From light, delicate expressions to smoky, leathery profiles, judges had a pleasant challenge on their hands during the record-breaking Global Scotch Whisky Masters 2015.
This year’s Global Scotch Whisky Masters experienced a record-breaking number of entries
Blind tasting a category as titillating as Scotch bears a certain level of anticipation from the very beginning, but as the entries rolled in – and kept rolling – it was clear this would be one of the best rounds of the year.
As of late, exports of Scotch have been declining in key markets around the world – plummeting 7% from £4.26bn in 2013 to £3.95bn in 2014 according to figures from the Scotch Whisky Association – a plunge caused in part by rising economic pressure, a surge in competition in the US market, and China’s austerity campaign.
Nevertheless, a record-breaking number of entries made up 28 flights of The Global Scotch Whisky Masters, requiring a tenacious panel with expert palates to wade through round upon round, in a bid to award the finest Scotch whiskies.
Judges gathered at London’s Spice Market in Leicester Square, where they were divided into three teams chaired individually by Becky Paskin, editor of scotchwhisky.com and acting editor of The Spirits Business; Melita Kiely, senior staff writer for The Spirits Business; and Billy Abbott, web content editor for The Whisky Exchange.
Paskin was accompanied by Karen Taylor, co-owner of Whisky For Everyone; Jess Cheeseman, operations manager of Fluid Movement; and Nick Fleming, wine and spirits buyer for Harrods.
Abbott’s team comprised of freelance whisky consultant Jason Standing, and co-owner of The Cocktail Trading Company, Elliot Ball. Kiely was joined by Matt Chambers, manager of The Whisky Shop; Garrick Whittaker, spirits buyer for Fine and Rare; and Robert Chapman, director of Chapman and Gorn.
The first flight to greet judges’ eager palates was Single Grain: No Age Statement. Although the quantity of entries were humble, the flight instantly secured a Silver medal for the pear notes and “zesty finish” of Haig Club.
Blended: Standard followed, an exceptional round that earned 11 Silver medals, seven Gold medals and our first Master of the day for Scottish Leader Original. Chapman said: “There were a wide range of high quality whiskies, none of which you would expect for the price. The Master could have fooled me into thinking it was from a different category.”
Matt Chambers and Rob Chapman assess the offerings of the day
We edged further up the price rung to Blended: Premium, which scooped three Silvers, seven Golds and our second Master of the day, this time in recognition of the “fresh, vibrant” notes of Rock Oyster. Kiely observed: “The quality, depth and complexity shone through, which is what you would expect from this category.”
The praise continued into the Blended: Super-Premium and Ultra-Premium flights which lived up to expectations of delivering some of tha tastiest blends of the competition. Across the two rounds, five Master medals were awarded, mostly to Diageo, although judges were impressed with the quality presented at a higher price tag. Cocktail Trading Company’s Ball, said: “It’s great seeing the simple linearity of price and quality – it’s easy to assume smoke and mirrors, but there genuinely was a great relationship here.” After such success, the judges embarked upon the age-classified flights with confidence.
Blended: Aged up to 12 Years produced “an interesting, varied range of whiskies” which won four Silver and three Gold medals. Paskin noted: “Some of these are fantastic examples of easy-to-drink blends, while others challenged the judges’ expectations.”
The Blended: Aged 13-18 Years group attracted seven medals, one of which was a Master in the form of Label 5 Extra Rare 18 Year Old, a “light, salt air, mineral zest” palate with “fantastic structure”.
Next, we moved to Blended: Aged 19-30 Years, a “mixed bag flight” which caught some of our judges off-guard. Kiely explained: “There’s a perception that older whisky is better, but this round showed that age doesn’t necessarily equal quality.“ Chambers agreed: “It just shows that you’re not necessarily going to get what you might expect from buying an older whisky.” Nevertheless, judges awarded two Gold medals, and a Master to Ballantine’s 30, which was described as an “excellent balance of sweet and spice”.
The Blended: No Age Statement category produced another Gold, before we moved on to the petite but pleasing Blended: Special Edition flight, a round of just two “exceptional” whiskies that earned Gold and Master medals.
The next flight – Blended Malt: Standard, produced one of the most impressive victories of the day for the category, in the form of Aldi’s Gold medal-winning Glen Orrin. Described as “light on the palate” and “slightly meaty” with “great length”, it’s available at an RRP of just £13.29. Cheeseman described it as “an interesting whisky and certainly unique”.
Scotch whiskies from every corner of Scotland and across each price point were taste tested by an expert panel of judges
Next to join the champion line-up was Monkey Shoulder in the Blended Malt: Premium category with a Gold medal, followed by The Glenrothes Select and Vintage Reserves in the Single Malt Speyside: Premium round, both of which also claimed Gold medals.
Having hit the ground running with the age classification blends, the judges swiftly moved into the Single Malt Speyside: Aged up to 12 Years flight where a whopping 12 medals were awarded. Here the judges felt the diversity of the Speyside region was well captured, with Harrods’ Fleming explaining: “Ranges like this demonstrate why it’s difficult for me to continue to sell whiskies by region, considering the diversity presented to us today.”
The Single Malt Speyside: Aged 13-18 Years category saw 17 medals awarded, however judges were left a little disappointed by the variety of flavours in this category. Chambers said: “The fact they are all so similar indicates a very safe approach to this category and a distinct lack of innovation. What they do they do very well, but they fail to stand out from the crowd.”
In the Single Malt Speyside: Aged 19-30 Years flight another 11 medals were earned, impressively four of which were Masters – the most in one round thus far, all for William Grant & Sons.
Next up was Single Malt Speyside: No Age Statement, a category that can be contentious. However, this round displayed a huge variety in character, each whisky as impressive as the next, with three Silver and five Gold medals handed out. Chapman noted: “These were of a good standard, especially considering a lot of people are critical of the category. People should be less snobby when it comes to age because some of the whiskies were pretty pleasant.”
From one eye-opening flight to another, Single Malt Speyside: Special Edition blew judges away and justly gained three Masters and five Golds. Paskin said: “This was by far the greatest round today. There was such a broad range of diversity which really demonstrates the variety of whiskies the distilleries of Speyside are producing.”
It was time to explore the next region, the all-encompassing Single Malt Highlands and Islands. Judges started with Premium – which scored three medals – before tackling the age classification range, Aged up to 12 Years. Seven medals were handed out during this round, three of which were Masters for the “sweet and peaty” Talisker 10 Year Old, “complex” Deanston 12 Year Old, and “soft, delicate” Scottish Leader 12 Year Old.
Judges from left to right: Becky Paskin, Melita Kiely, Garrick Whittaker, Karen Taylor, Rob Chapman, Nick Fleming, Matt Chambers, Jess Cheeseman, Billy Abbott, Elliot Ball, and Jason Standing
Twelve medals were handed out to a range of “top class” whiskies in the Aged 13-18 Years bracket, and three medals – one Gold and two Masters – for the Aged 19-30 Years bracket that seriously impressed the panel. Whittaker observed: “The diversity was tremendous; definitely some of the best whiskies today. They were seriously layered in terms of flavour, texture and aroma.” Although not quite as strong as its regional predecessor, the Highlands and Islands No Age Statement round still racked up an impressive six medals by “playing to the distilleries’ strengths”.
Next up was Single Malt Islay, a category characterised by smoky, peaty flavours.
The Aged up to 12 Years grouping earned four Gold medals and a Master, which was scooped by Kilchoman Machir Bay. Ball said: “Seeing uncharacteristically youthful Islays wow the judges with unexpected fruity notes was quite exciting.”
Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old scored a Master medal in the Aged 13-18 Year bracket, impressing the panel with its “phenomenal nose”, while Bunnahabhain 25 Year Old stole the show one age classification higher in Aged 19-30 Year Old, also securing a Master.
The Single Malt Islay No Age Statement flight claimed four medals, while Ardbeg Perpetuum and Glenmorangie Duthac were champions of the special edition category.
The final round of the day presented a solitary Single Malt Lowlands: Aged up to 12 Years, in the form of Glenkinchie 12 Year Old, which achieved Silver.
Chapman mused: “I would have liked to see more competition. Distilleries need to showcase what they can do in this region.”
Summing up the Scotch Whisky Masters, Taylor said: “The competition highlighted not only the diversity of taste, value and complexity of whisky in the global market but also the confidence that brands have in the quality of spirit being produced. From affordable blends to single malts and grain whiskies, the standard was consistently high with some outstanding examples in each category.”
Click through to the following page to see the results of The Global Scotch whisky Masters 2015.