Spirit award shows are all crap

A local craft distiller told me they get at least one phone call or letter every week asking them to participate in a spirit award show.  They all function about the same.  Send them a check for $500 per spirit entered along with 2 bottles. Practically all spirits entered will ‘win’ some type of award.  One show mentioned was the Beverly Hills Award show.  This is promoted as an “elite competition recognizing the very best”; winners could promote they ‘won’ an award from a prestigious address – Beverly Hills.  I did a little research and discovered their prestigious address was a rental post office in Beverly Hills. This rental post office advertised they specialized in folks wanting a Beverly Hills address and would forward mail/packages to wherever needed.  This is a complete pay to play sham.

Uneducated spirit buyers (i.e. whiskey taters) do like to see ‘awards’ on retail shelf talkers. It makes them feel good about their purchase. Most also have no clue there is more than 1 award show or anything about how they work.

A huge flaw in every award show is that they depend on the producers to select send in bottles for award consideration vs the award show buying the bottles.  Lots of whiskies are single barrel products that have variation between barrels. It’s very easy for a producer to pick a honey barrel to be judged.  That barrel might not taste anything like the rest of the barrels bottled. Even if it’s not a single barrel whiskey, there is nothing stopping a less scrupulous producer from gaming any bottle submitted.

Another way these shows are flawed are by the categories they purposely create.  How about Single Barrel Wheated Whiskey from 2 to 4 years old? If the field is limited to just a few possible entries, every whiskey will ‘win’ an award.  I’ve never seen a shelf talker that states the category the spirit won an award in. Since not all spirits are entered in every award show there is never a true best of award; it’s only best of what was entered.

The largest award show is the annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition.  In 2017 2,253 spirits entered this competition and 2,083 of those ‘won’ a medal.  That’s a 92.4% win rate; guess the judges are not very strict.  That year the winner of best whiskey went to an unreleased to retail honey barrel product.  I know a judge, Fred Minnick, in this competition. I do give them credit that spirits are truly blind tasted, but judges do talk to each other and try to sway influence.  The founder was recently interviewed by Kenny Coleman on his Bourbon Pursuit podcast show;  Kenny’s Interview  Kenny did ask about producers entering honey barrels bottles and the founder sidestepped the question and does not think it happens with spirits.  In 2017, Ben Milam won a double gold, SFWSC’s highest medal, for their Single Barrel Bourbon. Ben Milam sourced this whiskey from MGPi. I don’t know what they turned in to be judged but I bought a bottle at retail. I put in a blind tasting of 15 participants with a total of 20 whiskies, all blind to participants.  It finished 12th; hardly worthy of a double gold award. So who are you going to trust? The 2018 award winner was again another producer submitted single barrel product.

How long should these awards last?  Producers change production methods over time and NDP’s switch sources which means the whiskey changes as well.  Tito’s entered the San Francisco World Spirits in the second year of the competition, 2001.  Tito’s did ‘win’ a double gold medal. They never entered again and yet to this day still brag about that gold medal and the other Vodkas they beat in their advertising.  What they don’t say is 2 other Vodkas also ‘won’ double gold. The top winner also is stated as Best Vodka and that year it was not Tito’s; it was Wodka Wyborowa Vodka from Poland.

The only award the really matters is the one you give a whiskey. Tasting whiskey is very subjective; you may or may not agree with any so called expert panel.  That leads to the question of how to know if you like a whiskey before purchasing it? I have a goto bar that always brings in new whiskies and generally will give me a small taste to sample.  In my market there are several whiskey shows which is a great way to try new products. Another option is to have whiskey get togethers in your local town where everyone brings a bottle to share. I’ll repeat the only award the really matters is the one you give a whiskey.

This leads us to whiskey tater reason #6. Purchase a bottle of whiskey because a shelf talker mentioned it ‘won’ an award

5 thoughts on “Spirit award shows are all crap”

  1. You make many true points here. But theres a bigger game a foot here — the drinks world is all about massive companies selling spirits, fighting for retail space and reach and consumers wanting the bottom line on product. If craft distillers had their way, we’d all be buying their bottles of spirits for $200 and they’d think that was fair due to the amount of love and toil they put in to their products, but the consumer wouldn’t. The massive multinationals keep things in check, and competitions (at least the few well known and respected) are just part of this bigger game. For every competition theres a distributor who wants to charge a producer for signage, a wholesaler who wants to charge a phantom “case handing fee”, a stockist asking for a “product on-boarding fee”, they list goes on an on, there is no end of organizations asking for money from producers for seemingly intangible services, this isn’t 1976 and craft producers aren’t the punks and Diageo the big bad industry waiting to be taken down. This is the spirits industry and its one big game!

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  2. I agree with your comments. There may be another side to it though…when tasting products it MAY be possible that several taste very good (different but good) and get an award. But I think you are correct and if everyone “wins” then they keep coming back and paying to enter “competitions.” Hey everyone likes to be a winner! For me I get to experience actual customers tasting the products and telling me what they think. That is the best award! We entered three competitions and “won” in all of them and that is enough. We could see that the competition had no real merit because of the reasons you stated.
    -Tater turned distiller

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    1. ‘Tater turned distiller’ – got a good chuckle out of that. I’m not sure when the next time I’ll be in KY but would love to come by and see your operation and the grounds of Old Crow. Cheers.

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