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IWSC Judging Day - Grape Brandy



IWSC, 17 Dunsfold Park, Stovolds Hill, Cranleigh, Surrey, GU6 8TB


This was my second opportunity to be an Associate Judge for the day and this time I was in for a real treat!


I left home just after 7am, had breakfast at Waterloo Station and caught the 8am train.  I had plenty of time as my train arrived in Guildford around 8.40am.


There was a large group of us waiting for the minibus today; we managed to fill up the bus plus a taxi!  Everyone arrived early and we were at the IWSC by 9.30am.


It was a beautiful clear sunny morning and a pleasure to get out of London for the day!


When I arrived, Chris Simister, the Competition Assistant, introduced me to our judging team.


Head Judge, Dave Hughes, is South African.  He was originally a distiller, but also a winemaker, writer and of course IWSC Judge.


The rest of our team were Brink Liebenberg, Winifred Bowman, Ilse du Toit, Georg Innerhofer and Stephen Beal.


Brink Liebenberg: Brink has a long history of spirits production in South Africa and works for Distell.


Winifred Bowman: Winnie proudly announced that she is the grand-daughter of Dave Hughes!  She is qualified as a Doctor and is a Cape Wine Master and Judge.  She judges for fun and lives in Cape Town.


Ilse du Toit: Ilse works in the production side of the spirits industry in South Africa. 


Georg Innerhofer: Georg is Austrian and became involved in the distilling industry through his father who used to produce fruit brandy.  Georg is a distiller and Judge.


Stephen Beal: Steve is from San Francisco and was until recently the Senior Master of Whisky for Diageo North America.  He retired in February.  He told me that he used to be known as “Dr No” in the industry when presented with new creations such as an Irish Honey Whiskey made with Spanish honey!


As a group, we worked our way through 65 samples of grape brandy which ranged from mouthwash to incredibly good! 


Flights 1 – 7 were from Canada and Bolivia.  We had some Marc from Canada, from Pinot Noir and Cabernet, and some flavoured Marc.  One of these was sweet and spicy and the other flavoured with Maple Syrup!  This was a hefty 52% abv.  A couple of Canadian Icewines followed, at no less than 58% abv, and finally a Bolivian grape brandy.  (I had no idea Bolivia had a distilling industry!)  This group achieved some Bronze and Silver medals.


Flights 8 – 10 were from Greece and France.  A few Bronze medals in this group and just the one Silver.


Flight 11 was French VSOP brandies.  Quality was starting to show and there were a number of Silver medal winners here.


Flights 12 and 13 were French XO brandies, with and without cask finishing.  Two of these achieved Silver Outstanding and there was only one sample in this flight that didn’t win a medal.


Flights 14 to 16 were from Germany and ranged from no indication of age up to a 16 year old.  I had not tasted German brandies before but was impressed with this group which achieved 2 Silver medals.  Dave mentioned that in 2013, Germany received the trophy for the best brandy in the IWSC competition.  It was for an 8 year old Asbach brandy.  Apparently this caused tremendous ruckus in the industry as the brandy was not available for general distribution and was actually made from wine which had not been produced in Germany!


Flights 17 to 23 were a mixed bag.  We had samples from California, South Korea and Australia.  Winnie had tasted Korean brandy before and said it was “memorable”.  (Not sure for the right reasons!)  The California brandy in this group was an extremely light style and the panel took a guess that this may have been made by Mr Gallo.  Steve told us that Californian brandy is generally very neutral in style and made from the Mission grape.  In the US, it is more likely to be drunk as a long drink.  A mixed bag of medals for this group, ranging from Silver Outstanding down to nothing!


Flights 24 and 25 came from Bulgaria.  Whilst one sample was very clean and aromatic, it had no brandy characteristics.  The other samples in this group were equally disappointing.


Flight 26 was blended South African brandies.  For blended brandies, these samples had a great deal of complexity, good supporting oak and an array of flavours and aromas.  One of these achieved a Gold.


Flights 27 to 29 were a selection of South African Pot Still brandies, both aged and unaged, and blended brandies of 10 years old.  This flight was the most impressive yet and achieved a number of medals.


Our final flights 30 and 31 were South African Pot Still brandies aged 10 years and above.  These two flights were the cream of the crop, achieved very high scores and a number of medals.  An extremely pleasant way to conclude our tasting!


Or so we thought…


The other team today were judging other spirits including Red Vermouth.  They had two samples which they could not agree on, so asked if we would give them a second opinion.  Now, Vermouth is not my thing and to be fair, one of the samples was a bit cloudy with some sediment.  Not a great start.  Dave told us that Red Vermouth should be sweet and bitter as it is the balance that makes it interesting.  Steve said that in the US, Vermouth is drunk either as an aperitif or with a mixer, such as soda.  To be honest, I wasn’t that impressed!


Dave told me he thought I had done well today and that my scoring was in line with the rest of the panel, which is always pleasing to hear.


We finished at around 1.30pm and enjoyed a buffet lunch and a nice glass of Semillon.


Whilst we didn’t get to spend much time with the other team today, they were made up of Ivan Dixon, Arthur Nagele FAFW, David T. Smith, Arno Pauli, Halvor Heuch and Rachel Nico. 


  • Ivan is the wine and spirits buyer for Harvey Nichols.

  • Arthur got into distilling through his father and is an independent spirits educator and consultant.

  • David is the Drinks Writer and Gin Specialist for Summer Fruit Cup.  (I don’t think there was anything he didn’t know about Gin!)

  • Arno is a distiller and brewer from Austria.

  • Halvor is a distiller from Norway.

  • Rachel is the co-founder of spirits website “” and is from San Francisco.


The minibus took us back to the station at around 2.30pm and I caught the train back to London.  It was a tiring day; much more so than the Spanish wines judging day that I attended in April.  I think this was mainly due to the higher alcoholic strength of the spirits we tasted today, combined with the large volume of fumes inhaled in our tasting room!  I arrived home at about 4pm exhausted, but happy.


Copyright of - June, 2015


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