The higher the price tag the greater the expectation. But when only the best will suffice, how can consumers be sure they’re spending their money wisely? SB examines what’s on offer at the super-premium-and-above end of the market.
Quality over quantity is undeniably a trend that has captivated spirits fans around the world. After years of the industry encouraging drinkers worldwide to drink less, but better, it seems the message has finally taken hold.
Recent data from IWSR Drinks Market Analysis supports the case that consumers are actively seeking to spend their money at the higher end of the market. The IWSR Global Trends Report 2020 predicts premium‐ and‐above spirits will grow their global volume share to 13% by 2024.
Products at the upper end of the price spectrum are often held in high esteem. To determine the standard in the super‐premium and ultra‐premium sectors, we gathered a group of expert judges over Skype for The Luxury Masters 2020. David T Smith, spirits writer and founder of the Craft Distilling Expo, and Bernadette Pamplin, spirits writer and judge, joined me, Melita Kiely, editor of The Spirits Business magazine, for the virtual tasting.
On a separate day, I was also joined by Matt Chambers and Karen Taylor, the co‐founders of the Whisky for Everyone blog, to sample a portion of Luxury entries.
AN EXCELLENT START
The day’s tasting began with a flight of super‐premium vodkas, and got off to an excellent start. Five Gold medals were awarded in this flight: Gradusnik, with “creaminess” on the palate and “some minerality”; Fujimi Vodka, said to be a “well‐rounded and clean vodka”; Nørderd Single Malt Vodka, described as having flavours of “a little chocolate, salted caramel”; Nørderd Pure Potato Vodka, which was “rather vegetal, green, a little salty”; and “classic” Nero Premium Vodka. Two Silvers were also awarded in the opening round.
“There were some nice ideas here, and some nice innovations that people are trying out, but the execution wasn’t always quite there,” said Smith. Pamplin agreed, and although she was impressed with the overall flight, she said: “I’d expect a little more for my money.”
The standard certainly increased as the price point rose, for in the Vodka – Ultra Premium flight, two Master winners were uncovered. The first Master was awarded to Monk Isidore Russian Vodka. The judges said this vodka had “sweetness on the palate, lovely mouthfeel with a nice punch of spirit heat at the end”.
Royal Mash also took home a Master, praised for its “engaging nose, some salinity and some dry grain notes” and “good complexity”. One Eyed Spirits’ “fragrant” Tom of Finland was a worthy Gold recipient.
“The innovation is there again, but it’s not just that they had a good idea, they knew how to execute it properly,” noted Smith. “It also shows how at the ultra‐premium level there are different ways a vodka can express its quality. You can have something more neutral and clean, or something that’s very characterful and it’s indicative that producers are understanding this now and are embracing these two equally valid approaches, and I think the consumer is too.”
Swapping vodka for gin, another Master medal was discovered in the super‐premium heat: Tiger Gin. With its “complex, fragrant nose, beautiful complexity on the palate” and “fantastic warmth lingering on the finish”, the judges agreed this was wholly deserving of the top accolade. A Silver was also given to Aura Gin Karbun, which the judges found to be full of “coriander and sweet citrus”.
In the ultra‐premium round, a Gold medal was awarded to Albino Flamingo London Dry Gin. Smith found this to be “rich, citrusy, plump and very oily”. Both judges noted how gins in this sector could benefit from using a lower concentration of botanical oils, which sometimes overpowered the flavour. “It was a bit like trying to tame a horse at times,” Pamplin noted.
Brandy VS – Super Premium was assessed by Chambers, Taylor and me, and was a “very solid flight”. Two Gold medals were handed out, one to Copper Republic Distilling Co’s Rooibos Wood Finish, which was described as “sweet, rich with hints of oak spice”, and a second to the producer’s Honeybush Wood Finish, with flavours of “apricot, peach and molasses”. The company’s Zula VSOP Cape Brandy also took home a Silver with its hints of “tropical fruits”. Commenting on the brandies, Chambers said: “They were all very good, very solid products. I’d be pretty happy with any of them.”
In the Brandy XO – Super Premium flight, Copper Republic Distilling Co took home another Gold for Zula XO Cape Brandy. Tasting notes included “tarte tatin, butterscotch and hints of peach”.
As we moved onto the highly regulated Cognac category, Smith, Pamplin and I awarded Silver to Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula in the Cognac VS – Super Premium heat. This Cognac was enjoyed for being “mellow” with “caramel notes and spiced wood” on the palate.
In the following flight, Cognac VSOP – Super Premium, Maison Ferrand took home the top award for Pierre Ferrand 10 Générations. The Master‐winning Cognac presented flavours of “rich fruit cake, apple spice and raisin” and was described as being “complex, well rounded with good balance and a lingering finish”.
Moving on to Cognac XO – Super Premium and Maison Ferrand picked up another Master, this time for the “incredibly complex” Pierre Ferrand Réserve Double Cask, with tasting notes of “sticky dates and warming spice”. “Quite refined” Pierre Ferrand Ambré took home a Gold medal, as did Pierre Ferrand Sélection des Anges.
Another Master Cognac was discovered in the Cognac XO – Ultra Premium round: Courvoisier XO. This expression blew the judges away with its notes of “red berries” and a “pleasant dry tannic note that lingers on and on and on”.
Smith said: “The finish was really good. As a refined, sophisticated product, with a lot to explore, this has got the potential to allow the drinker to pick something different out every time you drink it.”
Pamplin agreed, and added: “It hit all the different tastebuds in your mouth. It really set everything off with the different flavours making all parts of your mouth work. It was lovely.” Three Gold medallists were also produced in this flight.
The high praise continued into the ultra‐premium Armagnac flight, which saw Bhakta 50 awarded a Master medal. The expression was said to have “oiliness and nuttiness, with a good balance between spirit and cask”.
“Armagnac has that slightly drier, less robust fruity flavours,” said Smith. “I struggled to see how I would improve the product. It was sublime.”
From France, we hopped over to Scotland to assess an assortment of Scotch whiskies, starting with Single Malt – Super Premium. Ian Macleod Distillers picked up two Gold medals in this flight, one for Tamdhu 15 Years Old with its “pleasant heathery notes” and another for Tamdhu Batch Strength No 005, with its “spicy, nutty” character.
Moving on to the ultra‐premium contingent of single malt Scotch, and two Master medals were found in a sea of Golds. Glenmorangie Grand Vintage 1996 was the first Master medallist in this flight, described as being “beautifully nuanced with tropical fruit, mango, pineapple – rich and complex with plenty to explore”. The Glenmorangie Company also scooped a Master for its Arrrrrrrdbeg! Islay Scotch whisky, which had “good intensity” with a bit of smoke and earthy, dark chocolate”. No fewer than eight Gold medals were also awarded in this round.
Pamplin said: “The single malt Scotch whiskies produced some very interesting flights today. There was a really diverse range of things, from statement pieces [like Arrrrrrrdbeg!] to others that were quite subtle. But I like the fact there’s such a huge scope of options.”
Smith agreed, and added: “The things that did particularly well were the ones where you knew you were tasting something special; you pay for that uniqueness and that quality.”
From Scotland, we hot‐footed it to the US for a series of American whiskeys, starting with a flight of Bourbon – Super Premium. The flight got off to a strong start with a Master awarded to Old Ezra 7 Years Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Tasting notes included “peanut butter brittle” aromas leading to “citrus, almost floral flavours” on the palate. A Gold was also awarded to Filibuster Single Estate Straight Bourbon.
Two more Golds were also awarded in the ultra‐premium Bourbon category. Rebel Yell Single Barrel 10 Years Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon was one, with “almond and cereal notes” on the nose and “rich complexity and some sweetness” on the palate. The second Gold went to 291 Small Batch Colorado Rye Whiskey Finished with Aspen Wood Staves, with “hints of marzipan” on the nose and a “dry and spicy” finish.
In the Tennessee – Super Premium flight, Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey secured a Master medal. The judges enjoyed the “pleasant sweetness and nuttiness” on the nose, leading to “raisins, almond, marzipan and a bit of cherry”. Smith described the overall product as “complex and robust”. Two Gold medals completed the flight. Meanwhile, in the Rye – Ultra Premium round, 291 Small Batch Colorado Rye Whiskey Finished with Aspen Wood Staves also proved to be deserving of the top award. This Master‐winning whiskey was said to taste like “dried fruits, peaches and dates, as well as dark treacly sugar and rye bread”.
Looking to whiskies from less established regions, in the World Whisky contingent, and super‐premium Capt’ Cook Whisky took home a Silver, with its “spice and vanilla” flavours. In the World Whisky – Ultra Premium heat, Stará Myslivecká Single Barrel Sherry walked away with a Gold, and was praised for being “accessible”, with “lots of maple notes” on the nose.
As we tackled all manner of rum styles, “slightly funky” Black Pearl Rum went away with a respectable Silver medal in the White Rum – Super Premium flight.
In the ultra‐premium price bracket, Kiyomi White Rum also collected a Silver medal for its “quite savoury” profile. Meanwhile, St Piran’s Cornish Rum was awarded Gold for its “complex nose” and overall “good balance”. In the Gold – Super Premium round, Fraternity Spirits’ Ron Prohibido 12 was awarded a Gold medal for its “rich toffee notes and tea‐like tannins”.
In the more expensive ultra‐premium flight of gold rums, the judges awarded La Martiniquaise‐Bardinet‐owned Rivière du Mât Grande Reserve a Gold medal for “hints of camomile and floral notes”. Three Silvers also came to light in this round: Ron Prohibido 15 with “cola cubes and slight tobacco notes on the nose”; “rich and sweet” Neptune Rum Barbados Gold; and Bocatheva Rum with a “slight dryness and long finish”.
In the Dark Rum – Ultra Premium flight, two Golds were given out to Rivière du Mât XO, which had “slight salinity and woody notes”, and Dictador 2 Masters Glenfarclas with “hints of butterscotch and caramel”. The round also produced one Silver medal.
In the super‐premium spiced rum segment, Dark Matter won a Gold medal for its “big spiced nose with cloves” and “huge booming flavours” with a “touch of sticky toffee pudding”. In the Flavoured Rum – Ultra Premium flight, Aukai Dockside Rum and Spirits Distilled from Pineapple was awarded a Silver medal for its “tangy” palate, although the judges noted it could have benefitted from more prominent rum characteristics.
Tackling Tequila and the ultra‐premium blanco round produced a Master in the form of Corralejo Blanco Tequila. The spirit was said to be “loud and proud, with lovely lime vibes”.
Fraternity Spirits also took away a Gold medal for Corralejo Reposado Tequila in the Reposado – Ultra Premium flight, thanks to its “spicy and fruity” palate with “luscious melon notes”.
A strong flight of four Gold medallists followed as the judges moved on to the Añejo – Ultra Premium contingent. “Salty and nutty” Corralejo 1821, “savoury and morish” Corralejo 99000 Horas Añejo, Corralejo Añejo Tequila with its notes of “toffee and paprika salt”, and Tequila Don Ramón Limited Edition Añejo, with “some salinity and menthol” were all deemed to deserve Gold medals.
Tequila Don Ramón Limited Edition Extra Añejo picked up a Gold medal in the Tequila Extra Añejo – Ultra Premium round, after the judges enjoyed its “vegetal notes, some stone fruits and chocolate”.
Pamplin enthused: “This had a lovely nose and was incredibly complex. It reminded me of some of the whiskies. The palate started gently then plunged into this flavour, creamy cocoa vibes. It had lots of stuff going on and was well put together.”
As we explored some speciality spirits, Smith, Pamplin and I found a Silver medal in the super‐premium heat: New London Light by Salcombe Distilling Co. This non‐alcoholic ‘spirit’, was found to be “fruity and spicy with some dry notes” and “crisp and refreshing”.
Chambers, Taylor and I also tasted an aquavit in this flight: Orkney Akvavit. The spirit was bestowed with a Master medal. Chambers said: “It’s like Christmas in a glass; such good value for money.”
At the ultra‐premium end of the speciality category was Expedition Number 7: Single Malt Spirit, which was awarded Gold. The judges liked how the liquid was “quite malty, almost bread‐like”.
The blind tasting concluded with three super‐premium liqueurs and the final Master medal of the day: Aura Teranino. The red wine liqueur was a joy to taste with its “mulled wine nose, spice, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg”. Two Golds were also celebrated in this flight: cream liqueur Coole Swan with “white chocolate and toffee notes”, and Sous Vide Arabica Coffee Liqueur, with some “nice brandy notes and brown sugar”. “Often liqueurs are overlooked, but they are actually very interesting,” noted Smith.
Before logging off, the judges repoured the day’s Master medallists to determine the Luxury Taste Master 2020. After careful consideration Old Ezra 7 Years Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon was chosen as the ‘best in class’ of this year’s entrants.
“The tastings we had today do raise the question of what luxury is, and whether luxury is more about being expensive or just about being greater quality,” Smith said. “Sometimes the two go hand in hand, but there were a couple of examples of spirits that did very well where that was not the case – it was actually a product at a lower price point that impressed us more.
“It goes to show that you can have something that is a luxurious product, a brilliantly made product, without it having an eye‐watering price tag.”
Click through to the following page to see the full results from The Luxury Masters 2020.