There Is No Such Thing As The World’s Best Whisky
It’s summer. That means wine and spirits judging is in full swing. Each week brings the latest results from one competition or another. Journalists jump on the results to announce the latest “World’s Best” whisky, gin or rum. I know. I’ve written quite a few of those articles myself. How exactly do these competitions work and how should consumers evaluate their results?
Consumers love reading about the latest breakthrough spirit; the newly discovered world class artisan distiller, or some new expression. That’s why journalists cover those judging results. The renaissance of artisan distilling and line extensions from existing beverage companies is producing a dizzying array of new spirit expressions.
There are over 25,000 alcoholic beverages in the world today. Some 5,000 of those are just whisk(e)y. There are over 6,000 gins and several thousand vodkas. No one is quite sure how many rums there are. Add in those beverages that are purely local and the actual number is probably much higher.
There are hundreds of wine and spirit competitions around the world each year. There are roughly two dozen or so that command a worldwide audience. These include the International Wines and Spirits Competition (IWSC), the World Drinks Awards, the International Spirits Challenge, the International Spirits Competition, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, New York International Spirits Competition, Las Vegas Global Spirits Awards among others.
The American Distilling Institute’s Judging of Craft Spirits is the oldest, largest and most prestigious of the competitions focused on craft spirits. It was also the first competition to give contestants detailed notes of the judge’s comments. Its awards have become an important rite of passage to new, up and coming craft distillers.
Most wine and spirits competitions are associated with either media companies/publishers, industry trade events or consumer shows. They form an integral part of what is a larger business enterprise. Let’s be clear, wine and spirits competitions are a business. By all accounts, a very good business.
In the typical competition, distillers pay an entry fee to enter their beverages. In addition, they supply a half dozen or so bottles of each beverage for judging. The organization running the competition is responsible for organizing the judging, supplying a venue, and the logistics of serving samples of hundreds of beverages to the various judging panels. Judges usually get paid a fee for judging. Trust me, no one ever got rich being a whisky judge.
For the most part, there is not much cost to running a wine and spirits judging competition beyond the administrative overhead of organizing it. That’s not insignificant, but the entry fees are set to more than cover that. For new competitions, attracting enough submissions to cover their overhead is the key milestone to profitability. Established competitions have no such problem. They often turn prospective entrants away for lack of room. It should be no surprise that there are so many competitions and why the number keeps growing.
In the typical competition, there is a judging panel of anywhere from half a dozen to several dozen people. Some competitions have multiple panels that meet simultaneously and then a final panel that picks the overall category winners and double checks the top medalists. Each panel has a chair, typically a more experienced judge, that runs the tasting.
Each competition is a little bit different in how they organize their judging. Some panels have a lot of discussion among judges. That’s particularly true when a score is right on the edge between different medals.
In those instances, a good panel chair will ask those judges whose scores varied the most whether they were being a tad too harsh or too enthusiastic. Sometimes judges revise their scores to conform to the group consensus. In other cases, they might stick to their opinion. In either case, however, you are expected to justify your score to your peers. If you can’t, you likely won’t be invited back to judge next year.
In other cases, the judges sit in an isolated cubicle or work from home. They tally their scores and send them in. This is particularly true for those competitions that enlist a large number of judges to evaluate the submissions.
Competitions typically issue medals: Bronze, Silver and Gold. The very top entrants receive a superlative of the Gold medal; i.e., “Double Gold” or “Gold Outstanding.” Additionally, some competitions will select overall category winners like “Best Whisk(e)y” from the different sub-categories of whisk(e)y evaluated. This isn’t the Olympics, where only the top three candidates medal. Medals are issued based on how each entrant scores against a predetermined scale.
In most competitions, upwards of 80% of entrants will medal. That shouldn’t be a surprise. The only reason why you wouldn’t medal was if your spirit was relatively mediocre or had some technical fault. Awarding a large proportion of the entrants a medal is good for participation. A distiller is more likely to enter a competition if they know they have a good chance of walking away with at least a bronze medal.
When dealing with spirits from well-established sectors, say Scotch whisky, or Cognac or bourbon, it’s very unlikely you are going to find beverages that have technical faults in their production. These are major, longstanding industries with a high degree of experience and professionalism.
It’s more likely that you will find something funky in catch all categories, like say “World Whisky.” This would include whisky submissions from outside the major producing countries. In the World Whisky category, you might find entrants from Australia, Bulgaria and Indonesia. Yes, they make whisky in Indonesia. No, it’s not very good. Trust me on this!
Distillers like submitting their beverages to judging competitions. Adding in entry fees and the costs of shipping their sample, the cost of competing is only going to be a few hundred dollars. If you are a big company with a very large range, the cost can be considerably more. Compared to what is likely a multi-million-dollar marketing budget, however, it’s a drop in the bucket. A top medal is worth considerably more in free publicity and prestige.
Most competitions also give entrants detailed judging notes, letting them now specifically what the judging panel liked or didn’t like. Of course, you can do much the same thing by inviting all of your distiller friends to come over and taste your wares. Still, the comments from a judging panel drawn from all over the world and comprised of a mix of distillers, retailers, wholesalers and journalists can be extremely useful, especially to a distillery startup.
What does it mean when a distiller wins a top medal and what should consumers do with those results? The answer in large part depends on the category of spirit being judged. If the category is a relatively narrow one, i.e., there is not a lot of difference in styles or ages, then it’s likely that the category encompasses all the expressions of that particular spirit.
Take aquavit, for example. Typically, aquavit isn’t aged. Nor does it receive any kind of cask finishing. Norway is the exception. There is a tradition there of aging aquavit in sherry casks for a few years. There aren’t a lot of aquavit producers around the world, so all the entrants are typically grouped into one category. The winner of that category can legitimately claim to be the world’s best.
Tequila used to be this way, but as the industry has grown so have the number of different categories. Whereas once 100% agave tequila was judged as one large group, today it is broken down into blanco, reposado, añejo and extra añejo, among others. Sometimes, even cask finished tequilas merit their own category. No doubt, Cristalino Tequila will soon also be a separate category.
At the other extreme you have whisk(e)y. That beverage is broken down first by nationality: American, Canadian, Japanese, Scottish and Irish. These are the five major producing countries. Everything else goes into a catch all “World Whisky” category.
The definition of what constitutes the World Whisky category, however, can vary. It largely depends on the size of the sector and the number of entrants from that sector. Irish whiskey used to be put in World Whisky. Now that there over 35 distilleries in Ireland, the Irish merit their own whiskey category.
French whiskies, yes there are French whiskies and some are pretty good, usually end up in the World Whisky category in the US or British competitions. In French spirit competitions, however, where there are usually the most entrants, they merit their own category.
Likewise, British whisky typically ends up in the World Whisky category, although some UK spirit competitions now have a separate category for British, i.e., non-Scottish whisky. Much the same is true for South African and Australian whiskies. Both countries make excellent, although still a small number, of whiskies.
The key determinant is often the number of entrants. If Bulgarian distillers submitted 30 different expressions, then Bulgarian whisky might get broken out as a separate category. No doubt, some journalist would be quick to announce the “World’s Best Bulgarian Whisky.” I’ve judged Bulgarian whisky. Skip the article.
In the case of Scotch, whisky is broken down into dozens of categories. There’s peated whiskies and sherry matured whiskies, among other styles. Sometimes peated whiskies can be broken down into Islay whiskies and all other peated whisky. You might also see “super peated” whiskies as a separate category.
Speyside and Campbeltown whiskies often get their own category, as sometimes cask finished whiskies do.
Blended whiskies get a separate set of categories from single malts. In addition, each category can be broken down by age or price point. You could get peated whiskies 10 years and younger, 10 to 20 years and 20 to 30 years plus a catch all 30+years/ultra-aged subcategory. Blended whiskies are often broken down into price categories of say $50 and under, $50 to $150 and $150 to $300 or more. As aged blended whiskies have become more prevalent, they have given rise to yet more categories.
Categories are important because in the typical spirits competition the judging is within a specific subcategory. A 10 YO Islay peated whisky that gets a double gold is being judged both against other 10 YO and younger Islay peated whiskies and against each judge’s standard of what a 10 YO Islay peated whisky should taste like. Judging isn’t on a curve. You must meet the collective standard of the judging panel. Some years there are no Double Gold or Gold Outstanding medals given out in a subcategory.
The distinction is significant because you are not judging a 10 YO peated Scotch against a 30 YO peated one. If you like peated whiskies, and you crave the over the top phenolic blast of a young Islay peated whisky, then the top whisky in that subcategory is the one for you. If, on the other hand, you prefer your peat notes to be more refined, subtler, better integrated into a whisky, then you are looking for ultra-aged, 25+ YO peated whisky and a young Islay whisky isn’t for you no matter how many medals it’s won.
That’s why publishing lists of winners without tasting notes is a disservice to readers. That’s also why readers should not reflexively reach out to buy “the world’s best” without doing some additional research. That doesn’t mean that results of spirit competitions don’t matter. They do!
That’s especially true when an expression wins top honors in multiple competitions. Take Corby Wine and Spirit, Polar Ice Extreme Vodka. It has been picked as among the world’s best vodkas at several major spirits competitions this year. That’s a pretty good record. If you like vodka, it’s definitely worth a try.
No, there is no such thing as the “world’s best whisk(e)y.” There are simply too many variables and sub-categories. Personal tastes are too varied to ever accommodate such a designation in a way that consumers will find meaningful.
Calling something “world’s best” will certainly get you a lot of click-throughs. Let’s face it, click-throughs have now become the de facto standard of journalistic excellence. We’re all click through junkies. Got a few million click-throughs on a column, why that’s the equivalent of a 21st century Pulitzer! No, they don’t hand out Pulitzers for writing about whisky. Too bad. Maybe they should!
In the meantime, the number of spirits competitions will continue to increase. Every year will bring an ever-bigger deluge of results, and journalists will continue to announce those results and proclaim the world’s best this or that.
Editors love it (as do publishers) because it generates traffic. Journalist will keep doing it because if you’re a writer it’s a good idea to keep your editor happy. Just remember, the next time you read about the world’s best whisk(e)y those results are not the end of your whisky journey, they’re just the beginning.