Gentleman’s Journal Drinks Awards 2021: The experts reveal the winners

We invited four expert judges to The Surprise in Chelsea to taste and test the best drinks available to buy in 2021…

Once more unto the booze, dear friends. And, this year, we’re doing things a little differently. We’ve gone bigger, bolder and better than ever with our Drinks Awards; creating sixteen sparkling, spirited categories — and giving more than fifty brands the chance to vie for a number-one spot.

We even brought in a band of London’s most respected, knowledgable drinks experts to judge the shortlisted wines, spirits and mixers. There’s Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka Mr Lyan; one of the most exciting, trail-blazing mixologists working today. He’s a maverick of the industry, a Masterclass tutor — and the man who founded Dandelyan, once voted the world’s best bar.

From left: Elon Soddu, Racheal Vaughan Jones, Ryan Chetiyawardana, Tony Pescatori

Additionally, we called upon the eclectic, energetic talents of Tony Pescatori; bar manager and ‘drinks designer’ at London’s acclaimed subterranean speakeasy, Nightjar. Elon Soddu also joined us; a mainstay of the capital’s hospitality scene, former head mixologist at The Savoy and former head bartender at The Beaufort Bar. And, to round out our quartet of quaffers, we asked Racheal Vaughan Jones, host of successful drinks startup podcast Building Liquid, to bring her insight and expertise to the table.

And what a table it was. Stacked deep and piled high with bottles from every corner of the drinks industry, the Gentleman’s Journal team shortlisted three drinks for each category — and arranged them by type in the decadent Hamilton Room at The Surprise, in Chelsea. As everyone’s favourite neighbourhood pub, we could think of no better venue for our most intoxicating event of 2021 so far.

So how did our experts come to their conclusions? To determine a winner in each category, we asked the judges to rate each drink on three different criteria; ‘appearance’, ‘aroma’ and ‘taste’. Each of these criteria was further split on the scorecards — with judgement passed on ‘clarity’, ‘colour’, ‘intensity’, ‘nose’, complexity’ and ‘finish, and scores being given out of ten for each.

It’s not a hugely scientific system; more instinctive — but that’s how drinking should be. Because who has time to talk through specific alcohol levels and distillation technique when there are cocktails to be made and glasses to be raised? So pour yourself a drink and kick back; here are the wines, mixers and spirits you should be sipping this year…

Best Brut Champagne

First up, in suitably celebratory style, came the brut Champagnes. Effervescent and elegant, it was a fine category to kick off proceedings, with a clear winner and an honourable English-made mention.

1st place: Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve NV (£40) — A classic, and a long-time favourite of Gentleman’s Journal, the judges appreciated the appearance of the Billecart Salmon, as well as its ‘mature, harmonious taste’.

2nd place: Louis Roederer Collection 242 (£46.95) — The latest release from the famed French house, Collection 242 replaces the brand’s long-standing Brut Premier NV. ‘Delicate bubbles’ and ‘a long, mineral finish’ saw this one clinch second place.

3rd place: Champagne Lanson Le Black Label Brut (£26) — A better-value bottle, Lanson’s Black Label still made our top three. Among the compliments paid; ‘a vibrant nose’, ‘good colour’ and ‘persistent bubbles’.

Honourable mention: Nyetimber Cuvée Multi-Vintage (£37) — It may not officially be ‘Champagne’, but Nyetimber’s Sussex-crafted wine, with notes of almond and apple, drew level with Louis Roederer on points.

Best Rosé Wine

The pink drinks came next, bringing summer to The Surprise. Bursting with flavour, colour and character, these bottles offered a neat segue from sparkling Champagne to the still wines — and fresh notes of flowers and fruit.

1st place: Rumor Rosé (£29.85) — Our far-and-away winner in the rosé category, the Rumor scored particularly highly on colour and complexity, with comments including ‘delicately fruity’ and ‘well-rounded yet crisp’.

2nd place: Minuty Prestige Rosé (£17.99) — In second place is this exceedingly affordable bottle from Château Minuty. Its freshness was widely observed, along with a scorecard-topping appreciation for its ‘intense’ aroma.

3rd place: AIX Rosé (£14)— Rounding out our rosé trio, AIX takes third place. With strong scores in appearance and aroma, the finish let this one down, despite its ‘moreish flowery, fruity flavours’.

Best Own-label White Wine

Own-label wines are a mixed bag. Some are shameless exercises in branding; others are hidden gems. These three are the latter — fresh, bright whites from some of London’s most knowledge epicurean institutions.

1st place: Corney & Barrow White Burgundy Maison Auvigue 2018 (£14.50) — The winner of this closely-contested category is a regal wine with apple aromas from Corney & Barrow; ‘Gentle, refreshing and very dry’.

2nd place: Fortnum & Mason South Island Sauvignon Blanc (£13.50) — The exotically-named ‘South Island Sauvignon Blanc’ sneaks into second, thanks to predominantly tropical notes of kiwi, lemon and lime.

3rd place: Berry Bros. & Rudd White Burgundy by Collovray & Terrier (£8.50 for a half-bottle) — In third place, this ‘floral flavoured’ wine with a ‘slightly smoky finish’ from Berry Bros. & Rudd. Expect oak, toasted hazelnuts and a mineral finish.

Best Own-Label Red Wine

Intense and opulent, red wines are the height of hedonism. And we shortlisted a trio of the finest for our judges to taste and score — made with grapes including Sicily’s nero d’Avola grapes and North-West Italy’s Nebbiolo variety.

1st place: Berry Bros. & Rudd Good Ordinary Claret (£11.95) — How the tables turn. After coming third in the whites, Berry Bros. takes the win with its triumphantly rich, delicious Good Ordinary Claret; ‘A classic for a reason’.

2nd place: Justerini & Brooks 2016 Barolo (£23) — By just one point (out of a possible 240), this 2016 Barolo takes second place. Its intensity of colour made the difference here; described as ‘sumptuously red’ and ‘deep and inviting’ by the judges.

3rd place: The Wine Society The Society’s Sicilian Reserve 2017 (£8.50) — Coming in third, but best in value, this smooth, fragrant red rounds out our top three, with the judges deeming it ‘rich and tempting on the nose’.

Best 12-Year-Old Scotch and Irish Whisky

And so we come to the grand and golden whisky categories. Split into four sections, we’ve poured Scotch and Irish whisky together and divided the drams into age expressions. First up, the upstarts and entry level bottles in the 12-Year-Old category.

1st place: Glenmorangie 12-Year ‘The Accord’ (£66.95) — Coming out on top here is Glenmorangie’s ‘The Accord’; a whisky created exclusively for travellers. Aged in oloroso sherry casks, it ‘brings together sweet spices and smooth woody notes’.

2nd place: Glenlivet 12 Year Old Illicit Still Limited Edition (£44.85) — Beautifully bottled, second place in the 12-Year-Old category goes to Glenlivet. The ‘Illicit Still’ isn’t chill-filtered, and offers ‘an intense, almost-tropical taste’.

3rd place: Tullamore Dew 12 Year Old Special Reserve (£50) — The Irish place third in this category. But that’s still a podium finish. This sweet, smooth blend scored highly on the ‘complex nose’, but was let down by a ‘middling finish’.

15-Year-Old Scotch and Irish Whisky

Three years on, and we arrive at the 15-Year-Old bottles. With a wholly Scottish shortlist, it was a battle between three Speyside Scotches; with under ten points separating the top three.

1st place: The Balvenie Single Barrel 15 (£125) — Emerging victorious, this sherry cask whisky is a surprisingly subtle winner. It won over our judges thanks to its ‘versatility’, ‘understated spice’ and ‘gently nutty nose’.

2nd place: The Macallan Double Cask 15 Years Old (£100) — In second, an oaky treat. Macallan’s ‘Double Cask’ uses both sherry-seasoned American oak and spiced European oak to create a ‘particularly warming’ spirit.

3rd place: Glenfiddich 15-Year-Old Solera 15 (£44.95) — At under half the price of its stablemates, this Glenfiddich stood up handsomely. Slightly smoky, but filled with fruity flavour, it’s ‘always a reliable bottle to have on the shelf’.

18-Year-Old Scotch and Irish Whisky

And so to the 18-Year-Old expressions. With only two bottles shortlisted, this was a straight-up duel between Scotland and Ireland. (Ireland may not have taken the top spot, but the Teeling Renaissance bottle was voted one of the day’s most eye-catching).

1st place: Aberlour 18-Year-Old Speyside Single Malt (£95) — Well-matured, exceedingly rich and with a nose creamier than the clotted stuff, this heavily-sherried Scotch was dubbed ‘the perfect Christmas whisky’.

2nd place: Teeling Renaissance Series 3 (£122) — With its imposing looks, this Teeling makes for the ideal statement bar bottle. The spirit inside is also delightful, offering ripe orchard fruit, juicy berries and vanilla. ‘A close second’.

Best American Whiskey

Nothing split the room quite like the American Whiskey category. A combination of special editions and range-topping regulars, these oaky, sweet spirits saw the highest disparity in scores for the entire day — and another close contest.

1st place: Maker’s Mark Wood Finishing Series 2021 (£149.95) — It’s an expensive bottle; but our judges deemed it worth every penny (or should that be cent?). It was called ‘rich and woody’, ‘tobacco-tinged’ and ‘a whisky with a lovely sweet finish’.

2nd place: Sazerac Rye Kentucky Straight Rye (£36.75) — By Buffalo Trace, this versatile, ‘cocktail-ready’, New Orleans-inspired spirit not only topped the category for two of our judges — it also came close to winning ‘best-looking bottle’.

3rd place: Bulleit 10 Year Old (£39.95) — Like the Sazerac Rye above, Bulleit’s 10-Year-Old was praised for its versatility. With creamy spices, dried fruits and lots of toasty flavours, it ‘would make n excellent Old Fashioned’.

Best Rum

In something of an upset, the most expensive bottle of rum (by a considerable margin) didn’t swing the gold in this category. Instead, a newfound British brand — unknown to many of the judges themselves — took the title.

1st place: Tidal Rum (£35) — Perhaps the bottle of the day (certainly the surprise of the day) and a very, very worthy winner of this category, Tidal is infused with rare marine botanicals gathered on Jersey’s full moon tides. ‘Incredible’, said one judge.

2nd place: Havana Club Tributo 2021 (£350) — Despite being ten times more expensive than Tidal above, there was just one point between these two. The sixth instalment in Havana Club’s limited edition collection, this noble bottle has notes of oak, dried fruits and vanilla — and is almost ‘whisky-like’.

3rd place: Bacardi Gran Reserva Diez (£45.75) — The third best rum we tasted this year is the delightful, deep and mature Bacardi Gran Reserva Diez. With flavours of caramelised vanilla and overripe banana, it rounded out ‘a very, very strong category’.

Best Gin

Next up come the gins (scroll further down for the tonics). Our shortlist was a flavourful one; with bottles either doubling down on the juniper or introducing botanicals you wouldn’t usually associate with the spirit.

1st place: Portobello Road Distillery Savoury Gin (£35) — Not only the judge’s favourite, but also a 2021 highlight for Gentleman’s Journal, this rosemary, basil and green olive-infused gin is the Mediterranean in a bottle.

2nd place: Monkey 47 Dry Schwarzwald Gin (£40) — With its botanicals hand-picked from the Black Forest, Monkey 47 has ‘unexpected’ notes of cranberry, bramble leaf and lingonberry. It comes in second, thanks to this ‘surprising gin profile’.

3rd place: Sipsmith V.J.O.P (£38) — At 50%, this was the punchiest gin on the table. Judges acknowledged that it would make a tip-top, lip-smacking G&T; but marked it down for ‘being too flavourful to be versatile’.

Best Vodka

For vodka, we thought we’d try something a little different — and inject some sharp, citrus flavours into proceedings. The judges, once again, were split between the two bottles we shortlisted — with the winner edging ahead by just seven points.

1st place: Grey Goose Le Citron (£35.99) — Infused with lashings of lemon, the Grey Goose Le Citron is an easy sell. After all, as one judge commented, mixing and matching lemon with vodka ‘was never going to taste bad’.

2nd place: Chase Cognac Aged Marmalade Vodka (£100) — For a bottle that costs three times as much as the Grey Goose, this was a disappointing result for Chase. But perhaps drinking this orange-flavoured vodka straight was not a fair representation. The bottle itself recommends mixing ‘Breakfast Martinis’ with the spirit. We since have — and they were the most enjoyable cocktails we’ve sipped in some time.

Best Tequila

It’s time for tequila to take its shot. With London-founded El Rayo and Enemigo both in the mix, there’s a UK flavour running through this category — a Britishness tempered by the (almost decade-old) Casamigos.

1st place: El Rayo Reposado (£36.95) — Another handsome bottle, the winner of our tequila category was El Rayo’s ‘Reposado’. Brimming with oak and agave (and with underlying notes of orange), it was ‘surprisingly sweet’.

2nd place: Casamigos Extra Reposado (£59.99) — George Clooney’s Casamigos is beaten into the number two spot — by over ten points, no less. But judges still appreciate ‘what Casamigos has done for tequila’, and its ‘almost buttery’, ‘caramel’ taste.

3rd place: Enemigo 00 Extra Anejo (£140) — Intended to be a sipping tequila, our judges decided that Enemigo’s pricey ’00 Extra Anejo’ would be better with a mixer. Comments ranged from ‘unsure’ to ‘an interesting interplay of spice and fruit’.

Best No-Lo

Next up, a difficult category to judge. It’s the first year Gentleman’s Journal has included a No-Lo category in the Drinks Awards, and represented here are non-alcoholic replacements for whisky, tequila and gin.

1st place: Feragaia (£23) — Marrying 14 botanicals including seaweed, bay leaf and chamomile, this Scotch spirit won the category as it is ‘one of those rare No-Lo spirits that can be sipped neat without a mixer’.

2nd place: CleanCo Clean T (£19) — The recommended serve for Spencer Matthew’s tequila alternative calls for tonic — and a dash of Tabasco. The judges agreed that ‘this must be mixed’ and ‘it isn’t a sipping tequila’.

3rd place: Pentire Seaward (£26.80) — As with the ‘Clean T’ above, Pentire’s grapefruit-infused ‘Seaward’ was kept off the top spot due to a lack of versatility, but ‘does taste nice and floral when mixed with tonic’.

Best Mixer

Let’s continue with the alcohol-free categories; moving onto mixers. A key component of cocktail-making, our judges are true authorities on these diminutively-bottled drinks, and had some firm opinions on what worked — and what didn’t.

1st place: Three Cents Ginger Beer (£1.25) — Topping the category was the fine fizz of Three Cents ‘Ginger Beer’. Simply bottled, but created with fresh ginger, spices and natural spring water, it was deemed ‘tasty enough to drink on its own’.

2nd place: London Essence Roasted Pineapple Soda (£1.85) — One of the day’s more contentious drinks. Bright yellow (but not as sweet as it looks) this surprisingly subtle mixer split opinion. Some called it ‘unique’ and believed it opened up exciting experimental avenues. Others branded it ‘synthetic-tasting’.

3rd place: Fever-Tree Mexican Lime Soda (£1.80) — It’s a surprise to see mixer kings Fever-Tree in third place. But the Mexican Lime Soda just didn’t capture or thrill our judge’s tastebuds; with ‘the Japanese yuzu on the bottle never presenting itself’.

Best Tonic

And onto tonic. One of the world’s most-consumed mixers, the quinine-tinged drink has soared in popularity during the last decade. But, although our judges are stalwarts of the bar scene, there were still some surprises in this category…

1st place: Fever-Tree Mediterranean Tonic Water (£1.90) — Back where they belong, leading the mixer charge, Fever-Tree claim the tonic top spot. Universally sipped and celebrated, this is ‘as refreshing as tonic should be’.

2nd place: Double Dutch Indian Tonic Water (£1.19) — Coming in a strong second, Double Dutch’s well-branded offering has hints of pink grapefruit and juniper berry, making it a ‘natural pairing partner’ for stronger gins.

3rd place: Le Tribute Tonic (£1.75) — Despite another nod in the handsome bottle stakes, Le Tribute’s tonic was deemed ‘too floral’ for our judges. This is a grown-up tonic, with ‘less sweetness and a lot of bitter, plant-like notes’.

Best Drinks Innovation

And, finally, another new category. Celebrating innovation across the drinks industry, we considered liqueurs, bitters, pre-mixed cocktails and other inventions for this list. We settled on a shortlist of drinks that surprised us — and hoped they would have the same effect on our judges…

1st place: The Japanese Bitters Umami Bitters (£34.80) — Taking an overwhelming victory was this; a small dropper bottle of ultra-savoury ‘Umami Bitters’. Voted the discovery of the day by Racheal Vaughan Jones, she left one note on her scoresheet; ‘Amazing!’.

2nd place: Angostura Cocoa Bitters (£8.95) — The third-ever launch from 200-year-old brand Angostura, ‘Cocoa Bitters’ were also a hit. Created using Trinitario cocoa nibs, these bitters were ‘exactly the quality you’d expect from such an established brand’.

3rd place: Shanky’s Whip Liqueur (£21.25) — And, rounding off our ‘Innovation’ category is Shanky’s Whip; a Black Irish whiskey liqueur with added caramel and vanilla. Although branded ‘too sweet to drink neat’, judges agreed it would make an adequate, interesting digestif.

Looking to have a spirited celebration yourself? Enter here to win a trip to the Italian Riviera next summer with Portofino Dry Gin…

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