Best in Show? What We Can Learn from Spirits Competitions

Spirit samples waiting to be tasted, analyzed and judged.

Just a couple of weeks ago the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition took place at the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco. A record-breaking 1,899 entries were judged by 39 spirits experts, and the results of competition have been released. The 2016 Tasting Panel Magazine Distillery of the Year title was awarded to Bunnahabhain Distillery of Islay, Scotland. The distillery also earned the award for Best Distillers' Single Malt Scotch with their 25 Year Old Single Malt. Pernod Ricard of New York achieved the honor of Importer of the Year, taking home 10 Double Gold and 6 Best in Show awards. The judges named Jim Rutledge’s final creation for Four Roses, the 2015 Limited Edition Small Batch Bourbon, 2016’s Best Bourbon.

There’s more to be learned, however, from the list of winners than what brands took home the top awards from the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Lessons come to light concerning consistency and trends. Let’s take a look at just three categories and what can be learned when looking at the entrants.

Sometimes, the old dogs are the best.

Of the nine or so American finalists for best whiskey (bourbon or rye), there were four well-known and widely available Kentucky names. The rest were either sourced from big name distillers and then given a final finish, or were single barrels plucked from major producers. None were produced by any of the small distillers that have been popping up all over the country, or at least weren’t distilled by them. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any good or even great whiskies made by small distillers, and I don’t yet know how many were actually entered in the competition. But when you throw in the cost of some of these finalists and compare them to the better known finalists, there’s really no comparison. The whiskey coming from the major Kentucky distillers may never have been better than it is now, and there’s no telling how international demand will change that. But for the time being, I’d say stick to the old dogs.

Gin is out.

When you put your nose in a glass and it smells like nothing but oranges, do you think, “This is a gin?" What if it reminds you of grandma’s linen closet, or a fancy potpourri - are those gins? The questions went through my mind as my panel tried to tease out what gin is and is not. I’m not talking about the so-called New Western Gin, where citrus dominates and juniper recedes. I’m talking about things that are so far removed from the traditional London dry or any other style that to label them gin would confuse any consumer, let alone a taster. It’s time for spirit producers doing interesting things with botanicals like bay leaf, sage, lemon verbena, and other potent aromatics, to start calling their products something like “botanical spirit” or “herbal vodka,” or something other than gin. If not for the sake of clarity, then to be competitive in such competitions. It is very hard when judging gin to give an award to a product with no discernible juniper, no matter how appealing it may be.

Tequila’s best always shows.

Every year at this competition there are some shocking winners, some unknown that comes out of nowhere and wows the tasters. And sometimes, it’s the repeated return of old friends that surprises. Among tequilas, the ever-shifting brands, quality and entrants makes returning as a top winner, either Double Gold or Best Tequila, hard to do. But some brands have it right and their products somehow manage to get in there among the finalists every year. Consistency is a must when you are crafting cocktails or producing agave spirits, and repeat winners offer as close to a guarantee that the tequila business can provide.


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