There’s nothing like knocking back an Espresso Martini at 10am on a Wednesday… It’s just one of the perks (or challenges), of judging spirits at the Guild of Fine Food’s Great Taste Awards. I always find it a fun and enlightening experience and a great way to meet drinks specialists from every aspect of the industry.
Here’s a brief summary of my observations from the sessions I covered this year.
Gin doesn’t seem to be going anywhere – it was as ubiquitous as it was uninspiring. We sampled everything from classic London Dry, Bath Tub and Navy Strength to Old Tom, Contemporary and Flavoured gins, featuring an array of ever-more exotic, (yet sometimes undetectable) botanicals. Most were distinctly “meh”, many were overwhelmed by a touch of tonic; or dominated by a cheap base spirit. The world definitely doesn’t need more gin if these are anything to go by… In contrast, the (too few) exceptions sparkled; building layer upon layer of flavour and exciting the palate with beautifully balanced intensity. Fewer but better please. Don’t bother launching yet another gin unless it’s fabulous!
There were noticeably more canned and bottled RTD cocktails this year. Sad to say, the majority were dire. The three common mistakes included overly sweet and synthetic flavours; a distinct lack of balance – many needed acidity or a boost of alcohol to bring the components together; and finally, not doing what it says on the tin. Call me old fashioned, but I like my Old Fashioned to taste like one! We sampled a handful of knock-out cocktails that I’d be very happy to be served in a bar, but these were in the minority. Definite room for improvement as a category.
Hmmm, the paradox of the hard seltzer? They don’t taste of much… But that’s kind of the point… But then we’re meant to judge them on taste… And yet they don’t taste of much… It’s fair to say that most of the samples I tried were definitely geared towards the health-conscious, rather than the taste-conscious consumer. That said, the cream does rise to the top and there were a few very good, fresh, flavourful examples against a backdrop of nothingness. Weak effort overall.
A small point, but worth stating nonetheless: product descriptors are important. Without anything else to go on, they set expectations for the judges. It's surprising how many producers throw in a bit of marketing fluff, add a couple of superlatives and wax lyrical about production. My advice for future entrants is to choose words wisely; include simple, helpful tasting notes and manage expectations. This is particularly important if your product is unusual, divisive or pushing boundaries in some way. Production process is interesting, but if it doesn't provide clues about taste, then it won't necessarily help your cause. Take Traditional Korean Wine as an example. I may be doing my fellow judges a disservice, but I suspect that nobody in the tasting room would choose this as their specialist subject. Setting taste expectations provides clarity where there may be confusion.
Not wanting to be a Debbie Downer about everything, I’d like to shout-out the producers (who are of course anonymous), who opt to make something a bit different. One of the most fantastic things about Great Taste judging is the sheer diversity of what’s on offer. Some of my highlights were products I’d never normally consider: a smooth and nuanced aquavit; a moreish, mouth-watering hazelnut spirit; and a heady, Christmassy rum liqueur. These small-batch, artisan and niche spirits represent independent producers at their best. I can’t wait to find out who they are and how they’ve done once all the numbers are crunched. Results are out in August, and with two soundings of the victory bell during my stints, I know there are some outstanding 3-star spirits to look forward to!
Here are some of my drinks highlights from the Great Taste Awards 2022:
Lumber's Bartholomew Navy Royal (3 Stars) - Of course this is BIG, but it's also incredibly well balanced. Despite a whopping 58% ABV, the alcohol is beautifully integrated and acts as a deft carrier for all the intense botanicals. (Some of the lower strength gins we tried had much more aggressive alcohol than this!) It's complex and aromatic with notes of juniper, citrus, white pepper and cardamom. The flavours evolve across the palate with a very long bright and smooth finish. We all absolutely loved it.
Orkney Akvavit (3 Stars) - Clearly, this is pretty niche but it's stunning. The layering of fennel, aniseed and caraway alongside subtle sweetness and a creamy texture is very clever. It's incredibly smooth and surprisingly refreshing.
TORS Vodka (2 Stars) - If you think vodka is nothingness with a burn of alcohol, think again. Craft vodka is something VERY different and this delicious example is made with British winter wheat and Dartmoor spring water. It's super smooth with a soft texture and subtle savoury husk and porridge notes. Full of character and with a lovely long finish.
Lakeland Spiced Fruit Rum Liqueur (2 Stars) - Christmas in a glass! It can be served neat over ice or with warm water and a garnish of apple. Either way, it's full of comforting sweet spice and festive fruit flavours. Perfect as a winter-warming treat.
Tom Savano Dangerous Diablo Spicy Mezcal Margarita (3 Stars) - 'Salud' to this ready to drink cocktail! This mezcal-based Tommy's margarita, with a kick of Scotch Bonnet, cleverly balances sweet and sour. The spice is very present, but not overpowering. A bar-quality cocktail in a bottle and we all loved it.
Mindful Mixology Lychee Martini (3 Stars) - Delightfully exotic, this gorgeous RTD is fresh and vibrant with notes of Turkish Delight. Just lovely! Even better, the producers have a 'mindful' approach to all that they do, from cutting back on sugar to sourcing locally and donating a percentage of sales to charity.