The World Vodka Masters 2019 – Asia: results

Vodka, once the all-powerful spirit suffered tepid demand in recent years following an overload of mass market flavoured concoctions and gimmicky brands. Piqued by interest for other white spirits such as craft gin and terroir-specific Tequila, however, well-crafted and premium vodkas are gaining a new lease of life among discerning drinkers. Results from our World Vodka Masters – Asia this year affirmed that bottles that celebrate vodka’s simplicity, purity and neutrality are indeed to be rewarded.

From left to right: Lizzy Huang, Fergus Moore, Tunny Grattidge of Northeast Wines & Spirits; Cherry Lam of Moet Hennessy Diageo Hong Kong; John Rhodes of Jon Dory Ltd; David Walters of Fine + Rare; and Davan Bryne

About a decade ago, vodka, the king of all white spirits, was ruling the cocktail scene, where its neutrality served as a canvas for mixologists’ creativity. In recent years, dismissed by critics as banal and one-dimensional, vodka seems to have retreated into the background. The white spirit’s ascendancy was then further sabotaged by mass marketed flavoured vodkas and gaudy packaging that helped with volume but lost it consumers who – as they matured – looked increasingly for sophisticated and well-crafted spirits.

Its waning appeal in comparison to gin and Tequila was felt among mixologists and bar owners in Asia as well. “Vodka lime sodas and vodka shots were very much in vogue about a decade back. While those are still mainstays on the nightclub circuit, with the rise of artisanal cocktail bars, consumers have moved towards gins and whiskies as their standard drink orders,” commented Victoria Chow, owner of Hong Kong’s cocktail bar The Woods and one of the judges for the competition.

Changing consumer preference 

If consumer preference is partly responsible for a shift from vodka, marketing gimmicks tied with the spirit did not help with vodka’s image either, thinks John Rhodes, owner of Jon Dory Limited, a Hong Kong-based spirits company, .

“The marketeers came up with gimmicks to sell essentially a grain alcohol but with flavours added or in a gimmicky bottle; that was all great for mass consumption but in terms of long-term image it wasn’t a good thing… That generation which jumped into the flavoured vodkas have moved on and the new generation of consumers want something a bit more honest and sophisticated,” he explained.

Continuing, he said: “The consumer is getting far more educated these days which in turn creates interest which in turn creates demand … for the right product.”

Indeed, the results from our inaugural World Vodka Masters – Asia confirm that bottles that are well crafted, balanced and faithful to their base products without stripping their flavours are what set the best vodkas apart.

Balance 

They key for a great vodka, be it distilled from potatoes, wheat, carrots or even grapes, as the judges agree, should have balance and flavour whether used as a mixer or drunk neat.

“Vodka really defines purity and simplicity when speaking in terms of spirits. It is the most neutral (it has always intended to be) and showcases the subtleties of the base ingredient. While Tequila is similar in the sense that it is an expression of its base material, gin is more of an expression of the distiller – who chooses the mix of botanicals to showcase,” Chow explained.

More importantly, as the judges observed the ones that truly stand out all have distinctive characteristics to tell where they are from and what they are made of, “a story” as they put it.

One such example was the Master-winning vodka, Masons Yorkshire, from the UK carrying a price tag of HK$360 in the Ultra-Premium Category. Finished at an alcohol strength of 42% abv, the spirit impressed all judges with its intensity of flavour, length of finish and its creamy mouthfeel. Praising the spirit, David Walters, head of Spirits Buying at Fine + Rare, said: “The mouthfeel was medium bodied and creamy. There was weight. Then there was balance, particularly the alcohol which was not marked and did not leave a burn. The finish was long and there was spice and a nutty character.”

Chow agreed, adding it goes down “supremely smoothly”. Another high performer was London-based distillery Bloomsbury’s peated vodka in the Smooth category. Distilled from peated barley, the spirit won a gold for its complexity with an extra layer of smokiness.

Another vodka that got the judges raving was an artisanal vodka distilled by New Zealand’s Spiritual Vodka in the Rest of the World category. Humming with energy and life, the vodka can peel back and reveal itself in subtle and complex layers of flavours, earning itself a Master.

Lauding the spirit, Rhodes enthused: “It had a story to tell. By that I mean when nosing the vodka, the flavours you get are different from when it is on the palate as well as producing long finish. The difference between nose and palate is what I am look for in any sipping alcohol and is one of the reasons why whisky, single malts in particular have made good rounds…that is what I mean by a drink having a story. A leaner flavour that goes from nose to palate is not that interesting unless the flavour is something special and the palate enhances what was on the nose.”

Eastern Europe

The stronghold of vodka undoubtedly is still in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia and those parts of the world were well represented in our competition by Sweden, Russia, Finland and Latvia.

Another top vodka from our tasting is Purity Vodka’s ‘Super 17 Premium’ made in Sweden, a wheat-based organic vodka. Impressing the judges with its complexity and balanced mouthfeel, the spirit went on to win a Master across a few categories such as Organic, Micro-distillery and Ultra-Premium. The boutique distillery’s Super 34 Premium was also awarded a gold.

In the Premium category, Finland’s Koskenkorva Vodka Original distilled from locally sourced barley took home a gold, while in the Standard category it was Latvia’s Moskovkaya Vodaka by Amber Beverage Group that emerged as a favourite among the judges for its clean nose and balanced palate.

Moving east to Russia, a country that has been inextricably linked to vodka, the excellence of its vodka production was well represented in this competition by Tovaritch! Premium Vodka, winning a gold in the Organic, Smooth, Premium and Rye categories.

Of course, nothing excites the judges more than discovering hidden gems from lesser-known regions when their identities are revealed. Malaysia in Southeast Asia took home a gold medal in the Standard category with the Kharaso Vodka Original, a vodka triple distilled from sugarcane. 14 INKAS by Destilería Espíritu Andino and supported by the Innóvate Peru Program of the Ministry of Production emerged from the competition as a pleasant surprise, winning a gold. Bold Vodka from Canada also took home a gold in the Corn category. It is also one of the best value spirits from the tasting, selling at only HK$140 a bottle.

Overall, the judges in the panel agreed that most of the samples shown in the competition are varied and good representations of different styles and expressions.

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