The Vodka Masters 2017 results

5th October, 2017 by Amy Hopkins - This article is over multiple pages: 1 2 3 4

It’s time that all the talk about vodka being flavourless and odourless was knocked on the head. As this year’s Vodka Masters proves, the category is bursting with quality and innovation.

Vodka producers are pushing the boundaries of innovation and flavour

Colourless, odourless, tasteless; boring, uninspiring, past its prime – these are just some of the less-than-flattering descriptions contemporary consumers, bartenders and commentators have used to describe vodka. Once the cool party spirit adored by that most coveted of consumer bases – millennials – the white spirit has found itself in a popularity contest with gin and Tequila in recent years, and according to many, vodka is losing the fight.

With supposedly less scope for flavour innovation than gin, and devoid of the exotic appeal possessed by Tequila, vodka is often an after-thought when it comes to cutting-edge cocktail menus and visibility on premium shelf space. However, it seems as though the tide may be turning. Now, vodka producers are pushing the boundaries of innovation and flavour, offering an interesting and high-quality range of products that is captivating drinkers and bartenders alike.

A combination of unusual base ingredients and exalted production techniques means interest in the category has once again been piqued. This new and exciting landscape was assessed during the 2017 Vodka Masters blind tasting competition. Category experts gathered at Baltic Restaurant and Bar in London to examine a swathe of entries from across the vodka spectrum. Flights were divided by type, region and price point, while three separate panels judged entries by appearance, aroma, palate and overall balance.

The first flight to be tasted was Standard Vodka

Up first was a strong Standard flight – exemplifying the cheaper end of the vodka spectrum – which yielded four Gold and four Silver medals. Tasting the entries was a panel chaired by The Spirits Business’s deputy editor, Melita Kiely, made up of: Billy Abbott, content and training manager at The Whisky Exchange; Jason Window, business development manager at Inception Group; Nicola Thomson, director at Fifteen71; and Cherry Constable, freelance wine and spirits writer.

Gold medalist Syabry Chistaya was said to have a “pleasant spike on the nose” and a “clean, creamy” palate. Fellow Gold recipient Smirnoff No. 21 won praise for its “soft, rounded and delicate character”, while Moskovskaya Silver was deemed to be “full of viscosity” and its stablemate, Moskovskaya Vodka, was described as “elegant and linear”.

Another group of judges, which I chaired, tackled the next flight. Assessing the Premium expressions were Karol Terejlis, Baltic bar manager; Nik Koster, co­founder of the Global Vodka Alliance; and Tomas Cisty, bartender at Duck & Waffle. Within the flight, we discovered the first Master medallist of the day – Polar Ice 90° North by Corby Spirit & Wine. “I think this is a perfect sipping vodka, and it offers amazing value for money,” said Koster. Terejlis added: “This would be amazing in a vodka Martini with a twist. It has a fantastic nose.” The flight also awarded six Golds and nine Silvers. Among the Gold medallists, JJ Whitley Potato Vodka was praised for its “good length”, and Single Batch Imported Grain Vodka was said to have a “nicely balanced sweetness”. “I always think this category gets a bad name and that you have to spend more to get better quality, but these show that you don’t have to spend a fortune for a good vodka,” Koster said of the round.

As we inched up the price ladder into Super Premium, Kiely’s panel discovered a fleet of Gold medal-­worthy vodkas. Constable described Our/London Vodka as “texturally brilliant”, while Abbott enjoyed Gustav Arctic Vodka’s “buttercream palate”. Snow Queen Organic Vodka and Five Vodka also clinched the accolade, and Finist was awarded a Silver.

The third panel of the competition then turned their attention to the top rung of the price divisions, with an Ultra Premium flight. The panel was chaired by Craft Distilling Expo founder David T Smith and consisted of: Veronika Karlova, founder of Girls Drink Vodka; Julie Campbell, wine and spirits consultant; and Ben Lindsay, co­founder of the Global Vodka Alliance.

Judges were especially impressed by Vodka Kremlin Award Classic and Purity Vodka 51, bestowing both with a coveted Master medal. Smith noted the “great texture” of the former expression, which he said was “smooth and pure”. Meanwhile, Purity Vodka 51 was recognised for its “abundance of character” and “feisty” aroma. A swathe of Gold medals – 14 in total – and one Silver followed. For Smith, Priory Vodka was “pure, fruity and floral” and Legend of Kremlin had a “good plump mouthfeel, with a little heat”. Overall, judges were delighted by the Ultra Premium offering. “This was a great illustration of the breadth of styles in vodka, showing how raw materials and production methods can vary the character of the resulting spirit,” concluded Smith.

Judges were impressed with the high standard of entries at this year’s competition

Smith’s panel then entered the Microdistillery section of the competition, which yielded a further two Masters. Purity Vodka 51 once again earned the top accolade for its “creamy, velvety” mouthfeel, followed by Pur Vodka, which was lauded for its “lovely” balance and “flinty” profile. A further seven Golds were awarded in the flight. Campbell particularly enjoyed J.A.V’s “soft, round and very citrusy character”. Smith, meanwhile, praised the “lemon shortbread and malt” notes he found in Vesperis. Of the flight, Campbell said: “It’s great to see producers taking risks while maintaining quality.” Lindsay added: “You can really taste the attention to detail here.”

Over on Kiely’s panel, tasters turned to a flight of Organic entries, where once again Purity Vodka 51 won a Master medal. Gold medallists included Purity Vodka 17, Purity Vodka 34 and Greenline Citrus from Bulbash – of which Window enjoyed the “fruity nose and cotton candy palate”. Snow Queen Organic Vodka walked away with a Silver. The same panel then assessed a flight of Smooth vodkas – where texture, mouthfeel and balance were at the forefront of judges’ minds. There was one Master medalist in the round – Purity Vodka 51 – as well as three Golds and six Silvers. For Thomson, Medoff Classic Vodka stood out with its “long length, velvety mouthfeel and measured viscosity”. Constable said of vodkas that identify as ‘smooth’: “It’s got to have some character to it […] I’m looking for weightiness and suppleness. If I get a level of heat that makes it unbalanced, then it’s not smooth anymore.”

The competition then moved into geographical segmentations of vodka with the Europe round, where an impressive three Master medals were agreed. My panel gave the top accolade to The Clumsy Bear Vodka, Purity Vodka 51 and Ogilvy Vodka.

Judges tasted an array of expressions from Standard to Super Premium

“This is very unusual,” Terejlis said of The Clumsy Bear Vodka. “You can tell the distiller wants to make something different. There are so many different flavours that make it really memorable.” Of Ogilvy Vodka, Cisty said: “It has a fantastic balance, and the nose leads to the palate really logically.” Judges also thought the creaminess of Purity Vodka 51 would make it the perfect base of a White Russian. An impressive nine Gold medals were also awarded in the flight, as well as one Silver. “For me, these have been the best examples of the vodka category,” said Terejlis. “There were so many different characters on display.”

David T Smith’s panel then assessed a flight of Scandinavian vodkas, where the Master medley continued. Once again, Purity Vodka 51 clinched the medal, as did The Pure Bear Vodka. “This was very polished and well-made,” Lindsay said of the latter expression. The Scandinavia round also yielded three Golds. The high standard continued in the Russia flight, where two Masters and three Golds were secured. Smith said of Master medallist OPM Vodka: “This is textbook, and exactly what I expect in a vodka. It’s sparklingly clean and pure – delightful!” AMG Frozen Mild bagged the accolade for its “fresh style” and “soft texture”. Campbell observed an “amazing consistency” and “high standard” across the Russia flight.

In the US and Rest of the World rounds, Smith’s panel awarded a Gold medal to Single Batch Imported Grain Vodka and another Gold to Pur Vodka.

Then, Smith’s team tackled the Vodka-based Spirit Drink flight, where Koskenkorva Village Tea – an RTD – and Romanov Dynasty Edition – a blend of vodka and Cognac – walked away with Silvers.

Ending, Kiely and Smith’s panels shared a huge Flavoured Vodka flight, which produced an incredible five Master medals – a surprise to many judges, considering the much discussed ‘flavour fallout’ in vodka.

The Master medals went to: Smirnoff Peppermint Twist, Smirnoff Vanilla, JJ Whitley Rhubarb Vodka, Gustav Dill Vodka, and Snow Queen Enigma Edition.

“The rhubarb was standout,” Thomson said of the JJ. Whitley expression. “I enjoyed the flavour from beginning to end. It was perfectly balanced.” Kiely said: “People talk about a ‘flavour fallout’ in vodka, but I don’t think flavoured vodka ever went away – producers just got better.”

(LR): Jason Window, Cherry Constable, Nik Koster, Billy Abbott, Ben Lindsay, Nicola Thomson, David T Smith, Julie Campbell, Melita Kiely, Amy Hopkins, Veronika Karlova, Karol Terejlis, Tomas Cisty

In total, the day’s proceedings yielded 19 Master medals, along with an impressive number of Silvers and Golds. Judges were heartened – and indeed a little surprised – by the level of quality and creativity demonstrated throughout the vodka sector.

“It’s still not uncommon to hear people describe vodka as ‘flavourless’ or ‘neutral’, but the vodkas entered into this competition showed there are producers making incredibly flavoursome and innovative expressions,” summed up Kiely. “Not only that, but these are vodkas that apply to a wide range of price brackets as well. “It’s been fantastic to see vodka distillers challenging the misconceptions often seen within the category, and creating some truly outstanding spirits. The sector should certainly not be underestimated.”

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