Behind the Scenes of the Ultimate Spirits Challenge

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Ultimate Spirits Challenge
Ultimate Spirits Challenge

I’ve had the pleasure, and the challenge, to be involved with a number of major spirits competitions in my career. Often, I look forward to them with a combination of excitement and dread. I’m always excited at the opportunity to taste side by side with some of the industry’s luminaries and help accolade some of the world’s best spirits. However, I often dread the Herculean task of nearly drowning in spirits with flight after flight of spirits.

For many years the main competition I judged was the San Francisco International Spirits Competition. In 2012, I ended my tenure with them (at the same time I stopped writing for The Tasting Panel Magazine), over deep concerns over the ethics of the publisher of the magazine (who also runs the competition). Spirits competitions are only as good as the people who run them, so if a medal is ever going to mean anything, it has to come from someone who people can trust.

This year I had the pleasure to judge the Ultimate Spirits Challenge. Located in Hawthorne, New York (about an hour train ride from New York City), Ultimate Spirits Challenge is housed in a tasting center built from the ground up for the specific purpose of housing beverage competitions. Conceived by the legendary F. Paul Pacult, Ultimate Spirits Challenge takes decades of experience and learnings in the competition space and builds on them to create one of the smartest, well constructed, and perfectly executed spirits competitions.

A Flight at Ultimate Spirits Challenge
A Flight at Ultimate Spirits Challenge

Unlike most spirits competitions which are adjunct to a conference or festival, Ultimate Spirits Challenge is part of a series of competitions under the Ultimate Beverage Challenge umbrella. At this point the competitions cover spirits, cocktails, and wine, but there are discussions about future expansions to other beverage categories.

One of the things that makes the Ultimate Spirits Challenge unique is that it does not just take place over a weekend. Spirit groupings are split into two day rounds, with several rounds scheduled throughout the year. This means that judges get to spend more concentrated time on smaller flights of spirits, and the competition is less an exercise in palate endurance and more a qualitative analysis of the spirits being judged.

Small Flights Equal Better Results
Small Flights Equal Better Results

Also, unlike most spirits competitions, Ultimate Spirits Challenge doesn’t give out medals; instead, each spirit gets a unique score (on the classic 100 point scale) as well as detailed tasting notes from the judges. Many spirits competitions team judges into groups of four (or more), but at the Ultimate Spirits Competition, each team consists of two people. I found this to be exceptionally more effective and as a whole we spent much less time waxing poetic about what we were tasting, and much more time on the sensory analysis and spirits evaluation.

The mix of judges also sets Ultimate Spirits Challenge apart. For the round I judged (which included American Whiskies, Rum, Pisco, Sloe Gin, and Coffee Liqueurs), I was paired with the legendary Dale DeGroff. Other judges in this round included such industry luminaries as Willie Shine, Tad Carducci, Dan Nicolaescu, Doug Miller, James Conley, Francis Schott, and of course, F. Paul Pacult. By drawing from a diverse cross section from the spirits industry, the Ultimate Spirits Challenge represents a diverse number of perspectives and disciplines.

As I compared notes with Dale DeGroff, I found that many of my comments were focused on the structure and character of a spirit while Dale’s were focused on flavor and mix-ability. This ended up being an ideal combination where our two styles lined up to give a complete picture of each spirit.

Ultimate Beverage Challenge
Ultimate Beverage Challenge

Another element that makes the Ultimate Spirits Challenge unique is the companion cocktail element to the competition. All of the major spirits that we evaluated neat were also evaluated in a benchmark cocktail (i.e. Daiquiri or Manhattan). It was clear that some of the spirits performed much differently in the cocktails.

Ultimately, the thing that makes Ultimate Spirits Challenge so relevant is that it’s run by people who deeply understand spirits. By lessening the load in each round for judges and giving them more time to focus on fewer spirits, the results are much better. Also by giving scores with notes rather than medals, the real cream rises to the crop, unlike many competitions which are simply medal factories, with a majority getting “gold” or “double gold”.

You can see the complete results for the 2015 Ultimate Spirits Challenge here .

Some of the highlights include Chairman’s Trophy Winners: Russian Standard Original Vodka, El Tesoro Platinum Tequila, Amaras Mezcal, Lone Elm Texas Wheat Whiskey, Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve 20 Years Old , Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Straight 6 Years Old Rye, George Dickel No. 12 Tennessee Whiskey, Aberlour A’bunadh Single Malt Whisky, Jameson 18 Years Old Whiskey, Redbreast 15 Years Old, Bushmills 16 Years Old, ABK6 XO Family Reserve Cognac, Chateau de Laubade Cask Strength 1989 25 Years Old Bas-Armagnac, and Pisco Porton Mosto Verde Italia.

  • Wade

    I consider most spirits award shows to be nothing more than pay for play advertising. I recall a recent one set in a Bahamas resort that a couple of products ‘won’ gold medals and when looked a little further and saw that one of the judges had a financial interest in those same products. I appreciate the explanation on the Ultimate Spirits Challenge and they way this is conducted. I still have one area of concern and that is on the producers side. I fear that some turn in honey picked bottles to be judged. Unless the competition purchases the bottle at retail like the rest of us, I can’t trust the results.

    • I experienced that at SF Spirits, a notable Cachaca producer clearly sent in a competition bottle. I honestly don’t think that’s the case with USC. Paul is too savvy and runs such a tight ship, I think he’d spot a competition bottle and reject it. I do know that we had one bad bottle that was corked and had a retaste. So that leads me to believe competition bottles aren’t really happening at USC.

      • Wade

        Another way a producer can game the system is they can enter a product that basically does not exist in the retail channel. If this product scores well, they get big time name association kudos. Example, last year Balcones scored a 92 in USC on their Balcones Fifth Anniversary Bourbon. They made one barrel of this and it produced under 200 bottles, most of which was entered in various spirits competition, given to reviewers, or sampled out at whiskey events. That’s basically the same as turning in a honey picked competition bottle.

        • Wade, it’s a little different. The accolade for that would match the product. A competition bottle says is a special bottle parading as a retail one.

  • Karlo Krauzig

    I have been predicting the demise of spirit competitions happening as quickly as the demise of radically flavoured vodkas.

    SF Spirits is a medal factory – too many spirits judged over too little time strictly as a profit driven venture. They lost all credibility with me when in 2011 Alberta Pure Vodka won Best Vodka, Double Gold and then in 2012 they came away with a Bronze! How does the best vodka in the world, according to SF Spirits, one year later and unchanged come away with a bronze? This clearly shows the flaws in SF Spirits methodology. A spirit judged by several experts should rate consistently year after year. Yes, other new spirits may unseat a champion but should never relegate them to the bottom. BTW I believe Alberta Pure belongs at the bottom.

    The rating system Ultimate Spirit Challenge has adopted is by far more credible and their smaller approach much more reasonable. Kudos to them!

    • Wade

      Tito’s is making a living off the one time he entered his Vodka in the SF Spirits show, which was in 2001. He brags about his Vodka beat all those others and that he won a Double Gold. What he leaves out is that a cheap vodka imported from Poland was named best in class that year ahead of him.