebuilt again, much like when the Starks’ ancestral home of Winterfell were torched by the Boltons. Today the distillery is seeing a revival of fortunes – winning a slew of awards in the process – much like the Starks are seeing going into the final season.
As for Winter’s Frost, expect Dalwhinnie’s house style of robust honeyed and sweet spice notes reminiscent of Christmas cake and cereal maltiness. Diageo recommends serving this chilled, or with ice (solidified water, not Ned Stark’s Valyrian greatsword).
House Targaryen – Cardhu Golden Reserve (40% ABV)
The Speyside distillery of Cardhu is best known for being the first distillery to be purchased by the Walker family to create spirit to be blended into Johnnie Walker. What most people didn’t know is that Cardhu is what it is today thanks to two women – Helen Cumming, and her daughter-in-law Elizabeth.
Resourceful Cardhu founder Helen was distilling illegally – like many during her time – but cleverly disguised the smell of alcohol production with her baking to confound the excisemen. She even hosted them for tea, while surreptitiously warning other illicit distillers by hanging up a red bedsheet that taxmen were in the area. Elizabeth, too, was a shrewd businesswoman who recognised a good opportunity when she saw one. She was not above “marrying” her fate with others, and instrumental in the sale of Cardhu to the Walkers. Don’t they sound like a certain Mother of Dragons, wheeling and dealing to create alliances for ultimate domination?
Indeed this whisky expression celebrates the same fiery feminist spirit encompassed by these women, real or otherwise. The Cardhu Gold Reserve here is delicate and well-rounded – dare we say feminine – with a profile akin to freshly baked apple pie with a touch of vanilla cream.
House Tully – Singleton of Glendullan Select (40% ABV)
Also from Speyside is Glendullan, one of the three distilleries that make up Diageo’s Singleton range. Glendullan is located along the River Fiddich, a major tributary of River Spey, the landmark which lends its name to the region. Both rivers Spey and Fiddich open for salmon and trout fishing during the months of summer and spring, so it’s no wonder Diageo picked Glendullan to represent House Tully, whose coat of arms denotes a trout leaping out of the water.
Consider the Tully’s ancestral castle of Riverrun, which sits on the fork of the Tumblestone and the Trident rivers. Like Riverrun, Dufftown where Glendullan is located acts as crossroads of sorts, a major invasion route where the English excisemen of old would have descended on the rest of the valley from. Also an interesting coincidence – at one point in time, Edmure Tully ruled Riverrun while his sisters Catelyn and Lysa were married to Houses Stark and Arryn to form a trifecta alliance. Like the Glen Ord, Dufftown and Glendullan of The Singleton, perhaps?
Here the Singleton of Glendullan Select is like Lord Edmure Tully himself – youthful yet unsure. You’ll find some citrus and sweet spice on the nose and palate, along with unrestrained vanilla from ex-bourbon American oak.
House Lannister – Lagavulin 9 Years Old (46% ABV)
Just as Casterly Rock – home of the Lannisters – was built on gold (it sits on the most productive gold mine in the whole of the Westerlands), the fortunes of Lagavulin on Islay was made on peat. Miles upons miles of peat bog in the west of the island provide the raw material which imbues its whisky with that distinct smoky flavour. But while Lannister gold is rumoured to be running out, there’s no such danger for Islay peat.
Lagavulin has a rather colourful, chequered past which involved quarrelling with its neighbours. At one point in time its scheming owner built a dam to block the water supply of a competitor – and even replicating their stills – to drive them from the market. It’s totally something that Tywin Lannister would have done.
The Lagavulin 9 Year Old is one of the only two age statement whiskies in the collection. This is not classic Lagavulin; it’s clear they’ve decided to make this more approachable to the masses. So while on the nose it smells like Lannister soldiers writhing in dragonflame during the Battle of the Goldroad – smoke, fire and burnt meat – the palate is more sweet vanilla with a tinge of salted caramel. Its body is boozy and rich, but with a finish falls just that little short; think Tyrion.
House Greyjoy – Talisker Select Reserve (45.8% ABV)
Talisker was an instant shoe-in for House Greyjoy. At one time in its history the Isle of Skye – where Talisker is located – was ruled by the Norse. The Vikings would use the island as a base from which to raid and pillage the Scottish mainland, just as the Ironborn would on the rest of Westeros from the Iron Islands.
One of the most remote distilleries in Scotland, Talisker has endured fires, bankruptcies and wars. Much like the Ironborn have after its conquest by the Tagaryens and then again during its ill-fated rebellion against the Iron Throne.
The Talisker Select Reserve chosen to represent House Greyjoy, the ruling house of the Iron Islands, has the distillery’s signature maritime character. But it’s also more deeply complex and mellow than most – smoke, sweetness, saltiness and spice in equal measure. This is more brooding Yara Greyjoy than her rambunctiously aggressive Uncle Balon.
House Baratheon – Royal Lochnagar 12 Year Old (40% ABV)
Royal Lochnagar was chosen to represent House Baratheon primarily because it’s the only distillery in Diageo’s portfolio with a Royal Warrant. The Royal Lochnagar distillery in Aberdeenshire is a mere stone’s throw to Balmoral Castle, one of the residences of the British royal family. Indeed it was granted a Royal Warrant after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the distillery back in 1848.
But does royal lineage mean anything much these days? Certainly not on Westeros. House Baratheon started the first season of Game of Thrones as the ruling House of the Seven Kingdoms. But its fortunes have waned since, and the House is now considered legally extinct.
Now we’ve always been big fans of Royal Lochnagar, but instead of taking the stag by its horns Diageo has opted to take the easy way out. Here it’s merely repackaged the Royal Lochnagar 12 Year Old from its core range, so expect a melange of fruit and spice.
We’d loved to have seen where Royal Lochnagar could have gone with this. It’s a wasted opportunity, really. Like Stannis Baratheon’s bid for the throne.
House Tyrell – Clynelish Reserve (51.2% ABV)
The Tyrells of Highgarden rule over the Reach, one of the most verdant and fertile regions of Westeros. It’s so agriculturally productive that it’s constantly relied on to send food to the ever-hungry capital of King’s Landing. Sutherland in the northern highlands of Scotland where Clynelish is based may not be quite as fortunate, but it still boasts green pastures and rolling hills as far as the eye can see.
But Clynelish was chosen by Diageo to represent House Tyrell mainly because the latter’s sigil is a golden rose on a green field, and Clynelish spirit boasts a light, floral note that’s vibrant yet slick on the palate. We’re such big fans of Clynelish that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but if we had to describe the high-strength Clynelish Reserve as a person, it would be Margaery Tyrell. She may be young like this whisky, but the flower of the Tyrells is sensual yet complex, bright like her grandmother Olenna and just as oily with scheming.
Night’s Watch – Oban Bay Reserve (48% ABV)
Not a House, but one of the most important organisations in the Seven Kingdoms. The Night’s Watch is a band of brothers charged with guarding the Wall, a massive ice construct that – Donald Trump would have approved – kept the Wildlings from invading the North. The problem is that this military order has dwindled to a point where they only have the numbers to man just three of its nineteen castles along the Wall: their headquarters Castle Black, the Shadow Tower, and Eastwatch-by-the-Sea.
We’re sure that Eastwatch-by-the-Sea is what decided Diageo on Oban to represent the Night’s Watch. Eastwatch-by-the-Sea is a port castle buttressed against the Bay of Seals, quite resembling the distillery right at the port of Oban Bay. Oban’s stills are also small and doesn’t run every day, so its production is painfully small, much like the Crows with their pitifully reduced numbers.
But the Oban Bay Reserve’s woody, spicy and somewhat mineral notes is definitely reflective of distillery character. Its richness and rather high strength, too, at 48% ABV is guaranteed to keep rangers warm on patrol north of the Wall.
Are these whiskies the best representations from the individual distilleries? We’d venture to say no, mainly because we’ve tasted far superior expressions from them. But do we think the Game of Thrones Single Malt Scotch Whisky Collection makes a worthwhile purchase?
Yes, yes, and yes.
Yes if you’re a whisky fan looking to try what these distilleries offer without spending too pretty a penny. Yes if you’re a fan of the hit TV series and wanting to get into the world of whiskies.
And finally yes, because of that Clynelish Reserve, the rose among the thorns. In the show the Tyrells may be wiped out, but this Clynelish wins the Game of Thrones.
The Game of Thrones Single Malt Scotch Whisky Collection is available as a full collection at the recommended selling price of $1,188 from 1855 The Bottle Shop stores online at AsherBWS.com. Individual bottles are available from DFS at varying prices.
You can also taste of flight of these whiskies at The Monarchy at S$88++ a flight.
The original version of this article first appeared on Spirited Singapore.