New year, new start – and with that, a brand new category in our Global Spirits Masters series: welcome The Distillery Masters 2016.
Here are the results of our inaugural Distillery Masters competition
What better way is there to launch the Global Spirits Masters 2016 than with a unique new category? As we seek to find and reward the best and brightest spirits in the world over the next 12 months, it seemed only right to first explore the origin of such expressions in the form of our inaugural Distillery Masters competition. Assessed on four key subcategories comprising Consumer Experience, Distillery Facilities, Distillery Innovation and Green Initiatives, the competition has been designed to recognise the growing importance of tourism, creativity and technical merit within the spirits sector.
A glowing panel of specialists including Nicholas Cook, director general of The Gin Guild; David Wrigley, international development and PR manager of the WSET; Lucy Richardson, associate director of Publicasity; David T. Smith, founder of Craft Distilling Expo; and chair Melita Kiely, senior staff writer at The Spirits Business, assessed each entry at our home for the afternoon – The Refinery at Regent’s Place.
Our first subcategory was the largest: Consumer Experience. Recognising and rewarding excellence in consumer experience is the centre of this category, and three distilleries in particular shone through, executing this requirement to the highest standards.
Archie Rose Distilling Co. in Sydney, Australia, was the first distillery to attract a Master medal, offering not only just regular tours, tastings, and spirits masterclasses, but also ‘Blend Your Own’ gin and whisky classes, a 120-capacity cocktail bar, and an online portal which enables consumers to tailor their own custom spirits – designing their own personalised gin, vodka or whisky from the botanical or cask right down to the name on the label. Richardson commented: “They’re doing something different and I think the younger discerning consumer would engage with that very well. The detail they’ve gone into shows it’s very much about educating people.” Wrigley added: “The ability to tailor-make your own whisky from the cask is fascinating, although I suspect you may need deep pockets to do it.”
The next Master medalist was Bombay Sapphire Distillery at Hampshire’s Laverstoke Mill, which judges heralded “absolutely fantastic”. From glass houses that allow visitors to see, touch and smell the botanicals as they grow in their natural environment to an immersive tour of the inner workings of the distillery and a personalised flavour map that correlates to a cocktail at the end, its “clear mission to educate” struck a chord with our panel.
A festive setting for our inaugural Distillery Masters, which took place last month
Smith said: “It goes that bit beyond, and focuses on the category as a whole. To see the botanicals growing naturally is fantastic – there are in-depth experiences, but they’ve taken it to another level.” Wrigley added: “From an educational point of view, they’ve taken a local and systematic approach to explaining what gin actually is. There’s a lot of clever stuff here, it’s technically very innovative.”
Our final Master medalist in this category was the Cotswolds Distillery, a “gorgeous home-from-home” that prides itself on being one of the closest working distilleries to London with a personal approach to educating visitors – each tour guide is also a distiller, ensuring that visitors are guided through production stages and tutored tastings by an expert. “It’s much smaller than many of the other distilleries – which just shows you can offer a fantastic consumer experience without chucking money at it,” said Smith. “It’s very impressive for a smaller establishment.” Richardson added: “Provenance is so important these days, and they’ve taken great care to keep that at the heart of it.”
Overall, it was noted that the round produced entries of an incredibly high standard, with East London Liquor Company, Old Pulteney Distillery, Héritiers Crassous de Médeuil (Rhum J.M) and Santamania Distillery all scoring Gold medals, and Balblair Distillery awarded a Silver. Judges were impressed with the contemporary approach to spirits education and the innovative ways in which each site chose to engage consumers. “Looking as a whole, it’s heartening to see a more modern approach,” said Richardson. “Distilleries are trying to appeal to a wider audience while still keeping the educational aspect at the very heart.” Cook agreed: “The very best entries are doing something more – either with technology, communications or the wider category to provide something extra.”
“Many of the higher-scoring entries are purpose-built; facilities erected as a reaction to consumer interest in brands, and they are now an integral part of their business,” added Wrigley. “Interestingly, the older distilleries now have to run to catch up.”
We pressed on to the next subcategory in the form of Distillery Facilities, which ranked entries on the quality of their retail offers, food and beverage options, along with any other ‘added value’ services available. Here, The Lakes Distiller y in Cumbria shone through, scooping a Master medal for going “above and beyond” what judges expected.
Set in a former Victorian model farm, the distillery encourages visitors to walk to the nearby river Derwent and Bassenthwaite Lake to explore the surroundings, prompting judges to label it a “destination distillery”.
As well as a comprehensive, interactive distillery tour, the site also offers a restaurant called Bistro, the philosophy of which is to reflect its location by using locally-sourced, traditional Cumbrian products to create lunch and dinner options, along with whisky-infused desserts.
An expert panel of judges examined a multitude of distilleries from across the world, looking at consumer experience, innovation, green initiatives and facilities
Wrigley said: “This is a strong entry. It’s much more than just a distillery tour, it’s a destination. There’s very good use of the location and setting to offer further activities and experiences.” Richardson noted: “Given how new it is, the reputation it has built certainly earns it that extra bit of excellence to earn it a Master medal.” Overall, judges agreed the entry set a precedent for maximising the use of distillery facilities.
The next subcategory of entries subject to judges’ scrutiny came under the Distillery Innovation umbrella. This was a technical assessment, which required distilleries to show that an idea they’ve implemented has significantly boosted business or enhanced product quality. Two entries stood out from the crowd and were awarded Master medals, the first being East London Liquor Company. The site works collaboratively with London craft breweries to produce the base wash for the brand’s whisky, and also boasts a healthy and experimental portfolio, both released and in-progress. It includes barrel-aged gins, single malt whisky, gin- based vermouth, and an aged rum. In addition, the distillery bases its ethos on “transparency” with a focus on an affordable pricing structure.
Cook said: “This is a really strong entry; they’re being really creative. Managing to combine small batch spirits with a desirable distilling experience is no small feat.” Wrigley agreed: “Having a small, continually changing range is very much in- keeping with the contemporar y market. East London Liquor Company is successfully bringing together small batch products with the desire for an individual experience.”
Lost Spirits Distillery in California claimed the next Master medal, wowing judges with a spirit-ageing innovation named Thea One, which claims to produce a rum expression in six days that has a “near-identical” chemical signature to rum that has been aged in a barrel for 20 years.
Cook said: “It almost sounds too good to be true! No one else is doing anything like it, the science is fascinating.” The process is based upon systematically triggering and sequencing the breaking up of the polymers in oak, forced esterification, select oxidisation of key aldehydes, and biological formation of carboxylic acids – all to replicate the complex reactions that happen naturally over a period of 20-30 years. “It’s revolutionary,” said Smith, “and that’s no exaggeration. This opens a whole new world of spirits exploration.”
Bombay Sapphire once again claimed a Master medal, this time through detailed explanation of the precise technical elements used throughout the distillation process. Here the entry focused on the installation of three-stage condensers, which enable the distillery to recover and utilise heat created through distillation; improved controls relating to distillate flow rate that enable a “standardisation” of the distillation process; and a vapour infusion that gives distillers the ability to cool and drain the stills once the process is complete – cutting an hour off distillation time. Cook observed: “The technical elements relating to distillation are extremely sophisticated and, being a purpose-built distillery of comparatively recent vintage and one designed with the clear aim of attempting to take advantage of technical options, these combine to create an extremely advanced production procedure.”
Judges left to right: Nicolas Cook, David T. Smith, Melita Kiely, David Wrigley and Lucy Richardson
The success of the round continued with Héritiers Crassous de Médeuil (Rhum J.M) and the Speyburn-Glenlivet Distillery, which both attracted Silver medals. Overall judges were impressed by the level of creativity, but felt more could be done by to push the boundaries of innovation with certain entries. Wrigley commented: “With the exception of the Masters, most things they’re doing are not new – just sensible.” Richardson agreed: “Many of the entries did not display true innovation – rather they’re just keeping up with the times.”
The final category of the day was Green Initiatives, which called for evidence of
a reduction in environmental impact, and a commitment to sustainable practice.
Knockdhu Distillery and Balmenach Distillery were celebrated for their exemplary efforts, each attracting a Gold medal, but it was Bombay Sapphire that once again dazzled the panel – earning a Master for its “genuine commitment to protecting the environment”. The distillery’s green credentials include a state-of-the-art tanker capacity, decanting facilities, optimised botanical delivery, the installation of adiabatic chillers, rainwater harvesting, a biomass boiler that runs off locally-sourced woodchip, the implementation of heat- recovery distillation, solar panels, the use of a water turbine, and more.
Kiely said: “The distillery certainly seems to be leading the way when it comes to reducing its carbon footprint. Bombay Sapphire is not simply making adjustments to keep up with the times and what’s expected when it comes to green initiatives, but is going much further to demonstrate its true commitment to sustainability.”
“The document was a seriously impressive read, with so much to commend in it,” added Wrigley. “It demonstrates that the entire site and its setting has been considered holistically.”
Of the Green Initiative round, Kiely noted: “It’s great to see how seriously distilleries are taking their responsibility of protecting the environment, and the entries clearly showed a dynamic approach to tackling the issue. Bombay Sapphire stood out as a facility that is trailblazing when it comes to reducing its carbon footprint.”
What was once closed off to the public has transformed into an integral part of consumer education, so it delighted the panel to witness engaging well-thought-out experiences.
“The entries we judged today really showcased the importance of consumer experiences, innovation and the tremendous work distilleries are doing to better their carbon footprint,” said Kiely. “While some are doing a good job of keeping up with the times, others are really pushing boundaries, engaging consumers and thinking well ahead of the trends. The standard of facilities and advances among distilleries is really impressive – this was obvious today across numerous categories – and
countries – from rum and whisky to gin.”
Click through to the following page for the complete list of medal winners from The Distillery Masters 2016.