What’s it like to lead a panel at one of the world’s most renowned spirits competitions? Our editor Kristiane Sherry reports back from Tiburon, near San Francisco, after taking part in the American Distilling Institute’s 2019 Judging of Craft Spirits.
The skies are always blue in Tiburon. At least it seems that way when the American Distilling Institute (ADI) crew is in town. The cluster of impeccable houses directly across the Bay from San Francisco is peppered with independent restaurants, bars and quirky stores, sandwiched between the water and the dramatic Northern California hills. It’s relaxed, the air is crisp and clean, and it exudes a laid-back elegance. In short, it’s the perfect place to taste spirits.
I was thrilled last June when I received an invitation to join ADI’s Judging of Craft Spirits. The annual event celebrates excellence in distilling, with entries open to those who produce less than 750,000 litres of pure alcohol a year (although in reality, most participants make waaaayyy less than that). Both American and international distillers take part, and the spirits span almost every category you can think of: whiskies, gins, rums, agave spirits, vodkas, liqueurs, brandies, plus ready-to-drink cocktails, fortified wines and more! The result? Hundreds upon hundreds of spirits to be assessed, an army of stewards, a team of organisers and administrators and judges galore. And I was more than happy to lend my palate.
I arrived at The Lodge at Tiburon on the Sunday afternoon, set for a series of briefings. After the warmest of welcomes from Eric Zandona, ADI’s director of spirits information, and David T Smith, lead steward, we got to grips with a practice flight of vodkas, a palate-aligning exercise, if you like. Everything was poured in a back room, brought through by the amazing stewards and identified only by a code on a label on the stem of a glass. It was 100% blind and tip-top secret. And it immediately became apparent just how rewarding evaluating each sample with my fellow judges would be. Distillers, bar consultants, writers, bartenders and more, from across the US and beyond. The volume of collective expertise in the room was incredible. Roll on the three days of judging!
I can’t disclose exactly what we judged or what panels others were on, but I will say for the first two days I chaired panels with a vast variety of spirits. We tasted literally everything. It was challenging at times – some spirits properly split the panel; cue lively debate, much geekiness and an array of views – but each and every spirit was genuinely assessed on its own merits, before the group discussed each one, gained consensus and awarded medals (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Double Gold) accordingly. But this wasn’t just about assigning awards. Each entrant receives detailed written feedback, so every judge was required to write up their thoughts and provide comment, constructive criticism and encouragement. This wasn’t just about tasting – a significant amount of work went into this evaluation aspect. It’s easy enough to say that you do or don’t think a spirit is at a certain quality level – but you must also give the reason why. And delving into the ‘why’ with so many genuine experts made for a thoroughly rewarding experience!
Day Three took on an entirely different flavour. First up, I joined a review panel; here, spirits which had some discrepancy in their scoring (David T Smith and crew use a handy algorithm to see if a panel of judges’ scores were especially variable) were re-tasted to ensure an absolute fair hearing, and other outliers were given a second bite of the cherry. This is where things got really interesting. The discussion got even geekier, and every aroma note, flavour, texture and feeling was unpicked, along with how it got there, and whether or not it should be. By the end my mind and palate were both exhausted – but happily so.
Then it was time for the grand panels! Every spirit awarded a Gold or Double Gold medal was re-tasted to find the best in category. And wow! This was A Treat (capitals intended). Imagine getting to taste the best of the best craft spirits in the world. Yes, it was still serious decision-making, but the smiles on my fellow judges’ faces as we worked our way through the flights said it all. These spirits were GORGEOUS (capitals really intended here). And it was a privilege to get to pick out the very finest.
So, what were the highlights? What were the key learnings? Well, the Judging of Craft Spirits results haven’t been announced yet, so consider these lips sealed. But there was a big difference between judging a competition solely focused on craft spirits compared to other panels I’ve sat on. Why? The level of experimentation was off the chart. So many producers were trying brave and exciting things – sure, the results weren’t always knock-it-out-the-park incredible, but many, many spirits were up there. And it was so exciting to spend time sussing out exactly what’s going on. Then, the overall quality level was a pleasing surprise. In other competitions there might only be one small ‘craft’ sub-category, but here there was wall-to-wall interest and intrigue right across the board. ‘Craft’ has never meant sub-standard or second best, but those myths are now being well and truly busted.
Finally, the top highlight? Getting to meet and work with so many incredible people from right the way across the industry, from distillers and production consultants to bartenders, brand ambassadors, writers, journalists and more. Thanks to ADI for an ace few days, and cheers to my fellow judges, stewards and everyone involved for making it so brilliant!
Top tips for evaluating spirits
Fancy trying your hand (taste buds?) at judging? Give it a go at home with our super-quick guide!
• Start clean. It sounds super simple, but make sure your palate is clean (water is essential!), you’re not wearing fragrance and you’ve not used especially aromatic soap. ADI gave us fragrance-free soap for the week so the tasting room was as neutral as possible.
• Go slow. Take your time. If you’re assessing a spirit you’ll want to look at its appearance, nose, palate and finish. This can take a good while. Don’t rush, take your time and enjoy!
• Look back. Aromas and flavours in a spirit can be traced back to loads of production factors. Think about how your spirit was made. Raw materials? Processing techniques? Post-distillation finishing? Is what you see, nose or taste consistent with this? Consider these points to help you evaluate your spirit.
• Spit it out. Got loads of spirits to taste? Don’t be afraid to use a spittoon. And sip, don’t gulp (obviously). On a similar point, adding water to a spirit after you’ve first nosed and tasted can make a world of difference when you’re trying to pick out aromas and flavours.
• Write it down. Chances are, if you’re taking the time to fully examine what a product looks like, its aromas, flavours, texture and finish, you’ll want to keep a record of it. Have a notepad or laptop to hand so your hard work isn’t forgotten!