Brandy’s ability to innovate without regulatory constraints means producers are putting out liquids that skilfully showcase the category’s provenance, creativity and unique approach to flavour.
At a press briefing this year, IWSR CEO Mark Meek identified high-end brandy as one of the key trends to watch in the spirits world. While it was once seen as dull and static, the category has benefited from a craft renaissance, with a number of innovative artisan distilleries showing what the grape-based spirit is capable of. The big players are upping their game too, releasing premium iterations that display provenance and creative maturation techniques.
Some commentators even believe that as brandy cultivates a more luxurious and serious image, the category has the potential to take market share from Cognac. Furthermore, since brandy is less constrained by legal shackles than its GI cousin, it is able to entice experimental drinkers.
Our annual Brandy Masters assessed spirits from the New and Old Worlds, spanning a multitude of styles from large and small producers. The blind-tasting competition took place on the same day as our Cognac Masters and was chaired by me, Amy Hopkins, editor of The Spirits Business. The panel also included: Phil Duffy, head of spirits at Amathus Drinks; Jamie Matthewson, buying manager for beer, cider, spirits, soft drinks and tobacco at Waitrose; Bryan Rodriguez, spirits buyer at Harvey Nichols; Tobias Gorn, award-winning writer and specialist consultant; and Elise Craft, co-ordinator at the Whisky Squad. Some of the entries were also tasted by judges in The Asian Spirits Masters.
In the first leg of the competition, we assessed Other French Brandies – those made outside of the Cognac and Armagnac appellations. Here, Beehive VSOP was awarded a Gold medal after receiving praise for its “perfume aroma” and “creamy palate”. Three more brandies made by French group Bardinet won Silver medals, as did St-Rémy French Chardonnay Cask Finish, which was found to have a “smoky aroma” and a “nice mouthfeel”.
Brandies from South Africa came up next, with Klipdrift Premium Brandy being awarded the first Master medal of the competition. The brandy, which was tasted in the South African – Blended flight, impressed the judges with its “honey blossom” aroma and “floral violet” palate. The round produced another two Gold medallists: “savoury” Klipdrift Premium Export Brandy and “characterful” 100 Reserve Premium Brandy from Oude Molen Distillers.
The next round assessed pot still brandies from South Africa that had been aged for three to nine years. Here, judges were looking for bold character resulting from pot still distillation and rounded flavour from the maturation period. Three Gold medals were awarded: to “well integrated” Joseph Barry VS Cape Brandy and “balanced, tropical” Ladismith Cape Brandy, both from Oude Molen, as well as “sweet and juicy” Viceroy Pot Still Brandy 5 Year Old, produced by Distell. Two more Oude Molen brandies were awarded Silver medals in the flight.
Gorn believed the round offered a “refreshing take on the category”. He added: “Other brandy-producing nations feel they have to produce something heavy and use colourants. But these South African expressions were fresh and easy-drinking. Each one had its own stamp.” Judges agreed that the expertise of South African producers in winemaking arguably means brandy distillers have an exalted understanding of how to present their base ingredient. As Duffy noted: “The best ones in the flight let the eaux-de-vie shine through.”
In the next round, judges assessed pot still brandies from South Africa aged for between 10 and 12 years. Master medal-winning Van Ryns Single Pot Still Brandy 10 Year Old wowed the judges with its “well balanced acidity” and “amazing integration” of wood. “This was a really elegant brandy and a complete joy to taste,” said one judge.
Stablemate Van Ryns 12 Year Old Single Pot Still won plaudits for its ability to display “real rancio character at the same time as retaining all its fresh-grape flavour”, securing a Gold medal. Richelieu Vintage Brandy 10 Years Old also won a Gold medal, impressing the panel with its flavours of “pomegranate, honey and lavender”, as well as its “lingering finish”. Oude Molen continued its success in the competition, securing two Silvers, one for Oude Molen XO Cape Brandy and one for Joseph Barry XO Cape Brandy. Matthewson said the former was “very rounded and inviting on the nose”, while the latter brandy had a “floral quality” with notes of “blossom and elderflower”.
The South African contingent concluded with two medallists aged for more than 13 years. Van Ryns once again secured the top Master accolade, this time for its 15-year-old pot still brandy, described as “deep, mellow and complex” with a “natural dryness and natural sweetness”. The 20-year-old Van Ryns pot still iteration, meanwhile, received Gold.
With an impressive haul of medals bestowed on South African brandies, judges turned their attention to the penultimate flight: Rest of the World. Here, Bolivian brandy Singani Rujero Colección Privada, made using only Muscat of Alexandria grapes, was awarded Gold. “The nose on this brandy was so inviting,” said Matthewson. “It has a wonderful balance – with sweetness on the nose and a herbaceous thyme finish.” Rodriguez, meanwhile, identified notes of Sauvignon Blanc, elderflower and gooseberry, and said the spirit would be “great in a cocktail”. The expression is part of a growing trend of terroir-focused spirits made using indigenous grape varieties.
The final flight of the day was Fruit Brandies, in which Ableforth’s Cherry Brandy was awarded Gold. Made using French brandy as its base, the bottling was scored highly for its “remarkable balance of sweetness and acidity”. Gorn enthused: “With this brandy I get kirsch and a touch of smoke on the palate. Its finish is super long, but it carries it nicely. It’s a lovely product and delivers what you expect.”
At the end of the judging session, the panellists revisited the Master-winning spirits and ranked them in order to find out which would be deemed Taste Master – the overall favourite of the day.
Van Ryns Single Pot Still Brandy 10 Year Old, which was judged in the South African Pot Still Aged 10-12 Years round, took home the title after judges reiterated their appreciation of its “elegant spice” and “beautiful flavours”.
With so many impressive medals awarded throughout the competition, it’s not difficult to see brandy’s potential to rival some of the more established premium spirits groups in terms of quality and value for money.
Click through to the following page for the complete list of medal winners from The Brandy Masters 2019.