Speciality and Pre-mixed Masters Results 2016By Kristiane Sherry
The Speciality Spirits Masters and Pre-Mixed Spirits Masters saw little-known tipples pack a punch, with innovation aplenty to rival the mainstream.
From UK Vogue to celebrity chefs, it seems the entire world has gone bitters crazy. The antithesis of easy drinking, this subset of speciality spirits has soared in popularity as consumers in the cocktail segment and beyond are embracing palate challengers. It doesn’t stop there: a vermouth resurgence, documented in the US, Europe, Australia and beyond, is shaking up the sector.
While the movement is surely linked with the global classic cocktail revival, brands and imbibers alike are finding new, modern ways of sipping such spirits – and it’s from trends like these that the wide-ranging speciality spirits umbrella is benefiting.
It makes sense, then, that this collection of lesser-known, often local-focused spirits is increasingly finding itself in the spotlight. As interest increases quality has had to follow – and that’s what our judges found when they assessed the field of Speciality Spirits Masters 2016 entrants.
Meeting at One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, to explore the offerings were Jamie Kimber, Willem Barentsz brand ambassador; Tobias Gorn, director, Campbell & Gorn; Nicola Thomson, director, Fifteen71; Rui Costa, bartender at Pollen Street Social; and Alessio Franzese, executive general manager at Rum & Sugar, with the judging chaired by myself, Kristiane Sherry. As always, each sample was assessed blind and on its own merit within an appropriate flight.
It was fitting that the first flight of the day was a band of Bitters, or amaros, if of an Italian persuasion. Kicking off the medals was Riga Black Balsam and Riga Black Balsam Currant, both scooping Gold.
“Riga Black Balsam was the perfect combination of liquorice and spice,” Franzese said. Costa agreed, praising the expert balance of spicy and dry notes. The Currant variant similarly impressed. “There was a lovely morello cherry with great volatility and good acidity,” Thomson commented. “It was well balanced and long in length with a textured spiciness.” The flight also produced two Silver medallists in the form of Salers Gentiane and Riga Black Balsam Element.
“This was a thoroughly enjoyable flight with great quality shown throughout the whole range,” Kimber said, with Gorn agreeing: “It was very exciting and delivered what was expected – even over-delivered.”
Judges then turned their attention to the Aquavit offer, a trio of Silver medallists which delighted the panel.
“I loved the creamy melon quality of O.P. Anderson,” Kimber said. “It was very subtle and elegant.” Costa was taken with the “warming and spicy character and liquorice flavour” of sibling product O.P. Anderson 125th Anniversary Edition, bottled at 44% abv. Finally, the KLAR expression was praised by Gorn as “more lively, more focused and more outgoing”.
“This was quite a consistent flight, the three aquavits delivered what you would expect,” said Thomson said. However the judges were split on the future of the category outside the native Nordic market. While Thomson felt the “unaged Armagnac”-like qualities set it in good stead, others were unconvinced. “The commercial viability? I don’t see a large enough consumer base,” said Kimber. “It’s niche, especially in the UK.”
However Costa was more optimistic: “Bartenders are starting to play with it a bit more though – it is showing up on more menus.” There was a feeling that if the category could keep up the pressure, it could pick up white spirit consumers exploring beyond gin and vodka.
Next up was the most fruitful of the session – in terms of both flavour and medal count. A record Vermouth haul saw medals galore, including the first Master of the afternoon in Bramley and Gage Sweet Vermouth. Among those most impressed was Gorn. “It’s the intensity that got to me,” he felt. “It’s brilliant – it’s sweet but it has loads of layers, layers of flavour coming through. And yet they all sit next to each other without being too loud.”
The Master was swiftly followed by five Golds, reinforcing just how far the category has come on. “I thought Maurin Vermouth had so many different components: spiced plum, pepper, the confectedness of a glace cherry – it would be wonderful with a glass of ice and Japanese fusion food,” praised Thomson. Meanwhile, Franzese found Belsazar Vermouth Red offered “the nose I preferred most. It was really quite complex.” Costa echoed his praise, celebrating the vermouth’s “caramel, Sherry notes” and “really nice, bitter finish”.
Next to join the Golds was Belsazar Vermouth White, reckoned by Kimber to offer “fresh fruit” with a “really well balanced sweetness”. Thomson agreed: “I just loved all the tropical notes, with back
notes of liquorice and pepper – it works really well.” Belsazar Vermouth Rosé also delighted: “It was probably the least sweet out of them – it’s also the most refreshing,” said Gorn.
Last but not least was The Water Company’s Domingo. “I thought it had layers and layers of flavour, with a great bitterness and a great balance of dryness too,” Costa said. “It is clearly really well made.” Belsazar Vermouth Dry and Vintage Rosé completed the flight, both picking up Silvers.
“It’s good to see the international vermouth market blooming with some fantastic examples,” Gorn summed up, having examined all the expressions. “It really is flourishing,” Thomson agreed, in particular praising the diversity of flavour components coming from the global market.
“Consumer interest has come from the Aperol market,” Franzese said, considering how the iconic orange serve has hijacked the light and long market. “Now vermouth has more appeal as an aperitif. I think more people will now go for a vermouth and a mixer or a vermouth on ice.”
Judges then turned their attention to a solo Grappa expression. Vigorous and intense, it’s an often misunderstood category, but one backed up with centuries of provenance and craft.
Bottega’s Grappa Maestri, made from Prosecco pomace, was deemed a great example of the category, packed with flavour with a mouth-filling quality. Popular with the panel, it was awarded a Silver medal.
The next and final category to be mulled over by the judges was a smaller Absinthe flight. As historic as it is potent, absinthe is another beneficiary of the revival of classic cocktails, with rinses and long drinks. Judges found two medallists, with Mythe Absinthe securing a Gold and Ableforth’s Cold-Distilled Absinthe, bottled practically off the still at 91.2% abv, picking up a Silver.
Both impressed the panel – “you would enjoy a cigar after Mythe Absinthe”, one judge said – while the Ableforth’s expression was found to be “remarkably well-balanced”.
“These are a good couple of examples – it’s good to see the category profiled a bit more,” said Thomson. “The trade needs to start championing the category.”
Franzese agreed, declaring that it was “absolutely the best liquor to give a good punch to your cocktail.” Unfortunately it seems shaking off its reputation as a painful party drink will be trickier than producing some knock-out cocktails for absinthe.
But all the judges were impressed by the array of speciality spirits on offer. “There were some niche products from all over the world and the overall quality was very good,” Costa said, while Thomson praised the “broad cocktail scope” on offer through the varied flights.
An enthusiastic Gorn said: “There’s lots of space for innovation and the opportunity to do new things, including renewing versions and modernising. It’s incredibly exciting – we don’t always hear enough from speciality spirit categories, but for me, there’s room for much more.”
THE PRE-MIXED MASTERS 2016
After a break in proceedings, the judges moved on to assess the 2016 Pre-Mixed Masters. Introduced two years ago, the Pre- Mixed Masters was developed to recognise and celebrate a segment of the market growing in both size and importance, be it cocktail-in-a-can supermarket serves or more complex bottled concoctions perfect for producing at dinner parties.
The panel – Jamie Kimber, Tobias Gorn, Nicola Thomson, Rui Costa, and Alessio Franzese, chaired by myself, Kristiane Sherry – were again tasked with assessing each ready-made mix on its own merit within its own flight. Given the increase in quality of ready-to-pour libations, a mood of cautious optimism was at once apparent, and only reinforced by the solo entry in the first flight of the day: Long White Vodka Lemon & Lime from Independent Liquor in the Classic Spirit & Mixer flight. The serve was deemed “sweet”, “sugar-led” and “classic”, and was duly awarded a Silver medal.
Next to be sampled was a much larger grouping of Classic Spirit & Mixer with a Twist. Deemed “fresh with a good acidity”, Striganov Vodka Crush Guava was immediately bestowed a Gold, as were the “Dry Martini-esque” Mist Wood Gin Grapefruit and Lime and the “well balanced, well flavoured” Mist Wood Gin and Apple. Four Silver medals were also subsequently awarded.
The judges praised the “superb examples of flavour” with some “fun colour and appearances” also in the flight. All in all, the flight “does what it needs to do,” Thomson reckoned. Cocktails in cans have clearly come on leaps and bounds in recent months and years.
Next up for assessment was a flight of Pre-Mixed Classic Cocktails, with the likes of Old Fashioneds, Moscow Mules and Piña Coladas all making appearances. Once again the panel found some excellent examples, not least Gold medallist Lufthansa’s Old Fashioned. “It’s clearly well made with real sweet, bitter sharpness,” said Costa, with Kimber adding: “If you were served this at an event you’d love it.”
Similarly, Fruko Schulz Piña Colada also impressed, picking up a Gold. “It’s balanced, it’s a great drink,” said Gorn, with Costa praising the creaminess. “You can really feel the pineapple juice.”
Third and final Gold winner for the flight was Tails Moscow Mule. “The ginger is fantastic,” Franzese said. “It really delivers what you want – a good example of a Moscow Mule.” Thomson agreed: “It does exactly what it says on the tin.” NIXD Mojito, Tails Pornstar Martini and Three Rum Old Fashioned were also recognised for their quality and were awarded Silvers.
Kimber, summing up, said: “I really enjoyed these,” adding that there were some good recreations of the classics on show. Thomson said: “I think they were really trying to show the characteristic of each drink – and it was generally a good representation.” In terms of grab ’n’ go cocktails for picnics or on a train journey, the panel was impressed with what they tasted.
But it was the penultimate flight of the day that really grabbed the judges’ attentions. Pre-Mixed Contemporary Cocktail really saw the drink technologists’ flair shine through, and as a result, the panel awarded the competition’s first and only Master medal to Tails Berry Mojito.
“The mint is standing up, the raspberry is there, it’s fresh – we just need some crushed ice!” Franzese exclaimed. Kimber’s curiosity was also piqued. “I’m intrigued how they got that mint aroma in there – the aromas are beautiful.” For Gorn, it was a simple: “That’s how it’s done.”
But the quality did not stop there: five Gold medallists followed, including four for The Handmade Cocktail Company, its Boulevardier Cocktail up first. “This is bitter, spicy, orangey – a great example of a Boulevardier,” Costa said. “I’d happily pay money for this.”
The Martinez Cocktail elicited similar praise, with Franzese declaring: “It’s a Martinez through and through – it is what it is.” If The Handmade Cocktail Company’s pre-mixed prowess was still undecided, its Negroni and Vieux Carré Cocktails reinforced the Gold standard.
“I really liked the Negroni, I’d be more than happy to have that given to me in a bar,” Kimber said. “It was enjoyable, easy to drink – and a Negroni is so easy to mess up.” Gorn was as complimentary of the Vieux Carré: “It’s very classic with a great balance and a great length.”
The fifth Gold went to World of Zing for its intriguing Persian Lime & Nori Margarita. “It’s an interesting interpretation of a Margarita,” Thomson said. “As a base it’s perfect, with the other components it’s fascinating.” Notable Silvers were awarded to Longflint Rose Hip & Gin Fizz, and Tails Elderflower Collins. “This last flight was very good – you could really notice the step up in quality,” Thomson said. “They were great representations of the cocktails.”
“You could open a bar, sell these and get away with it,” Kimber declared. “It just got better and better.”
For Allessio, “If cans and bottles are the market, there is some outstanding stuff going on. I would happily buy the Berry Mojito.”
Continuing the Gold run was a solitary entry in the final flight: Partially-Made Cocktail, when the customer adds the mixer. The Rested Cocktail Co.’s Havard expression was met with marvel, and impressed with its complexity and balance.
Rarely do convenience and quality convene – this year’s Pre-Mixed Masters showed that the two can intersect, and with quite spectacular results. If one word was to sum up the tasting, “it’s impressive, I would say,” said Franzese. High praise indeed.
Click through to the following page for the complete list of medal winners from the Speciality and Pre-Mixed Masters 2016.
|Amber Beverage Group||Riga Black Balsam||Gold|
|Amber Beverage Group||Riga Black Balsam Currant||Gold|
|Amber Beverage Group||Riga Black Balsam Element||Silver|
|Altia Sweden||O.P. Anderson 125th Anniversary Edition||Silver|
|Altia Sweden||O.P. Anderson||Silver|
|Altia Sweden||O.P. Anderson KLAR||Silver|
|Bramley and Gage||Bramley and Gage Sweet Vermouth||Master|
|Belsazar||Belsazar Vermouth Red||Gold|
|Belsazar||Belsazar Vermouth White||Gold|
|Belsazar||Belsazar Vermouth Rosé||Gold|
|The Water Company||Domingo||Gold|
|Belsazar||Belsazar Vermouth Dry||Silver|
|Belsazar||Belsazar Vermouth Vintage Rosé||Silver|
|Ableforth’s||Cold Distilled Absinthe||Silver|
|Classic Spirit & Mixer|
|Independent Liquor||Long White Vodka Lemon & Lime||Silver|
|Classic Spirit & Mixer with a Twist|
|Aldi Stores||Striganov Vodka Crush Guava||Gold|
|Asahi Premium Beverages||Mist Wood Gin Grapefruit and Lime||Gold|
|Asahi Premium Beverages||Mist Wood Gin with Apple||Gold|
|Aldi Stores||Striganov Vodka Crush Lemon Lime||Silver|
|Aldi Stores||Striganov Vodka Crush Raspberry||Silver|
|Asahi Premium Beverages||Mist Wood Gin Orange and Bitters||Silver|
|Asahi Premium Beverages||Mist Wood Gin with Elderflower and Lime||Silver|
|Pre-Mixed Classic Cocktail|
|Small Big Brands||Lufthansa Cocktail Old Fashioned||Gold|
|Fruko Schulz||Fruko Schulz Piña Colada||Gold|
|Tails Cocktails||Tails Moscow Mule||Gold|
|Tails Cocktails||NIXD Mojito||Silver|
|Tails Cocktails||Tails Pornstar Martini||Silver|
|The Rested Cocktail Co.||Three Rum Old Fashioned||Silver|
|Pre-Mixed Contemporary Cocktail|
|Tails Cocktails||Tails Berry Mojito||Master|
|The Handmade Cocktail Company||The Boulevardier Cocktail||Gold|
|The Handmade Cocktail Company||The Martinez Cocktail||Gold|
|The Handmade Cocktail Company||The Negroni Cocktail||Gold|
|The Handmade Cocktail Company||The Vieux Carré Cocktail||Gold|
|World of Zing||Persian Lime & Nori Margarita||Gold|
|Longflint||Longflint Rose Hip & Gin Fizz||Silver|
|Tails Cocktails||Tails Elderflower Collins||Silver|
|The Rested Cocktail Co.||Harvard||Gold|