This year, our blind-tasting competition for Scotch whisky truly scaled the heights, showing that the industry boasts talented producers in all regions.
Scotch whisky is a spirit held in high regards worldwide – but the year of the pandemic, coupled with crippling tariffs for single malts in the US, presented insurmountable challenges for the category.
The value of Scotch whisky exports fell by £1.1 billion (US$1.5bn) in 2020 to its lowest level in a decade, according to trade body the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). However, in March this year, relief swept across the industry as the US agreed to temporarily remove tariffs on UK goods, including single malt Scotch whisky, for four months.
What is plainly obvious to see from The Scotch Whisky Masters 2021 is that producers remained dedicated to quality – pandemic or no pandemic, tariffs or no tariffs.
This year’s tasting was once again held remotely in keeping with Covid‐19 measures in England. Forming this year’s judging panels were Billy Abbott, ambassador for The Whisky Exchange; and Matt Chambers and Karen Taylor, co‐founders of the Whisky for Everyone blog. The tasting was chaired by me, Melita Kiely, editor of The Spirits Business magazine. To ensure that each entry was judged solely on the liquid inside the bottle, the products were decanted and shipped anonymously by Wine Sorted.
To make sure each entrant received ample time for assessment, at various points throughout the competition, the judges split into two teams – Chambers and Taylor, and Abbott and Kiely.
The day got under way with a flight of Blended – No Age Statement whiskies. Four Gold medals were awarded in this flight, including one to Johnnie Walker Blue Label. The whisky was described as being “solidly fruity and orangey”.
Fellow Gold medallist The Sassenach was praised for its “nutty nose” and “lots of caramel, toffee and some citrus sharpness” on the palate.
Green Isle was also deemed to be Gold‐ worthy, collecting the award for its “caramel and smoke” on the palate with “good depth and complexity”.
Also found to be deserving of a Gold medal in this flight was Highland Queen Blended Scotch Whisky Sherry Cask Finish. The blend impressed judges with its flavours of “cedar/sandalwood” and “sweet and spicy” palate. Four Silvers were also awarded in this flight.
Chambers said: “This flight showed what a mixed bag you can get in this category, but three of four of them were really interesting. The high scorers showed the blenders had thought a bit more about the blend and created something with a point of difference. There were some lovely products.”
Progressing to Blended – Aged up to 12 Years and three more Gold medallists were discovered. Diageo picked up a Gold medal for its Johnnie Walker Black Label, with “underlying malt and green orchard fruits” on the palate, complemented by a “hint of apricot”. Distell also collected two Gold medals, one for Scottish Leader 12 Years Old and one for Black Bottle 10 Years Old. Scottish Leader 12 Years Old was found to have notes of “honeycomb, a hint of peat smoke”, while Black Bottle 10 Years Old delivered a mix of “sugar syrup and cereals”. A Silver medal completed the flight.
“These were all fairly solid,” noted Abbott. “As expected, we found quite a large range of flavours, and the quality was around what you would expect.”
BUTTERSCOTCH AND ALMONDS
A Gold medal followed in the next flight: Blended – Aged between 19‐30 Years. Islay Mist 21 Years Old secured the award for its “butterscotch, almonds and apricots” on the nose, leading to “biscuit, malt” and a “hint of acrid smoke” on the palate.
“This was a lot more refined than some of the other whiskies,” said Abbott. “It was delicately constructed, in a good way; it pulled together lots of different parts and balanced them well.”
The competition then looked to assess blended whiskies by price point, beginning with a flight of standard expressions, costing up to £20. A strong set of seven Gold medals was uncovered in this flight, presenting excellent value for money.
La Martiniquaise‐Bardinet secured two Gold medals in this flight: Sir Edward’s 12 Years Old and Sir Edward’s Smoky. The 12‐year‐old whisky was “rich and sweet” on the palate, with “caramel, dried fruits, good structure and maltiness”. Meanwhile, the brand’s Smoky expression had a “creamy and grainy” palate, with a “hint of peach, plus sultanas and cinnamon”.
Supermarket Lidl also secured a Gold title for its Glen Orchy Blended Scotch Whisky, with its “creamy toffee” nose, leading to “fudge, candied citrus, vanilla and honey” on the palate. Nine Silver medals completed the flight.
On reflection, the judges noted the vast differences in flavours at this price point of the blended section. Taylor said: “At this level, you really need manufacturers to describe what the whisky does on the bottle; it’s essential. We had a great selection, with flavours covering everything from quiet and calm, to some proper nut‐job whiskies, so clarity on taste and descriptions is important.”
Moving up to premium blends, priced between £21 and £30, and the Master bottlings the judges had been patiently waiting for appeared. Distell scooped two Masters in this flight. The first was awarded to Black Bottle Double Cask Blended Scotch Whisky, with “intense fruit and spiced sponge cake” on both the nose and palate. Stablemate Black Bottle Island Smoke Blended Scotch Whisky also received the top award for its “intense sea spray nose” and “stacks of maritime character and iodine” on the palate.
Four Gold medals were also awarded at this price point: “surprisingly complex” Scottish Leader Sherry Cask Finish; “easy going, nutty” Scottish Leader Supreme; “buttery and sweet” Pure Scot Signature; and “citrus and zingy” London Square. Taylor said: “This flight showed continuation of the diversity that came from the Standard whiskies but took a step up. Everything had more complexity, more interesting flavours, better balance, and all the notes stepped up. And only at a £10 difference – that’s fabulous.”
In the Blended – Super Premium heat (£31‐ £50), “delicate and sweet” Frisky Panky and “soft and creamy” Pure Scot Midnight Peat both secured Silver medals.
Blended malts were then put to the taste test, starting with a flight of no‐age‐ statement expressions. A pair of Golds went to Peat Chimney and Spice King. Peat Chimney had a “savoury nose” leading to “layers of chilli and cinnamon heat on the palate, and some stewed fruit”. Spice King, meanwhile, was enjoyed for its “soft spicy palate” with “orchard fruit and polished oak” on the palate. Four Silver medals were also awarded in this round.
Two more Gold medallists joined the growing number of award winners in the Blended Malt – Aged up to 12 Years heat. GlenAllachie Distillers Company took home a Gold for its MacNair’s Lum Reek 12 Years Old. The whisky had an “aromatic nose” leading to “a balanced sweet and savoury palate of chocolate, meadow flowers and stewed orchard fruit”. Spice King Highland & Islay received a Gold medal for flavours of “stewed fruit and spice to start”, developing into “polished oak and lots of wood spice”.
The standard improved further as the judges progressed to the Blended Malt – Aged between 19‐30 Years contingent. A Master medal was presented to MacNair’s Lum Reek 21 Years Old, celebrated for notes of “spiced breads and cake batter with a swirl of apple sauce”. Abbott said: “The wonder of a blended malt is the ability to look outside of single characters. This is whisky that does that very well; it brings together different ideas in harmony.” Artful Dodger Whisky Collective also took home a Gold medal in this flight for its Speyside Blended Malt.
TANNIN AND SPICE
The Blended Malt – Aged over 31 Years brought another Master medallist to the fore: Artful Dodger Whisky Collective’s Blended Scotch Whisky. The whisky had a nose full of “berry jam, spice and pine”, with a “drizzle of cream” on the palate. “Very sweet, with oaky vanilla adding a touch of tannin and spice,” said Abbott.
Budget supermarkets Aldi and Lidl proved they can bottle brilliant blended malts at affordable prices in the following flight: Blended Malt – Standard (whiskies priced up to £20). Lidl received a Gold medal for its “biscuity, malty” Abrachan Blended Peated Malt. Aldi received a Gold for its “light and delicate” Highland Green Blended Malt, with “crisp green apple and vanilla” on the palate.
In the Blended Malt – Premium flight, priced from £21 to £30, Malt Riot by the Glasgow Distillery Company received a Silver medal for its “delicate and fresh” nose.
Moving on to the Blended Malt – Super Premium flight, a trio of Golds were discovered, priced from £31‐£50. Berry Bros & Rudd collected a Gold for its Peated Cask Matured Blended Malt, with “elegant florals and fruitiness” on the nose, and “soft summer fruits and vanillas” on the palate.
Douglas Laing & Co also received a Gold medal for Scallywag, “rich and bold” in flavour with “lots of toffee, baked red apples and baking spices”. Ardgowan Distillery completed the Gold‐run with Clydebuilt Coppersmith, enjoyed for its “bags of oaky notes” and “underlying treacle sweetness”. A Silver medal was also awarded.
In the top price bracket of ultra‐premium expressions, priced at £51 and over, a Master medallist was found in Big Peat. The judges enjoyed flavours of “apple and malt” on the nose and “punchy peat” on the palate, leading to “honey, lemon zest, seaweed” and “oat biscuits”.
The Single Grain – Standard flight found a Gold medal in Label 5 Bourbon Barrel. Aromas included “aromatic oak with pot pourri hints and lots of spiced toffee” leading to a “creamy palate with caramel and vanilla fudge”. In the Single Grain – Aged over 31 Years flight, a Gold‐standard whisky was enjoyed in the form of Cameronbridge 1984. The whisky had notes of “crème brûlée and a touch of pastel de nata” on the nose, leading to a palate of “rich toffee and soft spice”.
Cameronbridge 1984 received another Gold medal in the following flight: Single Grain – Single Cask. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s (SMWS) G10.21 expression also picked up a Gold medal in this heat for its “rich bold fruits and woody spices”.
Glen Scotia Double Cask continued the Gold streak in the Single Malt: Campbeltown – No Age Statement round, with its “buttery, caramel finish”.
In the Single Malt: Campbeltown – Aged up to 12 Years flight, Glen Scotia 10 Years Old received a Gold medal. Tasting notes included “chocolate” developing into “candied notes – fruit pastilles and wine gums”.
The brand also picked up a Gold medal for its 15‐year‐old bottling in the aged between 13‐18 years flight. The Glen Scotia whisky was found to be “piney” with “juicy fruit and lots of spice”.
In the Single Malt: Campbeltown – Aged between 19‐30 Years, Glen Scotia 25 Years Old won the top award. The Master medallist had aromas of “honeycomb, malt and gingerbread”, with a “delicious palate” full of “peach/apricot, golden syrup, great oak spices to add balance and late tropical fruits”.
Glen Scotia scooped another Master medal in the Single Malt: Campbeltown – Cask Strength flight. Glen Scotia Victoriana had a “big fruity palate with stewed orchard fruit, candied berries and gummy bears” with building “spice and polished oak”.
And to round off the Campbeltown flights, Glen Scotia received a further Gold medal in the super‐premium category. Glen Scotia 18 Years Old had “spiced bread and brown sugar” on the nose, with “lots of lardy cake spice” on the palate.
HIGHLANDS AND ISLANDS
A large selection of single malts from the Highlands and Islands regions were presented next, beginning with a set of no‐age‐ statement expressions. Seven Gold medals were awarded in this flight: “fruity and tropical” Tullibardine Artisan; Tomatin Legacy, “packed with fruit”; Arran Barrel Reserve, with its “citrusy nose”; Deanston Virgin Oak, with “building spice”; Nc’nean Organic Single Malt, with “sweet and savoury” aromas; Langskip, with its “soft palate”; and “intense, ashy, spicy” Highland Park Cask Strength Release No.1. Three Silver medals rounded off the flight.
In the Single Malt: Highlands & Islands – Aged up to 12 Years round, six Gold medals were awarded. “Green and fresh” Loch Lomond 10 Years Old was one Gold recipient, along with “easy‐going and fresh” Highland Park 12 Years Old Viking Honour.
“Biscuit, marmalade” Arran 10 Years Old also secured a Gold medal, along with “spicy, peaty” Ledaig 10 Years Old, “viscous and sweet” Tobermory 12 Years Old, and “maritime, bitter sweet” Deanston 12 Years Old.
In the next age bracket of Highland & Island single malts – aged between 13 and 18 years – a Master medal was discovered: Deanston 18 Years Old. Abbott said: “This was juicy and fruity on the nose, with a soft and sweet palate. Layers of tropical fruit and custard tart.” Three Gold medals and one Silver were also awarded. The strongest flight of the competition came next, Single Malt: Highlands & Islands – Aged Between 19‐30 Years. The entire flight was deemed to be deserving of the top award, creating four Master medallists.
Master winner Highland Park 1992 from the Artful Dodger Whisky Collective had “honey”, with “waxy wood” notes on the nose. “You can definitely smell some age in this glass, which is mouthwatering,” said Taylor.
Tobermory 23 Years Old was “rich and complex” on the palate, with “apricot, cedar wood and baking spices”.
Highland Park 21 Years Old 2020 Release presented “marzipan” aromas, leading to a “rich and voluptuous” palate with “walnut skin bitterness, heather floral, toffee apples and dried apricot”.
And finally, Artful Dodger Whisky Collective’s Jura 1991 was awarded a Master medal for being “delicate and light, with sweet floral notes and fresh orchard fruits – peaches”. “Wow, what a round,” Taylor enthused. “This was a dream flight of exceptional whiskies as shown by wall‐to‐wall Masters. This group of whiskies showcased some masterful distilling, cask maturation and blending. Truly a highlight of the Masters judging. Can we please see more whisky have this exceptional attention to detail and care of production?”
In the Single Malt: Highlands & Islands – Single Cask flight, three Gold whiskies were awarded to “expressive” Highland Park 1992, “fragrant” Jura 1991, and SMWS’ “vibrant and punchy” 26.138 – Aubergine Taco.
RICH AND PUNCHY
And it seems Gold medals come in three because the next flight also produced a trio of Golds: SMWS’ 12.53 – Sophisticated Seductive Sazerac Cocktail had flavours of “caramel and hints of tropical”, Arran Quarter Cask The Bothy was “creamy and fruity”, and Arran Sherry Cask The Bodega was “rich and punchy”.
Single Malt: Highlands & Islands – Standard produced three more Gold medals, and one Silver. The Gold‐standard Scotch whiskies were “honeyed and vanilla” Glen Marnoch Sherry Cask Single Malt, Glen Marnoch Highland Single Malt with “clean peaty sweetness”, and Ben Bracken Highland Single Malt with “rich toffee and honey”.
In the premium price bracket, a plethora of Gold medallists were found, including Canmore 12 Years Old with its “light, meadowy” aroma, and “really fruity” Glencadam 10 Years Old. The flight also produced one Silver medallist.
There was high praise for The Glenturret 12 Years Old (2020 Maiden Release) in the Single Malt: Highland & Islands – Super Premium round, which was bestowed with a Master. The whisky was “rich and bold, with layers of treacle, tropical fruits, sweet baking spices and oaky polish woodiness”. Two Golds and one Silver medal were also awarded. Taylor noted: “This round showed a step up in quality of casking, ageing and blending. There were some very good whiskies for the price.”
The final Master from the Highlands and Islands region went to Tomatin’s Decades II in the ultra‐premium heat. The whisky presented an “intriguing nose” and a “soft and complex” palate “with floral notes on top and rich fruit compote running through the middle”.
From the Highlands and Islands, the judges then visited the Lowland region, beginning with a flight of no‐age‐statement single malts. Two Gold medallists stood out in this round: “sweet and creamy” Kingsbarn Distillery’s Dream to Dram, and “savoury” Glasgow 1770 Single Malt Scotch Whisky – Peated. A trio of Silvers were also celebrated. In the Single Malt: Lowland – Aged Between 13‐18 Years, Bladnoch 14 Years Old took a Gold with its “piney nose and touch of bark”. Moving on to Speyside single malts, and “gentle, pleasant” Creag Dhu Single Malt Whisky collected a Gold medal in the no‐age‐statement heat.
Among the Speyside single malts aged up to 12 years, Crabbie’s received the top Master medal for flavours of “chocolate and Turkish delight” on the palate. It was accompanied by four Gold medallists. GlenAllachie 15 Years Old impressed in the Single Malt: Speyside – Aged Between 13‐18 Years heat. The Gold‐ standard whisky was “bold and rich, with dried fruits and spices”. A trio of Silvers boosted the flight.
In the older age bracket of 19‐30 years, single malt Speyside whisky Benromach Aged 21 Years picked up a Gold medal for its “soft and Sherried” palate.
A pair of Silvers were also awarded in the Single Malt: Speyside – Single Cask heat. Artful Dodger Whisky Collective’s Speyside Single Malt 2006 had “loads of oak and baking spices” on the palate, while Auchroisk 2007 had “a hint of manuka honey and green apple”.
DARK FRUIT CAKE
In the cask‐strength contingent of the Speyside single malts, a pair of Golds were found in “juicy, spicy oak” Benromach Cask Strength Vintage 2009 Batch 4, and 6.39 – A Belter of a Dram by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, with “rich fruit pudding, dark fruit cake” flavours.
In the price segments, Glen Marnoch Bourbon Cask Single Malt proved it was excellent value for money, securing a Master medal in the standard range for its “soft and fruity palate, with a grassy finish”. Two Golds and a Silver were also awarded in this heat.
Three Golds were awarded to “creamy and soft” Tomintoul Tiàth, “oak spice” Tomintoul 16 Years Old, and “malty and spicy” Tomintoul Seiridh in the premium flight. A Silver medal was also given.
Abbott said: “This round pushed complexity and variation in style.” Taylor agreed, and added: “It feels like extra money has bought you a few extra dimensions. These whiskies have definitely taken flavour in a different direction.”
Tomintoul also received a Gold for its Tomintoul Cigar Malt Speyside Single Malt in the super‐premium heat. “Earthy peat on the palate adds depth and complexity,” noted Chambers.
From Speyside, the tasting progressed to a large flight of Islay whiskies. In the Single Malt: Islay – No Age Statement flight, six Gold medals were awarded. Among the Gold medallists was Kilchoman Distillery, which received one Gold for Kilchoman Loch Gorm, with its “gravelly palate with sweetness, and fruity beginnings”, and another for Kilchoman Machir Bay, with “gentle earthiness and barley sugar”. Three Silvers rounded off the flight.
Taylor said: “There were a good number of styles in there, no one‐size fits all. Some interesting takes on Islay whisky – slightly less peaty.”
Chambers added: “A lot of people seem to be playing in this area, experimenting with cask types and ages. There were some very good products, which was reflected in the marking.”
In the Single Malt: Islay – Aged up to 12 Years, two Golds were awarded to Aerolite Lyndsay, with “dry, ashy smoke”, and Bunnahabhain 12 Years Old, with “musty smoke, peach tart and green apple”. A Silver completed the flight.
“Rich and Sherried” Bunnahabhain 18 Years Old picked up a Gold in the Single Malt: Islay – Aged Between 13‐18 Years round. Meanwhile, stablemate Bunnahabhain 25 Years Old received a Master in the 19‐30 age bracket. The whisky was enjoyed for having “lots of forest floor rancio and gentle spice”.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society secured a Master in the single cask flight of Islay single malts. The society’s 53.322 – Carpe Diem whisky had “intense fruitiness, with mint, menthol and medicinal peat”. A Gold went to the society’s 10.191 – Oh So Sumptuous.
Atom Brands also received a Gold for Seaweed & Aeons & Digging & Fire Cask Strength in the Single Malt: Islay – Cask Strength flight, praised for its “approachable” palate and “maritime” qualities.
SWEET AND PEATY
The closing flight – Single Malt: Islay – Standard – presented two Gold medallists: “Sweet and peaty” Ben Bracken Islay Single Malt, and “smoky, but balanced” Glen Marnoch Islay Single Malt.
Once the initial judging had been completed, the judges reset their palates to retaste the Master medallists.
With 18 Masters to choose from, picking The Scotch Whisky Taste Master 2021 was no easy feat.
But standing out among the myriad top awards was Bunnahabhain 25 Years Old, which won the coveted accolade.
The judges then took some time to reflect on this year’s competition and what it says about the Scotch whisky category.
“A couple of things definitely shine out, one being that at the cheaper end – under £25 and up to 12 years – producers actually showed interesting diversity and great experimentation. There’s lots to keep you amused without spending a lot of money.”
Chambers concurred and added that there were “some very high‐quality products at the lower end”. He said: “It was almost like brands are being innovative at the lower end, and maybe age statements are taking for granted that people will buy those whiskies. They were still very good, but almost like they were playing it a little safe.”
However, all the judges agreed that sticking to tradition had also paid off for many of this year’s entrants.
Abbott concluded: “The folks who have stuck to their guns and gone very traditional, Speyside especially, being a style everyone knows – those whiskies still remain very high quality. The key is to also make it interesting, to not play it too safe and risk becoming boring. There’s so much variety and enjoyment to be found in Scotch; it’s what we all love about it.”
Click through to the following page for the complete list of medal winners from The Scotch Whisky Masters 2021.