The first time I met Sean Ludford was in 2005 at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. As first-time judges we were assigned to spirit guru Paul Pacult’s panel. The inimitable Richard Carlton Hacker — writer, author and famed bon vivant — served as the fourth judge. It was perhaps the most enjoyable professional outing of my career. Pacult and Hacker have world-class palates and unbridled senses of humor. Spending two days with those men usually would have been memorable enough, but not this time. Not with Sean Ludford at the table.
I’ve asked Pacult and Hacker about their recollections of that competition, and they mirror my own, namely that it was Ludford’s Irish wit and unfailing appreciation of everything spirituous that stole the show. His infectious personality and keen insights drew in judges from neighboring panels to our table to catch whatever was infecting us.
Mention the name Sean Ludford in international judging circles and the response is always preceded by a broad grin. There’s a good chance they’ve worked with him and had the opportunity to appreciate his impromptu, spot-on assessments of spirits, beers or wines. While Pacult is easily the most gifted and knowledgeable spirit authority, Ludford is certainly the most entertaining — the George Bernard Shaw of alcohol.
Ludford has been knee deep in the beverage industry for a quarter century. He’s bartended, sold wine and managed a microbrewery in the South Pacific. He’s worked in nearly every facet of the business in both on- and off-premise accounts. These days, Ludford channels his enthusiasm and considerable talents into writing weekly issues of BevX, a lifestyle magazine with a beverage focus. BevX is published exclusively online and available to subscribers at no cost.
“No trees are harmed in producing of BevX — only a few brain cells,” Ludford admits.
Ludford’s career took a dramatic leap into prominence when he joined Pacult in 2010 as the assistant chairman of the New York Ultimate Spirits Challenge, Ultimate Cocktails Challenge and Ultimate Wine Challenge. The competitions’ methodology and stringent scoring standards have made them the most prestigious of their kind.
“I met with Paul at the Tales of the Cocktail in 2009 where he laid out his plan for creating a new beverage competition that would operate like no other,” Ludford says. “Afterward he paused and asked if I would like to be involved. I took a quick scan of the room, looking for hidden cameras and then said yes, of course. So we set out to create the world’s best spirits competition, and I think that we’ve done that.”
The pairing has been so successful, they’ve recently announced their latest professional venture, “Rum for All.” The program focuses on all things rum, from serious discussions about production techniques and distiller interviews to rum country travel tips and information about making the best rum cocktails. The two plan on hosting intimate dinners for media and trade in selected markets that display rum’s peerless versatility and unrivaled charm through direct experience.
“Rum For All was born out of our straightforward love of the category and being absolutely puzzled as to why it’s not often readily acknowledged as one of the world’s elite spirits. We’ve had enough of hearing that rum is going to be the next big thing. We are declaring that rum is NOW, and we will shout this message via every possible media outlet and in our numerous engagements with both trade and media. This could be my favorite venture ever.”
When not engaged in writing his newsletter or judging the world’s finest spirits, beers or wines, Ludford practices his trade as a beverage-operations consultant. His latest project is Chicago’s Fountainhead. He created the bar’s opening spirits list with a heavy whiskey focus, as well as its first cocktail menu and wine list. He put the staff through intensive wine and spirits training — an investment that most establishments rarely make. The bar just celebrated its one-year anniversary of being named one of Chicago’s Top 5 Gastropubs by Chicago Magazine, as well as being The Readers’ Best New Bar in the Chicago Reader’s “Best of” poll.
Ludford confesses to becoming frequently agitated while out and about seeking an adult beverage.
“I find it remarkable in this day and age that so many places feature a ‘paint by number’ backbar,” he says. “Wine lists are too frequently offering selections that are ill-suited for the food, and the prices are ridiculous if not insulting. As much as this pushes my hot buttons, I can’t help but walk away feeling a bit sorry for the operators. They are clearly not having any fun, and each long and exhausting day must be a bit like hell.”
Peel away the layers and at the very core of Sean Ludford beats the heart of a bartender. His passion for the job runs deep, and while he applauds the meteoric rise of the mixologist, he considers bartenders who make drinks to please themselves and their colleagues rather than their paying customers an affront.
“I’m seeing a lot of bartenders focusing on creating cocktails and not practicing basic customer-service skills,” he says. “Remembering your clients by name and being able to treat a new customer like an old friend is a far more valuable skill than holding a great recipe for orange bitters. When I think of my favorite bartenders I rarely think of a drink they created. Come to think of it, some of my favorite bartenders have never served me more than a pint and a dram.”
Ludford insists that in the service industry you’re only as good as your last shift. Using that as the benchmark, he’s permanently perched in the “great” range.