SB’s best-tasting spirits of 2021By Melita Kiely
At the finale of each of our Masters competitions the judges retaste the highest achievers to crown one standout expression the Taste Master. Here, we round up the liquids that really impressed in 2021.
Readers who have followed our Global Spirits Masters blind‐tasting series will probably be familiar with the Taste Master concept. At the end of each tasting, the top-scoring medals that won a Master award are judged blind one last time to determine the best liquid of the day – the coveted Taste Master.
The one exception to the rule, of course, is The Design & Packaging Masters, which looks at aesthetics, and therefore selects the Best in Class from the Master-winning designs. Each iteration of The Global Spirits Masters is chaired by The Spirits Business, and Silver, Gold and Master medals are awarded to expressions that meet the judges’ strict criteria.
The Taste Master trophies were presented during The Global Spirits Masters Awards Lunch at The Crypt of St Etheldreda’s, in London, last month.
We shine a light on the products from last year’s blind‐tasting competitions that stood out from the rest, the Taste Masters of 2021.
Low & No Taste Master 2021
Low-alcohol botanical blend Mary blew the judges away during the inaugural Low & No Masters blind tasting. Securing a Master medal in the Low-Alcohol – 6% to 25% ABV heat, the judges found Mary to be “very herbaceous” on the nose, with “rosemary, thyme and basil”. Sipped neat, Mary was “soft, with green floral flavours”. Speaking about the 6% ABV expression, one judge said: “The floral characteristics are done very well.”
London start-up Illogical Drinks released Mary in the latter part of 2020. Designed to appeal to those looking for health-conscious drinking options, Mary is sugar-free, suitable for vegans, contains no carbohydrates, and carries nine calories per 25ml serve. It is made from sustainably sourced plants, including basil, thyme and sage, and is recommended served with tonic water.
The Lost Explorer Mezcal Salmiana
Tequila & Mezcal Taste Master 2021
A large flight of 100% Agave Mezcal – Joven produced a worthy Master winner in the form of The Lost Explorer Mezcal Salmiana. “This has a very beautiful Tooty Frooty nose,” one of the judges noted. “This would be perfect for someone who doesn’t know mezcal; it’s a very entry‐friendly mezcal but still a fantastic product. It does everything I would expect at this level; it’s got a sweetness, but it keeps a good mouthfeel and is full of flavour.”
The Tequila & Mezcal Taste Master 2021 is made from 100% Salmiana agave, which is grown in San Pablo Huixtepec, Oaxaca, in Mexico. The Lost Explorer Mezcal Salmiana is double distilled, and bottled at 42% ABV.
Havana Club Maximo Extra Añejo
Rum & Cachaça Taste Master 2021
There had been a lot of activity in the rum category in the lead-up to The Rum & Cachaça Masters 2021. In the Gold Rum – Ultra Premium round of the competition, there was a standout entry: Havana Club Maximo Extra Añejo. The judges found this rum to be “beautifully complex like a brandy or Cognac”. Tasting notes included “mahogany, polished leather, dry with wood spices”.
Havana Club Maximo Extra Añejo is made by blending the best and oldest rums in Havana Club’s cellars, and is limited to only 1,000 bottles a year. The rum has an ABV of 40%. “This shows that aged properly, rum can be kick-ass. Rum can be as good as whisky or Cognac and other aged brown spirits; it’s fabulous,” the judges said.
Poachers Wild Tonic with Irish Elderflower
Tonic & Mixer Taste Master 2021
Premium tonic waters and mixers have been on the rise in recent years, as consumers seek quality products to pair with their spirits. The Tonic & Mixer Masters aimed to reward those brands that are offering top-quality products. In the Tonic Water – Infused heat of the blind tasting, a Master medal was bestowed upon Poachers Wild Tonic with Irish Elderflower.
The judges found this tonic water to be “nice and dry without the big floral feel to it”. The expression had a “lovely elderflower aroma – almost lychee-like” and was said to be “prominent, delicious, with great balance”.
Rémy Martin XO
Cognac Taste Master 2021
“This was silky smooth and so easy to drink – dangerously good stuff.” That’s how one of the judges described the 2021 Cognac Taste Master. Rémy Martin XO secured the ultimate award after first being celebrated in the XO – Ultra Premium flight. The Cognac was found to be “beautiful and bold” with “sticky fudge, a hint of pear, spices, cinnamon” and an “overall great balance”.
The expression is the cellar master’s signature Cognac, made by blending up to 400 different eaux-de-vie. Of these, 85% are from the Grande Champagne region of Cognac. The remaining 15% comes from the Petite Champagne area. Rémy Martin XO has been bottled at 40% ABV.
Divin Bardar 25 Years
Brandy Taste Master 2021
When you think of brandy, Moldova may not be the first region that jumps into your mind. However, Moldovan brandy had a stellar year in The Brandy Masters 2021. Rising to the top was Moldovan brandy Divin Bardar 25 Years. The expression was described as “the complete package” by the judges. It sits at 40% ABV. “I loved the development, the tertiary notes that came through, leathery, balsamic, dried fruit – lots of fruit,” noted one judge.
Bardar, based in a small village of the same name just 15 kilometres from the Moldovian capital of Chișinău, was founded in 1929.
Tanglin Black Powder Gin
Asian Spirits Taste Master 2021
Gins from Asia proved to be packed full of flavour in last year’s Asian Spirits Masters competition. But Botani’s Tanglin Black Powder Gin was a particular favourite with the judges, securing the top Taste Master accolade. The Singaporean gin was said to be “floral and citrus-led with lots of earthy characters and sweet spices of ginger, cinnamon and cardamom”. One judge said: “The juniper really stands out and adds a nice piney freshness”.
Tanglin Black Powder Gin is a navy strength expression, bottled at 58% ABV. The recipe for the gin uses juniper pods and whole fresh lemons. The brand recommends trying the gin neat, holding it in the mouth for a moment, before swallowing.
Whisp Cucumber & Mint
Hard Seltzer Taste Master 2021
Wild Drinks Group scooped the top award in the inaugural Hard Seltzer Masters for Whisp Cucumber & Mint. The Hard Seltzer Taste Master 2021 first collected a Master award in the Malted Hard Seltzer flight of the competition. On retasting the Master entries, the judges agreed it was worthy of the Taste Master title. The hard seltzer delivered a “delicious combination of flavours; the cucumber is fresh, mint is light and they complement each other perfectly – a fantastic product, perfect for summer.”
Hard seltzers have been a rapidly growing phenomenon in the US and are beginning to make waves overseas. The 2021 competition showed the category is evolving and there are many quality products in the sector.
Bunnahabhain 25 Years Old
Scotch Whisky Taste Master 2021
Scotch whisky has had a tough couple of years, dealing with the global pandemic and tariffs in the US. But The Scotch Whisky Masters showed there is still heaps of quality coming from the category. Distell picked up the Scotch Whisky Taste Master 2021 award for its Bunnahabhain 25 Years Old bottling. The Islay whisky won the award after collecting a Master medal in the Single Malt: Islay – Aged Between 19-30 Years category. The whisky was enjoyed for having “lots of forest floor rancio and gentle spice”.
Bunnahabhain 25 Years Old is bottled at 46.3% without caramel colouring or chill filtration. Bunnahabhain Distillery was founded in 1881 by William Robertson, and brothers William and James Greenless.
Elephant Strength Gin
Gin Taste Master 2021
So vast is the gin category nowadays that two rounds of The Gin Masters had to take place in 2021 to make room for all of last year’s entries. Following the completion of the second tasting, all the Master winners from the first and second stagings of the competition were retasted to pick The Gin Taste Master 2021. Standing out from the crowd was a navy strength expression: Elephant Strength Gin. The judges found notes of “cloves, pepper spice, coriander and cardamom” in the 57% ABV expression. They agreed the “high-alcohol strength holds well”.
Elephant Strength Gin is made using the same 14 botanicals as the original London Dry expression. These include: buchu, devil’s claw, lion’s tail herb, wormwood and baobab.
American Whiskey Taste Master 2021
The ultra-premium Bourbon flight of the American Whiskey Masters was where the standout bottling was discovered: Stagg Jr. Not only did it claim a Master medal, the whiskey was also chosen as the Taste Master. The judges praised the Sazerac-owned Bourbon’s complex tasting notes: “Coconut, vanilla, cake-like and oranges”, enhanced by a “meaty” depth as well.
The Kentucky straight Bourbon is bottled at 65.55% ABV after almost 10 years of maturation, and is non-chill-filtered. The judges agreed there was much to be excited about when it comes to American whiskey, with quality on offer across all styles.
Tullamore Dew 18 Years Old
Irish Whiskey Taste Master 2021
Whiskey from the Emerald Isle continues to go from strength to strength – and leading the way in The Irish Whiskey Masters last year was Tullamore Dew 18 Years Old. The Irish whiskey won a coveted Master medal in the Single Malt – Ultra Premium flight, before going on to claim the Taste Master accolade. The judges enjoyed its flavours of “green apples, brambles, oatcakes and sweet spice”.
Tullamore Dew 18 Years Old is triple‐distilled and matured in ex‐Bourbon barrels for 18 years. Before bottling, the whiskey is finished for at least six months in ex-oloroso Sherry butts, ex-Port pipes, and ex-Madeira drums. Tullamore Dew 18 Years Old has an ABV of 41.3%.
Kavalan Solist PX Sherry Single Cask Strength
World Whisky Taste Master 2021
Taiwan is a region that is generating a lot of excitement in the whisky world. Leading the way in Taiwanese whisky is Kavalan, which found huge success in The World Whisky Masters 2021. The distiller’s biggest triumph was Kavalan Solist PX Sherry Single Cask Strength, which secured a Master medal in the Asia (excluding Japan and India): Single Malt heat.
Kavalan Solist PX Sherry Single Cask Strength was celebrated for notes of “rich biscuit and chocolate” on the palate and a “bitter, sweet, fruity” finish. The whisky was enjoyed so much that the judges crowned it The World Whisky Taste Master 2021. To make the award‐winning whisky, Kavalan filled new make spirit into PX Sherry casks. This expression is bottled at 59.9% ABV.
Nemiroff The Inked Collection Burning Pear
Vodka Taste Master 2021
Flavoured vodkas have been making something of a comeback in the past couple of years. Producers have been taking cues from gin and striving for natural flavours. In the Flavoured/Infused Vodka round of The Vodka Masters 2021, a Master medal was awarded to Nemiroff Inked Collection Burning Pear, which also went on to win the ultimate Taste Master award. The vodka was enjoyed for “pear drops” on the nose and “authentic pear flavour” on the palate.
The vodka, which hails from Ukraine, is made with fresh pear, along with honey and local peppers. The Taste Master is part of three flavoured vodkas in the Inked Collection. The other two are Blood Orange and Wild Cranberry.
1792 Small Batch
Travel Retail Taste Master 2021
When it came to American whiskey brands in The Travel Retail Masters 2021 blind tasting, the standard was exceptionally high. Four Master medals were awarded in the American Whiskey heat, along with four Golds and three Silvers. But scooping the top Taste Master title was Sazerac’s 1792 Small Batch whiskey, which had “great balance” with fruity notes of “apricot, peach and banana”, enhanced by a “slight nuttiness”. One judge noted: “It had a lovely fruity balance, really superb. Slightly oaky with a cinnamon nose to it, then the fruit kicked in.”
The whiskey is named after the year that Kentucky became a state, in acknowledgement of the importance of the Bluegrass State as the birthplace of Bourbon.
Rémy Martin XO
Luxury Taste Master 2021
The Luxury Masters set out to determine which spirits were worthy of their super-premium-and-above price tags. But the product that proved it was worth every cent was Rémy Martin XO Cognac, The Luxury Taste Master 2021. The Cognac took home a Master medal in the Cognac XO – Ultra Premium contingent, enjoyed for its “deep, rich and fruity” flavours with “framboise and raspberry, eaux‐de‐vie”.
According to Baptiste Loiseau, Rémy Martin’s cellar master, the XO Cognac is best enjoyed as an apéritif, on the rocks. Alternatively, Loiseau recommends mixing Rémy Martin XO in a classic Old Fashioned cocktail.
Whistler’s Storm Earl Grey
Liqueur Taste Master 2021
Tea-flavoured alcoholic beverages are becoming more commonplace on the booze scene, and a flight of Tea liqueurs impressed in last year’s Liqueur Masters. Whistler’s Storm Earl Grey was one product that caught the judges’ attention, and bagged the esteemed Liqueur Taste Master 2021 award. The judges said it had “a beautiful transfer of real tea aromas, flavours and even the slightly tannic texture and a distant touch of positive and appetising bitterness”.
The tea-flavoured liqueur sits at 20% ABV. Serving suggestions include neat over ice, in a Tea Spritz – comprising Whistler’s Storm Earl Grey, Prosecco, bitter lemon and ice – or alternatively in a Whistler’s Sour cocktail.
Speciality Spirits Taste Master 2021
As lower-alcohol options grow in popularity, speciality spirits such as vermouth have been given a new lease of life. Producers are simultaneously becoming more inventive with their low-ABV offerings to cater for the rise in consumer demand. Stepping up to the challenge in the Vermouth flight of The Speciality Spirits Masters 2021 was Bianco Chinato, which received the Taste Master award. The judges described the vermouth as having a “beautiful, rich, fragrant nose” with a “lovely bold flavour throughout”.
During the retaste, judges said Bianco Chinato was “so aromatic, with gentle herbal notes, hints of vanilla, grape juice and sultana”. Chinato Bianco sits at 17% ABV and retails for around RRP £27 (US$36) per 500ml bottle.
No.3 Vesper Martini
Pre‐Mixed & RTD Taste Master 2021
The pandemic has spurred the rise of ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages, as consumers seek convenience and quality at home. Standing head and shoulders above the rest in The Pre-Mixed & RTD Masters 2021 was Berry Bros & Rudd’s No.3 Vesper Martini. The judges liked the cocktail’s “fresh and zingy” nose and said the “herbal botanicals come through well”.
The pre-bottled cocktail was launched as a limited edition bottling in April 2021, but was made permanent and sold via John Lewis, Booths and online in October. Berry Bros & Rudd created the RTD in partnership with Alessandro Palazzi of Dukes Bar in London. It combines No.3 Gin with vodka and vermouth. Bottled at 28.6% ABV, each 500ml bottle can make five cocktails.
Emperor Cucumber & Mint Gimlet
Cocktail & Signature Serve Taste Master 2021
This was another new competition for The Global Spirits Masters series in 2021. The aim was to celebrate some of the best recommended cocktail recipes and serves from leading brands. Taking the inaugural Cocktail & Signature Serve Taste Master accolade was the Emperor Cucumber & Mint Gimlet by Emperor Mojito Vodka. The judges praised the Gimlet cocktail for being “well integrated, quaffable and refreshing”.
The cocktail combines: 60ml Emperor Mojito Vodka, 30ml fresh lime juice, 20ml sugar syrup and 10ml cucumber syrup. Fresh cucumber and mint leaves are used to garnish.
Design & Packaging Best In Class 2021
Aesthetics need to complement the liquid in the bottle. But as well as looking good, packaging these days must be considerate of the environment and have purpose. Cuban rum Eminente Reserva, voted Best in Class in The Design & Packaging Masters 2021, delivered on all accounts.
The judges said: “As a gift pack, this is absolutely amazing. The bottle and texture is stunning and the extra glasses and canvas bag are well made, and will be reused. It’s really beautiful.” Eye‐catching details on the bottle included the textured glass, made to look like the skin of a crocodile, which the shape of Cuba is often likened to.