Spirit competitions, like the just completed San Francisco World Spirits Competition, can help any operator discover new brands, rediscover old brands, and learn about industry trends. Taking a look at the long list of awards may seem like just another opportunity for brands to get in front of your face, but the fact is that learning to read who won what is important, especially when a competition has more than 2,000 entrants.
So what should an operator look for? First, price and availability are always the most important concerns. It doesn't matter much to most bar owners if a $350 product in limited supply is the best in its category, as they will get scooped up pretty fast by specialists, whether retailers or bars. More important is focusing on the categories of spirits responsible for much of your sales, and looking there for brands that are either new or unfamiliar to you that have taken gold medals or higher. In the case of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, winners can take home gold, double gold, best in class, or best in category awards. Many times, the top honorees will be widely distributed brands priced at super premium or even premium, well within the budget of almost all bars and restaurants.
What else? Small and independent spirits are becoming more important in the on-premise, if only to show that beverage managers are paying attention to trends and willing to bring their customers new products that are somewhat unique and worth sampling. Increasingly, small producers are entering and getting high grades, proving that they can ultimately hang with the big boys once they get their recipes right and their aging, if required, under control. Among gins, for example, the market is exploding and so are entrants to these sorts of competitions, so finding a brand or producer that gets high marks in more than one year or more than one competition can help guide purchasing decisions when those spirits become available in your market.
These competitions can also reaffirm what any operator already feels about brands they sell. Those awards, while not often seen in an on-premise environment, are certainly something staff should be alerted to, both for the sake of their customers and as part of the sort of spirit education operators should be providing them. The SFWSC features many judges who have worked behind the bar and are well-known in the bartending community, and this is true of other competitions as well. These folks work with spirits every day and have the respect of their peers as well as suppliers. Your own servers may not be at their professional level, but inspiring a little curiosity among them might tip them over into becoming better aware of what's going on in the world of spirits.
There are other more obvious uses, like finding that some pretty experienced tasters picked a brand spending no money on marketing as the best in its category. Sounds like a great way to build a better well, among other things.
It's not easy deciding which new spirits to add at a time when so many are released each week. But a savvy operator uses the information provided as a way to make better informed decisions, and the results of competitions are too valuable to be ignored.