The Luxury Spirits Masters 2019 results
Our Luxury Masters competition sought to find out which high-end expressions really pull their weight. And the judges weren’t disappointed.
As the pervasive ‘drinking less but better’ trend continues, growth in spirits has become rooted in the upper end of the spectrum. According to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, super‐premium‐plus spirits sales were up by 8.9% globally in 2018, while ultra‐premium‐plus sales grew by 12.3%. Premium‐and‐above is fast becoming the new norm in all spirit types as distillers chase value over volume.
This broad move upmarket has had a dramatic effect on the luxury spirits landscape, which is no longer the sole domain of expensive whiskies and Cognacs. ‘Premiumisation’ has been used to describe the general direction in which all manner of spirits are moving – from gin and vodka to Tequila and rum.
In the annual Luxury Masters competition, The Spirits Business gathered a team of expert tasters to assess the state of the super‐ and ultra‐premium market. Devoid of information other than category and ABV, the teams were unaware of any costs associated with luxury packaging and judged entrants on the quality of their liquid alone.
The first flight, Vodka – Super Premium, was judged by a panel that consisted of Derek Millar, retired whisky retailer, Athila Roos, wine and spirits agent, and Melita Kiely, deputy editor of The Spirits Business, who chaired proceedings. The competition kicked off with two Silver medals, for “creamy, viscous” Fling vodka and “balanced, smooth” Gradusnik.
In the Vodka – Ultra Premium round, the Gold medals came thick and fast, with five awarded. “I loved the texture of this vodka, which had a little viscosity,” said Roos about Air Co Vodka. The panel also enjoyed the “chilli leaf and wet concrete” aroma of Menaud Vodka, and the “clean and creamy citrus” character of Purity Vodka 17, whose stablemates – Purity Vodka 34 and Purity Vodka 51 – also secured Gold.
“When you’re spending at the ultra‐ premium end, you either want a classic made very, very well, or something a little different with a more unusual character,” said Millar.
Success followed in the Gin – Super Premium leg, which produced three Golds and four Silvers. The round was judged by the competition’s second panel, consisting of Dan Greifer, head bartender at Belmeis, and Riccardo Lupacchini, bartender at Scarfes Bar. The team was chaired me, Amy Hopkins, editor of The Spirits Business.
Judges agreed “the juniper was beautifully articulated” in Manchester Three Rivers Small Batch Dry Gin, and found pleasing notes of “coriander, citrus and white pepper” in Tokyo Nights. Meanwhile, Íon Curious Citrus Gin was described as a “really good showcase of traditional gin”.
The competition’s first Master medallist – which had to score 90% or more – followed in the next flight, Gin – Ultra Premium. Grace Gin was given the accolade for its “super balanced” and “generous” juniper flavour, which “avoided the soapiness that can come from a high juniper content”.
Greifer added: “This has everything an ultra‐premium shopper is looking for. People who know gin will appreciate this.” The round also yielded two Golds – for 88 Gin and Slingsby Marmalade Gin, which just missed out on a Master award – as well as two Silvers.
Next was Cognac, sub‐categorised by age and price. Courvoisier VS, which judges said “took you on a journey of flavour”, bagged Gold in the VS – Super Premium category. This was followed by a Gold for stablemate Courvoisier VSOP in the VSOP – Super Premium heat, which was praised for its “nutty” nose and “instant crispness”.
The Cognac: XO – Super Premium flight produced three Gold medals, for: “very attractive” Courvoisier Napoleon, in which judges enjoyed a “hint of orange and Demerara sugar”; “funky” Courvoisier XO, said to have a flavour of “caramel, leather and chocolate”; and “very complex and woody” Hermitage 1995 Grande Champagne, which Kiely’s team believed would “make a great Old Fashioned”.
At the top of the price bracket, in the Cognac: XO – Ultra Premium round, Courvoisier’s Gold run continued with a medal for its Initiale Extra expression, said to be “very quaffable”. Meanwhile “oaky and dry” Hermitage 1923 Grande Champagne also secured a Gold and Hermitage Eleanor Grande Champagne, said to have a “pleasant heavyweight nose”, won Silver.
Judges observed that the art of blending in Cognac should offer a wide spectrum of flavour, and that some of the super‐premium expressions delivered more than those in the ultra‐premium rounds. “In XO, there should be complexity from having younger, fruity Cognacs, as well as mushroom, earthy flavours that come from the older Cognac component,” noted Roos. “At this price, it needs to give you great pleasure or you’ll be disappointed.”
The Scotch whisky segment kicked off in impressive fashion with a Gold medal for Dewar’s 25 Years Old, said to have a “sea‐ spray character”, and a Silver medal for “oaky, creamy” Dewar’s 18 Years Old in the Blended – Ultra Premium flight. Up next was an ultra‐premium single grain Scotch that blew judges away with its complexity and length.
The creatively named G6.9 – Listening to the Frog Chorus, from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) secured the Master accolade after impressing Kiely’s panel with its “butterscotch, pear and gorse blossom” aroma and its “open, fresh pear” flavour. This was followed by another Master in the Single Malt – Super Premium round for “rich and refreshing” SMWS bottling 96.31, which was deemed “tropical and a bit tart”, reminiscent of an “apricot turnover”.
Success for the SMWS didn’t stop there, with yet another Master medal awarded to its 97.22 – Emerald‐masked triple thrill bottling in the Single Malt – Ultra Premium leg. “The aroma of this whisky was just superb – it was like sticking your nose in a coconut,” enthused Millar. “It took nicely to a little touch of water and really gave you something back.”
That was joined by Ardbeg 19 Year Old in the flight’s Master contingent, which judges agreed “blended all flavour elements together really harmoniously”. Roos added: “This demonstrates a very clever use of peat. It’s not like an ashtray; there are warm, gentle bonfire notes, sea spray, seaweed and inked grassy notes coming through that develop into delicious pastry flavours.”
The strong round also produced six Gold medals for expressions from the SMWS, Speyside Distillers Company and The Glenmorangie Company. Roos said: “Nothing was overly sherried or overpowering in any way. It’s refreshing to see such consistency at this price point. These were all solid whiskies, and some of them are over‐delivering, which is how it should be.”
Turning our attention across the North Channel, my team tackled the Irish whiskey contingent, kicking off with a Gold for “tropical” Slainte Irish Whiskey in the Blended – Super Premium focus. This led to a Master medal for Dublin Liberties Copper Alley in the flight dedicated to super‐ premium single malts from Ireland. “I loved its nutty nose and the fact that it wasn’t just rich – there was a delicateness throughout,” said Greifer.
The Quiet Man 12 Year Old Oloroso Sherry Cask Finish bagged a Gold medal in the same round. The Master standard resumed in the Single Malt – Ultra Premium Irish whiskey focus, where the title was bestowed on Dublin Liberties King of Hell. The expression was found to have an “unusually smoky nose”, which was balanced with notes of “orchard fruit and caramel”. “Smooth” Dublin Liberties Murder Lane and “oily” Dublin Liberties Keepers Coin won Gold in the flight.
In the ultra‐premium world whisky segment, judges enjoyed the “big peat hit” of Gulliver’s 47 Single Malt English Whisky and awarded the expression Gold, followed by another Gold for That Boutique‐y Whisky Company Japanese Blended Whisky #1 21 Year Old and Silver for Stará Myslivecká Single Barrel. The American whiskey part of the competition started with a Silver for “spicy” ultra‐premium Missouri Ridge Bourbon and was followed by Golds for two expressions by Uncle Nearest in the Tennessee Whiskey – Super Premium flight, which judges said offered value for money.
In the rum focus, the final Master medal of the day was given to That Boutique‐y Rum Company Travellers Distillery 10 Year Old, said to be “rich, bold and effortlessly balanced, with zero alcohol burn”. My panel was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the entire rum round, since luxury rums previously had a reputation for imbalance and the over‐use of sugar and colouring.
“Flavour came through better in the higher‐ strength rums,” added Greifer. “It was great to see so many styles done so well.”
SIPPABLE AND MIXABLE
Numerous sub‐sections of Tequila, spanning blanco, reposado and añejo, yielded an impressive total of 10 Gold medals. In the blanco heat, the Sesión expression was said to be “sippable and mixable”, while in the reposado focus judges enjoyed the “clean and floral” profile of Los Arango and the “dry finish with a hint of rose” they found in Tequila Herradura Reposado. In the añejo flights, judges highlighted the “very clean and vibrant nose” of Tequila Herradura Añejo.
Cherry brandy can be overly sweet, but judges were delighted by the dry and elegant flavour of Kleiner Sour Cherry by Brandy, which received a Gold in the Speciality Spirits round – the penultimate one of the day.
Rounding off proceedings was a flight of sweet treats for the judges, who awarded two Golds and one Silver to the ultra‐ premium liqueur entrants. Lupacchini loved the nostalgic flavour of Mis Amigo Chocolate Tequila, as well as the “natural coffee influence” of Los Arango Coffee Liqueur.
At the end of the tasting, judges sampled the impressive Master medallists again to select the Taste Master – the competition’s ‘best in class’ expression. G6.9 – Listening to the frog chorus from the SMWS continued to enthral judges with its complex character and took home the top accolade.
“While a Scotch whisky won today’s Taste Master title, it’s worth noting the exceptionally high standard of all the categories we assessed throughout the day,” said Kiely.
“As the super‐premium‐plus market becomes ever‐more compressed, brands are battling to retain consumer mindshare. And it seems such competition is bringing out their best when it comes to taste.”
Click through to the following page to see the full set of results from The Luxury Spirits Masters 2019.