Asian Whisky Masters 2018: the results in full

The inaugural Asian Whisky and Scotch Masters, held on 9 October, 2018 in Hong Kong generated a palpable buzz at The Flying Winemaker’s tasting room. The results affirmed that whisky’s Scottish heartland and established producers in the US are churning out diverse and solid expressions, while emerging producers from Australia and Canada are quickly catching up. 

Judges from left to right: Kelvin Ng, regional manager at Halewood Wines & Spirits; James Leung, business director at IWSC China; Masahiko Endo, head bartender at Mizunara The Library cocktail bar and retailer; Andrew Dembina, a drinks reporter for various publications and RTHK Radio 3; Victoria Chow, founder and managing director of The Woods cocktail bar; Kelvin Tam, marketing director at The Single Malt Club China, judge and co-chair of this Masters; Kamal Daswani , whisky ambassaror, retailer Dram Good Stuff; Chuck Low, assistant brand manager, Diageo Reserve, MHD Hong Kong; Alexander Ko, Independent Beverage Consultant/Mixologist with the Cathay Pacific IWSC; Graham Kwok, assistant brand marketing manager and educator at drink retailer Watson’s Wine

Judged by a panel consisting of 10 judges including Hong Kong’s top bartenders, spirits buyers, whisky judges and spirits ambassadors, the competition saw a total of 26 Silver, 10 Gold medals awarded and one Master, the highest accolade of the competition.

As the group agreed that quality and rare whiskies are still very much in demand in Hong Kong, mainland China and across Asia, even when the region’s spirits are crowded with new additions from gin, vodka and other categories of distilled spirits. 

Demand for Scotch whisky, for instance, continues to grow in Asia, especially thanks to a continued revival in demand coming from China. The value of exports of Scotch whisky rose 9% to £4.36bn in 2017, the strongest growth in six years, fuelled by a weak pound and demand from China and Russia. Exports to Singapore, from where a large proportion of whisky is re-exported to China and Southeast Asia, soared 29% to £291 million last year.

This makes Asia, one of the most lucrative markets for whisky, be it Scotch or whiskies produced elsewhere.

Whisky 

The Scottish spirit has travelled far from its home and landed in Japan, the US, Canada or virtually anywhere with a pot still and grains.

In the US, whiskey has broadened in both categories and styles with Bourbon and other types of expressions. It’s no wonder that in this competition that Bernheim Straight Wheat Whiskey impressed the judges and earned a Gold. Kelvin Tam, marketing director at The Single Malt Club China and co-chair of this Masters event, said: “I love the intensity of the aromas.”

A premium Bourbon, Evan Williams Single Barrel Vintage Kentucky, was equally impressive, leading Tam to praise it as “subtle, balanced, mellow and has a good nose. It would be a good ingredient in a cocktail.” 

Moving north to Canada, premium whiskies fared well in the competition as well, with four Silvers, while the Wayne Gretzky No.99 Ice Cask Premium Crafted Whisky gained a Gold. Kelvin Ng, regional manager at Halewood Wines & Spirits, liked its balance and deep amber pallor: “The general perception is: a deeper colour is often more preferred in Asia,” he said. Shelter Point Artisanal Cask Strength single malt also won a Silver medal. 

The judges

Kelvin Ng, regional manager at Halewood Wines & Spirits
James Leung, business director at IWSC China
Masahiko Endo, head bartender at Mizunara The Library cocktail bar and retailer
Andrew Dembina, a drinks reporter for various publications and RTHK Radio 3 (chair)
Victoria Chow, founder and Managing Director of The Woods cocktail bar
Kelvin Tam, marketing director at The Single Malt Club China, spirits judge (co-chair)
Kamal Daswani, whisky ambassaror, retailer Dram Good Stuff
Chuck Low, assistant brand manager, Diageo Reserve, MHD Hong Kong
Alexander Ko, Independent Spirits Judge, Beverage Consultant and Mixologist

Graham Kwok, assistant brand marketing manager and educator at drink retailer Watson’s Wine

James Leung, business director at IWSC China, noted hints of gunpowder in its finish would make it work well in an Old Fashioned. Its subtle layering of honey and spice as a neat whiskey is also impressive. 

Australia’s whiskey-making prowess was represented by Archie Rose Rye Malt Whisky. Commenting on the whiskey, Victoria Chow, founder of cocktail bar The Woods, said: “I enjoyed a lot of the notes on the nose; nice honey and spice.”

In the Australian single malt category, it was Sullivans Cove French Oak Single Cask that won over the judges with a Gold. Alexander Ko, independent spirits consultant and founder of the blog Drinksdown, said: “Lots of berries and apple on the nose, some spice when I added water – I enjoyed this one.”

Chow from The Woods, added: “I really enjoyed it, and would definitely drink it straight.” Kamal Daswani of retailer Dram Good Stuff was another fan, commenting on its, “great balance and finish”. In the same category, Ko was very keen on Silver medal-winning Sullivans Cove Double Cask, which was one of his highest scores of the day. “This is a very inviting malt, with marmalade on the nose; its finish isn’t long but it’s rich, soft and sweet,” he said. Chow enjoyed its floral and “grapey” quality, suspecting it may have been matured in wine casks. Daswani liked its “nuttiness and freshness”.

This year’s competition also saw a few entries of poitín (poteen), a traditional Irish distilled white spirit, but it was Ballykeefe Irish Poitín that grabbed judges’ attention. Both Masahiko Endo, head bartender at Mizunara The Library cocktail bar and retailer, Kelvin Ng as well as James Leung, noted its sweet nose, tropical fruit, bell pepper and pepper on the palate, citing this Silver medal winner a potential within cocktails.

Scotch whisky

In the Single Malt Highland and Islands Premium category, Alexander Ko warmed to the spice and “green influence on the nose” of gold-medal Tullibardine Sauternes Cask Finish. Tam liked its fruity, dried-prune nose. Chuck Low, assistant brand manager, Diageo Reserve, MHD Hong Kong, preferred silver-awarded Tullibardine Sherry Cask Finish, noting its sweet rich sherry-oak influence and, “well-balanced strong character”.

All pours in the Blended Premium flight scored Silver. Graham Kwok, assistant brand marketing manager and educator at Watson’s Wine, particularly liked Dewar’s 12 Year Old – The Ancestor. “Its green apple notes are fresh on nose, and it’s more fruity after adding water – typical of a good blended whisky; and I like the subtle smoke,” he said. Ng was keenest on Highland Queen 1561 – 30 year old, which he found most complex in this flight.

Dewar’s 25 Year Old – The Signature, in Blended Super Premium, got all the tasters’ interests up, and a Gold medal to boot. The judges noted its easy-going palate yet slow unravelling complexity, while Endo found it Sherry-like. The dram also won over judge Ng who liked its oakiness and good nose, and Leung found a vegetal, celery-like note pleasing. John Dewar’s White Label also went home with a Silver medal. 

Gold-winning single malt whisky, The Arran Single Malt Aged 18 years, had Daswani enthuse: “It reminded me of the vanilla you get in cookies and creams – sweetness of banana.” Tam also enjoyed its “good nose, of ripe fruits, and deep flavours, with a long finish.” Both he and Low, commented on its overall enjoyable balance.

The Arran Single Malt The Bothy Quarter Cask was praised as a good “day to day whisky” by Low, who was also a fan of its sweet nose. At a cask strength of 53.2 % ABV, most agreed it benefits from a good splash of water. From the same region but under Malt Highland & Islands Cask Strength, Machrie Moor Peated Arran Malt claimed a Gold. “Sweet, ripe pair and spice and smoke at the end; even though it’s cask strength, the alcohol didn’t really present itself as much as one would expect,” Ko said. Daswani raved about it – after water was added. “A delicate nose, hint of peatiness and citrus flavours on the palate,” commented Tam.

Towards the end of the blind tastings, the panel with co-chair Tam awarded the competition’s top accolade Master to John Crabbie 30 Year Old, in the Single Malt Speyside Aged between 19-30 years category.

Commenting on the spirit, Ko said, “the palate was incredible – so much complexity; with water it was even softer.” Chow felt similarly, “It had a little bit of everything – so much depth and flavour.” Both said their nose was lower than their palate scores.” Complexity is key with this whisky that seemed “big on rich layers of flavour,” said Tam, “this was one of the stars from today’s flights”. Low said he was keen on its whole balance and sherry-cask overtones.

Having tried flights of whiskies from a good cross-section of the globe, the panel were lifted by a few surprises and several mentioned they were glad this event is now in full swing in Asia as well as others in the the drinks business and the spirits business Masters series.

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