The Best Of Awards 2020 winners for spirits have been announced. Get to know some of the industry leaders who joined this year’s judging panel, and read the stories behind innovative local and international spirits crafted by passionate distillers.
When it came time to judge the gin and other spirits categories, Behn brought a wealth of experience to the process. They do plenty of comparative tasting at Four Pillars, but during judging he was clearly noticed the Aussie gins were “light years” ahead of many of the internationals. “Embracing and exploring the endemic botanicals that are uniquely Australian is something that has consistently piqued my interest over the past five years, and it seems as if we are only just at the tip of the iceberg. As you read through the winners below, you’ll notice the degree of innovation happening in the industry right now. Behn credits that to a rapid increase in readily available, quality, exciting gin.
Best Of Australian Gin: Applewood Australian Gin
In 2012, winemakers Brendan and Laura Carter set up the Applewood Distillery at their Gumeracha winery in the Adelaide Hills. The pair are inspired by the history and culture of Australia’s landscape and have a purist, natural approach.
They believe terroir is not just about the elements, it is also about the people: the community of growers and winemakers that surrounds the grapes. Up to 25 native botanicals – including desert lime, wattle seed and peppermint gum leaf – used in Applewood Australian Gin are steeped in high-grade grape spirit, the floral qualities of which balance the astringency of the botanicals. The grapes are often sourced from growers who cannot sell them elsewhere.
Of course, our panel was tasting blind and therefore unswayed by the magic of the story behind the best gin; they judged purely on the end result, a gin they praised for its intense eucalypt palate, its uniquely Australian presence and its impressive finish of locally grown juniper.
Best Of International Gin:Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin
In deepest rural County Leitrim, set among rolling hills, woodlands and lakes, is the home of The Shed Distillery. Distiller PJ Rigny furnished The Shed with medieval copper pot stills and began a quest to fuse oriental botanicals with local Irish ones. The result of this passionate exploration is Drumshanbo Gunpowder Irish Gin, which takes its name from one of the signature botanicals, slowly dried Gunpowder tea. Our tasting panel was wowed by the combination of lime, lemon and grapefruit with this slowly dried green tea making it one of the best spirits of the year. The flavour is bold and bright with a slight spicy freshness. After the initial intense aromas of black pepper, lemon peel and juniper, hints of orris root and cinnamon, liquorice root and cardamom follow. It’s a flavourful, spicy style of gin.
Best Of Flavoured Gin: Verano Spanish Watermelon Gin
Verano is a colourful, premium gin inspired by the relaxed style and vibrancy of Spain but distilled in Scotland, where the gin scene is truly buzzing. The handcrafted, small-batch Verano Spanish Watermelon Gin is infused with a handmade distillate of Spanish watermelon to create a delicate flavour. Our panel was impressed by the clean, fresh taste, with the sweetness of the watermelon balanced perfectly to make a refreshing, fruity gin.
Best Of Vodka: Belvedere Vodka
Belvedere Vodka is named after Belweder, the Polish presidential palace in Warsaw you see illustrated on the bottle. Made from Polish rye and quadruple distilled for ultimate purity, Belvedere stakes a claim as the world’s first super premium Polska wódka. In the blind tasting, our panel made mention of the vodka’s aromas of vanilla, rye and white pepper; its distinctive creamy mouth feel; and the crisp and clean finish with lingering white pepper spice.
Best Of Tequila: Espolòn Tequila Reposado
Each Espolòn label captures a moment from Mexico’s rich history via the artwork of 19th-century rebel artist José Guadalupe Posada. According to our judges, the contents of the bottle are every bit as iconic. Espolòn Tequila Reposado has a bold, round palate with a rich roasted agave flavour, plus sweet tropical fruit, vanilla and brown spices. It begs to be mixed into cocktails that deserve a generous dose of tequila character.
Best Of Aperitif: Økar Bitter Amaro
The Italians invented amaro with dining in mind. It’s refreshing and light, and great to drink over ice or in a spritz with soda or tonic. Amaro leaves your palate dry making it one of the best spirits to have before a meal. Økar Bitter Amaro is hand-crafted in small batches in the pristine Adelaide Hills using botanicals native to the coastal rainforests of Australia, including rare native riberry, Davidson plum and aromatic strawberry gum leaf.
Best Of Liqueur:Applewood Limoncello
Have you ever seen an ugly lemon? The ones that supermarkets reject for being too big, too small or too misshapen? These are the lemons that are hand-peeled and used to make Applewood Limoncello. Our judges appreciated the cool, refreshing lemon flavour spliced with a touch of sweetness that comes from two different types of fruit from South Australia’s oldest citrus plantation in the Adelaide Hills. Applewood is a delicious drop, made to be drunk after dinner.
Best Of Coffee Liqueur:Antipodes Certified Organic Espresso Liqueur
From Australia’s first certified organic and carbon-neutral distillery comes this delicious coffee liqueur. Refined with pure Australian rainwater, Antipodes Espresso Liqueur is a harmonious combination of triple-distilled, charcoal-filtered spirit with sustainable coffee beans. Our panellists were impressed by the neat version, but it can also be enjoyed over ice or in an espresso martini.
Best Of Premixed Drink: Koyomi Highball Blood Orange and Bitters
Shochu is Japan’s most popular liquor. A clear white spirit that is traditionally served neat on the rocks, it’s fast gaining favour as one of the best spirits for cocktails. The bold yet balanced Koyomi Highball Blood Orange and Bitters is a perfectly blended mix of shochu and soda with the rich citrus taste of blood orange and a gentle hint of bitters. Our judges recommend it as a lovely refresher simply poured over ice.
Best Of Bottled Cocktail: The Everleigh Bottling Co. Old Fashioned
Inheriting its name and recipe from Melbourne’s internationally renowned cocktail bar, The Everleigh Bottling Co.’s classic cocktails capture the old-world elegance of mixology in a single-serve bottle. What stood out to our judges was the sheer ‘old fashioned-ness’ of the Everleigh Bottling Co. Old Fashioned: simply and purely Bourbon, bitters and sugar, served ice cold in a rocks glass and garnished with an orange twist.
Sam joined a group of fellow industry experts for a blind tasting and plenty of passionate discussion before awarding our winners – more on them below! The sheer breadth of flavour profiles – from heavily peated, intense, Islay single malt whiskies; to soft, fruity, blended whiskies – was a highlight and also presented a real challenge for the judges: how do you name a winner when the field is so diverse? With such a high standard across the board, Sam says it’s a good time to be a whisky drinker right now. “Distilleries are working hard to make sure they are providing high quality and exciting whiskies for consumers, and Scottish distilleries in particular are starting to innovate more and push the boundaries on what is and isn’t scotch.”
Best Of Scotch Whisky: Ardbeg 10YO Single Malt Scotch Whisky
The Ardbeg Distillery has been producing whisky since 1815 on the Inner Hebrides island of Islay. The island was home to Scotland’s first female distillers, Margaret and Flora MacDougall, the nieces of Ardbeg’s original founder, John MacDougall. The distillery has survived a rollercoaster of fortune in the last two centuries: by 1887 it was producing in excess of a million bottles a year, but doors closed a century later when production dwindled to near nothing. In a remarkable turnaround, business resumed in 1985, and today output is back up to that of the late 19th Century, leading to Ardbeg winning Distillery of the Year at the International Whisky Competition in 2018.
Our judges could taste the story in Ardbeg’s 10 Year Old Single Malt, and admired its extra peaty, extra smoky and complex style. With an intense bouquet and savoury, salty finish, this typical Islay single malt does not flaunt the peat; rather, it gives way to the natural sweetness of the malt to produce a whisky of perfect balance. We thank the team at Ardbeg for their consistent drive and passion for producing the best whisky possible.
Best Of Japanese Whisky: Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt Japanese Whisky
Made from a blend of malts from Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries, this pure malt whisky was named after Masataka Taketsuru, founder of Nikka and the father of Japanese whisky. On the palate, you’ll find coffee and chocolate with a slight hint of smoke to create a complex flavour structure and one of the best whiskies we’ve sampled this year. To achieve this level of balance and complexity, Nikka’s team of blenders combines the fresh and fruity notes of youthful whiskies with the rich, evolved character of older ones. The result is a complex blend of 100 per cent malt whiskies that demonstrates the refined blending art inherited from Masataka Taketsuru and makes Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt Japanese Whisky a winner in our judges’ eyes.
Best Of Australian Whisky:Starward Nova Single Malt Whisky
Whiskies have used wine barrels as a starter or a finisher for centuries, but Starward takes things further with Nova’s full maturation, using wine barrels soaked in the bold, full-bodied flavours of shiraz. Starward Nova Single Malt Whisky has bright aromatic notes of red berries, orchard fruits, vanilla, caramel and soft oak spice that our judges remarked upon and enjoyed. This whisky is smooth and complex when sipped neat but also shines in classic cocktails such as an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan (also known as a Rob Roy when made with Scotch instead of Bourbon).
Best Of Irish Whiskey: The Pogues Irish Whiskey
What might you expect when a Celtic punk band joins forces with one of Ireland’s most innovative independent distilleries? A deliciously smooth taste that’s bold and brave, that’s what. Crafted in small batches using Irish barley and spring water, The Pogues Irish Whiskey gives off waves of toffee to herald a palate that is creamy with a touch of dark chocolate. The bells were ringing out for this one at our tasting.
This drop is triple distilled and made from 100 per cent malted barley. It is matured in Bourbon-seasoned barrels, which provide a honey, vanilla and milk chocolate aroma.
Best Of Bourbon:Michter’s US 1 Bourbon
Founded by John Shenk in Pennsylvania in 1753, Michter’s was America’s first whiskey business and has always strived to make the best spirits possible using high quality ingredients. Michter’s US*1 Kentucky Straight Bourbon is made from a carefully selected mashbill featuring the premium quality American corn and matured to the peak of perfection. Our tasters enjoyed the rich caramel with balanced vanilla, stone fruit notes and smoky depth in this nuanced, mellow and earthy bourbon.
Best Of Rum: Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva
The history of Diplomático began in Venezuela in 1959, when its distillery first opened for business. Today, Reserva Exclusiva holds the Ron de Venezuela DOC and is recognised as one of the finest rums in the world. Being one of the best rums, the sweet, toffee fudge flavours and seductive finish made Diplomático Reserva Exclusiva the go-to for our panel, and for connoisseurs across the globe.