The Luxury Masters 2023 results
There is a strong trend of premiumisation in the spirits sector, but do higher prices mean better products? In our annual Luxury Masters competition, four panels of judges find out.
If one thing is certain in the spirits world, it is that premiumisation is an ongoing trend. Consumers are constantly seeking to drink better-quality brands – often at a premium price, and above.
But it is common knowledge that a product’s price point is not necessarily indicative of a liquid’s quality. At the annual Luxury Masters, our judges look to reward those spirits sitting in the super-premium and ultra-premium price brackets with Silver, Gold and Master medals – but only if the liquid inside the bottle lives up to the expectations associated with the cost.
Gathering at Punch Room at the London Edition in September were four panels of judges, the first of which was led by Melita Kiely, editor of The Spirits Business, and chair of The Global Spirits Masters Competitions. Kiely was joined by Emilia Wrelton, bar manager at Electric House private members’ club in London.
A second panel comprised Matt Chambers, whisky and spirits writer, and co-founder of the Whisky For Everyone blog. He was joined by Ruchira Neotia, drinks consultant at Darjeeling Express, and Antony Moss, spirits judge and consultant.
David T Smith, spirits writer and consultant, and co-founder of the Craft Distilling Expo, chaired the third panel. He was accompanied by Anne Jones, drinks experience at Waitrose and John Lewis, and Claire Filer, spirits judge, writer and consultant. The final team comprised: Bryan Rodriguez-Curtis, buyer at Harvey Nichols; Keegan Menezes, spirits consultant; and Zalorén González Fontes, assistant manager of Hometipple.
A strong start
Diageo’s Tanqueray No. Ten set a strong start for the tasting, securing a Gold medal in the opening flight, which looked at super-premium gins, priced between £21 and £35. The gin was enjoyed for being “bright and fresh, with lots of lemon and juniper notes – classic and well made”. Two Silver medals completed the first flight.
Two further Gold medals were discovered in the ultra-premium gin heat, the first of which was awarded to No.3 London Dry Gin. The judges noted its “juniper backbone, soft palate, and very well-integrated alcohol”.
The second Gold medal was given to Seventy One Gin. The expression offered “cassia and cinnamon” on the nose, leading to a “good texture” when sipped. A Silver medal completed the flight.
From gin, the tasting turned to vodka, starting with a super-premium entry from Nykur Super Premium Organic Vodka, which won a Gold medal. Tasting notes included “a soft vanilla nose” and a “spot-on clean, neutral palate”.
A trio of Golds followed in the ultra-premium heat, beginning with X Muse Vodka. The judges likened the aroma to a “malty new make”, while the palate was described as “rich and full-bodied – a lovely characterful vodka that would be enjoyed in a Martini, Martinez, or Red Snapper”, enthused Rodriguez-Curtis.
Royal Mash Vintage Vodka 2020 also bagged a Gold medal, enjoyed for some “lemon and stone fruit” hints on the nose, and “good texture with a pleasant amount of flavour” when sipped. Completing the Gold run was Lex by Nemiroff, which offered a “clean, neutral” profile, with “decent texture and cocktail-mixing potential”. A Silver medal for Pur Sang Vodka closed the round. Rodriguez-Curtis noted: “A good selection of strong vodkas here.”
Into the darkness
The Gold standard continued as white spirits were left behind in favour of darker, aged products, starting with a flight of blended Scotch whiskies in the ultra-premium price bracket.
A pair of Gold medals went to The Sassenach, and Johnnie Walker Blue Label. The Sassenach delivered “honeyed cereals” on the nose, enhanced by “green apple, warming wood spice, golden syrup and tropical fruit” on the palate.
Meanwhile, Johnnie Walker Blue Label offered some “earthy peat smoke and sweet honey” on the nose, with “sultana, green apple, pear and a pinch of baking spice” on the palate.
A strong flight of ultra-premium single malt Scotch whiskies followed, delivering six Gold medals and two Silvers. Among the Gold winners was The Glenturret 12 Years Old. Tasting notes for this medal winner included: “Elegant and sweet on the palate, with honey and delicate dried fruit, toffee and oak.”
Although the judges enjoyed the entrants in this round, they did note: “Considering this is a key price point for Scotch, there were some good and well-made products, but some lacked that ‘wow’ factor,” noted Chambers.
However, the ‘wow’ factor the judges were seeking came in the following flight of ultra-premium single malt Scotch whiskies, which uncovered the first Master medallists of the day. The Glenmorangie Company took home one of two Master medals awarded in this flight for Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19 Years Old Batch 5.
The whisky impressed Kiely’s team, with
its “bonfire smoke on the nose and sweetness in the background”, which eventually led to “a peaty punch” on the palate, with “sugary cereal, stewed apples and good balance”.
Diageo also bagged the top award for Mortlach 20 Years Old. Wrelton detected notes of “pear and sultana” on the nose, leading to “a slight richness, dried fruits and warming spice”. Kiely added: “At this price point, you’re looking for extra complexity and balance, and the Masters in particular delivered on these points.”
Five Golds and one Silver medal were also awarded in this round, with “fruity and spicy” Glenmorangie Grand Vintage 1998 among the Gold winners.
In the ultra-premium single malt Irish whiskey heat, The Craft Irish Whiskey Co collected two Gold medals for The Taoscán and The Donn. The Taoscán had “ripe peach” bursting on the nose, before the palate presented “jammy, fruity” flavours with “cereal, apples and pears – and a nicely balanced higher ABV”. The Donn, meanwhile, had a “heavy” aroma of “varnish, rich caramel”, which resulted in a “sweeter palate with a thick mouthfeel”.
With the assessment of the Irish producers completed, it was the turn of the Americans – starting with a strong win for Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, which secured a Master medal for its Single Barrel Black Label. The whiskey, which took the medal in the ultra-premium Bourbon flight, impressed, with its “very typical nose, some baked apple and peanuts; intense with flavours of caramel, vanilla oak and a touch of pepper”. Two Gold medals for Bourbons created by Never Say Die boosted the flight.
Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey continued its Master-medal haul in the super-premium Tennessee whiskey round, securing the top accolade for Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey.
“Beautifully textured,” said Jones. “Lots of wood but supported by plenty of fruit and texture. Long finish with a touch of heat, but there’s enough character so that it enhances rather than detracts, carrying the flavour on a long compelling finish.”
A Silver medal was handed to Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch Whiskey, before the producer also collected a Gold medal in the ultra-premium Tennessee whiskey heat for its Master Blend Edition. Smith noted: “It is easy to see why Tennessee whiskey is such a favourite the world over, so close to Bourbon but with the potential to be so different, delicious, and nutty.”
Uncle Nearest’s success continued into the super-premium rye category, where Uncle Nearest Straight Rye secured a Master medal. The whiskey blew the judges away with its “soft rye bread” aroma and “soft Sherry and wine notes, some biscuit and a touch of custard on the finish”.
In the ultra-premium rye contingent, two more Gold medals were given to Uncle Nearest, one for its “classic” Single Barrel Rye and a second for its “very, very creamy” Uncut & Unfiltered Straight Rye Whiskey.
Where in the world?
World whisky has been a category that has seen increased interest in recent years – and the medal performance of this year’s Luxury entrants demonstrated why that is. The flight produced two Masters, five Golds, and two Silver medals – all of which went to bottlings by Alexandrion Saber Distilleries 1789.
The Master awards were given to Carpathian Single Malt Whisky Peated Cask Strength, with “barbecue smoke on the nose, roasted peaches, good richness and spice”, and to Carpathian Single Malt Whisky Vradiano Cask Finish, with its “pleasant body, with fruitcake and Tawny fruit notes”.
“World whisky is a category that is premiumising massively, and prices are reaching Scotch/Japanese prices. This is a category to keep your eyes on,” noted Rodriguez-Curtis.
After whisky came a flight of brandy, specifically in the XO age bracket with an ultra-premium price tag.
Bhakta 1973 Armagnac received a Master, enjoyed for “delicious dried fruit, woody oak and orange oil” on the nose. The palate was “rounded and sweet” with “orange peel, milk chocolate and a lovely long finish”.
In the Cognac – XO – Ultra Premium flight, “rich, balanced” Rémy Martin XO won a Gold medal, enjoyed for its “deep tertiary flavours and aromas”.
Two Gold medals made for a strong start among the rum flights, awarded to Agent Double 01 – Rhum Blanc De Dégustation, and Agent Double 02 – Rhum Blanc De Dégustation. The latter rum was described as being “well balanced, with fruity notes, lemon pith and tropical fruits”.
Santa Teresa 1796 fared well in the super-premium gold rum heat, securing a Gold medal for its “dried fruit, caramel and fudge” flavours. An additional Silver medal made for a short, but solid flight.
Seychelles-based producer Takamaka took home a Gold for its Pti Lakaz in the ultra-premium gold rum round. Kiely said the “oak comes through nicely on this, offering dryness on the palate. A decent rum worth the price point.” A Silver was also awarded in this flight.
Sipping and mixing
Among the dark rum entries, super-premium Ron Santiago de Cuba Extra Añejo 11 Years Old won a Gold medal. “This is really nicely done, with cooked apples, pears and burnt sugar. Good for sipping or mixing; delicious,” said Kiely.
Meanwhile, “brandy snaps and maple-sugar sticks”, guaranteed a Gold medal for Ron Santiago de Cuba 20 Years Old Extra Añejo Gran Reserva in the ultra-premium dark rum round. Three further Gold medals were also awarded to: Havana Club Tributo 2023, which presented “plenty of rancio”; Bhakta 1990 Rum, which had a “powerful and punchy” nose and “sweet but grippy” palate; and Ron Carúpano Reserve 1996, with “light spice, oak, vanilla and dates”. Three Silver medals concluded the flight.
Tequila is a spirit category that has been on a seemingly constant upward trajectory during the past couple of years – and ultra-premium Don Julio 1942 shone in the tasting. The Gold medal winner was celebrated for being “cleanly distilled, with some pepper, cooked agave and hint of vanilla”.
The ultra-premium mezcal round left the judges particularly excited, as a Master medal and a Gold medal were handed to two One and Ugly entrants. The Master award went to Perro Verde Mezcal – Ensamble Espadín/Tobasiche. “Great salinity with a little smoke and citrus, very, very typical example,” noted Smith.
A “generous natural cassis flavour on the nose” helped Nuet Moments Toddy win a Gold medal in the super-premium liqueurs heat, boosted by “plenty of sweetness and acidity” on the palate. But it was Arrangé Volcanique that was the show-stopping liqueur, picking up a Master award in the ultra-premium flight for delivering “mango and pineapple with a spicy hit on the palate – an excellent liqueur”, enthused Kiely. Amaro Lucano Essenza was granted a Gold medal.
With just a few flights left to judge, the judges looked at the quality of ultra-premium speciality spirits. Gold medallist Nuet Dry Aquavit left a lasting impression, thanks to its “caraway-forward” flavour profile and “nice mouthfeel”. Axia Spirit also secured a Gold medal for its “pickled aroma, herbal and grassy” profile.
The final flight of the day judged three tonics and mixers, delivering two Golds and one Silver medal – all to bottlings by Wildleaf Drinks. Wildleaf Club Soda was especially enjoyable for Smith’s panel because of its “refreshing, dry, crisp” profile.
The best of the best
After taking some time to refresh their palates after a long tasting, the judges regrouped to decide the Luxury Taste Master 2023. The Master winners were re-poured and sampled, with resounding praise for Uncle Nearest Single Barrel Black Label, which was awarded the coveted 2023 title.
The judges noted that those spirits that did well at these higher price points were the ones who remained committed to keeping their products well balanced. If drinkers are to spend their hard-earned cash on top-dollar bottlings, the liquid inside the bottle should be nothing short of exceptional – and there are many exquisite medal winners to discover, as the victors here have shown.
|Gin – Super Premium|
|Diageo||Tanqueray No. Ten||Gold|
|Highclere Castle Spirits||Highclere Castle Gin||Silver|
|Tiger Gin||Tiger Gin||Silver|
|Gin – Ultra Premium|
|Berry Bros & Rudd||No.3 London Dry Gin||Gold|
|Seventy One||Seventy One Gin||Gold|
|St Davids Distillery||St Davids Dry Gin||Silver|
|Vodka – Super Premium|
|Nykur Spirits||Nykur Super Premium Organic Vodka||Gold|
|Vodka – Ultra Premium|
|Tenth Muse Spirits||X Muse Vodka||Gold|
|Royal Mash||Royal Mash Vintage Vodka 2020||Gold|
|Nemiroff||Lex by Nemiroff||Gold|
|Pur Sang Vodka||Pur Sang Vodka||Silver|
|Scotch Whisky – Blended – Ultra Premium|
|Sassenach Spirits||The Sassenach||Gold|
|Diageo||Johnnie Walker Blue Label||Gold|
|Scotch Whisky – Single Malt – Super Premium|
|Diageo||The Singleton Glen Ord 15 Year Old||Gold|
|Diageo||The Singleton Glen Ord 12 Year Old||Gold|
|Goldfinch Whisky||The Goldfinch Bodega Series – Linkwood 14YO||Gold|
|The Glenturret||The Glenturret 12 Year Old 2023 Release||Gold|
|The Glenturret||The Glenturret 7 Year Old 2023 Release||Gold|
|The Glenturret||The Glenturret 10 Year Old 2023 Release||Gold|
|The Glenturret||The Glenturret Triple Wood 2023 Release||Silver|
|Goldfinch Whisky||The Goldfinch Blair Athol 14 Year Old – Tawny Port||Silver|
|Scotch Whisky – Single Malt – Ultra Premium|
|The Glenmorangie Company||Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19 Years Old Batch 5||Master|
|Diageo||Mortlach 20 Years Old||Master|
|Diageo||The Singleton Dufftown 21 Years Old||Gold|
|Diageo||Mortlach 16 Years Old||Gold|
|The Glenmorangie Company||Glenmorangie Grand Vintage 1998||Gold|
|The Glenmorangie Company||Ardbeg 25 Years Old||Gold|
|Goldfinch Whisky||Paloma – Caol lla 11 Years Old||Gold|
|The Glenmorangie Company||Glenmorangie The Signet||Silver|
|Irish Whiskey – Single Malt – Ultra Premium|
|The Craft Irish Whiskey Co||The Taoscán||Gold|
|The Craft Irish Whiskey Co||The Donn||Gold|
|American Whiskey – Bourbon – Ultra Premium|
|Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey||Single Barrel Black Label Master & Taste||Master|
|Never Say Die||Never Say Die Small Batch Bourbon||Gold|
|Never Say Die||Never Say Die Barrel Strength Bourbon||Gold|
|American Whiskey – Tennessee – Super Premium|
|Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey||Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey||Master|
|Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey||1884 Small Batch Whiskey||Silver|
|American Whiskey – Tennessee – Ultra Premium|
|Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey||Master Blend Edition||Gold|
|American Whiskey – Rye – Super Premium|
|Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey||Uncle Nearest Straight Rye||Master|
|American Whiskey – Rye – Ultra Premium|
|Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey||Single Barrel Rye||Gold|
|Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey||Uncut & Unfiltered Straight Rye Whiskey||Gold|
|World Whisky – Super Premium|
|Alexandrion Saber Distilleries 1789||Carpathian Single Malt Whisky Peated Cask Strength||Master|
|Alexandrion Saber Distilleries 1789||Carpathian Single Malt Whisky Vradiano Cask Finish||Master|
|Alexandrion Saber Distilleries 1789||Carpathian Single Malt Whisky Madeira Cask Finish||Gold|
|Alexandrion Saber Distilleries 1789||Carpathian Single Malt Whisky Burgundy Cask Finish||Gold|
|Alexandrion Saber Distilleries 1789||Carpathian Single Malt Whisky Ruby Port Cask Finish||Gold|
|Alexandrion Saber Distilleries 1789||Carpathian Single Malt Whisky Fetească Neagră Cask Finish||Gold|
|Alexandrion Saber Distilleries 1789||Carpathian Single Malt Whisky Cognac Cask Finish||Gold|
|Alexandrion Saber Distilleries 1789||Carpathian Single Malt Whisky Commandaria Cask Finish||Silver|
|Alexandrion Saber Distilleries 1789||Carpathian Single Malt Whisky Amarone Cask Finish||Silver|
|Brandy – XO – Ultra Premium|
|Bhakta Spirits||Bhakta 1973 Armagnac||Gold|
|Cognac – XO – Ultra Premium|
|Rémy Martin||Rémy Martin XO||Gold|
|Rum – White – Ultra Premium|
|Rhums et Punchs Isautier||Agent Double 02 – Rhum Blanc De Dégustation||Gold|
|Rhums et Punchs Isautier||Agent Double 01 – Rhum Blanc De Dégustation||Gold|
|Rum – Gold Super Premium|
|Ron Santa Teresa||Santa Teresa 1796||Gold|
|Rum – Gold – Ultra Premium|
|Island Company Rum||Island Company Rum||Silver|
|Rum – Dark – Super Premium|
|Justerini & Brooks||Ron Santiago de Cuba Extra Añejo 11 Years Old||Gold|
|Justerini & Brooks||Ron Santiago de Cuba Añejo 8 Years Old||Silver|
|Rum – Dark – Ultra Premium|
|Ron Santiago de Cuba||Ron Santiago de Cuba 20 Years Old Extra Añejo Gran Reserva||Gold|
|Havana Club||Havana Club Tributo 2023||Gold|
|Bhakta Spirits||Bhakta 1990 Rum||Gold|
|Ron Carúpano||Ron Carúpano Reserve 1996||Gold|
|Ron Carúpano||Ron Carúpano 18 Reserva Limitada||Silver|
|Havana Club||Havana Club Vintage 2007||Silver|
|Justerini & Brooks||Ron Santiago de Cuba Extra Añejo 12 Year Old||Silver|
|Ron Santa Teresa||Santa Teresa 1796||Silver|
|Tequila – Añejo – Ultra Premium|
|Diageo||Don Julio 1942||Gold|
|Mezcal – Ultra Premium|
|One and Ugly||Perro Verde Mezcal – Ensamble Espadín/Tobasiche||Master|
|One and Ugly||Perro Verde Mezcal – Tobasiche||Gold|
|Liqueurs – Super Premium|
|Nuet||Nuet Moments Toddy||Gold|
|Liqueurs – Ultra Premium|
|Rhums et Punchs Isautier||Arrangé Volcanique||Master|
|Lucano 1894||Amaro Lucano Essenza||Gold|
|Speciality – Ultra Premium|
|Nuet||Nuet Dry Aquavit||Gold|
|Axia Spirit||Axia Spirit||Gold|
|Wildleaf Drinks||Wildleaf Club Soda||Gold|
|Wildleaf Drinks||Lumière Premium Tonic||Gold|