The Brandy Masters 2018 results

9th May, 2018 by Melita Kiely

While Cognac’s star is shining bright, brandy is often left in the doldrums. But our Brandy Masters competition showed there’s a lot of life in the category and reason to be optimistic about its potential.

Though the wider brandy sector has fewer creative constraints than its famous sub­category, Cognac, the lack of regulation may have hindered the spirit’s reverence among consumers. While Cognac has undeniably soared in drinkers’ estimations in recent years, brandy has had a tougher time proving its credibility as a quality, flavoursome spirit.

But that’s where The Brandy Masters comes into play, and though the competition got off to a slow start, the overall standard among the 2018 entrants proved that there is much to be excited about when it comes to this fruit­-based spirit.

Eager to sample the liquid on offer at this year’s blind­-tasting competition were: Phil Duffy, head of spirits at Amathus; Nicola Thomson, director of Fifteen71; Matt Chambers, co-­founder of Whisky For Everyone; and chair Amy Hopkins, editor of The Spirits Business, who formed the first panel. Comprising the second team of judges were: Domenico Doronzo, spirits buyer; Matthew Neal, cocktail bartender and consultant; Antony Moss, director of strategic planning at WSET; and me, Melita Kiely, deputy editor of The Spirits Business, who chaired the second panel. Playing host to this year’s competition was the James Cochran pop­-up in Angel, London.

The tasting commenced with a flight of Armagnac – known for being a distinctive type of brandy from its namesake region in southwest France. Hopkins’ team awarded two Silver medals, one to Château de Laubade, with its “rich leather, prune, toffee” flavours, and Château de Laubade Cask Strength Vintage 1988, with its “apricot, peach, iodine and lemon cake” complexity. However, the judges noted that across the board they would like to see greater creativity in the category. “With Armagnac, I expect to see more beautiful floweriness and minerality,” noted Thomson.

Meanwhile, my panel was busy sampling Other French Brandies, but again found the flight lacklustre. One Silver medal was awarded, though, to Bardinet French Brandy XO, with its nutty flavours and fruity aroma.

“I don’t expect long ageing, but I would expect smoothness of texture,” Moss said of the flight. “And most importantly, more flavour of grape.”

PLEASANT, PRICKLY STRENGTH

It was then Hopkins’ team’s turn to switch continents and try the South African – Blended flight, in which Wellington VO Brandy secured a Silver medal for its “light, vibrant” character, showing flavours of “honey, vanilla, and tangerines”. “On the palate a lot of fruit came through,” said Duffy. “And there was a pleasant, prickly strength.”

South Africa continued to lead the way in the medal tables, with two Golds awarded in the South African – Pot Still Aged 3-­9 Years flight. My group of judges particularly enjoyed the “floral elegance” found on the nose of Oude Molen VSOP Cape Brandy, which led to “vanilla and honey” on the palate. Fellow Gold medallist Ladismith Cape Brandy was also described as an “elegant” liquid, with its “vanilla” aromas and “tropical and wood” notes on the palate. Moss said: “In both cases, the fruit and wood were well balanced.”

Doronzo agreed, and added: “The flavours were well integrated. I found a lot of stone fruits and tropical fruits in these examples; they were very well made. You can tell these are distinctively brandy. It was a very good flight overall. ”Hopkins’ team enjoyed a small flight of South African – Pot Still Aged 10-­12 Years. Impressed with its complex flavours of “crystallised pineapple, lychees, cinnamon and brown sugar”, the group gave a Gold medal to Joseph Barry XO Cape Brandy. Chambers said: “I got the classic tropical fruits like you get from an Irish pot still. And the palate had a golden syrup feel – I’d be happy if I bought this.”

VIBRANT AND SWEET

Switching continents again to Europe and the Spanish spirits heralded two Silver medals. The first was presented to Alvisa XO Brandy, which the judges praised for being “fresh, vibrant and sweet” on the nose, with plenty of “wood spices” and “vanilla” evident on the palate.

The second Silver medal recipient was Alvisa 10 Organic Brandy, full of savoury notes such as “red chilli and green peppers”, which were complemented by sweeter flavours of “fudge and toffee”.

Three medals were dished out in the Other Regions flight, including a Gold to Martha’s Aguardente Bagaceira – Fine Digestive. Judges found “fresh bread” and “nutty” aromas on the nose, with “Earl Grey tea” and “vine leaves, pears and apples” on the palate. Three Silvers were also given to Martha’s Aguardente Bagaceira Velha – Cask Made, Russian entrant Brandy Kremlevskie, and Aldi Stores’ Baroque Brandy.

“It was interesting,” said Neal. “Other countries producing brandies are bending and playing with the rules, and it’s great to see other countries outside of the traditional regions producing their own styles. Ones that were less sugary scored higher.”

(L­R): Domenico Doronzo, Antony Moss, Phil Duffy, Amy Hopkins, Matthew Neal, Melita Kiely, Nicola Thomson and Matt Chambers

The final flight of the day presented itself in the form of Fruit Brandies, in which a single, stand­out expression scooped the top accolade – the only Master recipient of the day. Moss was highly impressed by Master medallist Ableforth’s Cherry Brandy. “It tastes genuinely of cherries, has real complexity and there’s cherry tartness to balance the liqueur level of sugar,” he enthused.

Neal was equally in awe of the cherry brandy’s quality. He added: “It’s an oversaturated market of people doing this the wrong way, but this is showing how to do it the right way. They’ve not compromised. It’s robust, full of flavour.”

Overall, judges agreed there is a vast number of quality brandies to be sought out around the world – and it’s time the category came out of the shadows of Cognac.

But to further elevate brandy’s standing in the wider spirits industry, producers would do well to push the boundaries of creativity even further.

Click through to the following page for the complete list of medal winners from The Brandy Masters 2018.

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