Our educator-in-chief Richard Legg takes a look at wine and spirits and competitions, and asks whether those little medals on the bottles actually mean the contents are worth drinking.
Even though it makes up a very small part of what I do, when I am describing to people the many things I do for a job, the fact I say I am a spirits judge is usually the part that gets the most attention. I can truthfully say, however, with a completely straight face, that I am a professional (albeit occasional) spirits judge. This is usually followed by some degree of astonishment, and the likes of ‘that sounds like the best job in the world’ or ‘where do I sign up?!’ So here I will give you a bit of background, and an insight on what it takes to appear on a tasting panel.
Drinks competitions are nothing new. You may have seen the gold medals on bottles of Jack Daniel’s. The earliest one on the bottle dates from 1904, when Mr. Jack Daniel himself entered his whiskey into the St Louis World’s Fair (now more commonly known as the ‘Louisiana Purchase Exposition’ – a word we sadly see all too often shortened to the drab ‘Expo’). At the time, Jack was somewhat of an underdog, however, after some deliberation, it was his whiskey awarded the gold medal and proclaimed ‘World’s Best Whiskey’. He never looked back. He entered more competitions and more gold medals followed. It was a huge boon for this obscure whiskey from Tennessee and you could argue we now wouldn’t have even heard of Jack Daniel’s Whiskey or even Tennessee Whiskey as a specific category, without this now famous gold medal.
It’s difficult to know what the judging was like back then, but what is it like now?
From my experience at IWSC, it’s all very professional, bordering on clinical. We don’t know what we are tasting exactly, we might get ‘flavoured vodka – coffee’ or ‘single malt Scotch whisky – Highland’ for example. So we don’t see the name, the bottle, the price; it’s literally just the liquid in a glass. Your mind is incredibly good at swaying your judgement with this sort of information, so the less it knows the better when judging.
We sit as a panel, usually of four, with the spirits in front of us and a laptop to record our tasting notes and scores for each sample. We normally taste between 70-85 samples in one day, which are poured by people behind screens so we can’t see. These samples are all spat out. If we drank all of these, we would not be able to judge properly, would be asked to leave, and we definitely wouldn’t be asked back! So answering something I’ve heard repeatedly, no we definitely don’t get drunk while judging spirits competitions.
At the end of each round, we will confer as a panel and award an overall score, for IWSC this is out of 100. Sometimes our scores are very close, others far apart, with the scores based purely on our experience of tasting and our learned opinion. Where we can’t be split, there is a panel judge who has the last word. The panels consist of distillers, educators, ambassadors, writers and journalists, buyers and sellers, plus many more. It’s always nice seeing familiar faces and meeting new people too.
So where do I sign up?
I, like most other people, got in by knowing an existing judge, so it definitely has a slightly masonic feel from this side, without the secret handshake or elaborate costume of course. You do have to be qualified though, I have WSET Level 4 in wine and Level 3 in spirits, which certainly helps as both have tasting exams. I also have a lot of experience as an educator, so I am suitably qualified to judge most things. For my first time judging, my scores were often pretty close to most other people on the panel and the panel judge, which gave me confidence and helped me overcome my imposter syndrome. Now I feel like an old hand.
While competitions can make or break a drink, they do have their detractors. So I’m going to list some commonly heard sayings about drinks competitions, and give my personal take.
They’re all a fix!
In my experience, absolutely not. I have not heard first hand of anyone, or had any personal experience myself, of being coerced into giving a certain score to something, having their score changed, or other similarly shady business. Yes, you pay to enter, so companies with bigger budgets can enter more competitions, so it may seem like they win more often, but the scores on the day are those of the judges.
They help the public decide what to buy
Listen, we love a good review of anything, as much as we’re wary of a bad one, so knowing professionals have liked something really does provide some level of comfort. It’s difficult to argue that one.
It can really boost the profile of a spirit
Absolutely! A ‘big’ win in a competition can cause a surge in demand greater than if it’s featured on Saturday Kitchen (which is a big thing by the way).
The cream will always rise to the top
The drinks are judged against a limited number of entrants and it’s also very subjective. ‘My best’ is not necessarily ‘your best’. Some companies also don’t enter competitions, you will never see a medal won by certain brands, even though they are producing some great liquid.
A medal doesn’t mean you will automatically like something
This is true. If you really don’t like peated whisky, for example, tasting the last 10 ‘Best Islay’ whiskies is not going to end well. You are often better to look for styles you like and pick medal winners/high scores from these, rather than ‘World’s Best Whisky’ or ‘Best Scotch’ unless you like every style of whisky.
Buy a bottle with lots of medals on it
Believe it or not, this is actually a thing. You may see a bottle that is peppered with awards or scores. However, not all medals are equal and some medals are very outdated. Take Jack Daniel’s for example. They proudly proclaim it’s the winner of “7 gold medals”. Look closely and you’ll see it includes the 1904 gold medal, with four others taking us to 1915 and then only two in the last 100 years, the most recent of which was over 40 years ago…