The Luxury Masters 2017 results

7th September, 2017 by Amy Hopkins

It’s a spirit category where the sky’s the limit financially, but just because a brand is expensive doesn’t mean the liquid is of appropriate quality. In our second annual Luxury Spirits Masters, we highlight the best of the bunch.

It’s safe to say there has never been a more exciting time for makers of luxury spirits. As consumers become increasingly willing to spend more on better products, the super­-premium-­and­-above space is no longer reserved for rare Cognacs and exorbitant Scotch whiskies – although such expressions certainly remain pertinent to the sector, and its attractiveness to high­-net­-worth individuals. Now, brands spanning vodka, gin, rum, world whisky and liqueurs are carving a niche and cultivating a following in the luxury spirits ranks.

But is the quality there? Or are brands cutting corners and assuming prestige price tags without the correct credentials? These were the questions pondered during the second annual Luxury Spirits Masters, where two panels of judges gathered at Masala Zone in Camden Town, London, to assess a pool of entries. Brands entered into the competition spanned the breadth of the spirits industry and were exclusively of super­-premium and ultra­-premium varieties.

The first panel to step up to the challenge was chaired by, Amy Hopkins, editor of The Spirits Business, and consisted of: Tobias Gorn, of London­-based restaurant and whisky bar Boisdale; Athila Roos, fine wine and spirits specialist; Nicola Thomson, director of Fifteen71; and Antony Moss MW, director of strategic planning at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET).

To get the competition started, we turned our attention to a flight of Vodka – Super Premium entrants, and were delighted to quickly discover the first Master medallist of the day: Bulbash N1 Malt Spirit. “The first quality I noticed here was the texture,” said Roos. “The palate was so creamy; it was like having a bite of fudge.” Moss agreed: “It manages to achieve a very clean style, but it’s also really luxuriously textured.”

The rest of the flight did not disappoint – “fresh, light” Snow Queen Organic Vodka and “sweet, clean” Whitley Neill Blood Orange Vodka won Gold medals, while Into The Wild Vodka was awarded a Silver.

Following suit was the Vodka – Ultra Premium round, which yielded two Gold medals, for Snow Queen Enigma Edition, which Gorn described as having a “massive palate and excellent finish”, and Liverpool Vodka, said to have a “creamy vanilla” flavour profile.

Discussing super-­premium­-and-­above vodka, judges noted the importance of mouthfeel for a category defined as being odourless and tasteless. “This is the spirit more than any other where the texture can be really gorgeous,” said Moss.

The competition’s second judging panel – chaired by Melita Kiely, deputy editor of The Spirits Business, and consisting of: Greg Dillon, brand consultant and writer; Ben Lindsay, director at Garnish Communications; Nik Koster, director of A World of Gin and the Global Vodka Alliance; and Elise Craft, Whisky-Squad co­ordinator – then tackled the first instalment of gins.

An impressive five Gold medals were awarded in the Gin – Super Premium round, as well as four Silvers. For Koster, Crafter’s London Dry Gin was the stand­out expression. “This gin has a nice classic style,” he said. “It’s spicy, with notes of coriander seed, and has a lovely citrus finish – which is a staple of good gin.”

Creeping up the price ladder into the Gin – Ultra Premium flight, the panel recognised excellence in three expressions, bestowing all with a Master medal. Cambridge Distillery’s Truffle Gin was described as “earthy and moreish”, while No.3 London Dry Gin was identified as a “fabulous example of a modern gin”, and City of London Sloe Gin won praise for its “delicate nose” and “clean finish”. The round produced a further six Golds and two Silvers.

Craft noted the importance of thoughtful innovation in gin, particularly at the top end of the price spectrum. “Ultra­-premium consumers expect something a bit different, but distillers need to be sure they have mastered their craft. It has to be deliberate, not pure experimentation – it should be craftsmanship.”

In my panel, judges turned their attention to Cognac. In a diminutive flight, one Gold was awarded to Courvoisier Sherry Cask, and one Silver to Courvoisier VSOP Exclusif. “I actually found this very complex for the price – I got a lot of pear tartin on the nose,” Roos said of the Gold medalist. Gorn said of the Silver recipient: “It was really light and perfumed but with big chocolate notes on the mid­-palate. It’s quite an old­-fashioned style.”

Judges moved on to the stalwart of the luxury spirits world: Scotch whisky. A single dram in the Single Grain – Ultra Premium leg of the competition bagged a Silver medal. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s G4.9 – A Blast From The Past bottling was described as “tropical” and “pleasant”. Moss added:“It’s a leaner tighter style – like a rock; it’s very focused.”

On to the blends, and Royal Salute 21 Year Old impressed with its notes of “chocolate sponge cake” and “fresh apple”, bagging a Gold in the Blended – Super Premium flight. Smokehead 18 Year Old – Islay Single Malt, meanwhile, was awarded a Silver for its complexity and characterful profile.

The Master contingent grew in the Blended – Ultra Premium round, where Angus Dundee 50 Year Old Blended Grain Scotch Whisky was given the top accolade. “This shows a character of substantial age and subtle rancio, but the fruity notes are still coming through really strongly,” observed Moss. “It’s incredibly layered.” Roos added: “There is virtually no heat on the palate because it has been made so well.” The round also saw “beautiful and complex” Chivas Regal Ultis take home a Gold medal.

On Kiely’s panel, the Single Malt – Super Premium resulted in a pair of Masters: one for “meaty and robust” Glengoyne 21 Year Old and another for The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s 3.295 expression, described by Dillon as an “unforgettable whisky – one that really stands out”. Dewar’s 18 Year Old – The Vintage also secured a Gold.

The Master medley continued into the Single Malt – Ultra Premium flight, where Glenmorangie Signet won the top accolade. “This is epic,” enthused Koster. “I could drink this all day, it just screams ultra­-premium.” Craft added: “This was an utter joy to drink – the finish is perfection. I would even call it a category benchmark. It’s the perfect way to describe ultra­-premium.”

In the same flight, Dewar’s 25 Year Old – The Signature, and The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s 72.50 – A Nomad’s Tent bottling secured Golds. Commenting on the Single Malt – Ultra Premium offerings, Dillon said: “I don’t think I was expecting this level of quality. It’s difficult to predict because it’s a limitless price point.”

Craft offered advice to consumers when it comes to ultra­premium Scotch whiskies: “Not everything in this category will be of this standard. So ask for advice, go to a tasting, ask a great bartender, read online and find people to give you a bit of guidance. I don’t think anyone should spend £300 on a bottle of whisky just because it’s at that price.”

Casting their gaze past Scotland to other whisky-­making regions, Kiely’s panel awarded two Silver medals in the World Whisky – Single Malt – Super Premium round. Paul John Indian Single Malt, Exceptional was said to be “herbaceous and interesting”, while Paul John Indian Single Malt, Kanya won praise for its “unctuous” profile.

In the World Whisky – Single Malt – Ultra Premium leg of the competition, Sullivans Cove Distillery received four Gold medals. Of Sullivans Cove Special Cask, Lindsay said: “I got a real flavour of cherry – it was sweet, dark and beautiful – and also a mustiness. It was complex without being too complicated.” Craft added: “For me, Sullivans Cove French Oak Single Cask had a really fresh character, meaning it felt different and purposeful.”

My panel moved on to the Bourbon – Ultra Premium round, where Luxco won two Gold medals, one for its “delicate, vegetal” Yellowstone Limited Edition Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey expression, and one for “spicy, robust” Rebel Yell 10 Year Old Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.

The round was followed by the diminutive, but very successful, Rye – Ultra Premium round, which produced one Master medal for Minor Case Straight Rye Whiskey – Sherry Cask Finished. Judges praised the delicate nature of the entrant, identifying notes of “summer flowers and Lady Grey tea” that contributed to a “fantastic length”.

Moving on from whisk(e)y altogether and into rum, and judges were disappointed not to come across another Master medallist, or a greater number of expressions that they felt represented the very top end of the category. Nevertheless, the quality of a number of entrants was clear, and the panel awarded one Gold and four Silver medals in the Rum – Super Premium round. Examining Gold medalist Tanduay Asian Rum Silver, Gorn said: “This has a very balanced finish. Clean, nice, straight to the point.” In the Ultra Premium leg of the category, Zacapa 23 secured a Silver medal.

Rum’s premiumisation has long made interesting fodder among spirits enthusiasts. Moss, for one, has a very clear expectation of the super­premium­and­above end of the spectrum. “For the ultimate luxury rum, considering conditions and age, I would expect rancio and esters integrated into a beautiful, harmonious whole. A lot of super­ premium rums spoil the product by over­ sweetening – but the very best rums manage to achieve a beautiful taste and texture with little to no sugar.”

The Masters came back with a bang in Tequila – Ultra Premium – one of the fastest­ growing and most­talked­about areas of the luxury spirits market. Both Enemigo 00 Extra Añejo and Tequila Corralejo 9900 Horas were awarded the top accolade. “This has a lovely balance between the raw material and the wood, which isn’t taking over,” Moss said of the former expression. “This is exactly what aged Tequila should be like.” Judges also loved the “fresh citrus and agave aroma” of Tequila Corralejo 9900 Horas, which was said to have “delicate notes of ripe fruits”.

Judges then set their palates to the task of tasting a flight of ultra­-premium speciality spirits – that is, products that may span bitters, anis, ‘regional’ spirits, and spirits made with unusual base ingredients. After being relatively unaware of what to expect, the panel was pleasantly surprised, and awarded two Gold medals: one to Sikera Grand Tartaria, said to be made from “wild raw products” that grow in “ecologically friendly regions of Siberia”, and one to Freya Birch Spirit, which is distilled from birch sap. Sikera Nikitas 50, meanwhile, secured a Silver. “It was very subtle and soft, with hints of candied lemons and Victoria sponge,” Thomson said of Sikera Grand Tartaria.

(L­R): Ben Lindsay, Elise Craft, Nik Koster, Nicola Thomson, Athila Roos, Tobias Gorn, Melita Kiely, Greg Dillon, Amy Hopkins, Antony Moss MW

To round off the day’s proceedings, Kiely’s panel tackled a category not traditionally seen to embody the luxury side of the spirits world, but which has a firm premiumisation trajectory: liqueurs. Gold medals were awarded to Ryto – Bargnolëin and Vana Tallinn Elégance in the Liqueurs – Super Premium flight, while Conker Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur bagged a Silver. “These three provided us with a surprisingly positive view of the category,” said Dillon. “They were well balanced, well put together, and none were offensive or sickly sweet.”

In only its second year, The Luxury Spirits Masters demonstrated that the top end of the spirits market is not stagnant, and excellence is clear in categories that previously eluded the prestige spotlight. “The luxury spirits market is becoming more diverse,” said Dillon. “There’s a clear distinction between brands that say they are luxury and brands that genuinely are so. It’s not just about slapping on a price tag and claiming to be ultra­ premium. There’s really good stuff out there and it shines through.”

Click through the following pages to view the results tables in full.

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