Asia is a hotbed of inspirational spirits producers putting their distinct touches to gin, whisky, rum and vodka, as well as liqueurs full of local flavours. Our Asian Spirits Masters sought to praise the best on offer.
Speak to any spirits producer about which market is generating the greatest amount of excitement, and chances are they will tell you it’s Asia. The vast market has huge potential for making profits thanks to emerging middle classes and curious, aspirational imbibers shaking things up in the region.
But it’s not just international liquid that is exciting the Asian market – a plethora of homegrown brands are making a lot of noise as interest in spirits continues to rise. For 2019, The Spirits Business gave its Asian Spirits Masters blind-tasting competition a revamp. In previous years, the competition evaluated spirits available in Asia and those made by global brands specifically for the Asian market. This year, only spirits made in Asia were eligible to enter, spanning all manner of categories, from Asian gin and vodka to whisky and rum.
A panel of experienced palates gathered at London’s Sake no Hana, eager to sample what Asia has to offer. Amy Hopkins, editor of The Spirits Business, acted as chair, and was joined by: Antony Moss, head of strategic planning at the WSET; Nicola Thomson, director of Fifteen71; and Dan Greifer, head bartender at London’s Belmeis.
To start the day’s proceedings, the panel tackled Vodka Made in Asia, which presented a Gold medallist in the form of “clean and correct” Eiko. “It could work well with a saké and plum flavours,” said Greifer. And the judges didn’t have to wait too long to uncover a double dose of Master medals, which were awarded in the Gin Made in Asia flight. One was bestowed upon The Kyoto Distillery’s Ki No Tea, which “captured the green tea really well”. The second was delivered to BBC Wines & Spirits’s Etsu gin, which had a “curious combination of botanicals but was very layered”. One Gold and four Silver medals were also handed out in the flight.
“The producers are trying to put slants on typical Asian flavours,” noted Thomson. “It’s completely worlds apart from Europe but really reflects the place. Gin offers enormous opportunity to create something that’s regionally distinct. A couple of these expressed that really well.”
A throng of Asian whiskies took the spotlight next, with Taiwanese distillery Kavalan walking away with an impressive haul of two Golds and three Silvers. The panel was particularly impressed with Gold medallist Kavalan Collector’s Rum Cask, with its notes of “salt and pepper”.
The distillery’s Gold-winning Kavalan Solist Ex-Bourbon Single Cask Strength also caught the judges’ attention with a “sharpness” on the palate that was said to balance the sweeter flavours of vanilla and caramel. However, the judges noted that the category could benefit from a ‘less is more’ approach and more natural aged flavours.
According to Greifer: “In general, when Asian whisky is done well, it’s so smooth and balanced. I can drink them straight out of the bottle. But sometimes expressions haven’t been aged appropriately.”
The penultimate flight brought two Asian rums to the table – both of which walked away with Gold medals. Chalong Bay Pure Series was said to have a “lot of expression of raw material”, with flavours of “banana” and a “bitter” finish. “It’s got the pungent ester and grassiness of rum made from unrefined sugar,” noted Moss. Meanwhile, fellow
A final flight of Asian liqueurs sated the judges’ palates, producing a Master winner in the form of “elegant” Teara Jasmine Tea Liqueur, which was described as “sweet and natural. Really well done. Gorgeous floral 62 notes, really harmonious”. The liqueur, produced by Kitaoka Honten, also walked away with the Taste Master accolade. The Taste Master is chosen after the judges re-taste the day’s Master medallists and select their favourite from the top scorers.
A Silver was also given to Kitaoka Honten’s Teara Black Tea Liqueur, praised for its “strong flavour” that judges thought would “mix really well”. Looking back on the day’s judging, it was clear that Asia is producing an eclectic mix of spirits to satisfy a vast variety of flavour profiles – and distillers are not skimping on quality.
Hopkins concluded: “The Asian Spirits Masters proved that the continent is full of exciting flavour innovation and high-quality distilling. In particular, our judges were impressed by the balanced gins they sampled, as well as the interesting flight of liqueurs.
“Some of the entrants demonstrated classic profiles, while others showcased their unique provenance through flavour. It was also fascinating to see the influence of the Asian spirits heritage coming through in the products we sampled. Lines are clearly being blurred, leading to the creation of some intriguing flavours.”
Click through to the following page for the complete list of medal winners from The Asian Spirits Masters 2019.