Ultimate Spirits Challenge - Where Spitting in Public is Encouraged

Should you, as a bar owner or manager, look at competition medals, ratings or other awards when selecting a spirit for the back bar? Well, it depends on the system used to arrive at that medal, rating or award. Luckily, I can help you out with understanding one of them.

Judging an international spirits competition requires concentration, specific knowledge and an educated palate. That said, spending three days evaluating the quality and overall appeal of hundreds of products isn’t a grueling assignment. In fact, for the small community of folks who do it professionally, judging a major spirits competition is just about the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

Ultimate Spirits Challenge
Jack Robertiello, Dale DeGroff & Robert Plotkin taste and judge spirits during The Ultimate Spirits Challenge. All photos attributed to: Michael Gold/TheCorporateImage

I recently had the opportunity to judge at the 2011 Ultimate Spirits Challenge, which as the name implies, is the most prestigious and rigorous competition of its kind. The event was held at New York’s Astor Center and attracted nearly 600 entries from around the world. The event is the brainchild of F. Paul Pacult, publisher of The Spirits Journal. Its methodology and stringent standards have made it the preeminent international event of its kind.

Pacult believes the competition’s principal asset is its unimpeachable panel of judges. “We’ve assembled the most respected experts in the business. They all work with spirits on a daily basis and have done so for years. That they’re a fun group to work with is an added benefit. There’s not a prima donna in the bunch.”

Anchoring the event with Pacult is Sean Ludford, director of BevX.com, a beverage and lifestyle magazine. This year’s judges, in addition to myself, included Dale DeGroff, Steven Olson, David Wondrich, Doug Frost and Andy Seymour, the collective who — along with Pacult — founded the Beverage Alcohol Resources (B.A.R.) program. Joining them were industry notables Eric Alpern, Jacques Bezuidenhout, Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, Tad Carducci, James Conley, Jim Meehan, Julie Reiner, Jack Robertiello, Aisha Sharpe and Willy Shine.

The first two days of the competition are devoted to tasting all of the entries in horizontal flights. The panel I was assigned to consisted of luminary DeGroff and spirits journalist Robertiello. They both possess razor-sharp palates and rapier wits and each can deconstruct a spirit’s personality within a few moments. (Ever felt like the dullest Crayon in the box? Yeah, me too.)

Ultimate Spirits 
ChallengeThe judging began at around 9 a.m. on Tuesday. Our panel started with a glorious flight of gins, after which we proceeded on to reposado tequilas, straight vodkas, light rums and American whiskeys. One of the high points of the day was the flight of nine Cognacs, each of which proved to be slightly better than the one preceding it.

As the day went on, the room became increasingly redolent with heady aromatics and the incessant sounds of sipping and spitting, murmurs of approval or muttered disfavor. While the judges at some competitions are staid and self-absorbed, the brain trust Pacult and Ludford assembled were anything but. Although highly focused on the task at-hand, the judges were thoroughly enjoying themselves. It was what you’d expect from a room full of folks raised behind bars and well schooled in the intoxicating arts.

Ultimate Spirits Challenge

The spirits were presented — for the most part — at room temperature and in appropriately shaped tasting glasses. We were asked to assess each product based on its appearance, aromatics, flavor and the quality of the finish. Those products scoring 95 points out of 100 moved forward to the “Finals Round” on Thursday.

The second day of judging was more challenging than the first. Our panel evaluated flights of island Scotches, Irish blended whiskies, American rye whiskeys, Canadian whiskies, mezcals and liqueurs.

On Thursday, we re-assessed spirits that had previously earned ratings of 95 points or above. They represented the best of the best, which meant that the qualitative differences between each product would be harder to discern. While seemingly a more daunting assignment, I found the process exhilarating and more of a labor of love. Five hours after it began, we finished sampling the last flight of the last round. Our evaluation sheets were signed and collected, and for the judges, the event was over.

The results of the 2011 Ultimate Spirits Challenge can be found here. Rather than hand out bushels of medals, Pacult and company issue something more valuable and professionally meaningful. Based on their aggregate scores, products are awarded captions, such as “Extraordinary/Ultimate Recommendation,” “Excellent/Highly Recommended” and “Good/ Recommended,” to name a few. The highest scoring products in each category earns the “Chairman’s Trophy.”

In the spirits industry, claims of excellence often have little foundation in fact. The Ultimate Spirits Challenge is changing all of that. For those of us who make our living at the bar, its recommendations fall somewhere between the Seal of Good Housekeeping and a thumbs up from the Better Business Bureau.

Paul and Sean, a thirsty world would like to buy you a drink.


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