spirits explained

The Work of Awarding Spirit Competition Medals

Lee Diaz, ReserveBar Staff Writer
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With the recent release of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (SFWSC) results earlier this week, you might be wondering what exactly these accolades mean. Many distilleries tout these wins with unending fervor and hang medals near their bar, your favorite store highlights top winners, and your friends might even brag about finding a new spirit before they achieved medal-winning fame. But how does this help you when you’re shopping for something new? Three members of our ReserveBar team (including myself) were invited to participate in this effort to identify the best spirits around, giving us a unique opportunity to find out exactly how each entry is judged, why certain spirits receive a medal nod, and how this competition can serve to help you find new and unique spirits.

At the Judging Table

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The San Francisco World Spirits Competition is now the world’s largest spirits competition and has grown significantly over the last few years with aggressive growth in categories like gin, ready-to-drink (RTD) seltzers and cocktails. This year the judging took place in a private location over a timeframe of ten days, just one block away from the Ferry Building in the Financial District in San Francisco. During each of these days, the judging tables are made up of compelling local mixologists, experienced brand ambassadors, renowned bar managers and owners, well-known tasters and tastemakers, barrel and bottle acquisition managers, and brand leads.

Each table is a cohort of three judges who spend the entire day together tasting through a series of flights that include a variety of spirit classes. The number of flights that are tasted by a single table is pre-assigned by the Tasting Alliance staff. Naturally, you might be wondering how many flights are tasted in a single day? That’s actually unique to each table but might range between 12 to 15 flights that are evaluated at a pace set by the flow of tasting and discussion set by the judges.

Every glass (or entry) within each flight represents an opportunity and a responsibility. The submitting brand (distillery or creator) is taking a chance to have these panels of judges critically evaluate the merit of their work in drinkability for the opportunity to be recognized as one of the best. For the judges, we have a responsibility to treat each glass with respect, honoring the work that has taken place to get to this moment and discerning the impact of this work measured within the context of an established medal system.

A Well-Developed “Blind” Process

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Reminiscent of the Wizard’s exclamation of “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” the staff behind the San Francisco World Spirits Competition quickly work in secret behind large curtains only to roll out uniform carts of lettered Glencairn glasses ready to be tasted. When judges arrive at their table in the morning, their first flight is already set up. We will never see a single bottle through this process — we will only interact with flights of Glencairns, each containing a separate entry.

As a complement to that flight, when I first sat down at my table, there were two resources that quickly caught my attention. The first was a list of flights, which was essentially a guide to what my table would taste through on that specific day. The second was an iPad that I could use to input tasting notes, details, and desired score. If available, this iPad also offered core information, including the proof of the spirit, age statement, and barrel finishing.

Each entry is judged on its own merit within its assigned Class (i.e., Gin, Flavored Vodka, Small Batch Bourbon, Extra Aged Rums, etc.). Once a flight is finished, and the individual results are decided, the table of judges leaves the room to be reset with the next flight.

We then returned to find the next flight of glasses labeled A - F (or more), each corresponding to a submission unknown to us. At home, you likely have your own favorite pours and feel like you know their nose, profile, finish, and color. However, when you approach these spirits within a blind methodology across multiple classes, even attempting to identify a personal favorite is a fool’s errand, especially when you can’t be sure if they even submitted. And yet, even if just for conversation's sake, sometimes you may hear a judge take a guess — and likely be wrong. What’s even crazier is to come to grips with the fact that you may never find out if you were even close to being right. This is the beauty of a “blind” process.

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Combatting Palate Fatigue

If you tried to do the simple math, you might have determined that it’s likely that a judge has tasted through a few hundred submissions over a range of days. You’re absolutely right — tasting competitions are not for the faint of heart. But there are also consistent practices put in place to make sure that each of the judges can resist any type of tasting fatigue.

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Palate cleansers are critical to this process. There is always plenty of water (still or sparkling) ready for the judges. On top of that, there is a constant flow of celery, bread, and cheese. It is up to each judge’s discretion to determine if and how they will consume any of these elements to stay fresh. One judge might only eat in between flights, while another snags a bit of bread or a sip of water throughout a flight to reset. Breaks in between flights and lunch with the team are not only welcomed moments of reprieve, but they also allow the judges to connect and interact with each other. Part of the value of this work to the judges is also the opportunity to connect with others within the industry.

Medal Selections and Friendly Disagreements

Even with 3-judge tables, more often than not, a majority (if not all) of the judges agree on if a specific submission should receive a medal and what that medal should be. This often makes post-tasting discussions flow rather quickly and easily.

As a taster, what do you consider when you think of your favorite spirits? Is it the nose, the flavor profile, or possibly the finish? What specific scents or flavors do you recognize? When you taste them, do you think of specific spices, elements, recipes, or memories? Is it balanced? How well do you think it represents its category?

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We consider all of these questions and more in this process. And these nuances truly come into play when there is a clear disagreement on a projected result. The value of a judging panel is in the discussion that develops from these disagreements, which leads to a final placement. There is no room to leave something as “undecided.” So, when there is a large variance in result, the entry is tasted again, notes are reviewed and shared, the virtues of the entry are debated, and a judgment is finally made.

How Medals Can Inform Your Next Bottle Purchase

You will always have your favorite pours — those bottles that always reside on your bar for whatever reason you may have — and no one should discourage that. But as you also look for what’s next, SFWSC medals, Double Gold to Bronze, can be used as a guide for your next purchase to expand your bar. While it shouldn’t serve as the only criterion for your selection, you can consider how the process shared above was used to reach a final result as well as the level of discernment behind the selection to rest assured that what you are selecting will be of a certain quality.

And as you taste your way through a number of these award-winning spirits, you will start to gain a sense of what priority you give to these ratings when you purchase future bottles. Ultimately, it is up to you to determine what you love — competition results should be resources to help you discover new loves.

See the SFWSC Results

As mentioned at the top, the latest San Francisco World Spirits Competition winners were announced on April 12th. Explore the most recent recipient of these honors HERE.