The Gin Masters 2019 results
The explosion in the popularity of gin shows no sign of ending, with more than 300 expressions entered into this year’s Gin Masters. The quantity may have been high but so was the quality.
To gauge how far gin has come in recent years, one need only look at how The Gin Masters competition has grown. In 2015, fewer than 100 gins were entered into the competition. In this year’s blind tasting, that number has more than trebled to exceed 300 entries, marking the biggest Global Spirits Masters competition in history.
The sheer volume of gin on the market has sparked fatigue in the spirits industry. Those in the trade are constantly questioning when the gin boom will end. However, the category – once viewed as a spirit to be sipped by older generations – has amassed loyal followers among the millennial and Generation Z crowds. Producers are pushing the boundaries of what gin can be, and the pink gin trend in particular is fast becoming a global phenomenon.
The craze has even seen Gordon’s Pink pass the million-case sales barrier less than two years since it launched. Though industry professionals may not be as excited by the category as they once were, its popularity among consumers has never been greater. But with hundreds of products pushing blended whiskies and other spirits off retailers’ shelves, does the quality live up to the hype?
That was the challenge faced by our expert tasters who gathered at London Wall Bar and Kitchen last month. The first flight of the day was Standard, comprising gins priced up to £15 a bottle. Elise Craft, Whisky Squad coordinator, chaired the first of five panels on the day. She was joined by Rui Tavares, head bartender at Gillray’s Steakhouse and Bar, and John Vine, spirits buyer at Waitrose.
Overall, the judges were impressed by the diversity available at the lower price point of the category, and awarded five Gold medals. Aldi walked away with two Golds, one for its “sweet and fresh” Darley’s Traditional Dry Gin, and a second for its Harrison’s Gin, with notes of “pepper”. Lidl’s Hampstead Premium Gin also received a Gold for its “slightly coconut” nose and “good balance of juniper”. Richmond Gin, with its “strong juniper and citrus”character, and Royal Flush, with its “bright citrus and curry leaves” notes, were also deemed Gold-worthy. The flight yielded four Silvers, too.
Craft said: “I assume that most people buy these gins to mix, and that makes them good value for money. I’m not sure I’d want to anchor a cocktail with one, though.”
Moving up a price bracket to the Premium flight, and judges assessed gins priced between £16 and £20. Hannah Lanfear, director of The Mixing Class, chaired a team consisting of Toby Sims, distiller at Rebel Distillers, and Claire Best, brand sales manager at Amathus Drinks. A Gold medal was awarded to Lidl’s Aquine Scottish Craft Gin for its “nice cucumber and basil notes”. Lanfear said the Gold medallist “shone through with decent balance and length, sticking to a tried-and-tested classic botanical recipe and with fresh, herbaceous notes”.
A standby team of judges was thankfully on hand later in the week to help judge a handful of brands that were unable to submit their samples on the day. Tobias Gorn, award-winning writer and specialist consultant, stepped in to chair the panel. He was joined by Dan Greifer, head bartender at Belmeis, and Bryan Rodriguez, spirits and beer buyer at Harvey Nichols. The trio found two more medallists in the Premium flight, awarding Diageo’s Gordon’s London Dry Gin a Silver for its “herbaceous accents”, and another Silver to Lidl’s Hortus Premium Pink Gin, with its flavour of “fresh berries”.
The next price point attracted one of the biggest flights of the day – Super Premium. Gins in this category sell for between £21 and £35, and due to the volume of entries, three panels shared the load. Taking the first section was a team chaired by Ben Lindsay, of Garnish Communications. He was helped by MD Imran, head bartender at Ukai, and Antim Solakov, bar manager at Two One Four.
The panel uncovered the first Master medal of the day – Nordés Gin by Atlantic Galician Spirits. The gin was praised for being “smooth, herbaceous and delicious”, with judges noting it would be ideal for a Martini.
A second Master medallist was enjoyed by the second panel to assess Super Premium, which was chaired by me, Melita Kiely, deputy editor of The Spirits Business. I was joined by Lewis Hayes, owner of Merchant House and Black Parrot, and David Miller, general manager at Merchant House. Our Master medal was given to Masons Yorkshire Lavender Gin, which presented “bold citrus flavours” complemented by notes of “pine, juniper and spice”.
Tackling the third section of the Super Premium contingent was a panel led by Amy Hopkins, editor of The Spirits Business, who was accompanied by Bernadette Pamplin, blogger and spirits judge, and Riccardo Lupacchini, bartender at Scarfes Bar.
Collectively, the three panels awarded 10 Golds and 18 Silvers in this super-sized flight. Some of the highlights included Atom Brands’ Bathtub Old Tom Gin, with its “great balance, spice and sweetness”; “oily” Martin Miller’s Gin, with its notes of “juniper, rose and mint”; and Orkney Gin Company Johnsmas, liked for its hints of “rose and pepper”.
Commenting on the flight, Hayes said: “Overall, I feel positive about the category. There are a few really great products at this price point. Even though they’re getting more expensive, you’re still getting good value. It would be nice to see producers having a little more fun in this area; either be really juniper-forward, or have fun with what you make.”
The final, and highest, price point of the day – Ultra Premium – produced another sizeable round, with each expression priced at £36 and above. Five Master medals were awarded in this flight, two of which were judged by my panel. Short Cross Bartender Series One was celebrated for its “prominent juniper” nose, while Scilly Spirit Distillery’s Island Gin was enjoyed because of its “peppery, well-balanced” palate.
Craft’s panel also unearthed two Masters: North Uist Distillery’s Downpour, with its “warming curry spices, cardamom and fresh flavours”; and Glenrinnes Distillery’s Eight Lands Organic Speyside Gin, which was described as a “classic gin” with “perfect balance [and] botanicals all in alignment”. Hopkins and her panel awarded the fifth Master in the Ultra Premium heat to Shortcross Gin, which demonstrated “smoothness in abundance”. A total of 14 Golds and 10 Silvers were also handed out.
Summing up the flight, Hayes said: “There were some standout gins in this round, but overall, it seemed as though this price point has simply become the norm. It definitely showed that quality isn’t always represented in the price – but there are some really fantastic gins that can be found in this category. You just have to sift them out.”
By far, the biggest flight of the day was London Dry, which produced eight Master medals. Lanfear’s panel took on a portion of the London Dry gins, and was particularly fond of Master medallist Martin Sesse London Dry Gin. The panel gave top marks for the spirit’s “complex and delightfully aromatic nose” combined with “good spice and mouthfeel” on the palate. Lindsay and his judges unearthed two Ultra Premium Masters: “vegetal and citrus” St Giles Gin, and “wonderfully balanced” Lighthouse Gin. Meanwhile, my team looked favourably upon Copenhagen Dry Gin, which scored a Master thanks to its “herbaceous, pine-like” flavours and “excellent balance”.
Three more Masters were handed out to a trio of Atom Brands expressions: That Boutique-y Gin Company Smoked Rosemary, with notes of “Earl Grey tea”; That Boutique-y Gin Company Fresh Rain, with its “lovely citrus nose”; and That Boutique-y Gin Company Moonshot Gin, for its “lovely interplay between spice and juniper”. The final Master from this flight was given to the Cotwolds Distillery’s London Dry variant, which Lanfear said was “perfect”.
In addition, 27 Golds and 31 Silvers were awarded in the London Dry flight. Miller said: “There was a lot of flavour to be found in the London Dry gins, with some lovely herbaceous and citrus notes coming through. The people who are doing London Dry right are doing it extremely well.”
Hayes agreed: “The London Dry gins we tasted were really good across the board. There are some fantastic expressions in this category, which is great to see from such a popular style of gin.”
MICROS LACK JUNIPER
A round of gins produced at microdistilleries followed, with a Gold medal given to Sling Shot Distilled Irish Gin, which had notes of “pine, resin and apple”, and another to Kepler Gin for its “bready, rye nose”. Priory Gin also picked up a Silver, but overall, Lanfear noted there was a lack of juniper in the category, and some of the expressions could have benefited from better balance. Lindsay’s team then tackled the Old Tom contingent and was highly impressed by Master medallist Ki No Bi Tou from The Kyoto Distillery in Japan.
“This was a standout in the Old Tom flight,” enthused Lindsay. “Vanilla, molasses, caramel and a woodiness, but none of those take away from the fact this is a solid gin to begin with. Top work by the distiller.” In this solid flight, the judges also awarded five Golds and a Silver.
Lindsay added: “This has been the biggest surprise for me of the day. I’ve often overlooked Old Tom as a style, but these examples get me excited about it again.”
In a short but sweet Organic flight, three Golds joined the growing medal tally: “vegetal” Herbie Organic Gin; “very complex” Copenhagen Dry Gin; and Eight Lands Organic Speyside Gin, with notes of “cut meadow and unsweetened tea”. Craft said: “Overall, a strong showing. Judges were all very impressed with the calibre of the three gins in the flight.”
A much bigger flight of Contemporary gins stepped up to the taste test next. Craft and her team believed Forty Spotted Gin Summer Release from Lark Distillery was worthy of the top Master accolade, after the group enjoyed the gin’s “clementine, rose” aromas and “gorgeous balance”.
Downton Distillery’s Explorer’s Gin picked up the second Master in the flight. Lindsay’s panel found this particular expression to be “versatile”, and recommended that it should be used in a Martini, gin and tonic, or even as a sipping gin. A healthy measure of nine Golds and 20 Silvers were also presented in this flight.
Imran said: “What a range of flavours. There is something for all gin drinkers in Contemporary. You don’t need to know anything about gin or the category to find something you’ll enjoy.”
Hayes, Miller and I then had the pleasure to assess the Cask Aged segment – a growing category in the ever-innovative gin world. A Master was found in Makar Oak Aged Gin, which Hayes said was “beautiful, light” and the first gin to really take on the characteristics of the barrel. We also gave out four Golds and four Silvers. “There were a couple of gins here that showed you can do something really interesting with cask-ageing,” said Hayes. “Producers need to be sure they are ageing gins for the right reasons, not using it as a marketing tool. If done well, it could be great. But if brands are being impatient, it could ruin the category.”
Our panels’ palates were then put through their paces with some Navy Strength gins – which produced an impressive three Masters. It’s a category Craft said was “the best and most true to the category style of the day, without question”.
Hernö Navy Strength was the first to walk away with the top award, after judges enjoyed its “cardamom blast, verbena, angelica and slightly floral” flavours. Four Pillars Navy Strength Gin scooped the second Master as judges delighted in its “juicy fruits, anise and mint tea” taste. Completing the trio was Hannover Gin Atlantic Crossing, bottled at 62% abv. The judges enjoyed notes of “spiced cake, rich juniper and cream”.
Vine said: “Considering they are high-abv spirits, you wouldn’t realise it for a lot of them. The flavours carry through especially well, and they’ve got a lot of consistency across the style. Some interesting aged variations, which seemed to work really well, even with the high abv.” Judges also awarded five Golds and four Silvers in this flight.
A vast array of Flavoured Gins were next to be scrutinised. Aldi UK walked away with a Master for Greyson’s Seville Orange and Persian Lime Gin, which judges said was a “solid orange gin” that tasted like “marmalade”. Glendalough Distillery also received a Master for its Rose Gin. My panel found this expression retained some of the classic gin characteristics, while also being a flavoured iteration.
Bedrock Gooseberry and Elderflower Gin completed the flavoured Masters, celebrated for being “not too sweet” and having a “lot of juniper”. Eight Golds were also uncovered, along with 31 Silvers. Lindsay was impressed by how the flavoured subcategory has developed over the years. “As flavoured gin continues to be the most talked about sub-category, I was looking forward to this flight,” he said. “When we’ve judged this category previously, there have been comments about the ‘over-sweet’ nature of flavoured gins, but I was surprised that our flight contained no sugary or synthetic fruit flavours. There were a couple of interesting standouts, but generally the feeling was that most of the products offered had additional flavour to the detriment of the overall quality. An encouraging step on from past years, though.”
As the day’s tasting neared its close, a flight of Sloe Gin was put before my panel. We were thrilled to find a Master in the first expression we tasted: Hayman’s Sloe Gin. Hayes found “great plummy damson” notes and said the gin was “not too sweet”. An additional Gold and two Silvers completed the flight’s medal haul.
“Sloe gin was more of a minefield than I expected,” said Hayes. “There are a few really good ones, as reflected in the medals we gave, but a good few were confused about what they should be. I’d like to see a little more creativity in this category.”
Rounding off the day’s flights was a selection of gin liqueurs. In this heat, a final Master was found in Edinburgh Gin Elderflower Gin Liqueur. My team relished the “authentic elderflower” flavour coming through. Four Gold medals were awarded to “lovely jammy” Foxdenton Damson Gin Liqueur; “sweet and spicy, well balanced” Edinburgh Gin Rhubarb and Ginger Gin Liqueur; “rich, full-bodied” Edinburgh Gin Plum and Vanilla Gin Liqueur; and “floral, blossom” Hortus Pomegranate and Rose Gin Liqueur.
Once all the gins had been blind-tasted, the judges prepared to re-taste the Master medallists to select the ‘best in class’ 2019 Gin Taste Master. This year, the coveted title was bestowed upon Cotswolds Dry Gin.
Having sampled so many expressions throughout the day, the judges took a moment to reflect on this year’s competition and what it says about the wider gin category. “London Dry was by far the standout flight for me today,” said Hayes. “Almost all the ones we tasted here were seriously good across the board.
“I feel that at the lower price end, it’s easy to find value for money. Whereas some of the more expensive flights were a bit of a minefield. It just goes to disprove the age-old cliché that price equals quality – that’s clearly not the case. There’s great value and great gins to be found across the lower end of the price spectrum – you just need to know where to find them.”
Click through the following pages for the Gin Masters 2019 results in full.