F. Paul Pacult Explains the Ultimate Beverage Challenge

Renowned spirits expert, educator, judge and author F. Paul Pacult is throwing down the gauntlet on beverage competitions with his new Ultimate Beverage Challenge (UBC) program, announced just two weeks ago. In an exclusive interview, Pacult outlined the why and how of UBC for NCB Mix.

Pacult caused quite a stir in August when he stepped away from his role as judging director at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition — an event he helped create and grow with Anthony Dias Blue and Carol Seibert — and is now causing something of a frenzy by launching UBC with partners David Talbot, a wine and spirits publishing industry veteran, and F. Paul Pacult’s Spirit Journal managing editor Sue Woodley. UBC involves three separate events — Ultimate Spirits Challenge, Ultimate Cocktail Challenge and Ultimate Wine Challenge — and already signed on as judges is a veritable who’s who of drinks: Jacques Bezuidenhout, Tad Carducci, Charles Curtis, Dale DeGroff, Doug Frost, Ethan Kelley, Don Lee, Jim Meehan, Steve Olson, Nick Passmore, Gary Regan, Julie Reiner, Audrey Saunders, Andy Seymour, Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan and David Wondrich. The industry is abuzz with chatter about the new program. Here’s the scoop from the man himself.

NCB Mix: What motivated you to develop this program?

F. Paul PacultPacult: I've been privy to conversations with key beverage industry people about their lack of faith in many wine and spirits contests. I've long felt that the time to provide the beverage industry, the media and the consumer with credible evaluations in a competitive arena is overdue.

Through research on contests from over the decades and their methodology, my UBC partners and I discovered was that the evaluation process employed by the overwhelming majority of contests hasn't changed much since the first wine competitions of the late 19th century.

Our view, based on my experience of 25 years as a wine and spirits critic and 10 years as a competition judge/judging director, is that it's time to make the leap into the 21st century by introducing a method of unassailable independence and fairness that, while built upon the shoulders of what's already been accomplished, is more in tune with 21st century technology and evaluation advances.

NCB Mix: How does UBC accomplish that?

Pacult: UBC judges will be held accountable for their scores/findings by the mandatory use of a detailed evaluation method that's an elaboration and a variation of the tasting format I've employed for two decades for F. Paul Pacult's Spirit Journal. It's no longer good enough for judges sitting around a table to just say, "Yeah, I say give it a bronze medal," with no accountability or quantifiable justification.

Nobody ever said that stating the truth was easy. The core principle of UBC is integrity, method and credibility. UBC results will be the most consistent, most candid, most authoritative because of three things: the strictness of the multi-stage method, the perfect judging environment at New York City's Astor Center, and the internationally acknowledged expertise of the UBC judges. 

Later in 2010, UBC will host open-to-the-public events in New York, which will showcase the products from the first three UBC Challenges. The idea here is to bring directly to the media and consuming public the wide array of wine, spirits and cocktails that entered the Challenges.

NCB Mix: Explain the thinking behind the point scoring system for the Spirits Challenge as opposed to the medal system used in other programs.

Pacult: We decided unanimously to employ the guidance system that has become the most easily understood and recognized by consumers, a variation of the 100-point system. It's also because of the intricacy of the UBC scoring method, which will be based on that system, with winners racking up the highest aggregate scores.

UBC findings will be widely published, both on the UBC web site and, we trust, by trade and lifestyle publications and bloggers. Why else do it, if the public can't directly benefit from the collective opinions of the most accomplished beverage alcohol authorities in the world? That's rationale enough for the UBC partners.

NCB Mix: The Cocktail Challenge is a new concept. Just to clarify — there is no point rating system here, correct?

Pacult: First, thank you for describing Ultimate Cocktail Challenge as a new concept because you're right, it is. This will be the first time, to our knowledge, that spirits will be judged in the cocktail arena as to how they place within their category in five classic cocktails, made the exact same way with the exact same ingredients mixed by the best bartenders in North America, using recipes agreed to by Dale DeGroff and David Wondrich. All entered spirits will be prepared in the cocktails using the same mixes, garnishes, glass style and in precisely the identical measurements. The sole difference will be the entered spirits.

It's revolutionary that a gin, for example, can be entered into UCC and be evaluated by experts in a perfectly built Gin & Tonic, Aviation and Dry Martini. One gin might be judged as the Best Dry Martini Gin but another may be judges as the Best Aviation Gin and so on.

All recipes will be posted on the UBC web site so the world can see how we did it. We're trailblazing with this one.

NCB Mix: Will all judges participate in all three events?

Pacult: Not necessarily. UBC's mission is not only to reconstruct and update the methodology, but to match the expertise of the judges with specific areas within competitions. We will hire the best, most accomplished judges to fit each individual Challenge. It's all about credibility.

NCB Mix: UBC goes up against some well-established competitions as well as some newcomers; the field is getting crowded. What's the impact of this glut of competitions?

Pacult: The UBC partners agreed from the very first day that we'd honor all and never denigrate any competitions because they've all contributed something of value. UBC's approach is very different from all others, however, and while we're proud of that, we also acknowledge the fine work that's preceded UBC. In the end, the UBC credo of integrity, method and credibility will separate UBC from the pack and, hopefully, will christen the dawn of a new era for beverage evaluation.

There will obviously be a learning curve on the part of the beverage industry about UBC. The reality is, all segments of the service industry can benefit greatly by having at their fingertips reliable findings on products that they sell or serve. But anyone who knows me knows that I am uncompromising in beverage evaluation and have been for my entire career as a professional critic. Everything that I've learned along the way is being applied to UBC methodology and then some. The truth will be told, but this time through UBC by scores of experts employing the most sophisticated evaluation process available.

For more information, visit www.ultimate-beverage.com.

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