Inside the San Francisco World Spirits Competition

Now in its 12th year, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition is arguably the most prestigious event of its kind. Held March 22-25 at Hotel Nikko in downtown San Francisco, the event hosted a record 1,214 spirit and liqueur entries. As one of the few fortunate enough to serve as judge, the competition is always the highlight of my year.

Certainly much of the competition’s international prestige has to do with the event’s Founder and Executive Director Anthony Dais Blue. The renowned author and journalist is the editor-in-chief of Tasting Panel Magazine and executive director of the San Francisco World Wine Competition. The event’s director of judging is Tony Abou-Ganim, spirits expert and famed master mixologist.

Together, the men assembled a judging panel of 32 industry professionals, which included spirits authorities Richard Charleton Hacker, Stephen Beal, David Grapshi, Drew Levinson, Nick Passmore and Geoff Kleinman; noted mixologists Bridget Albert, Francesco Lafranconi, Kent Bearden, Jeffrey Morganthaler, Kim Haasarud and Patricia Richards; and restaurateurs and on-premise operators Julio Bermejo, Derek Brown, Aidan Demarest, Trudy Thomas, Mac Gregory and Audrey Saunders.

The tasting flights typically consisted of between 10 and 20 products poured into covered glasses, each marked with only a letter and positioned in front of each judge, who are seated in panels of four. Stringent measures are taken to prevent judges from learning the identity of the brands being evaluated.

The judges nose each spirit in succession, the impressions of which closely correspond to how the spirit will taste on the palate. Once this is completed, it’s back to the beginning of the line for a slow and methodical evaluation of each spirit’s taste and the character of its finish.

After a judging panel has finished its evaluations, each entry is discussed in turn and medals are awarded. Medals range from bronze through gold, and judges have the option of refusing a product a medal. The competition’s coveted double gold medal is awarded when the four judges agree that the product is a consensus gold medal winner. Less than a twentieth of the products entered in the competition earned this distinction.

At the end of the competition, the judges convene and choose among the double gold winners in each category to select the Best of Show captions. Once again, this year’s honorees are magnificent, the short list of which includes:

Best of Show Honors:

            • Best of Show Aged White Spirit & Best Aged Rum — Vizcaya Rum VXOP Cask Strength (Dominican Republic)

            • Best of Show Unaged White Spirit & Best Silver Tequila — Avion Silver Tequila (Mexico)

            • Best of Show Whisk(e)y & Best Scotch Single Malt — Isle of Jura Single Malt Scotch 1976 (Scotland)

            • Best of Show Brandy & Best Calvados — Boulard Calvados XO (France)

            • Best of Show Liqueur & Best Fruit Liqueur — Grand Marnier Quintessence (France)

Best in Category Honors:

            • Best Gin — Tanqueray London Dry Gin (UK)

            • Best Vodka — Platinka Vodka (Belarus)

            • Best Flavored Vodka — Effen Cucumber Vodka (Holland)

            • Best Reposado Tequila — Alquimia Organic Tequila (Mexico)

            • Best Añejo Tequila — Don Celso Tequila (Mexico)

            • Best Ultra-Aged AñejoTequila — El Tesoro Paradiso Tequila (Mexico)

            • Best Mezcal — Real Matiatl Mezcal (Mexico)

            • Best Dark/Gold Rum — Cockspur Fine Rum (Barbados)

            • Best Rhum Agricole — Rhum J.M. Rhum Agricole Millésimé (Martinique)

            • Best Cachaça —Maison Leblon Cachaça Reserve (Brazil)

            • Best Pisco — WAQAR Pisco (Chile)

            • Best Aquavit — Krogstad Aquavit (Oregon)

            • Best Bourbon Whiskey — Old Forester Birthday 2011 Bourbon Whiskey (US)

            • Best Rye Whiskey — Knob Creek Kentucky Rye Whiskey (US)

            • Best Irish Whiskey — Bushmills 21-Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey (Ireland)

            • Best Canadian Whisky — Canadian Mist (Canada)

            • Best Blended Scotch Whisky — Whyte & Mckay 30-Year Old Scotch (Scotland)

            • Best Other Whisky — Yamazaki 18-Year Old Single Malt (Japan)

            • Best Cognac — Cognac Richard Hennessy (France)

            • Best Armagnac — Comte de Lauvia Armagnac VSOP Superior (France)

            • Best Cream Liqueur — Mozart (Austria)

            • Best Apéritif — Aperol (Italy)

Other notable honors were presented at the competition. The Tasting Panel Magazine Distiller of the Year award went to Scotch whisky producer Burn Stewart Distillers of Glasgow, Scotland, and the Tasting Panel Magazine Importer of the Year award went to Beam Inc., based in Illinois. This year, the Director’s Award went to William Grant & Sons, New York, for the excellence and consistency of its quality portfolio.


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