The Scotch Whisky Masters 2016 results

6th June, 2016 by Annie Hayes - This article is over multiple pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6

Whether it’s start-ups seeking to stand out from the crowd or veteran brands showing the quality across their range, Scotch now offers a true cornucopia of flavour – as our Scotch Whisky Masters proves.

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A plethora of brands were awarded medals in our Scotch Whisky Masters 2016

Click here to view a video of The Scotch Whisky Masters 2016 competition

Although the last couple of years have been difficult for Scotch, things are starting to look up. While 2015 marked the third consecutive year in which Scotch exports have fallen, fresh figures from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) show a “significant improvement” on the previous year, indicating that a category once so driven by heritage and provenance has had a wake-up call to the notion of innovation.

Whether fledgling start-ups or Scotch stalwarts, producers are stepping out of their comfort zones – and no wonder. With world whisky brands from the likes of the US and Japan hot on their tails, and a thirsty millennial audience to charm, there’s no room for complacency. However, as our Scotch Whisky Masters results attest, the category is far from antiquated.

Judges convened at Chelsea stalwart Bluebird to sample a mammoth selection of whiskies from across the Scotch spectrum, and were subsequently split into four teams in order to tackle such an extensive offering in just one day.

First to step up to the mark was a group chaired by The Spirits Business editor, Kristiane Sherry. Joining her in assessing the first selection of Single Grain expressions were Elise Craft, Whisky Squad co-organiser; Joel Eastman, director of Grape and Grain Tours; and Aidan Bowie, head bartender at Dandelyan.

A small flight of Ultra Premium whiskies were the first to produce a medal, with Gold awarded to The Girvan Patent Still 30 Year Old, which offered “a marshmallow kind of sweetness” along with flavours of white chocolate mice and foam bananas.

First Master medals

In the 19-30 Year Old category, The Girvan Patent Still 25 Year Old earned a Silver for its notes of “light smoke” and soft brown sugars, but it was the Over 30 Years selection which really shone, attracting the first two Master medals of the day.

Here, Invergordon 42 Year Old Batch 6 won high praise for its “rich woody aromas” with notes of strawberries and green chilli. “It’s ever-changing in the glass,” said Eastman.

The “refined but eccentric” Girvan 52 Year Old Batch 1 was found to be “a lot fresher and brighter than you’d expect for its age”.

Tasked with rounding off the Single Grain entries were Jason B Standing, event organiser for Whisky Squad; Tim Forbes, freelance drinks writer; Nagesh Balusu, general manager at Salt Whisky Bar and Dining Room; and Melita Kiely, senior staff writer at The Spirits Business.

A short and somewhat disappointing flight of NAS entries produced a single Silver medallist in the form of The Girvan Patent Still No 4 Apps, a “light, gentle” whisky with a “dark fruit influence”.

“I wonder if single grain NAS should market itself along the lines of Blanco Tequila in terms of focusing more on the source of the spirit rather than an unaged product,” commented Standing. “Maybe if we had that it might have been appreciated differently.”

There was not much time to ponder, as the other two groups were already working their way through the first flight of Blended expressions – a large flight containing whiskies of ‘standard’ price classification.

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The first team was chaired by Matt Chambers, co-founder of Whisky for Everyone, along with the blog’s other co-founder, Karen Taylor; Mariella Romano, brand ambassador at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society; Steve Rush, whisky consultant and founder of The Whisky Wire, and Egzon Kastrati, bar manager at Bluebird.

Rounding off our tasting experts were Katie Rouse, brand ambassador for Garnish Communications; Athila Roos, private client director for Louis XIII; Blair Bowman, international business development manager for Uisge Source; with Billy Abbott, web content editor for The Whisky Exchange in charge of proceedings.

An impressive 12 medals were awarded, with the highest accolade going to the “creamy, smooth, balanced” William Lawson’s Finest Blend, with notes of malt, toffee, and butterscotch.

Scoring Gold medals respectively, Label 5 Classic Black offered “subtle smoke and nicely balanced sweet tones”, while Black Bottle won praise for its “leathery nose” and a “lighter palate than expected” with notes of toffee apples and spice.

Eight Silver medals bolstered the flight – completing a range of “easy-to-drink, light flavours” that judges felt were best suited to mixing.

Eastman said: “They were pleasant, they had good drinkability and mixability, and I think they will represent good value for money as well.”

From one strong flight to another, Chambers’ and Kiely’s teams took a step up to a selection of Blended Premium whiskies. Diageo took home three of four Gold medals produced in this heat; Old Parr Tribute, Black & White and Windsor 17 Year Old all scored highly, along with Wemyss Malts’ Lord Elcho.

“I’m very impressed with these whiskies,” said Forbes. “It’s such an important category within whisky, and probably faces the fiercest competition. It reflects well on the category as a whole – we tasted some high-quality stuff.”

“It highlighted how a less expensive category can really give you a nice dimensional spread of flavours,” added Standing.

‘Blends have to work hard’

If the previous Blended flights had offered bang for buck, the next flight – Super Premium – could be considered a gold mine, attracting two Master medals and seven Gold.

“Certainly I think this price bracket is a particularly tricky category,” said Forbes. “If you’re looking at between £40-£60, you’re getting into direct competition with decent single malts.

“Blends have to work hard but in general there’s a gap between entry level blends and for most people the space in between is a grey area. I was pleasantly shocked by the Masters. They were great whiskies but so stylistically different.”

The best in show were Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve, found to be “very smooth” with a “long and fresh finish”; and the “light, sweet, crisp” House of Hazelwood 18 Year Old.

“This is where the distinctive flavours really come out to play,” said Standing. “The integration and balance of these blends, while also having distinctive flavours that don’t overpower everything else, was fantastic.”

Pressing up the price classification ladder to Ultra Premium, Chambers’ team rewarded “citrusy, rich” Dewar’s NE Plus Ultra, “light, feisty” Lost Distilleries Blend Batch 7, and House of Hazelwood’s 21 and 25 Year Old whiskies with Gold medals, along with a further five Silvers.

“These were a very nice set of whiskies that all exhibited similar flavour profiles,” Chambers said. “The examples that stood out from the crowd showed something different and were more expressive.”

Departing price categories, it was time to explore the age statement blends, starting with a “solid, but not spectacular” round of whiskies aged up to 12 years, which nevertheless scored five Gold and four Silver medals, of which Ballantine’s entries were particularly well-received.

“Ballantine’s Hard Fired and 12 Year Old were both very good well-rounded whiskies,” said Balusu.

“The 12 Year Old had a waxy quality to it and these spearmint, sweet and spicy notes – it just had everything and really suited my palate.”

“The flight just didn’t have the flavour spectrum,” said Forbes. “It felt as though they were all trying to live up to what they think people want from a 12-year-old whisky. Technically good, but stylistically not as good as other categories.”

Though smaller in size, the next selection, aged 13-18 Years, fared much better. Here the “very complex, long” Label 5 18 Year Old scored a Master medal. “There’s sweetness, with savoury and bitter edges. Intriguing and nicely textured,” said Roos.

Dewar’s expressions The Monarch and The Vintage both impressed Abbott’s panel, receiving Gold medals, as did “bold” Ballantine’s 17 Year Old and “beautifully aromatic” Chivas 18.

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The next flight, 19-30 Years, was smaller still and produced two medals – one gold and a silver: Gold went to Grant’s 25 Year Old, which offered “a really nice balance of fruits, sweet notes and some nutty, savoury characters”, while Silver medalist Ballantine’s Limited was deemed “light and really tasty”.

“I would say they were very representative of the category,” said Craft. “You would expect the blend to be well stitched-together at that age. Solid, strong marriages all round.”

“I really liked that each of them had some fresh notes and old-cask character as well, and good complexity throughout,” added Eastman.

Sherry’s group rounded off the blended age statement flights with a very brief selection of whiskies aged 30 years and over.

“Rounded and rich”, The Gold Age Blend won Gold, while Blended Whisky #1 35 Year Old Batch 3 was found to be Master-worthy, with notes of “decadent, pure chocolate” with “a little bit of pipe smoke creeping in”.

“I thought it was really tasty, nice and rubbery with rich cherries and lots of spice,” said Bowie.

Chambers’ team were charged with three blended flights, beginning with a solo NAS blended malt. A “fresh and vibrant” offering, The Lost Distillery Company Classic Selection ‘Lossit’, attracted a Master medal for its “sweet, clean” palate, while the flight of special edition blended malts produced a Silver for Kiln Embers. Blended Malt Super Premium then saw “complex, assertive, intriguing” Johnnie Walker Island Green bestowed with a Master medal.

The panel rounded off the blended malts with two flights which produced a Master medal each. In Blended Malt Premium, Monkey Shoulder was deemed “exceptional” and “very expressive on the palate”; while in Blended Malt Aged 19-30 Years, “vegetal, peaty, rich and gorgeous” Islay Blended Malt #2 27 Years Old Batch1 triumphed.

“It’s great to see the blended malts category growing, and the examples on show were lovely,” said Rush.

The blended selection coming to a satisfying end, it was time for our four panels to shift their attention to single malts, beginning with a solo Lowland expression that fell into the NAS bracket.

Lowland is often associated with a gentle, mellow palate and floral undertones, but our entrant, Ailsa Bay, packed a punch with notes of peat, smoke and creamy toffee, and scored a Silver medal for its efforts.

With an incredibly brief foray into Lowland coming to a close, it was time to push on through single malts, with a range of super premium entries from Speyside marking the region’s only price classification flight.

‘Good entry level drams’

The Glenrothes Peated Cask Reserve was recognised with a Gold medal, its combination of light vanilla with spice, smoke and zingy citrus making an impression on judges, before it was time to embark upon the first flight of age classifications: Single Malt Speyside Aged Up To 12 Years.

A Gold medal was awarded to “soft, gentle” Speyburn 10 Year Old, with five additional Silver medals handed out to Aultmore 12 Year Old, The Singleton of Dufftown 12 Year Old, The Balvenie DoubleWood 12 Year Old, The Glenlivet 12 Year Old, and Glen Marnoch Speyside Single Malt Whisky.

“All of these would be good entry-level drams,” said Rush, and Romano agreed. “All follow the classic Speyside flavour and style, and all were good, easy-drinking and of good quality,” she said.

Moving up an age category to Aged 13-18 Years, Sherry’s team awarded seven Silver and four Golds, the first of which, The Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14 Year Old, was admired for its notes of fudge, candied sweets and candy floss.

“It stood out for me,” said Craft. “In addition to sweetness there was a nice counterpoint balancing it, a cut field of some kind. It’s not minerally but it had a sense of something more solid underneath that sweetness – soft linen.”

Glenfiddich’s 15 Year Old, 18 Year Old and Distillery Edition expressions rounded off the Golds, with the 18 Year Old deemed by Eastman to be “the most satisfying on the palate of the flight”.

The next age category, 19-30 Years, was one of the most successful of the day, tallying a total of three Master medals, eight Golds and two Silvers.

Stars of the flight were Craigellechie 23 Year Old, offering notes of apple pie on the nose, and heather and honey on the palate; Glenfiddich 21 Year Old, which won praise for its “great flavour integration and balance”; and the brand’s 30 Year Old expression, with its flavours of sweet citrus and sugared almonds.

“These were all really, really great classic Speyside styles, and very well balanced liquids,” said Balusu. “This is the quality you would expect from this category.”

Pressing onwards, Abbott’s panel tackled a smaller selection of Aged Over 31 Years, finding three Gold medals for The Balvenie Forty, and Glenfiddich’s Ultimate and 40 Year Old offerings, along with one Silver.

But it was Gordon & Macphail’s Rare Vintage Longmorn 1967 which truly grabbed the group’s attention, claiming a well-earned Master medal.

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Roos said: “It’s got a pretty sexy nose with a combination of deep, intense aromas of wood spice, sandalwood, violet perfume, orange cut marmalade, and a whiff of dried mango and passionfruit. This could go on for ever.”

Rounding off the final flight of Speyside single malt age categories was a diverse selection of NAS whiskies that proved to be hit and miss.

“There is some interesting experimentation clearly going on within NAS – some are more successful than others,” said Taylor.

One such example was Master medallist, “light, delicate, classy” The Glenlivet Nadurra Oloroso, which was held in high esteem for its “vanilla and soft floral notes” along with honeysuckle, green apple and honey.

Gold medals were awarded to Glenfiddich’s Cask Collection Select Cask, which had “great sipping charm”; Cask Collection Vintage Cask, which was “deep and oily” with “beautiful texture”; as well as the brand’s “light and fragrant” Malt Master expression.

Also scoring highly with Gold medals were Cardhu Gold Reserve, with its notes of stewed apple, honey, and golden syrup; and The Glenrothes Vintage Reserve, which was found to be “light and creamy” with red fruits and hazelnuts.

The final Speyside flight contained solo cask-strength entry, Tomintoul Five Decades, which was awarded a Gold medal for its flavours of exotic fruit, hazelnuts, ginger and rich oak.

“The range style of the whiskies was quite impressive – everything from traditional rich and rounded drams to the light and fruity, and even an occasional bit of smoke,” said Abbott.

Though impressed by the representation of Speyside, Sherry’s team looked forward to the future of the region.

‘Kick in the ass’

“I think that Speyside – a reflection generally, not of today – is ripe for a bit of a kick in the ass,” said Craft. “I’ll talk different approaches to peat until the cows come home, but in terms of approaches to sweetness… there’s more to come from that region.”

Departing the nutty, fruity flavour profiles associated with Speyside whiskies, our panel began to tread into the territory of maritime, oaky, smoky, heathery drams associated with single malts hailing from the Highlands and Islands. Starting with a selection of super premium drams, Master medallist, Ledaig 10 Year Old, made an impression with notes of bonfire, meat and “a real fruity sweetness” – “like apple sauce on a burnt pork sausage”.

A Gold medal was also awarded to Deaston Virgin Oak Whisky, which offered “lots of soft vanilla but also a peppery, rockety quality”, before the panel tried the next flight of whiskies, Aged up to 12 Years.

A runaway success, the round saw three Master medals awarded to Aberfeldy 12 Year Old for its “lovely fruit and oak flavours”; the “deliciously malty and complex” Royal Brackla 12 Year Old; and “very clean, crisp and well-balanced” Highland Black 8 Year Old.

Kiely said: “I thought the quality was amazing for the category. For whiskies aged up to 12 years old to show such complexity and maturity was extremely impressive.”

The next age statement category, Aged 13-18 Years, proved to be a round of solid gold – with seven Gold medals awarded.

The “long, sweet and smouldering” Ledaig 18 Year Old particularly impressed Sherry’s panel, as did the “zesty, herbaceous” Aberfeldy 16 Year Old and “mouthwateringly juicy” Royal Brackla 16 Year Old.

Although impressed by the high and consistent standard, the panel had hopes set on discovering something truly outstanding.

Craft said: “While they’re all solid gold, it would’ve been nice to see a whisky that stood out head and shoulders above the others with something exceptional.”

This, however, arrived in the next age statement grouping with “light, balanced, smooth” Highland Park 25 Year Old, which attracted a Master.

Also scored highly by Chambers’ panel was Gold medallist Glencadam 25 Year Old, with a “rich, silky palate of caramel and praline”.

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Judges from left to right: Egzon Kastrati, Nagesh Balusu, Kristiane Sherry, Steve Rush, Jason B. Standing, Katie Rouse, Blair Bowman, Melita Kiely, Athila Roos, Mariella Romano, Matt Chambers, Karen Taylor, Aidan Bowie, Elise Craft, Billy Abbott, Tim Forbes, and Joel Eastman

It was time to depart age classifications with a flight of NAS offerings, led chiefly by Abbott’s group.

Three Golds were awarded – to anCnoc Black Hill Reserve, which was admired for its “light, delicate nose” and notes of sherbet lemon and honey; the “woody, citrusy and easily drinkable” Glen Marnoch Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky; and Scapa

Skiren, which boasted a “subtle smokiness with a little sweetness at the end”.

A single special edition offering, Glenmorangie Milsean, closed the Highlands and Islands region with a Gold medal.

Roos said: “It had a pretty exciting nose, combining a ‘cool’ shandy character with tones of dried mango, orange cut marmalade and sweet malt. Delicious and complex!”

With that it was off to Islay to explore the peaty, smoky, saline single malts from the eight distilleries on the island.

Abbott’s team tackled a small flight Aged up to 12 Years, rewarding Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old with a Gold medal, and the “very enjoyable” Ardbeg 12 Year Old Batch #7 with a Master – “medicinal” on the nose, with notes of oil, brine and soft peat at the back of the palate and “plenty of spice in the front”.

Bunnahabhain also accrued Gold medals for its 18 Year Old and 25 Year Old whiskies as the solo standout brand in the next two age brackets.

‘Peaty palates’

“When you get to that age you really can explore so much more in the whisky,” said Eastman. “The peat wasn’t beating you about the head, it was much more subtle.”

Craft added: “Whiskies of this age from Islay make people believe in whisky terroir, because the water and the salinity and the peat really pushes in it different direction.”

Bunnahabhain continued to shine in the Single Malt Islay NAS category with its Master-worthy Toiteach, a “youthful” dram, which was “playful with a peaty palate”.

Glen Marnoch Islay Single Malt also collected a Master, recognised for its “subtle charms” but also “packing a lot of character”, while Bunnahabhain Ceobanach and Islay #1 Batch 1 each attracted Gold.

“Islay NAS was a great round,” said Balusu. “The whiskies were very obviously from Islay with their smokiness. The Masters were very well balanced with the sweet and spicy and peated flavours.”

The day drew to a close on a high with the awarding of the final Master medal of the day in the special edition category for Ardbeg Dark Cove, boasting charcoal notes along with barbeque sauce, Mediterranean roast vegetables and smoky halloumi cheese.

Bowie commented: “You’ve got stigmas from each different category, so it was great to see such a variety, especially with Islay. You think you’re going to get peat but they were much more multi-dimensional; the peat was used in different ways.”

Challenges may remain, but as our annual Scotch Whisky Masters tasting showed, the category can – and should – celebrate its achievements.

“In the Scotch whisky category you are constantly hearing people bemoan the death of things, and how it’s all about companies releasing whisky to make profits, and people reliving the ‘good old days’,” Standing said. “Today shows that there are some smashing whiskies that are different from the styles of yesteryear.

“There’s lots to be enjoyed within Scotch and some phenomenal flavour profiles. Based on this, we don’t need to worry that Scotch is losing ground to Japan – this is absolutely Scotch whisky at its best.”

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

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