The Brandy Masters 2017 results

9th May, 2017 by Kristiane Sherry

While brandy has yet to take off in the way other categories have, producers are doing interesting things with the liquid and making compelling products, as discovered in our annual Brandy Masters competition.

For all its diversity when it comes to base fruit, the brandy category has yet to pick up momentum in the same way as its Cognac cousin. Could it be that consumers struggle with the inherent lack of definition and fragmentation when compared with the tight regulations imposed on Cognac producers? Or is the secret to reviving brandy breaking those perceived ties altogether, ditching unfair and often impossible comparisons so it can speed ahead of its own accord? These questions and more were pondered by this year’s Brandy Masters judges.

Gathered at London’s Aqua Nueva to discuss not only the plight of the sector but to assess this year’s entrants were Nicola Thomson, Practical Matters director; Tobias D. Gorn, cigar and whisky sommelier at Boisdale of Belgravia; Matt Chambers, freelance spirits writer and co­-founder of the Whisky for Everyone blog; Julie Campbell, a freelance consultant; Nikos Peratinos, bar manager at Aqua Nueva and Aqua Tokyo London; and Amy Hopkins, deputy editor of The Spirits Business, chaired by me, Kristiane Sherry, editor of The Spirits Business.

First up was a flight of Armagnacs. “I think Armagnac people see Cognac as quite commercial, and Cognac people see Armagnac as a bit more artisanal,” mused Thomson. “Cognac is trying to go down that terroir route to add heritage, which is what Armagnac producers already do.”

And did that artisanal terroir character come through? Absolutely – especially in the case of Château de Laubade Intemporel No. 5 from Maison Leda. “It has a great fullness without being overly sweet,” said Campbell. “There’s a minerality on the nose that matched the finish – I loved how it all came together, with a sense of distillery character.” The expression was awarded a Gold medal.

Also from Maison Leda, Château de Laubade Vintage 1980 Cask Strength secured a Silver. “It had a big­wine character – it was certainly bold,” said Hopkins. Chambers enjoyed the “treacle, demerara sugar, spice and orange peel” notes, while Campbell declared it “a whisky drinker’s Armagnac”.
“I just want to see more.” She said. “Armagnac producers mostly just make it for consumption in Gascony rather than for export. It needs to up its reach and start campaigning. It’s great liquid.”

Hopkins agreed – but sees a bright future for the segment: “As consumer interest in artisanal production grows, so too will interest in the category,” she asserted.
The next flight was a cohort of Other French Brandies, which resulted in a quintet of Silver medallists. Beehive Premium Reserve VSOP was deemed “sweet and consistent”, with “floral, zesty, gingery” notes, while Bardinet VSOP was rewarded for its “fragrant” nose and stone fruit­led palate.

‘Almost smoky’ quality

Bardinet XO delighted the panel with its “savoury versus sweet” character and “almost smoky” quality, while Bardient XO Wine Cask Finish was “very well balanced, from the nose through to the finish”, and was evaluated as a “dessert-­style brandy”. Rounding off the flight was Ibis French Brandy from Larsen, which drew praise for its “nice nuttiness” and “really rather interesting delicate toffee palate.”

“This was really a versatile flight – why aren’t more producers focusing on French brandy?” asked Peratinos. “It was also consistent,” continued Hopkins. “Expectations aren’t set in stone and consumers are open to more flavour experiences. It’s a good thing for French brandy producers.”

Brandies from the beguilingly diverse Other Regions flight – South Africa is still to follow – produced a sole Silver medal for Aldi Stores’s Baroque Brandy. “I really enjoyed it – it was hot but silky,” said Hopkins. “There was a great wine character on the nose and it follows through on the palate – and the flavour note that comes to mind is chilli chocolate.”

South Africa

The remainder of the expressions hailed from South Africa, a market increasingly renowned for its brandies, with the category developing at a ferocious pace and following in the hallowed footsteps of the wine industry.

A duo of South African Pot Still No Age Statement expressions kicked off the country’s showing in style, pulling in a pair of Silver medals. Klipdrift Gold was “decadent and well integrated”, according to Hopkins, while Oude Meester Demant was “full of spice” and “long and round”.

South African Pot Still Aged 3­9 Years continued the Silver theme, with Oude Molen VS and Oude Molen VSOP scooping corresponding medals. The former had “a good warmth and a nutty-­fruity character”, said Campbell, while the latter delighted with its “golden syrup”­like elements, and the “eaux­de­vie shone through”. “These were great expressions,” said Hopkins. “They’re all well made, and you can tell the category is developing quickly.”

Great balance

The quality continued in the next flight, South African Pot Still Aged 10­12 Years, with Van Ryn’s 12 Years Old securing a Gold medal. “It had a great balance between richness, fruitiness and sweetness – and was really quite reminiscent of Cognac,” said Chambers, with Peratinos picking out “dried apricot and fig” from the “well­rounded, rich palate”.

Oude Molen XO was rewarded with a Silver for its “fresh dough” ambience and “good minerality”.
Pressing on to the penultimate flight, South African Pot Still Aged Over 13 Years, the judges once again awarded a pair of Silver medallists. “There was good contrast in Van Ryn’s 15 Years Old,” said Hopkins, “I got a lot of cinnamon and sweet liquorice, offset with a dry note.” Van Ryn’s 20 Years Old was celebrated for its “freshly baked cake” aromas and “ripe and dried fruit palate”.

The last flight of the day was formed of a single entrant – but it did not disappoint. Distell’s Richelieu 10 Year Old was awarded a Gold in the South African Single Vintage category. “The nose was great – really delicate and crisp with liquorice and aniseed,” said Peratinos. Chambers praised the all­round strength of the gentle palate, which built with caramel notes as it developed with time.

Difference and individuality

Looking back over the day, the judges were pleased with the progress made by the brandy cohort – but there were some surprises. “For the South African brandies I was surprised how little difference age had on the quality – it didn’t really show,” thought Campbell. “There wasn’t a huge leap from the 3­9 Years flight to the 13+ Years liquid.”

For Hopkins, it was more a missed opportunity to showcase difference and individuality across the brandy board. “Brandy producers have access to so many different base ingredients and production styles – I would have liked to see that play out more here,” she said.

Could it yet again be a case of producers playing it safe in uncertain times? “Almost certainly,” she said. “Quality isn’t really an issue – but consumers do want to see more, and brandy producers need to harness a point of difference.”

Click through the following pages for the Brandy Masters 2017 results in full.

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