The Luxury Spirits Masters 2016 results

6th September, 2016 by Kristiane Sherry - This article is over multiple pages: 1 2 3

In The Spirits Business‘s first-ever Luxury Spirits Masters, we sought and celebrated excellence in the upper echelons of the industry.

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These are the results of our inaugural The Luxury Spirits Masters competition

As premiumisation takes hold, aged spirit stocks dwindle and consumer connoisseurship spreads like wildfire, market conditions dictate a surge at the high end of the sector. In the US alone, the super-premium spirits segment saw volume gains of 33.1% in 2015, pushing the sector’s 2005-15 CAGR to 16.4%, according to the IWSR’s 2016 US Beverage Alcohol Review. Growth, it seems, now comes with a hefty price tag.

To reflect the changing market, The Spirits Business team launched the Luxury Spirits Masters, a new addition to the Global Spirits Masters series, in order to reward and celebrate excellence in the upper echelons of the industry. Producers playing in the super-premium and ultra-premium-plus brackets across the entire spirits spectrum were invited to enter, and the resulting expressions did not disappoint.

Charged with the task of sorting through the entries was an expert panel of judges hailing from across the category split. Greg Dillon, luxury spirits brand consultant and writer at GreatDrams.com, Edward Bates, owner, Distilled London, and Georgi Radev, Mahiki bar manager, were joined by Amy Hopkins, deputy editor, The Spirits Business, and myself, Kristiane Sherry, editor, The Spirits Business, to taste and debate the diverse selection of luxury offerings.

As with all tastings in the Global Spirits Masters series, each sample was assessed blind and on its own merit. For the Luxury Masters, the price bracket – super-premium or ultra-premium – was disclosed, along with the abv of the samples. In addition to examining the spirits, the Luxury Masters also stirred up fierce debate over how to define luxury spirits, what ‘luxury’ means to consumers, and how the trade can better categorise the higher end of the market.

First up to face the panel was a strong flight of Vodka – Super Premium, attracting two Gold medals and a Silver. Bulbash’s Triple Seven Vodka delighted with its “clean” and “white pepper” character, and duly won a Gold, as did BeringIce, celebrated for its “distinct softness” and “unusual sweetness”.

Overall, judges were pleased with the opening flight. “It exhibited the breadth of what you can do within vodka,” commented Dillon, adding that producers were striving to stand out in different ways within what remains a competitive bracket. Radev felt the flight offered “good value for money”, while Bates noted the “remarkable variety” and “pleasing lack of uniformity”.

Vodka debate

Judges moved on to Vodka – Ultra Premium, which saw the first challenging debate of the day. While the panel questioned the value for money represented by some of the entrants – when assessed as ‘luxury spirits’ positioned in the ultra-premium space – some did stack up and were rewarded with Gold medals.

“I really like the white pepper on the finish,” said Bates of the Gold medal-winning Arbikie Potato Vodka. “It’s very clean and soft, yet characterful.”

Similarly NEFT Vodka was also bestowed a Gold. “It absolutely delivered what a great vodka should – that cleanliness with soft lemon peel on the finish,” said Dillon. “They’ve really nailed it,” Radev concurred.

“In this flight you had some examples which really delivered on the purest view of what vodka should be,” Dillon summed up. Looking to the wider ultra-premium vodka landscape, “I think trying to justify the positioning within the category purely on spirit alone is hard,” felt Bates. While in vodka ‘brand’ is perhaps the most important element, the quality of the liquid does need to back it up, they concluded.

Sticking with white spirits, next in line was Gin – Super Premium. As expected, the flight was packed with diversity – the Global Gin Masters, held in June this year, fully attested to the vibrancy of the sector – but caution often needs to be applied at the higher end of the market. Will the juice justify the price tag?

The panel need not have worried, handing out three Golds and a Silver to a “strong” line-up. First to benefit from the rush of Golds was the “utterly classic” Hermit Gin. “Any cocktail or G&T made with this would be outstanding,” enthused Radev, with Hopkins praising its “complexity” while it remained “really subtle”.

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The competition examined super- and ultra-premium offerings from across the spirits spectrum

Gold medal-winning Gilpin’s Gin was likewise deemed “classic, delicate, yet really complex”, by Bates, who declared it “really well-distilled”. Dillon echoed: “I thought the strength [47% abv] enhanced its depth of character”.

Completing the golden trio was Arbikie Kirsty’s Gin, declared “quite savoury with a vegetal note” by Hopkins. “It’s almost medicinal on the palate”, she added, while Radev decreed the nose “amazing”.

While the gins in the line-up only represented but a fraction of those on offer in the congested price bracket, judges were delighted by the flight.

“Most of the gins released today are in that super-premium bracket so producers have had to step up,” remarked Hopkins, looking back on the past two years of NPD in the sector. “It’s also interesting to see in this super-premium bracket that, despite all the newness, the ones that stand strong are the classic styles, and they are seen as a positive,” added Dillon.

But, with the diversity pumped into the sector from new entrants, boundaries are inevitably being pushed. When is a gin not a gin? Judges felt there needed to be a wider industry conversation on how to label and present those products not led by juniper to help consumers navigate the now labyrinthine segment.

The theme persisted as the panel moved into the Gin – Ultra Premium category. Debate over identity and categorisation persisted, along with the question: just what do consumers expect from a luxury gin?

Despite the challenges, the flight produced the first Master medal of the day, the “very well-rounded”, “stand-out” Cannonball Edinburgh Gin, which weighed in at a hefty navy strength of 57.2% abv.

“It didn’t have that overpowering sense which you can have with higher abv gins,” praised Dillon. “It’s incredibly classic, beautifully smooth, and has a nice level of sweetness to it as well.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” continued Bates. “It delivers within itself, and within the category of gin. Its palate manages to – as a good navy strength in should – have the combination of power and delicacy.”

Following hot on its heels was Purity Gin – Old Tom, a “versatile”, “perfectly balanced” product that scooped a Gold.

“This has my favourite mouthfeel of all of them for me,” said Hopkins. “It’s very bright and full, but also fresh and dewy. It’s flavoursome, but not over the top.”

‘Vanity projects’

In conclusion, the judges deemed the flight a success but questioned again whether or not the sector needs more legislation beyond London Dry to support and explain the array of creativity out there.

“Those examples, while diverse, showed where the ultra-premium price is justified through experimentation and the purity of distilling,” mused Dillon.

But for Bates, experimentation alone doesn’t go far enough. “I think the danger with the ultra-premium category as we see here is of people confusing a vanity project with a serious business. Looking to the wider category, I don’t think there are many commercially viable volume sellers, which contrasts with the super-premium category, which can be more consistent.”

But what do consumers shopping in the ultra-premium category actually want in a gin? Does a well-made classic London dry cut the mustard, or do gin fans long for more?

“I think consumers do look for innovation in luxury spirits, but while the ultra-premium gins showed how the category can be very diverse, I don’t think the individual spirits were that versatile,” pondered Hopkins. “I think some of the basics were forgotten.” Or as Radev put it: “You cannot justify an ultra-premium price just by sticking more cardamom in.”

Moving away from white spirits, the panel pressed on to Cognac and a flight of super-premium expressions. It didn’t take long at all for the entire selection to be described as “masterful”, resulting in some heavyweight medals being awards: two Masters and three Golds, making Cognac – Super Premium the most successful category of the day.

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The judges examined what they believed consumers are looking for in luxury spirits

The first to have the top accolade bestowed on it was Cognac Campagnère Extra, deemed “a cut above” by Dillon: “It is really well-rounded and really felt like a higher-priced expression in its composition.”

Bates agreed: “It has this delicacy and a softness, a deftness of touch that really shows the artistry behind the Cognac, bringing together the various elements to give a less dramatic but equally characterful drink.”

Cognac Park Extra Grande Champagne equally delighted. “It’s absolutely stunning and highlights the wizardry of the maker,” exclaimed Dillon, while Hopkins praised its “rich, fruity” quality. “This is exactly what I get excited about Cognac for, that sense of time, and just letting the spirit and the wood do their thing,” agreed Bates. “It’s the right wood in the right cellar left for the right amount of time – you get this incredible balance.”

Picking up Golds for the flight were the “elegant” Martell Cordon Bleu – “what Cognac should be all about” – plus the “luxurious”, “super smooth” Martell XO, and “classic”, “bold” Cognac XO Memoire.

“This flight shows why Cognac is on a resurgence,” Dillon said. “It shows what Cognac can be, while, in relative terms, not breaking the bank for the category.” For Radev, “this is the first time we can talk about ‘luxury’. This is where you can get so many flavours in one glass, and nothing is overpowering with sweetness.

“With this flight, you can ignore the marketing and just get down to the spirit. You see why good Cognac is so good.”

The only concern is whether the Cognac category is doing enough to attract a younger audience, and thus secure its future. “I do hope that spirits like this, with such quality and that comparatively don’t break the bank, do start to connect more with millennials,” said Dillon.

Blended luxury

Having bid a reluctant farewell to Cognac, next up for the panel was a tiny flight of Blended Scotch – Super Premium. While it attracted just a solitary medal it was a good one, with Dewar’s 18 Year Old The Vintage reeling in a Gold.

“It justifies the price bracket and it is a great blended Scotch whisky,” declared Bates. “I use a choir analogy when I talk to people about blends, and this is singing in harmony.” For Dillon, there was “a lovely roundedness of vanilla oak, it’s slightly sweet, with light orchard fruits, and is really mellow.

The gold theme continued in Blended Scotch Ultra Premium, which drew in two more Golds: one each for Dewar’s NE Plus Ultra 30 Year Old and Dewar’s Signature.

“I love the warm, waxy, woody nose; that sense of the oak that delivers on both the nose and the palate,” praised Bates, of Dewar’s NE Plus Ultra 30YO. “It’s very elegant, sophisticated and well-rounded,” added Hopkins, who noted the subtle wisp of smoke on the finish.

For Dillon, Dewar’s Signature was “bang on the brief”. “There’s so much depth with the really unctuous, deep nose, and fresh apples and vanilla oak on the palate,” he said.

The high praise continued as the panel moved on to Single Malt Scotch Ultra Premium, where they unearthed both a Gold and a Master.

“The thing that stands out for me with Balblair Vintage 1969 is that it’s very alive – it really dances on the palate,” said Bates of the Gold-winning dram, adding that despite its balance and lack of wood domination, it must have significant age. “It’s exceptional.”

Hopkins agreed: “Especially in the ultra-premium bracket, you can get a lot of wood, but this is a nice proposition and the spirit really shines though – and I like the oily mouthfeel.”

But a Master medal went to Glenmorangie Signet. Dillon was “intrigued” by the “clearly very well-selected casks”, while Bates praised the “warm, enticing, voluptuous” liquid. “It’s a really classic whisky,” remarked Hopkins. “It’s about toffee and fire embers, and you could really settle down with it.”

In conclusion, Bates declared them both “exceptionally good” whiskies: “The Signet is very much a brilliant example of whisky making, and the Balblair is a great example that time is always going to be the most expensive component of any whisky. The thing we all picked out was that it was old, and that’s one thing you can’t get round.”

Once again, the question of how to define ‘luxury’ came to the fore. “It’s often so much about rarity – when does ‘rare’ ever guarantee something will taste good?” mused Hopkins. For Dillon, this the rare/old dichotomy will shift with time. “New-to-market consumers won’t have the hang-up about age that existing ones do,” he said, with the rise of quality no-age-statement releases breaking the still-solid bonds between ‘age’ and ‘expensive’.

Judges

Judges, from left to right: Georgi Radev, bar manager, Mahiki; Greg Dillon, luxury spirits brand consultant and writer at GreatDrams.com; Kristiane Sherry, editor, The Spirits Business; Amy Hopkins, deputy editor, The Spirits Business; and Edward Bates, owner, Distilled London

It was time for judges to venture beyond Scotland’s shores, with an intriguing flight of World Whisky Single Malt – Super Premium expressions. The diversity of the medal-winning duo drew praise, with both Bold and Brilliance from Paul John securing Golds.

“Bold has got that lovely medicinal aroma, but you get more besides that: fresh tomato, a fresh vegetal note and metallic flavour, but it’s very sippable,” declared Hopkins.

Meanwhile, Dillon deemed Brilliance “a really nice example, with a lovely nose of candy, balanced with fruit peaches and apples. A great Indian whisky”.

For Hopkins, “the pair shows that young whiskies can be characterful and show good value for money. Consumers should consider them more often that they do.”

Next up was a bumper flight of World Whisky Single Malt – Ultra Premium releases, which near-universally delighted the panel. Six medallists were evenly split, with three Golds and three Silvers awarded across the taste and aroma spectrum.

“I loved it, it’s everything you want from a hot-climate whisky,” exclaimed Bates of the Gold-winning Sullivans Cove French Oak Single Cask HH0419. “It’s got rich, attractive oak, a little bit of smoke too and a sweetness, that really cuddles you in.”

Sibling cask HH0400 was deemed “powerful, well-rounded, and flavourful with a good depth,” by Dillon, also securing a Gold.

Completing the golden trio, this time from India, was Peated Select Cask from Paul John. “I loved it – it’s got a deep, brooding power,” said Bates.

All in all, “they really showed the new whisky world can make interesting examples throughout the flavour spectrum”, concluded Dillon. “The flight showed real diversity and what you can do with relatively young juice.”

Hopkins agreed: “What was interesting about the flight was seeing how different distilleries and regions are trying to establish their own character away from Scotch.”

The panel then left the world whisky contingent and moved on to rum. First up was La Hechicera, a singular expression in the Rum – Super Premium flight, assessed by Radev as “a nice sipping rum”, with a nose that is “everything you’d expect from a great rum.” As such, the Colombian entrant secured a Gold.

New luxe leaders

Moving on to the Rum – Ultra Premium offering, judges sniffed out both Gold and Silver-worthy expressions. “The first time I nosed Rum Malecon Rare Proof it was unusual, then you get some beautiful flavours,” said Radev. Hopkins agreed: “It’s vegetal, then with an almost meaty nose.” But the panel approved of the curious profile, awarding a Gold, with the “vanilla-forward” Rum Malteco Selecció scooping the Silver.

While the two medallists impressed, Radev felt that age and cask influence, not post-distillation dosing, should define the segment: “The ultra-premium category is about the experience you get from the master blender, not the chemist adding stuff after.” Bates agreed: “It should be about bringing out more character, not trying to mask it with additives.”

Moving further into sweetness territory, it was time to assess the specialities and liqueurs. First to be sampled was the Silver-winning FincaXú, a “herbaceous, quite sweet” speciality, followed by the “absolutely classic” Vieux Pineau Blanc, which likewise picked up a Silver in the Speciality – Super Premium bracket.

The final pour of the day in Liqueur – Super Premium was Gold-winning Vana Tallinn Elégance, a blend of rum and Estonian spirit, deemed “the biggest surprise of the day”.

“I thought the nose was stunning – treacle, caramel, marmalade, almost lemon drizzle cake,” praised Dillon, with Hopkins describing the expression as a “decadent liqueur”.

Looking back over the tasting, “what was interesting was seeing the breadth of each category and how diverse it is at the top-ish end”, said Dillon. “It was also intriguing to see how luxury can, at times, be a misused word for producers or brands who want to put out something that’s not in their main range and then call it ‘luxury’ to premiumise it. All in all, I think whisky, rum and Cognac stood out the most – and the liqueur!”

Bates echoed his thoughts. “It’s odd how some justify a pricing structure. Just because something is a bit of an oddity doesn’t make it justifiable to add two more zeros on the bottle price. The other take-away: the cost of time can never be underestimated.”

“What struck me was that a lot of the super-premium offerings were actually better than the ultra-premiums just on taste, which was quite surprising,” added Hopkins. “But it’s also encouraging in a way, because what some consumers see as ‘luxury’ could retail at a couple of hundred pounds, compared to a couple of thousand. It’s both reassuring and indicative of the ‘luxury’ category today.”

What is ‘luxury’? Perhaps that’s a question that never will be answered. But, as the first-ever Luxury Spirits Masters showed, the quality is there regardless of scale of price elevation – which makes consumers the ultimate winners.

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

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