Such is the quality across the board in Scotch whisky at the moment that the judges in this year’s dedicated blind-tasting competition were able to award an outstanding 16 Master medals.
Scotch whisky producers are bolder and braver today than ever before. And they need to be – the industry faces a pertinent challenge from other world whisk(e)y categories, notably Irish and Bourbon, which are vying for mindshare. Even dark rum and aged Tequila are targeting the sipping occasions when Scotch whisky historically reigned supreme, and as consumers become increasingly capricious, Scottish distillers can’t afford to rest on their laurels.
With so many appetising options, consumers won’t settle for anything less than excellent quality, which they are expecting at all price points. Imbibers’ thirst for innovation has also not gone unnoticed by the Scotch brands seeking to create experimental styles and flavour profiles that appeal to new audiences and also keep their longtime fans engaged. But is the category doing enough to meet expectations?
This is what The Scotch Whisky Masters blind-tasting competition set out to assess. A team of expert judges gathered at Boisdale in Canary Wharf, London, to taste an abundance of entries, marking by appearance, nose, palate and overall balance. Judges were divided into four teams and they awarded Silver, Gold and Master medals accordingly, with no information other than the category each whisky had been entered into and its abv.
The day kicked off with the Blended – No Age Statement (NAS) flight, where the bulk of Scotch whisky’s volumes lie. The round was assessed by two panels, one chaired by me, Amy Hopkins, editor of The Spirits Business, and another by Melita Kiely, the magazine’s deputy editor.
My panel consisted of: Dan Greifer, head bartender at Belmeis; Jamie Matthewson, buying manager for beer, cider, spirits, soft drinks and tobacco at Waitrose; and Nigel Mark, event planner at Glassmates.
On Kiely’s team was: Dmitriy Mishin, manager at Honest Burgers; Joshua Joyce, head bartender at Flare; Karen Taylor cofounder and writer at Whisky for Everyone; and Nick Bell, spirits and beer buyer at Harvey Nichols.
Both panels agreed that the flight was a good example of the NAS blended Scotch category and awarded 11 medals in total, three of them Gold. Johnnie Walker Blue Label was said to offer notes of “rich vanilla” on the nose, leading to a developed sense of rancio and tannins on the palate. Fellow Gold medallist Scottish Leader Original won praise for its “herbaceous, nutty and fresh” character, while stablemate Scottish Leader Supreme was highlighted for its “good balance” and “nice mouthfeel”.
Moving into the Blended – Aged up to 12 Years category, and two more Gold medallists were discovered: Johnnie Walker Black Label and Hazelwood 12 Year Old. The former whisky was described as “big, meaty and complex, with a round and creamy palate”, while the latter displayed “sweet biscuit notes with a smooth mouthfeel”.
The flight, which yielded a further five Silver medals, was judged by a panel chaired by Tobias Gorn, award-winning writer and specialist consultant, and also included: Terence McCann, manager of The Whisky Shop Lakeside; Derek Millar, retired whisky retailer; Nagesh Balusu, manager of Salt Whisky Bar and Dining Room; and Nicola Thomson, director at Fifteen71.
Our fourth and final panel judged the next round. Chaired by Billy Abbott, ambassador for The Whisky Exchange, the team included: Caroline Roddis, editor at The Whisky Exchange; Eddie de Sousa, bar manager at Milroy’s of Soho; and Lee Connor, director at Distilled Consultant.
In the Blended – Aged 13-18 Years round, the team awarded two Golds, to Dewar’s 18 Years Old and Johnnie Walker Aged 18 Years, and two Silvers, to Label 5 18 Year Old and Dewar’s 15 Years Old. The Gold-winning Dewar’s whisky was deemed to be “rounded and balanced” with notes of “light mahogany and orchard fruit”, while the “full-bodied” Johnnie Walker exhibited “sherried spices”.
In the highest age-statement bracket for our blends – 1930 years – two Silver medallists were named: “sweet and complex” Dewar’s 25 Years Old and “floral and dry” Tweeddale: The Evolution.
VALUE FOR MONEY
The judges then turned their attention to the blended Scotch whiskies segmented by price. Three Silver medallists were named in the Blended – Standard round, while the Blended – Premium leg produced the first Master of the day: Scots Gold by Charles Edge London. The expression was deemed extraordinarily good value for money by Gorn’s panel, who enjoyed its “candied fruit peel” and “slightly smoky” profile.
“This level of complexity and elegance is great to see at this price point,” Gorn said. Success in the round didn’t stop there, with two Gold medals, for Scots Gold 8 Year Old and Pure Scot Virgin Oak 43. Inching up the price ladder into the Blended – Super Premium round and Pure Scot Signature, described as a “great whisky overall”, was awarded a Gold medal.
Blended – Ultra Premium, meanwhile, produced a Master in the form of The Lost Distilleries Blend – Batch 11 from Atom Brands. The whisky won high praise for its “powerful floral aroma of jasmine” and its “unctuous” flavour.
While up until this point judges had assessed whiskies made with a combination of grain and malt liquid, the panels turned their attention to blended whiskies made using exclusively either grain or malt liquid. The Master standard continued in the Blended Grain – Ultra Premium leg with the top accolade going to Compass Box Hedonism, said to have a “fabulous nose of pineapple and caramelised apple” as well as a “pleasing gentle heat”. The expression was judged on my panel, with Greifer commenting: “It was very cohesive and it felt very natural. It had all the elements I am looking for in a whisky.”
Blended malt is an increasingly popular style of Scotch whisky, with numerous brands launching interesting whiskies comprising liquid from different single malt distilleries. The first leg of the blended malt focus – No Age Statement – produced one Gold medal for “sweet and intense” Elements of Islay Peat Full Proof, as well as four Silvers. Judges on Abbott’s panel noted the “massive opportunity” for whiskies to “shine in this category”. Abbott said: “This is a category that I’m often disappointed by, but the standard this year is definitely up from previous ones.”
In the Blended Malt – Aged up to 12 Years round, “tropical, sweet” Highland Green Blended Malt by Aldi Stores walked away with a Gold. “Big and pronounced” Johnnie Walker Green Label followed suit in the Blended Malt – Aged 13-18 Years leg, also securing a Gold.
The blended malts segmented by price came up next, and three Golds were awarded in the Standard round. It was the retailers who reigned supreme, with Golds for Lidl’s Glen Orchy 5 Year Old and Abrachan Triple Oak Blended Malt, as well as Aldi UK’s Hogwash Blended Malt. Success continued in the Premium flight with a Gold for Elixir Distillers’ Elements of Islay Peat Pure Islay.
The sizeable Blended Malt – Super Premium flight, meanwhile, resulted in seven Gold medals, among them three expressions from Berry Bros. & Rudd. The round was assessed by Kiely’s panel, which noted the diversity of profiles on display. “These whiskies show how versatile the category can be, and that there really is something for everyone,” said Taylor. Soon afterwards, a diminutive Blended Malt – Ultra Premium round delivered a Gold medallist in the form of Blended Malt #4 – Batch 1 – 6 Year Old by That Boutiquey Whisky Company.
With the blends done and dusted, and a haul of impressive medals already bestowed, the judges focused their tastebuds on the single malts, starting with Campbeltown – No Age Statement. Here, the top Master accolade was given to Glen Scotia Victoriana, which Gorn said had “an undertone of vintage motors and old engines”. He added: “This is a very floral whisky with notes of tulips and orchids, offset by a touch of engine oil and distant smoke in the background.”
Stablemate Glen Scotia 15 Year Old received Silver in the Campbeltown – Aged 13-18 Years, while the Master standard resumed in the Campbeltown – Cask Strength category, in which Glen Scotia Victoriana once again bagged the top award.
Heading north, the tasters tackled whiskies from the Highlands and Islands next. The No Age Statement focus produced two Golds, for “rich, spicy and malty” Deanston Virgin Oak and “bright, honeyed and peppery” Glen Marnoch Highland Single Malt Sherry Cask, as well as three Silvers.
An abundance of Golds followed in Highlands & Islands – Aged up to 12 Years, which was assessed by my team. “I thought this whisky was nicely peated and had a sweetness on the nose that balanced out on the palate,” Greifer said of Canmore 12 Year Old. “Easy to drink” Old Pulteney 12 Year Old, meanwhile, was praised for its “chocolately almost caffeine element”, and Loch Lomond 12 Year Old won plaudits for its “balance of caramel and char”.
Glencadam 17 by Angus Dundee Distillers secured a Master medal in the next Highlands & Islands age segment: 13-18 Years. The whisky was said to have an “elegant and metallic” profile with notes of “light smoke and orchard fruit”. Greifer said: “All of the elements of this whisky were really well integrated, taking you on a journey of flavour.” This strong round also yielded six Gold medals as well as two Silvers.
The retailers secured further success with Aldi UK’s Highland Single Malt and Lidl’s Ben Bracken Highland Single Malt impressing in the Highlands & Islands – Standard round. Soon after, a Silver was given to Raasay While We Wait 2018 in the Highlands & Islands – Premium leg. At the top of the price ladder, Atom Brands landed a Master for its Glengoyne – Batch 1 – 17 Year Old by That Boutiquey Whisky Company.
Kiely’s panel called it an “exceptional whisky”. According to Joyce: “This Scotch has real finesse. It reminds me of what I love in my favourite Champagnes: brioche, croissant and light pastry.”
Abbott’s team was thrilled to discover yet another Master: Ben Nevis 10 Year Old Batch No.1 Limited Edition, which swiped the top mark in Highlands & Islands – Special Edition. Connor called the expression “a credit to the category”, while Roddis said: “I actually wish I wasn’t judging this so I could just sit down and enjoy drinking it.”
In the round where cask strength whiskies from the Highlands and Islands came under scrutiny, two expressions from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) won Gold, while the Master awards came in thick and fast in the next heat: Single Malt Islay – No Age Statement. Abbott’s team dished out the two top medals to Bunnahabhain Toiteach A Dhà, lauded for its melting pot of flavours, including “ash, bacon and salt”, and the “enjoyably fruity, rounded and juicy” Bunnahabhain An Cladach. This exceptionally strong round also produced five Golds – two for farm distillery Kilchoman and another three for Bunnahabhain. “This round had impressively high standards, with plenty of quality and diversity of flavour,” said Connor.
Islay – Aged up to 12 Years resulted in two Golds, for “gentle, sweet” Port Askaig 8 Year Old and “zesty, tart” Bunnahabhain 12 Year Old, as well as a Silver medal. Bunnahabhain distillery once again achieved Master status with its 25 Year Old iteration, which was judged by Kiely’s team in the Islay – Aged 19 30 Years division. According to Bell, the “delicious” expression had a flavour of “toasted hazelnuts, Christmas spice, caramel and crème brûlée” that was offset with an “oily” texture.
Woolf Sung’s The Lowest Tide won Gold in the round, and following a fleet of other Golds in three intermediate flights, achieved higher marks in the Single Malt Islay – Ultra Premium and Single Malt Islay – Cask Strength segments, bagging Master accolades in both. The whisky was judged by two panels, meaning its quality was evident across the board. Gorn said: “This whisky had an expressive and sweet start. It is spicy and powerful but balanced and smooth, with notes of mocha and seaweed on the aftertaste.”
Moving into the Lowland contingent and two Gold medal-worthy whiskies were highlighted: 1770 Glasgow Single Malt Scotch Whisky – 2019 Release in the No Age Statement flight and 50.99 – Sheer Perfection by the SMWS in the Single Cask representation. The final region of the day was Speyside, which, unsurprisingly, attracted an impressive number of entries. Following two Silver medals in the No Age Statement division, three Golds were given to whiskies aged for up to 12 years.
On Kiely’s team, judges highlighted the flavours of “papaya, mango and apricot” in Glendfiddich 12 Year Old, described as “tropical and creamy”.
Tamdhu 15 Year Old bagged the Master accolade in the next flight: Speyside – Aged 13-18 Years. The tasters agreed that the whisky had a “lovely fresh, green nose” leading to “sweet and spicy flavours that complement each other beautifully”. Two Golds and two Silvers followed in the round.
The Speyside contingent continued its strong showing, with impressive medals in the Aged 1930 Years, Standard, Premium and Super Premium flights. It was a clean sweep for the SMWS in the Speyside – Single Cask heat, with one Master and two Golds. In an additional win for the bottler, its Master-winning 35.226 – Nocturne du Elgin en B flat minor also secured the Taste Master accolade. The title is given to one exceptional whisky once all the judges have retasted and ranked the Master medallists, allowing our Scotch Whisky Masters team to decipher an overall favourite. Judges described the SMWS bottling as “deep expressive and focused” with “lovely spices on the finish”.
Following two Golds for Glenfarclas in the Speyside – Ultra Premium leg, the final Master medal winner of the day was announced: Spey from Speyside Distillery – Trutina Cask Strength. The whisky, judged in the Speyside – Cask Strength round, impressed with its “sweet notes of fennel” and “rich dark chocolate”. It was joined by two Golds and a Silver medal.
Rounding off the day was the Flavoured Spirit Drink representation, which sought to recognise whisky-based ‘spirit drinks’ that do not legally qualify as Scotch whisky. Here, Compass Box Affinity, with its “spicy and nutty” character, won Silver.
With a total of 16 Master medals awarded and an impressive number of Golds and Silvers, there was no denying the strength of the competition. A relatively even spread of top scores throughout the different rounds also indicated that quality is prevalent across all regions, styles and price points in Scotch whisky. Consumers, it seems, are spoilt for choice when it comes for selecting their ideal dram for any occasion.
Click through the following pages for the Scotch Whisky Masters 2019 results in full.