The Luxury Masters 2018 results

6th September, 2018 by Melita Kiely

To truly be a luxurious spirit it takes more than simply having blingy packaging. In our annual Luxury Masters the judges were more interested in the excellence of the liquid on offer.

The word ‘luxury’ has long been synonymous with ‘more expensive’, and not just when it comes to spirits. But as many of our blind tastings have shown in the past, a high price tag doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with high quality.

However, with the growing trend of ‘drink less, but drink better’ catching on with today’s discerning consumers, it has never been more important to showcase the most deserving of spirits in the ‘luxury’ sphere.

Our Luxury Masters aimed to reward those brands in the super­-premium and ultra-premium sectors that have produced liquid worthy of a lofty price.

Held in the suitably plush setting of Restaurant Ours in Kensington, London, two panels assembled for the day’s tasting. The first panel comprised: Bryan Rodriguez, spirits buyer at Harvey Nichols; Derek Millar, retired whisky retailer; and Nicola Thomson, director of Fifteen71, who chaired the group. Chris Tanner, bar manager at Milroy’s of Soho and the Vaults, joined Phil Duffy, head of spirits at Amathus, on the second panel, which was chaired by me, Melita Kiely, deputy editor of The Spirits Business.

The first flight of the day was Vodka – Super Premium, which delivered a Silver medal for Stoli Group’s elit Vodka, which Thomson’s panel praised for its “pleasant almond and vanilla notes”, “earthiness” and “overall smooth texture”.

Moving up a price bracket to Vodka – Ultra Premium, Thomson’s team uncovered three Gold medallists: Purity Vodka 17, Purity Vodka 34 and Purity Vodka 51. The vodkas were hailed for being balanced and “not cloying”, and for being worthy of their ultra-premium price tags.

Members of my panel, meanwhile, were busy sampling a large flight of super-­premium gins, in which two Gold medals were given, to Orion Barrel Aged Gin and Orion Wintergin Ginger. Tanner said the latter variant was “delicious”, while Duffy said it “held its alcohol really well” given its abv of 49%.

“The ones that scored highest were most classic in profile and anything that weighted towards one botanical or another tended to be not that balanced,” Duffy added. Three Silvers were also awarded in this round.

Sticking with gin, and it was onto the ultra-premium expressions for my team. Two Silvers were presented to Copperfield London Dry Gin, with its “fresh nose, lovely citrus oil and long finish” and The Wrecking Coast Cornish Scurvy Gin – Navy Strength, described as having flavours of “quince biscuits” and “coriander”. While the judges enjoyed the gins they sampled, they noted the difficulty to “make yourself heard” in such a saturated category and how there needs to be more focus in the sector on craftsmanship of flavours, complexity and balance.

Meanwhile, Thomson’s team was putting a flight of super­-premium brandies to the taste test – and found the first Master of the day. Lucky Bastard Bierbrand showed notes of “Bourbon, apple and vanilla”. Rodriguez said: “I loved the use of the cask. It wasn’t heavy or overpowering, and the brandy had hints of banana and a smooth palate – it was a nice alternative to an after­-dinner drink.” A Silver was also awarded to Ysabel Regina, with its notes of “prunes, coffee beans and fruitcake”.

The Master medals kept on coming into the next round, when the top accolade was bestowed upon Sullivans Cove XO Single Cask in the Brandy – Ultra Premium flight. Millar said: “This had a classy nose, with notes of ripe banana and pineapple, with a hint of roast coffee in the background. To taste there was a marzipan element with a dark chocolate finish, reminiscent of marzipan Ritter Sport.”

My panel was also riding a Masters wave, awarding the coveted medal to Dewar’s 18 Year Old The Vintage and Dewar’s 30 Year Old Ne Plus Ultra in the Scotch Whisky: Blended – Ultra Premium heat. Tanner said the 18­-year­-old had an “amazing nose. Every time you go back, you keep finding another note in there,” he explained. And he had equally high praise for the 30-­year­-old expression: “This was really oily; it coats the mouth. An exceptional blend that really shows off the malt.” We also deemed Dewar’s 25 Year Old The Signature deserving of a Gold, with its flavours of “fresh cut grass” and “honey” on the palate.

“Blends are underrated in the geek section, but what these whiskies showed was the art of the blender, of people constructing something that is really, really delicious,” said Duffy. “These were all very, very complex products and felt like they’d been assembled with care and skill – jolly tasty.”

WELL BALANCED

Moving onto Scotch Whisky: Single Malt – Ultra Premium and yet more Masters were brought to the fore. Glengoyne Highland 25 Year Old was deemed worthy of the top award, thanks to its notes of “cinnamon, dark chocolate and cloves”. “This was very well balanced,” noted Duffy. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Cask No. 76.137 Complete Nirvana was also a top medallist in this flight, securing a Master for its flavours of “grass, pear, citrus, ginger and cooked banana”. Tanner said: “It was really nice to see something that isn’t a Sherry bomb do so well; sometimes it’s a bit easy to rest on that. This was a really oily, satisfying whisky.”

And to make it a hat-­trick, a Master was also awarded to 22­-year-­old Ardbeg Twenty Something, with its mix of “bonfire and barbecue smoke” and flavours of “honeyed barley”. Four Golds and one Silver were also presented in this flight.

Looking outside of Scotland and the World Whisky: Blended – Ultra Premium contingent found a Gold medallist in the form of The Lakes Distillery’s Steel Bonnets. The judges had many positive things to say about the expression, with its notes of “plum and damson” and “cinnamon warm spices”. Thomson described the whisky as “incredibly expressive, assertive and powerful”. Thomson’s panel found another Master within the World Whisky: Single Malt – Ultra Premium round. Kanya by Paul John was found deserving of the medal with its myriad flavours of “wood polish, malt, banana, green apple, Bourbon” and its “velvety texture and big finish”. So well constructed was the whisky that the judges said it was “hard to remember it is over 50% abv”.

American Whiskey: Single Malt – Super Premium uncovered a Gold medallist in the form of “integrated and well made” Rolling Thunder Stouted Whiskey, which had notes of “Demerara sugar, nutmeg and coffee”.

The final whisk(e)y flight, American Whiskey: Bourbon – Ultra Premium, drew three Golds for three different Luxco expressions: “light, but well balanced” Blood Oath Pact No.4; “chewy and long” Yellowstone Limited Edition 2017; and “very spicy” Rebel Yell 10 Year Single Barrel.

Shifting categories to rum, and an apt Gold was awarded to Neptune Rum Gold in the Rum: Gold – Super Premium heat. The expression was praised for its “vibrant nose” and flavours of “rhubarb and custard sweets” on the palate.

GOOD EXAMPLES

In the more expensive ultra­-premium gold rum contingent, two Silvers were awarded. My panel of judges found “vegetal notes” and “cooking spices and eucalyptus” in Kirk and Sweeney 18 Year Old, and flavours of “stone fruits, red berries and a hint of wood” in Kirk and Sweeney 23 Year Old. “These were good examples of their category,” said Tanner. “If you gave these rums to someone who may not know spirits, they’ll like them. If you made your guest an Old Fashioned with either of these, they’d love it.”

Switching categories again, and my panel found a worthy Gold medallist in the Tequila: Blanco – Super Premium flight. Duffy said of Cenote Blanco Tequila: “It tasted like it had been distilled well, there were no off notes. Some problems I normally have with blancos are normally down to fermentation or distillation, but this was great – it tasted of agave.” The ultra­-premium blancos also found favour among our panel, with Casa Noble Joven awarded a Silver medal. “This was a really good example of another direction blancos can go in; it had more warmth to it,” said Tanner.

Thomson’s panel awarded two Gold medals to Hornitos Black Barrel Tequila and Tequila Corralejo 99000 Horas in the Tequila: Añejo – Super Premium heat. The first was described as “well made” with notes of “lemon spice, cardamom and fresh salt”. The latter offered flavours of “quince, Bourbon and candied grapefruit”.

Cenote Tequila Ańejo bagged a Gold in the Tequila: Añejo – Ultra Premium contingent, impressing Thomson’s panel with its “expressive nose” with “lots of candied and dried fruit, and smoked agave” and flavours of “baked watermelon, salt and pink pepper pods”. Progressing to the older Tequilas, and one Silver was bestowed upon Tequila Corralejo Extra Añejo 1821, favoured for its tastes of “baked melon, pumpkin, spiced chilli and hints of bubblegum”. “This was an unusual Tequila with some unexpected flavours,” noted Millar.

In the Speciality – Ultra Premium flight, a Silver was awarded to Sikera Nikitas 50, which the judges said had a “bitter, sour Guinness sensation” as well as “mocha, chocolate latte and green crops” on the nose. Another Silver medal was also given to Sikera Grand Tartaria, in which the judges found hints of “hazelnut and praline” on the nose, leading to “green peppers, toasted almonds” and “dried violets” on the palate.

In the penultimate flight Thomson’s team found one Gold medallist: The Braemble Gin Liqueur. The super­-premium liqueur presented flavours of “morello cherries”, with “freshness and a long length”.

INDICATION OF QUALITY

In the final flight, Liqueurs: Ultra Premium, Bouvery CV secured a Silver medal from Thomson’s panel, which advised that it “must be shaken to understand its full potential”. “It smells like a melted chocolate Easter egg,” said Rodriguez, who also found some hazelnut on the nose.

At the end of the day’s proceedings, it was clear the judges felt that while price doesn’t necessarily correlate to quality, there are a vast number of luxury spirits made to a high standard out there waiting to be discovered. Commenting on the day’s offering, Duffy observed: “It just shows that price point isn’t really an indication of quality – but that’s the beauty of blind tastings.”

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

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