The Brandy Masters 2016 results

6th May, 2016 by Kristiane Sherry

The Brandy Masters made a welcome return to The Global Spirits Masters series – and one country in particular shone.

The Spirits Business recognised some of the world’s best Brandies at The Brandy Masters 2016

The Spirits Business recognised some of the world’s best Brandies at The Brandy Masters 2016

As diverse geographically as it is in flavour, the fragmentation of the brandy category is jointly a blessing as it is a curse.

While production, and therefore blender creativity, can be far freer than that of its Cognac cousin, the resulting liquids tend to range from outstanding to merely drinkable at best. Then factor in that brandy can be produced from pretty much any fruit, and the judging panel at the second ever Brandy Masters had quite the task ahead.

While the judges were eagerly anticipating the spectrum of flavour that awaited, the big questions were can brandy shake off the Cognac comparisons, emerge from its shadow and develop an identity of its own?

Taking the brandy challenge and exploring the category at hand were Nicola Thompson, Practical Matters director and Armagnac Musketeer; Tobias D. Gorn, director at Chapman & Gorn; Kat Presley, writer at Whisky Discovery; Dave Worthington, writer at Whisky Discovery; Alex Huskinson, store manager at The Whisky Exchange, Covent Garden; Matt Tilbury, retail manager at Royal Mile Whiskies, London; Mickael Perron, The Library Bar Manager at The Lanesborough; and Athila Roos, private client director at Rémy Cointreau UK – with proceedings chaired by Kristiane Sherry, editor of The Spirits Business.

Up first was the small South African Single Vintage Brandy flight – a selection that attracted praise but also a certain amount of division across the panel. While some expressions were deemed “questionable”, one in particular elicited glowing assessments and was awarded a Silver medal.

“Distell’s Richelieu 10 has fresh orchard fruit, a bit of nuttiness, it’s nice, round and well-made,” said Gorn. A real stand-out in the flight, “for the price, it’s super,” Huskinson added.

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The panel discuss the merits of each expression after scoring individually

A larger flight followed, comprising South African Pot Still Aged 3-9 Years, all sitting in the premium price bracket. While the judges found the flight as a whole inconsistent, the panel recognised two expressions as “stand out” and both were rewarded with Silver medals accordingly.

“Joseph Barry VS from the Oude Molen Distillery is like a tropical Cognac expression – it’s a nice discovery,” Perron praised, with Gorn identifying a particular fruit confectionery note: “It’s very sweet but not out of balance.”

Meanwhile sibling brandy Joseph Barry VSOP drew commendation for its “really interesting” nose of “fennel seed and fresh orange,” said Presley. “It’s not hugely complex, but it really stood out.”

“Why would people choose an entry-level Cognac over these South African brandies? The medallists here were at least as good,” questioned Gorn, perhaps drawing inevitable comparisons with the better established category. “In terms of value for money, this flight was amazing stuff,” Roos added.

Judges were further delighted as they pressed on to the South African Pot Still Aged 10-12 Years category – which attracted the only Gold medal of the afternoon for the “outstanding” Oude Molen XO.

“I was really impressed with the nose – it was a real vanilla confectionery sweetness, while coconut was prominent on the palate,” applauded Tilbury. “It had a nice body to it and wasn’t too spicy. Overall it worked really well.”

Thompson concurred: “It was correctly made with a nice acidity level. You have those lovely wild flower notes with hints of fennel combined with banana.”

The category also attracted two further medals, with a Silver awarded each to Distell’s Van Ryn’s 12 Year Old Distiller’s Reserve and Oude Molen Distillery’s Joseph Barry XO.

“The Van Ryn’s 12 Year Old has a VSOP character on the nose and palate – it came across as a really well made Cognac,” said Perron. “It really is a departure from the banana, tropical characteristics of the South African brandies so far.” Worthington agreed: “It’s the nose that really won it for me – it’s got rich, rounded, soft dark fruit and woody notes. It was my personal favourite of the flight.”

Meanwhile Joseph Barry XO was deemed “quite outstanding style-wise” by the panel, with a “vegetal” start reminiscent of freshly cut grass and cucumber. “It’s different in an exciting way,” praised Gorn.

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Sherry noses a glass

Pressing on to a bumper flight of South African Pot Still Aged 13 Years and Over, the judges rewarded every entrant with a medal – making it the most successful category of the day.

Distell’s Van Ryn’s 15 Year Old Fine Cask Reserve was decreed “a good solid brandy” by Huskinson, with a “great balance of flavours”, Presley added. Meanwhile notes of sponge cake, cocoa powder and dried apple were prominent to Gorn, earning the expression a Silver medal.

Judges found a “bit more complexity” in Van Ryn’s 20 Year Old Collector’s Reserve, and again it was rewarded with a Silver. “On the nose I thought it had a bit of a vegetal thing going on, while on the palate it reminded me of strawberry bonbons, but with an oaky, spicy element to it,” said Tilbur y. Worthington similarly praised the balance between the savoury notes and the dry finish – “it was not aggressive at all”, he remarked.

Moving to fellow Distell brand Oude Meester Souverein, and the panel was extremely impressed by the “unusual” menthol note. “And you know the spices are still there – it’s really well put together,” Huskinson explained. Perron meanwhile noted the “transformation” from the tropical themes found across the board in other South African brandy expressions.

Rounding off the flight, and indeed the medallists, was Distell’s Klipdrift Gold, rewarded with a Silver for the “good distillation” that clearly defined production. “It’s straightforward and sweet, but really fresh,” noted Gorn, with the panel echoing the purity of the spirit.

South African brandies clearly shone head and shoulders above entrants from other parts of the world, which left the judges pondering why the category has yet to establish a character for itself on the international stage.

“Age obviously suits South African brandies – and that’s not necessarily the case for Cognacs,” noted Huskinson. Cognac may have established its global reputation over hundreds of years, but it may now have a challenger.

“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t see more South African brandies on the European market,” commented Thompson. “There’s lots going on from the winemaking heritage – South African brandies have a lot of hope and promise.” “They are great value for money, too,” chipped in Gorn.

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Left to right: Nicola Thompson, Dave Worthington, Matt Tilbury, Mickael Perron, Athila Roos, Kat Presley, Kristiane Sherry, Tobias D. Gorn, Alex Huskinon

What, then, is holding the category back when the liquid is clearly up to standard? For Thompson, it’s a “lack of governance and consistency” across the brandy industry as a whole. A key area to focus on for the future is the grape harvest itself and how eaux-de-vie is distilled and why, she explained, adding that you can’t distill if pesticides have been used.

“When you buy a brandy that doesn’t have a regional AOC you can do whatever you want – you can be incredibly pleased or incredibly horrified by the result,” Perron mused.

“This is why South African brandy stands out from the rest of the world, probably because there are stricter production regulations.

“Countries need to attach themselves to their brandy. Cognac is a brandy, Armagnac is a brandy – others can do that too, and then consumers know it’s controlled, and you get consistency.”

Tilbury looked further afield to the whisk(e)y category, noting that new product development stealing brandy customers away has been a problem – partly due to inconsistencies in the sector.

“When people come into our shop and ask for a premium spirit they don’t think of brandy straight away – and it’s difficult for consumers to know what’s what.”

Despite apparent weakness in the brandy category as a whole, the judges unanimously praised the South African producers driving the sector.

“It was great to see so many South African entries compared to previous years – especially regarding their consistency, quality, and value for money aspect. And they seem to age well,” Gorn concluded.

Or, as Worthington put it: “The South Africans are taking it seriously”.

Click through to the following page for the complete list of medal winners from The Brandy Masters 2016.

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