The Speciality Spirits Masters 2021 results
Thanks to the rise of at-home cocktail making, speciality drinks such as vermouths and bitters have taken the market by storm. Melita Kiely reports.
The rise of the amateur at‐home bartender has sparked fresh enthusiasm for speciality spirits such as vermouths and apéritifs. Combined with continued demand for lower‐ABV drinks, spurred on by the health and wellbeing trend, speciality spirits have had ample opportunity to recruit new drinkers to this previously overlooked category.
Last year, the Covid‐19 pandemic took its toll on the world’s biggest speciality spirits brands, and leading labels struggled to grow due to multiple challenges, as reported in The Brand Champions 2021. However, as restrictions ease and vaccination programmes gain greater take‐up, it is hoped the coming year will bring optimism for brands.
To determine the standard of speciality spirits on the market – spanning everything from aquavit to amaro and low/no‐alcohol products – The Global Spirits Masters gathered a group of tasters at the Novotel Hotel in London Bridge for a day of judging. To guarantee a totally blind tasting, Sensible was recruited to pack and ship each bottle.
Three panels tackled the 2021 entries. The first group comprised: Sara Jane Eichler, co‐founder and events organiser at Negroni Club UK; Chris Tanner, bar manager at Milroy’s; Dimple Athavia, founder of All Things Drinks; and Melita Kiely, editor of The Spirits Business and chair of the competition.
The second panel was formed of: Tobias Gorn, co‐founder and senior partner at the International Drinks Specialists, who also acted as chair; Nicola Carruthers, deputy editor of The Spirits Business; Ivan Dixon, independent drinks consultant; and Nicola Thomson, director of Practical Matters.
Chairing the third panel was David T Smith, spirits writer, consultant and co‐founder of the Craft Distilling Expo. He was joined by Bernadette Pamplin, freelance spirits writer and founder of the Under the Ginfluence blog; and Matt Chambers, whisky writer and co‐founder of the Whisky for Everyone blog.
The judges were keen to dive into the first flight of the day: Aquavit. The entries did not disappoint, either, with the first Master medal of the day presented to OP Anderson Klar Aquavit. The expression was described as “refreshing and complex, with a great deal of elegance. A nice balance between cooling botanicals and warm, smooth alcohol”. Gorn said it was “really high quality”.
Five Gold medals were also awarded in this flight, including one to OP Anderson Aquavit. Gorn said about this expression: “This was a classic style, brilliantly made. Smooth and elegant with a nice spicy bite at the end. The cooling caraway works nicely.”
The other four Gold medals were awarded to bottlings from Oslo Håndverksdestilleri. The Norway‐based distiller’s Akevitt Teeling Whiskey Casks secured the Gold seal of approval for being “light and easy to drink” with a “classic botanical bill”. The producer’s Gold‐winning Juleakevitt also impressed with its “beautiful mouthfeel, creamy and silky with a nice warm spice finish”.
A Silver medal completed the opening flight.
Dixon noted: “There was an interesting mix of modern and traditional, as a category it is going towards that more modern style, softer and less in your face, less punchy, more mixable. The white style of aquavit is where the future of the category lies in terms of getting it on the map. There’s so much potential for the category that hasn’t been realised yet.”
In the next flight, Shōchū, 58 Gin collected a Gold medal for its 58 Distillery Shochu. The expression was described as “earthy and sweet” with “maltiness. Light and delicate on the palate, very earthy with peppery spice, a hint of candied sweetness and an earthy potato note and herbal qualities at the end.”
A double dose of Gold medals were given in the Absinthe flight. Scooping the first of the two awards was Devil’s Botany Absinthe Regalis, made by London’s first absinthe distillery, Devil’s Botany. Eichler found notes of “aniseed balls” on the nose and “vegetal, spiced” flavours with “lots of big pepper notes”.
Amazing earthy flavour
Meanwhile, Gold medallist Murmichan from Scotland delivered “huge wonderful wafts of fennel” on the nose, while being “light, fresh, big and spicy” on the palate. Tanner said about Murmichan: “The nose is incredible; big, bold fennel seed. When it’s diluted, it has an amazing earthy and wood flavour, and a long finish.”
The Vermouth flight generated excitement among members of the judging panels, as two Master medallists were celebrated. Valentian Vermouth Rosso was deemed deserving of the top award because of its “great intensity of bitter aromas, bark, aniseed, and a touch of sweetness – but not overpowering”.
Bianco Chinato also received the highest accolade. Pamplin described this Master winner as having a “beautiful, rich, fragrant nose” with a “lovely bold flavour throughout”.
Five Gold medals gave the flight an additional boost. The Gold award was bestowed upon: Le Vermouth Blanc, with “honey and warming herbs” on the palate; Le Vermouth Rouge, with “peppery and orangey notes”; “tangy, fresh and zingy” La Quintinye Vermouth Royal White; “very expressive” Forty‐Five Vermouth Distinctly Dry with “a tangy and dry” palate; and La Quintinye Vermouth Royal Red, with its “spicy and almost chocolatey” nose.
Two Silver medals further enhanced the medal haul in this flight.
Eichler particularly enjoyed Valentian Vermouth Rosso, and said: “This was a really good, classic vermouth. It was well integrated and more complex than it seems at first sip. You can sit there and discover new flavours – it has a lovely round sweetness at first, then evolves.”
Proceeding to the Pisco flight and a Gold medal was handed to Pisco Puro Quebranta. Smith said: “This had dry grape notes, some florality, a little sweetness and some chewiness.” Additional tasting notes included “cherry stones and nuttiness”.
The Bitters/Amaro round delivered another Gold medallist in the form of Campari Cask Tales. The judges enjoyed the “bitter herbal notes” complemented by a “lovely moderately sweet background and some citrus”.
Two Silver medals were also awarded to non‐alcoholic Better Than Bitters’ Lotus Bitters, which had a “citrusy and fresh nose”, and Better Than Bitters Mole Bitters, with its “cocoa and herbal notes”.
Attention then turned to the final flight of the day: Pre‐Mixed Drinks. The category produced a Master medallist – Delmago Drinks’ Negroni. The judges were blown away by the ready‐to‐drink cocktail’s “bittersweet” profile, with “rhubarb and cherry notes, and a peppery, spicy finish”.
A Gold medal went to Thoreau by Les Bienheureux, while Silvers were secured by Starward for Starward Whisky Negroni, Starward Coffee Old Fashioned, and Starward (New) Old Fashioned.
With the main bulk of the judging completed, the only task left was to retaste the Master winners and declare the Speciality Spirits Taste Master 2021 winner. The standard of entries made choosing tricky, but the judges agreed the award should be bestowed upon Bianco Chinato for being “so aromatic, with gentle herbal notes, hints of vanilla, grape juice and sultana”.
The judges were thoroughly impressed with the overall standard of the entries this year, and noted the diversity of flavours and styles on offer – all important to meet demand from today’s discerning consumers. As the industry and consumers alike welcome the reopening of the on‐trade, it looks likely that at‐home cocktail‐making will continue to be popular – a welcome development for the burgeoning speciality spirits brands eager to tap into a new audience of drinkers.