If anyone thinks the popularity of gin is waning, think again. This year’s edition of The Gin Masters saw an ocean of gin entered into the competition – with more to come later in the year.
Take a look at the most recent gin data from the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA), and consumers’ thirst for the category can be neatly summarised as utterly unquenchable. While the Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on gin sales in the on-trade, the juniper spirit’s profile has gone from strength to strength in the off-trade.
Retailers in the UK experienced a 30% spike in gin sales in the 12 months to 27 March 2021, as the category reached £1.3 billion (US$1.8bn) – equal to 80 million bottles. Flavoured gin has been a burgeoning subcategory in recent years – and there was no slowing down for the sector during the same period. Sales of flavoured gin soared by 37%, meaning around 30m bottles were snapped up over the year. Flavoured gin now accounts for approximately 40% of the total gin market by both volume and value, according to the WSTA, and its market share is only expected to go in one direction: up.
The ‘go-to’ spirit
When the data was released last month, Miles Beale, chief executive of the WSTA, said: “Our latest gin numbers underline that reports of gin’s demise as the ‘go-to’ spirit are wrong. Despite the on-trade representing many of our great British distillers’ ‘shop window’, and a great place for Brits to try new and exciting tipples, hospitality’s closure hasn’t dampened our enthusiasm to enjoy the vast array of gins now on the market.
“Sales of gin have never been this high in our shops and supermarkets before – but this is encouraging news for our reawakening hospitality industry, too – some of these sales are certain to shift over to pubs, bars and restaurants.”
If the magnitude of the gin category were ever in doubt, The Gin Masters 2021 blind tasting will definitely put any uncertainty to rest. The tasting marked the biggest competition in The Global Spirits Masters series to date – and the second part of The Gin Masters will be held in October, inspired by the sheer volume of new products still coming to market.
The Gin Masters 2021 also marked a return to in-person tastings as Covid-19 restrictions were eased in England. The contest was held over two days in a physically distanced format at the Ibis Hotel in London Bridge, with the bottles packed by Wine Sorted to guarantee anonymity to all entrants. This year’s tasting was sponsored by Bevica.
On day one of the tasting, the panels comprised Chris Tanner, bar manager at Milroy’s, Peter Downes, distillery partnerships specialist at Craft Gin Club, and Nicola Carruthers, deputy editor of The Spirits Business magazine, who chaired the panel.
Forming the second panel were Ben Lindsay, global spirits and on-premise consultant, and Ivan Dixon, independent spirits consultant, who chaired the team.
The third and final panel included David T Smith, spirits writer, consultant and co-founder of the Craft Distilling Expo, who joined me, Melita Kiely, editor of The Spirits Business and chair, over Zoom.
The second day of the tasting welcomed a new judge to the mix, Julian de Feral, international bar consultant and writer, who judged part of the day with Tanner and Lindsay, before joining me later in the day.
Tanner, Downes and Carruthers started day one with a flight of Standard gins, priced up to £15. “Well balanced, lasting” Gin Bloomberry got the competition off to a solid start with a Gold medal. Four Silver medals were also awarded in this flight.
Smith and I tackled the Premium gins, priced from £16-£20, and found two Master medallists. The first was awarded to Maison Ferrand’s Citadelle Gin Jardin d’Été. The gin was said to deliver “superb bright citrus”, and was found to be “well balanced and complex – so mixable”.
Penderyn Distillery’s Brecon Special Reserve Gin also collected a Master medal for its “bright, lovely citrus notes, good mouthfeel and complexity with nice juniper”.
Eight Gold medals were also awarded in this flight. Aldi’s Eidyn Botanical Gin was deemed to be up to the Gold standard, as was Gibson’s Exception from La Martiniquaise-Bardinet and Hrafn Gin Valkyrie from Raven Spirits. A pair of Silvers completed the flight.
“There was a good standard of gins here, quite classic everyday kind of gins that are affordable, but some that also go above and beyond,” noted Smith. “It offers a nice, high-end gin experience at that lower end of the price bracket. Great stuff.”
Meanwhile, Lindsay and Dixon tackled a large portion of the Super Premium flight, featuring gins priced between £21 and £35. Carruthers and her team of judges tasted the other portion. The enormous round produced 20 Gold medals and 27 Silver medals.
Among the Gold medallists were: Bathtub Gin, Whitley Neill Connoisseur’s Cut London Dry Gin, Hernö Gin, Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin, and Hendrick’s Lunar Gin. The Silver medallists included: Chapel Down Pinot Noir Gin, Glendalough Rose Gin, Tobermory Hebridean Mountain Gin, and Bedrock Gin.
Tanner said: “It was a step up from the previous flight – it was pretty solid. [Ki No Bi Kyoto Dry Gin] stood out for me; really tasty.”
The Ultra Premium flight, consisting of gins costing more than £36, produced an impressive five Master medallists.
Beg Boutique Distillery won a Master for its Beg New World Navy Gin, with its “great balance and complexity” and “touch of spice”. G&H Spirits also secured a Master for its LDN Initial Gin, which had “good juniper on the nose” and “some crisp, herbal notes”.
Hernö Gin Distillery went home with two Master medals – one for Hernö Gin, with its “bright floral notes, citrus, coriander and a little waxiness”, and a second for Hernö Juniper Cask Gin, with “fresh pine, zesty citrus” and a “long finish”.
Completing the Master haul was Byron’s Gin Bird Cherry by the Speyside Distillers Company, said to have a “slight tartness mid-palate” and described as a “solid gin” overall.
The Ultra Premium heat also produced 17 Gold medals. Winning products included: “well balanced” Amass Dry Gin; Hernö Pink Btl Gin, with “lots of well-integrated citrus”; Canaïma Gin, with its “lovely Sherry nose”; and “earthy but cleanly distilled” Byron’s Gin Melancholy Thistle.
Eleven Silver medals completed the flight. “To really shine at this high price point, you’ve got to offer something a bit special. That might be botanicals and flavour combinations, but flawless distillation is a given to start with,” said Smith. “Some of the gins here today absolutely did that – the ones that won Masters for sure. It’s a tough part of the competition – people are up for buying expensive gin, but they need and want value for money at the same time, and they want something special when it’s £36-plus.”
London Dry was the biggest flight of the day by quite some margin – and it was encouraging to see standards high across this classic gin style. Five standout London Dry expressions took home the highest accolade. Isle of Harris Gin gained a Master medal, with “sweet, almost Sherry-like notes” and “good depth of flavour and complexity”.
“Aromatic, earthy” Bareksten Botanical Gin from Norway also secured the top award, celebrated for its “delicious complexity”.
Cotton Gin was deemed Master-worthy for its “lime and grapefruit, citrusy” nose, with “hints of cacao nibs” on the finish.
Also taking home a Master in this flight was Hrafn Gin Valkyrie, with hints of “lemon drizzle cake and nuttiness”.
Completing the Master run in this heat was Warner’s London Dry Gin, with “lovely citrus and pine” notes. “Very well made with excellent integration of flavours and alcohol,” noted Smith. “Over the past few years we’ve seen an increase in the quality of London dry gins – not just the occasional one,” he added. “We’ve seen a general increase in quality and in the technical proficiency from distillers entering the category as well, which is brilliant. It’s great for them, great for us, and great for the industry as whole.”
London Dry also produced the largest number of Gold medals ever seen in a Global Spirits Masters flight – 45 – backing up Smith’s positive stance on the segment.
Among the vast number of Gold medallists were “fresh, zesty” No.3 London Dry Gin, with “punchy juniper” on the palate, and Whitley Neill London Dry Gin.
Never Never Triple Juniper Gin also received a Gold medal for having “some slight lemon, myrtle, leafy herbal notes”, along with Hernö Gin Distillery, which picked up two Gold medals: one for “superbly made’ Hernö Gin and a second for Hernö Gin 47.
“Herbal, slightly vegetal” Ha’Penny Dry Gin was also found to be worthy of a Gold award, as was fellow Gold medallist OP Anderson Distillery Organic Dry Gin, described as “clean and spicy, with a gentle sweetness”.
Tanner noted: “This flight really impressed me. It was so consistent, with really solid entries. I look at those juniper-forward gins, and that’s what I’d expect from these gins – and that’s what I got.”
The London Dry flight concluded with a staggering 51 Silver medals. Budget supermarket Aldi collected two Silvers for its Greyson’s London Dry Gin and Haysmith’s London Dry.
Beefeater collected three Silver awards for Beefeater London Dry, Beefeater 24 and Beefeater Crown Jewel.
Gordon & MacPhail also secured two Silvers for Red Door Gin and Red Door Gin with Summer Botanicals.
In the following flight – Contemporary – three Master medallists made their presence known. Australia’s Four Pillars Distillery bagged two Masters, the first of which went to Four Pillars Modern Australian Gin. The gin was described as a “unique, standout” expression, with its “spicy, earthy nose”.
Four Pillars Rare Dry Gin also won a Master, hailed for having “layers”. “Subtle lifts of tangerine and orange hidden in the background elevate this,” noted Downes.
Steam Gin from Small Distillery also won a Master in the Contemporary round, enjoyed for “allspice on the nose” and “hints of acidity”.
“Contemporary is quite exciting,” said Downes. “These gins were a bit hit and miss at times, though. Some lost the fun you want from contemporary – the ones that did well had layers to them, not just one note. You want a whole range of flavours from gins in this category.”
In addition to the Masters, 28 Gold medals were found in this heat. These included a quadruple Gold streak for Zamora Company: “classic, juniper, cucumber” Martin Miller’s Original Gin; “herbaceous” Martin Miller’s Summerful Gin; Martin Miller’s Winterful Gin, which had some “warming spice notes”; and Martin Miller’s Westbourne Gin, with “citrus zest and great alcohol integration”.
A total of 25 Silver medals were also awarded in this flight. These included Kavalan Gin, Manchester Gin – Mother of Pearl, Wolf Lane Distillery Tropical Gin and Martin Miller’s 9 Moons Gin.
The Gin Masters raised the ABV as the judges tackled a flight of Navy Strength expressions. Another three Master medallists were discovered. Aura Gin Navy Strength took the top award, with its “biscuit, buttery nose, with lots of cardamom and toasted notes, gentle lavender and a citrus finish”.
Four Pillars Navy Strength Gin was also found to be worthy of a Master title, enjoyed for evoking memories of “green Skittles” on the nose and its “nice citrus flavour on the palate, with bold, punchy juniper – delicious”.
Kingdom’s Ginger Spiced Gin also received a Master medal, with hints of “lavender” and “warming juniper” on the palate.
Tanner said: “This round was as good as I expected it to be. In gin there are so many flavours working together in the same product, the higher ABV just pushes those flavours to be exceptional.”
De Feral agreed, and added: “Navy strength is historically the bartenders’ choice, but when you do the maths, most home consumers can mix navy strength gin at home and will get a lot more out of that bottle.”
Eight Gold medals were also awarded in this heat. Never Never Distilling increased its medal haul with a Gold award for its “big piney, flavoursome” Juniper Freak Gin.
Plymouth Gin Navy Strength also impressed the judges with its Gold-standard spirit, found to have a “touch of coriander, lashings of citrus and a long finish”.
Nine Silver medals rounded off the flight, with medallists including Dunnet Bay Distillery’s Navy Strength Rock Rose and Ladoga Group’s Barrister Navy Strength Gin.
The Microdistillery round also brought a flurry of Master medallists – three of which were scooped up by Hernö Gin Distillery. The Swedish producer took the top award for its Hernö Gin 47, Hernö Pink Btl Gin and Hernö Old Tom Gin.
“Very moreish” Hernö Gin 47 was held in high esteem for its “big juniper” opening nose, leading to a “very citrus” palate.
Good juniper notes
Hernö Pink Btl Gin scooped a Master for being “clean, crisp with good juniper notes” along with “a little bitterness and citrus”.
Hernö Old Tom Gin presented some “honeyed pine” and “fruity berry notes with plenty of juniper”, prompting the Master medal from the judges.
Jim and Tonic’s Mercato Mediterranean Gin won the fourth Master of the flight because of its “lovely herbaceous nose” and “savouriness with a hint of citrus peel” on the palate.
“With microdistilleries, generally distillers have a bit more freedom to experiment and try different things that might be riskier, and I think that sometimes the risk isn’t worth it,” Smith noted. “But sometimes, risk pays off and producers come up with something absolutely sublime, and the Masters of this are thinking outside the box; they tried something different and it paid off.”
Five Golds – including “complex” Horsham Spirit from Cabin Pressure Spirits, and “very smooth” Method and Madness Irish Microdistilled Gin – and four Silvers completed the flight.
A pair of Masters were also unearthed in the Old Tom sector. The first was given to Hernö Old Tom Gin, due to its “bold juniper character” and “well balanced touch of sweetness”. Old Tom 6 by Liquorsmiths also won a Master accolade, with its “nice mouthfeel” and a “touch of eucalyptus to add a little freshness on the finish”.
A Gold medal went to OTG Initial Gin, with “cucumber on the nose, and some citrus and herbaceous notes” leading to “a little woodiness, herbs and savoury elements” on the palate.
Five Silver medals were also awarded in the Old Tom flight, including to Ki No Tou Kyoto Dry Gin and Gin Lane 1751 Old Tom.
A flight of Genever came next, producing a Gold medal for Hooghoudt Raw Genever, which had “good grain notes on the nose with floral citrus, and good integration of alcohol”. A Silver medal was also given to Hooghoudt Sweet Spiced Genever.
Hernö’s growing haul
In the Organic flight, Hernö Gin Distillery added another Master medal to its ever-growing haul. Hernö Navy Strength Gin was said to be “big, bold and zesty”, and the judges thought the “higher ABV holds really well”. Tasting notes included “a hint of spice and floral, with a nice sweetness to complement the citrus notes”.
Hernö also collected four Gold medals for Hernö Gin 47, Hernö Pink Btl Gin, Hernö Old Tom Gin and Hernö Gin. The Stillery’s Dutch Coastal Gin also received a Gold award.
A substantial Cask-Aged heat generated two more Master medallists: Sorgin Yellow Gin and In the Welsh Wind Palo Cortado Finish. Sorgin Yellow Gin was described as having “lovely, plump, fragrant notes, wood and elderflower – really unusual and just superb”.
Fellow Master winner In the Welsh Wind Palo Cortado was equally celebrated, enjoyed for its “rich spice, Christmas notes with juniper, citrus and spice – very Christmassy but a lovely sipper”.
Thirteen Gold-standard cask-aged gins were also enjoyed by the judges. Winners included: “perfectly balanced” Makar Mulberry Cask Aged Gin; “peaty, complex” Ki No Bi Edition K Kyoto Dry Gin aged in ex-Kilchoman Single Malt Casks; and “deep, woody” Nouaison Gin Reserve. Four Silvers were also awarded in this flight.
“These were not your typical aged gins,” noted Smith. “It’s probably been the most exciting year of cask-aged gin that we’ve had and I find it thrilling that there’s that much innovation going on, and why not? There are so many different casks beyond typical oak finishes. Plus, for a distiller, how the cask interacts with the botanicals is such a rich sandpit to play in. It’s a playground for a distiller, and we’re seeing that with the stuff we’ve got here. It goes to show you can do very interesting things at lower ABVs, it doesn’t have to be cask strength stuff.”
Blushed with success
Pink gin has soared in popularity in recent years, and the quality that came to the fore in the competition was impressive. Apple and Hibiscus from 58 Distillery secured a Master medal in this round, delivering “crisp apple on the nose with some soft, jammy floral notes”. The gin had “good texture, nice sweetness” and was found to be “very refreshing – a bit different”.
Seven pink gins lived up to the Gold standard, including Shortcross Rosie’s Garden Gin, with “rosehip and juniper notes, some sweetness but some woodiness too”.
“Very well balanced” Barrister Pink Gin also secured a Gold medal, liked for having a “sweet pink profile without being too overbearing”.
Five pink gins were awarded Silver medals, including Gibson’s Pink and Beefeater Pink Strawberry.
“This tasting suggests that there is no definition of what pink gin is,” Smith noted. “I will say this – I know some people might think of pink gin being very fruity and not tasting like gin at all. This flight proved there are some very good spirits in there that can be pink in colour, embrace some fruity flavours, but still taste like gin and be balanced and not overly sugary.”
Flavoured Gin is another subcategory that has boomed in recent years, with myriad flavours still launching week after week. The huge flight produced an impressive five Master medals.
Atom Brands’ Jaffa Cake Gin was one Master recipient. Tasting notes included “orange chocolate – like Terry’s Chocolate Orange – delicious”.
De Feral said: “This is a great example of how a flavoured spirit can educate consumers on how flavours can be unique, and how you can create flavours that are really fun. This was really unique, not just another raspberry or rhubarb flavour, it offered something very different.”
Cuckoo Supernova Gin also took a Master in this contingent, with its “vibrant, bold zingy nose” that was “unmistakably grapefruit”. The gin was able to retain its juniper flavour, too. Forty Spotted Pinot Noir also collected the top medal.
Downes said “cranberry shines through on the palate building to a delicious mix of sweet gin and grapes”. Fellow Master Meredith’s Malvern Blush Gin was “fruity and fresh”, with “crisp passionfruit notes”. Concluding the Master tally in this round was Wildcat Passion Gin, with its “clear and bold passionfruit” on the nose, giving way to “orange” hints on the palate.
The Flavoured Gin round also awarded Gold medals to 21 deserving entries. These included “beautifully soft and juicy” Lonewolf Peach and Passionfruit with “tonnes of peach on the nose”; “fruity and floral” Gin Ting – Berries, Berries, Berries; and Three Wrens Gin Apple Crumble Edition, full of “oats and brown sugar” on the nose and “soft, sweet green apple” on the palate.
The flight concluded with a staggering 31 Silver medals, including: Gordon’s Pink, Beefeater Blood Orange, Rosemont Madame Gin, Junimperium Cherry Edition Gin, Malfy Gin Con Limone, Wembley Pink, Wildcat Bramble Gin, and Wildjac Damson and Raspberry Gin.
Tanner noted: “I feel there is scope for some more ‘adult’ flavours here. Some of what we tasted was a little overly sweet, but some were executed really well.”
Carruthers added how she was impressed with the diversity of flavours. “There was plenty of variety in the flavoured flight, with producers putting the focus on quality,” she added. “It was great to see so many different products that are pairing some really complementary flavours together, combinations you wouldn’t even think of.”
For Downes, Three Wrens Apple Crumble Edition was one of the standout flavours. “This is a category that’s easy to get wrong, but also easy to shine through if you nail what you’re aiming for. Distillers need to know that end result and get the flavour profile, like the apple crumble. The wine-flavoured gins were on the ball.”
In the penultimate flight – Sloe Gin – four Gold medals were dished out. English Berry had “beautiful nutty notes, almond, some cherry and dark chocolate”. Gold medallist Elephant Sloe Gin was “delightfully indulgent, with lots of spice to go with the sloe gin – textbook; a classic slow gin with a little twist”.
Gold winner Plymouth Sloe Gin offered “fino Sherry” flavours on the palate, complemented by a “slightly sharp jamminess”.
And Hernö Sloe Gin was enjoyed for its “fruitiness, cherries and boiled sweets” on the palate and “great balance”.
“Sloe gin is a very established category in the UK and it is good to see some innovation and some new entrants to the market making quality products,” said Smith. “At the same time, there is a caution that with some products, the innovation can take the product to a place where it no longer resembles sloe gin.”
A gin backbone
Completing the first instalment of The Gin Masters 2021 was the Gin Liqueur flight, which presented the final Master of the tasting. June Wild Peach was hailed for its “jammy fruitiness, but with a gin backbone”, offering “peach on the nose with some tea”.
Seven Golds and one Silver medal completed the flight, including Golds for “fruity, floral, complex and balanced” Hayman’s Peach and Rose Cup; “boiled sweets” Cygnet Cherry Drop Gin Liqueur; and “tangy passionfruit with balanced sweetness” Hotel Chocolat Mango and Passionfruit Cacao Gin Liqueur.
Reflecting on the competition, Downes noted: “There was consistently a really high standard across the competition. It says a lot about gin, which keeps getting better and better. Flavoured gins have stepped back from the heavily sugary category, and it’s great to see that gin is still innovating and changing.”
Smith noted that value for money remains across the standard and premium price points – and there are gins with huge complexity to be found at more affordable prices.
“The other takeaway this year is people have spent time experimenting with stuff and taking things in new directions; sometimes if’s fantastic and sometimes it needs refining, but it’s very exciting to see people doing that,” he added.
“Sloe gin is an example of that, but also cask-aged. The ones we tasted were nothing particularly typical – that was a healthy selection of aged gin because you don’t always get those.
“There were also some lovely examples of pink and flavoured gins, which I think serves as a reminder that even hardened gin fans shouldn’t write them off because there are some beautiful products in there.”
*A Taste Master will be announced after the second tasting later this year.
Click through to the following page for the full list of winners from The Gin Masters 2021 (part one).
Claudio Martell – Bevica product director
“I am delighted to be in partnership with The Spirits Business [and the drinks business], with Bevica as the sponsor for The Gin Masters and The English and Welsh Wine Masters. With our extensive experience of clients across the drinks sector, but in these two areas specifically, we know that Bevica is a proven, reliable and effective cloud SaaS solution powered by Microsoft. It is ideal for organisations that are looking to streamline and automate their processes, with an all-in-one solution that is future-proofed and can flex to any business growth requirements.”
Pippa Odell – MD, TVision Technology
“At a time when businesses are evolving due to the many challenges of this worldwide pandemic, it feels particularly relevant that Bevica sponsors initiatives within the drinks sector. We are delighted that Bevica is sponsoring the competition this year, because we understand that wine companies’ business models and processes are evolving at unprecedented speed. And our Cloud-based Bevica platform can support
these businesses to really help them evolve. We wish all of the entrants good luck in this year’s competition.”