The Scotch Whisky Masters 2017 results

9th June, 2017 by Kristiane Sherry - This article is over multiple pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6

The Spirits Business received an unprecedented number of entries for this year’s Scotch Whisky Masters, boasting a plethora of high-quality expressions that wowed our judges.

Sunshine has finally returned to Scotland. Or at least it feels that way – the industry has a spring in its step following confirmation from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) that exports finally returned to growth in 2016.

After four years of flat or falling exports, buffeted by economic headwinds and political uncertainty, export values rose by 4% to pass the £4 billion (US$5.2bn) mark, with the EU and US the category’s biggest customers. “We’re feeling optimistic,” said Julie Hesketh­-Laird, SWA acting chief executive, as the export figures were announced.

And the bounce is resulting in significant shifts in the sector. “This confidence is reflected in the number of new distilleries – 14 have opened in the past few years, and we know of about another 40 that are in various stages of planning,” she noted.

This injection of energy, alongside the excellence of the established houses, made for a compelling class of 2017 at The Scotch Whisky Masters. This vitality was apparent in the run­up to the competition as entry after entry flowed into SB’s office. With a record number of entrants (and medallists – an unprecedented 189 whiskies won gongs), it was clear that a stellar and substantial judging committee was required.

They gathered at London’s Flora Indica to take on the mammoth assortment of Scotch whiskies that spanned every category of SWA classification: single malts; blended malts; blended Scotch; single grains; and blended grains. And for the first time, all of the recognised regions were present too, with a strong Campbeltown contingent joining Highland & Island, Lowland, Speyside and Islay examples. Each segment was divided into price, age and other qualities, such as single cask, with all assessed blind and on their own merit.

UNDER SCRUTINY

The first flight to come under scrutiny was Single Grain: No Age Statement, which was tackled by Greg Dillon, brand consultant and author of GreatDrams.com; Mark Jennings, founder, Drinks Galore; and Chris White, editor, Edinburgh Whisky Blog; chaired by me, Kristiane Sherry. The flight saw a solitary Silver medal awarded to The Girvan Patent Still Proof Strength for its “orchard­-fruit­-salad and vanilla” qualities.

Following hot on its heels was the Single Grain: Aged 19­30 Years flight, where the panel found a duo of Golds in The Girvan Patent Still 25 Year Old, and Rare Auld Grain Cambus Sherry Cask 1991 25YO.

Rounding off the single grains was the Aged over-­31 Years offering, where That Boutique­-y Whisky Company’s Invergordon 43 Year Old Batch 5 secured the day’s first Master medal. “This is just joyous,” said White. “It’s comforting, inviting on the nose and with some rancio.”

The panel echoed his sentiments, deeming it “a whisky to really sit back with”. Dillon said: “The premium grain category is booming, and you can see the quality in there.” Jennings concurred: “There was some stellar stuff – for people to be so excited about single grain, it’s a real statement of quality.”

After the highs of the single grains, it was time to seek out excellence in the Blended: Standard category. Highlights included La Fée’s Envy Whisky, which picked up a Gold and was found to be “everything you want in a dram in that price segment”.

Moving up the ladder, the panel found a trio of Gold medallists in the Blended: Premium flight – Highland Queen Sherry Finish Blend, and Compass Box’s Great King Street Glasgow Blend and Great Queen Street Artist’s Blend. “This was a varied flight, but it does show that if you spend a little more you get a whole lot back,” said White. Dillon agreed: “It’s a marked step up.”

It was the turn of the second panel to take on the Blended: Super Premium whiskies. Led by Billy Abbott, web content editor at The Whisky Exchange, the group comprised Karen Taylor, founder of blog Whisky for Everyone; Elise Craft, Whisky Squad co-­ordinator; and Nagesh Balusu, general manager at Salt Whisky Bar and Dining Room. They discovered a Gold in Compass Box’s Asyla, which was found to be “pungent and nutty” yet “subtle and delicate”.

Away from the medallists, there was disappointment with the wider flight. “I’m not sure that super-­premium is how I’d describe these whiskies, considering what ‘premium’ means across Scotch,” said Craft. Abbott agreed: “They are, unfortunately, boring, with little to distinguish between them.”

The group moved on to the Blended: Ultra Premium flight, where they found a Master in Dewar’s Signature. Praised for its “creamy” mouthfeel, sweet/floral palate and tremendous balance, the expression delighted, and was followed by a Gold for Pure Scot from the Bladnoch Distillery.

The two panels then split a mammoth flight of Blended: No Age Statement whiskies between them, marking the foray into the aged categories. It was also the largest flight of the day and one that resulted in 18 medals. Leading the group was Diageo, which was awarded Golds for Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve, Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Old Parr Tribute.

While there were solid whiskies present, Jennings said: “There’s so much more that could be done with a lot of these drams – consumers won’t just accept ‘good enough’ any more,” he said. Dillon agreed: “Producers need to understand that blended whisky doesn’t need to be, ‘ugh, it’s a blend’. It’s the backbone of the market, they need to step up, or it becomes a self­-fulfilling prophecy.”

Continuing the theme of blended Scotch by age, and assessing the Blended: Aged up to 12 Years flight was the third judging panel: Colin Hampden­-White, editor of Whisky Quarterly; Paul Everest, co­-founder of Banstead Vintners; and Matthew Neal, Shake and Stir mixologist and brand consultant; chaired by Matt Chambers, Whisky for Everyone founder and a freelance journalist.

The group found three Gold medallists in the shape of Johnnie Walker Black Label, Old Parr Grand 12 Year Old and Ballantine’s 12. All in all, the whiskies impressed. “This was a good flight, and it would be easy for entry­ level consumers to find a flavour they like,” said Neal. Hampden­-White concurred: “Overall you get what you pay for – there’s lots of flavour for a decent price.”

SIX GOLDS

Another group picked up the baton for Blended: Aged 13­-18 Years. Led by SB’s news, web and social editor, Annie Hayes, Athila Roos, private client director, Louis XIII; Nicola Thomson, director at Fifteen71; and Tobias Gorn, whisky and cigar sommelier at Boisdale, the panel discovered six Gold medallists: Johnnie Walker Aged 18 Years, Chivas Regal 18YO, Dewar’s 15YO The Monarch, Dewar’s 18YO The Vintage, William Lawson’s 13YO and Ballantine’s 17.

“It was a very consistent flight,” said Thomson. “It depicted what the category is all about.” Meanwhile the fifth and final group – Nick Bell, Amathus retail general manager; and Ernest Reid, chief engineer of cocktail and cheer at HBT, chaired by Amy Hopkins, The Spirits Business’s deputy editor – took on a flight of Blended: Aged 19­-30 Years, discovering a further pair of Golds. It was Dewar’s NE Plus Ultra 30YO and That Boutique­y Whisky Company’s Blended Whisky #3 23 Year Old that really stood out.

Assessing the whole flight, Reid was impressed. “They were very safe, which is what you should get with a blend,” he said. Bell agreed: “The fact that almost everything entered got a medal is telling of the quality – we are looking at old blended whiskies here and the quality was great.”

It was the next flight that presented the day’s second Master medal: That Boutique­y Whisky Company’s Blended Whisky #1 50 Year Old – Batch 5, described by one judge as “one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted”. In the Blended: Aged Over 31 Years flight, that’s high praise indeed.

After finding a Silver medal for Compass Box’s Hedonism in the Blended Grain category, judging moved on into the realm of Blended Malts. Abbott’s panel took on the Blended Malt: Premium group, which comprised two Gold medallists: Monkey Shoulder and Shackleton.

But while the Gold and Silver medal winners found favour, more broadly there was disappointment. “There’s too much punch and not enough substance,” Taylor observed, with Balusu adding that they all felt young and high in alcohol.

The tide turned for the Blended Malt: Super Premium offer, which not only picked up the judges spirits, but also saw a Master medal given to Compass Box’s Oak Cross. “A lot of care has been put into the blending – it felt deliberate,” said Craft. The panel also noted the excellent value for money offered by the grouping, which also produced a quartet of Gold medallists.

More goodness was to follow when the judges stepped up a price bracket to check out the Blended Malt: Ultra Premium expressions. This time two picked up the coveted Master accolade: Chivas Regal Ultis and Blended Malt #1 23 from That Boutique­y Whisky Company. A further three Gold medals followed. “This was an interesting and well-­balanced flight, and it was very difficult to choose between them,” reckoned Balusu. For Abbott: “There were some really great whiskies. They were all individually distinctive but really high in quality.”

SINGLE MALTS

And so concluded the battle of the blends – what was to come when the single malts were sent up for scrutiny? First to enter the fray were those flying the flag for Campbeltown, and a solitary Gold medal was found in the Aged 13­18 Years segment: Glen Scotia 15 Year Old Single Malt.

“While it was hard to judge as there weren’t many entries – or possibility of entries – the Glen Scotia 15YO was delicious,” said Chambers. The delight continued in the Single Malt – Campbeltown: Single Cask flight, with Glen Scotia Distillery Edition #004 also seeing Gold. “It’s great to see such a strong showing from such a small category,” added Neal.

Time to trek up the Campbeltown peninsular and land in the Lowlands with a flurry of entries that were also assessed by Chambers’s panel. Bladnoch Samsara Single Malt was awarded a Silver in the Lowland: Super Premium category, before Lowland: No Age Statement saw William Grant & Sons’s Ailsa Bay pick up a Gold.

Then it was the turn for Ladyburn 1974 Batch #2 to win Gold in the Lowland: Aged over 31 Years bracket. “The Ladyburn was a classy example of an old Lowland whisky – light and delicate, yet complex and deep,” said Chambers. “It’s just a shame there are not yet more distilleries in this region.”

The Lowland region was completed with an entry from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) in the Lowland: Single Cask flight. 50.78 – Ready, Steady, Bake! was awarded another Gold. “It’s nice to see some breadth developing in this small category,” said Hampden­-White, while Everest was pleased to see “interesting diversity” in the Lowland entries.

The first single malts to come under inspection by Hayes’s group was a Speyside: Standard assortment, with two picking up Gold medals: Glen Marnoch Speyside from Aldi and The Torran Single Malt Portwood Finish. “In value for money terms, they were great,” decreed Thomson. “They were complex and well made.”

After jumping up the pricing ladder considerably to Speyside: Super Premium, the judges found a Gold in The Glenrothes Vintage Reserve, and further on to Speyside: Ultra Premium for another Gold with The Glenrothes 95 American Oak. “These were classic Speyside examples – really well made and easy to drink,” felt Hayes.

Meanwhile, Hopkins’s panel was attacking a bumper flight of Speyside – No Age Statement expressions. They found 16 medals, including two Masters: Aberlour A’bunadh Batch 57 and The Glenlivet Nadurra at 61.5% abv. “I was happy to see some diversity,” mused Bell. “With NAS regional you could expect repeat, repeat, repeat. But there were some unusual, very nice expressions.” Reid agreed: “I love high abv whiskies so these were definitely the stand­ outs of the round.”

Back to Abbott’s team, who were busy exploring Speyside: Aged up to 12 Years. The group found another Master medal in Glenfiddich 12 Year Old, as well as a trio of Gold medallists: The Singleton of Dufftown 12 Year Old, Aberlour 12YO Double Cask Matured and Aultmore 12 Year Old.

“This is a good indication of the bread­ and­ butter end of the Speyside category – strong and consistent,” Taylor felt. But Abbott was less impressed of the wider flight, calling for greater diversity: “The Speyside entry­-level whiskies seem to be getting less interesting every year, all tending to feature a similarly bland vanilla flavour.”

Would the Speyside: Aged 13­-18 Years category find favour with Chambers’s panel? While the group deemed the showing “pretty safe”, they did find a Master in the “exquisite” and “honey and golden syrup­-led” The Glenlivet 18 Years Old.

Continuing up the age­-statement ladder was Hayes’s panel, with the 19­-30 Years flight of heavy-weight whiskies fielding an enormous five Master medallists. Glenfiddich 21 Year Old, The Balvenie PortWood 21 Year Old, The Balvenie Traditional Oak 25 Year Old, The Balvenie Thirty and The Glenlivet 21 Years Old all thoroughly impressed.

“This was a very pleasant flight,” exclaimed Roos. “They all had quite a bit of complexity and concentration of character, which is what you’d expect for this age.”

While Thomson branded the flight “fantastic” and “really interesting”, Gorn still offered a word of warning: “While this was a consistent category there still can be disappointment. It’s not guaranteed that just because it’s old, a whisky will be good. But on average, these were very, very good.”

My panel continued the upbeat theme: flanking two Golds were two Master medals in the Aged over 31 Years category in the form of Rare Vintage Strathisla 1972 from Gordon & MacPhail, and The Benromach 35 Years Old. “These were exceptional whiskies, very high quality. Total harmony,” confirmed White, while Dillon deemed the flight “benchmark­setting – not just in Speyside but across the board”.

Rounding off the sizeable Speyside offering was SMWS 35.163 – A Playful Wrestling March in the Single Cask flight, which was awarded Gold by Hopkins’s panel. “It was really well balanced, and you want a lot of personality in a single cask,” concluded Bell.

Time for a journey around Scotland’s Highlands and Islands. Hopkins’s panel was the first to take the tour, finding a Silver for Aldi’s Glen Marnoch Highland in the Standard flight. They then found a Gold in the form of Loch Lomond 18 Year Old Single Malt in the Super Premium bracket, and a Master for Balblair 1990 in the Ultra Premium category.

“In terms of structure, it’s my favourite of the day,” Reid remarked on the latter. “It has a lot of layers, there’s a lot going on, but it’s not unbalanced.”

Chambers’s panel chose a trio of Silvers in the No Age Statement flight, before Hayes’s group found the same number of Golds in the Aged up to 12 Years bracket. The Singleton of Glen Ord 12 Year Old, Aberfeldy 12 Year Old and Ledaig 10 Year Old all impressed.

“It’s an interesting flight with a real mix,” Hayes concluded. While some missed the mark, Thomson felt: “You can see they’re trying to experiment with whisky­making techniques, but it didn’t always show through. The alcohol was a little unbalanced, but there were interesting complexities and taste profiles.”

The group pressed on to the Highlands & Islands Aged 13­18 Years panel, finding a strong contingent of Gold medallists: The Singleton of Glen Ord 15 and 18 Year Olds, Royal Brackla 16 Year Old, Deanston Organic 15 Year Old and Inchmurrin – Loch Lomond Collection – 18 Year Old Single Malt.

“It was a really good representation across the Highlands and Islands,” said Thomson. “Everything was so fresh – it felt like you were on an arable farm!”
Highlands & Islands: Aged 19­30 Years also delighted, with Abbott’s panel discovering a Master in Aberfeldy 21 Year Old, and a Gold in Royal Brackla 21 Year Old.

“Whiskies of this age have to be treated with respect, and these have been,” reckoned Taylor. Abbott agreed: “The pair were old and elegant, without diving into the woody mess that you can often find.” They also awarded Tullibardine ‘The Murray’ a Gold in the Cask Strength segment, and found another in the Special Edition flight for Highland Park’s Valkyrie.

Hopkins’s panel rounded off the regional whistle­-stop with Golds for SMWS’s 28.31 – Anything But Airy Fairy in Single Cask, and Highland Park Valkyrie in the Special Edition flight.

PEAT FIRST

The Isle of Islay then came calling, with all panels taking a departure into the land known for peat and smoke. Kicking off the island’s proceedings was Aldi’s Glen Marnoch Islay, which scooped a Gold and was deemed “really good value for money and very well made”.

Hopkins’s panel discovered two Golds in the Islay: No Age Statement flight: Bunnahabhain Cruach Mhòna and Islay #1 Batch 1 from That Boutique­y Whisky Company. “They both smelled so good,” said Reid, with Bell adding that “despite their abv and peatiness [neither fell below 50% abv] they were both very drinkable.”

It was back to Hayes’s group for the Islay: Aged up to 12 Years deputation, with Golds awarded to Gordon & MacPhail’s Connoisseurs Choice Caol Ila 2004 and Williamson 6 Year Old from That Boutique­y Whisky. “It was a really consistent flight, which showed complexity,” said Thomson, with Gorn praising the “three­dimensional” nature of the grouping.

Then my panel took on the Islay: Aged 13­18 Years flight, with a Gold for Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old, and for its 25 Year Old sibling and Lombard Single Malt Caol Ila 1984 in the 19­ 30 Years segment. We then discovered a Master in the Aged over 31 Years flight: Port Ellen 33 Year Old from That Boutique­y Whisky Company.

(L­R): Nagesh Balusu, Billy Abbott, Elise Craft, Matthew Neal, Annie Hayes, Karen Taylor, Matt Chambers, Amy Hopkins, Greg Dillon, Colin Hampden­White, Chris White, Nicola Thomson, Ernest Reid, Paul Everett, Mark Jennings, Nick Bell, Tobias Gorn, Athila Roos, Kristiane Sherry

“It’s like a rained-­off barbeque, but with none of the disappointment,” Jennings quipped, with White deeming the whisky “tremendously good”.

“What’s interesting for me is that mass­ market consumers see Islay as something unapproachable and impenetrable – yet these brilliantly aged Islays show it’s not all about being super peaty,” said Dillon “If it’s been aged well and if the cask is good enough, the flavour profile transcends, and in terms of flavour they can be on a par with aged Speyside.”

Moving on to Islay: Single Cask, Hopkins’s group found a Gold in SMWS’s 29.205 – Two Wheeled Beach Cruiser, and another for That Boutique­y Whisky’s Islay #1 Batch 1 in the Islay Cask Strength segment. Rounding off the day on a different theme was Hayes’s panel, with a single flavoured sample. But far from letting the side down, Ballantine’s Brasil scooped a Gold and was deemed to be “very well balanced” and “sherbety”.

All that was left for the panels to do was to refresh their palates and regroup: the Scotch Whisky Taste Master of 2017 was to be decided. Every judge retasted each Master before a vote was cast – for the outcome of that, come along to The Spirits Business Awards Lunch in December.

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

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