Behind The Scenes of The San Francisco World Spirits Competition

San Francisco World Spirits Competition
San Francisco World Spirits Competition

At an industry event last year, I had a spirit rep get in my face and declare, “Those spirit competitions are bullshit!” The ironic thing is that this statement came after I told him that it was at the competition where I first tried his product and fell in love with it. From the outside, a competition like the San Francisco World Spirits Competition is a little like a black box (or even a whiskey barrel) – there isn’t a lot of visibility to what happens other than when the results are announced. This may lead to confusion or misunderstandings about these competitions, how they are run, and how things actually work with them.

The reality is that what happens inside that “black box” is quite fascinating and probably different than people might expect.

Come with me behind the scenes of the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition to see what actually happens behind those closed doors.

The first thing to understand is the submission process for the competition. The competition is open to all brands, spirit categories, and countries. For many years judges have evaluated Bijou, Cognac, Pisco, Gin, Vodka, Tequila, Rum and other spirits from around the world. This is truly a world spirits competition with submissions from all around the globe. The entries span a wide range of producers, from some of the biggest brands in the world to some of the smallest. The competition is also often a place where new spirits will debut. Last year American Harvest Vodka, Don Julio 70, and Bulleit Rye Bourbon all competed for medals before the products were even officially announced. A win at SF Spirits has the ability to significantly influence the trajectory of a spirit.

Brands, manufacturers, and suppliers enter the competition by paying a fee and sending in enough product to be evaluated. Entries are not tied to who does the most advertising, who is the biggest, or any other external factors. You pay your fee and you are in. This year over 1200 different spirits entered the competition, and each and every single one was individually evaluated.

Once all the entries are selected, a large volunteer team handles the massive logistical challenge of organizing and staging these spirits for judging. The scale of this task is mindblowing.

San Francisco Spirits Competition Judges (photo: Jorg Lehmann)
San Francisco Spirits Competition Judges (photo: Jorg Lehmann)

The actual judging of the spirits competition is done by thirty-three key people who come from all aspects of the spirits industry, including such luminaries as Anthony Dias Blue, Tony Abou-Ganim, Audrey Saunders, Francesco Lafranconi, Bridget Albert, Jim Romdall, Derek M. Brown, Aidan Demarest, and the list goes on and on. The judges represent the best palates in the industry, and they fly in from around the country and converge at the Nikko Hotel in Downtown San Francisco.

Judges are split into teams of four with the most senior of the group acting as the team captain. The 1200 spirits are divided up by class and then distributed to the teams. The team I was on was captained by Stephen Beal, Master of Whiskey, and included respected journalist Nick Passmore, writer and award-winning mixologist and beverage consultant Kim Hassarud, and myself, Geoffrey Kleinman, who of course runs, and freelances for publications like Playboy Magazine, Essential Homme, and The Tasting Panel Magazine.

Our team was tasked with tasting over 139 individual spirits over the course of three days. All spirits are tasted completely blind – we have no idea what brands we are tasting until the very end when all the votes have been cast and tallied. Spirits are tasted in flights of as few as two spirits to as many as 12. Each individual glass is evaluated individually. The competition also isn’t a ranking: each glass is evaluated for eligibility for a bronze, silver, gold, or double gold medal.

Our Group of Spirits
Our Group of Spirits

Tastings are done both individually and as a team. When the flight is wheeled up and staged on judges’ tables, each judge goes through the flight smelling and tasting each spirit, taking copious notes, and finally giving a personal score. Once scores are recorded, the group sits and discusses the spirits collectively and reconciles their scores. Sometimes a spirit will have a clear and unanimous award, where we get to a glass and all clearly love or dislike it. There can also be slight differences in judges scores, and so we talk it out. These discussions are perhaps some of the more important and interesting discourse around spirits anywhere.

No award is given to a spirit until the entire team is in agreement on the award, and no double gold is given without the team unanimously agreeing that the spirit is worthy of the highest distinction. Beyond that, even getting a double gold doesn’t ensure a spirit will be sent on to the final sweepstakes round; again, the team has to be in agreement to send it along. This means that not only are the double golds some of the best of the best, but the sweepstakes entries are the very best of the best.

Judges truly take their time going through each glass of spirit, sipping and nosing it over and over again. Palates are cleansed with bread, Muenster cheese, and copious amounts of water. Over the course of three days our team went through over 13 liters of water. Keeping your palate sharp through so many spirits is a massively important part of the competition, and the palates of these judges are some of the best in the world.

Spirits are evaluated on a number of criteria including quality of distillation, delivery of flavors, complexity, use and integration of aging (for aged spirits), and representation of the class and category. A spirit with significant problems, issues, or very poor flavor will be given a “no medal designation”. Spirits which enter the competition and are “not medaled” should be considered “not recommended”. Bronze medals are given to spirits which have good elements, flavors, or qualities but somehow have something that holds them back (like a slightly hot finish or short finish, slightly inferior integration, underwhelming flavor delivery, or slight imperfection). Bronze medal spirits are often good spirits, they just haven’t crossed the line to becoming great. Silver medals are probably the most commonly awarded medals and they are given to quality spirits that do what they should and they do it well. Silver medal spirits are extremely good spirits and should considered to be highly recommended.

Gold medals are only given to spirits that are truly excellent. A gold medal winner is not only free from flaws and issues, it delivers a vastly superior drinking experience. It not only does things right, it does them considerably better than other spirits in its category in the industry. Gold medals are tough to get, and if all judges aren’t on board, they are rarely given. If the spirit is unanimously seen by the judges are far and above the pack, then it can be given a double gold. Not all spirits that are loved by judges get this double gold distinction – it’s really reserved for the absolute best. The top of these double golds get sent to sweepstakes. These are double golds which the judges believe have what it takes to possibly win one of the major distinctions like best white spirit, best whiskey, and best brandy.

Sweepstakes Voting Done By Hand Count
Sweepstakes Voting Done By Hand Count

Sweepstakes is simply the elite. Getting into the sweepstakes is like getting nominated for the Academy Awards of spirits. Throughout this whole process, the judges are completely in the dark about exactly what they are tasting. Sure, we speculate, guess, and hypothesize, but often when the spirits are revealed, our guesses are wrong. At no time in the competition are any decisions or changes made away from the judges – it is an extremely open, honest, and fair process.

Sweepstakes occurs on the final day of judging and the teams are disbanded in favor of one big group. All judges taste all sweepstakes spirits and then vote by a show of hands on the entries. This year the quality of spirits sent to sweepstakes were so high that the winner was decided by just a few votes. It was simply the toughest competition I’ve ever witnessed in this industry.

After each category gets voted in sweepstakes, grand categories are voted on including best white spirit, best aged spirit, best whiskey, and best blend. After all the votes are cast and the winners picked, judges are lead to the inner sanctum where the actual bottles are kept. It isn’t until then that we learn exactly what we voted on and what won. Sometimes the big reveal is surprising, but it’s always a thrill.

The Big Reveal - Tequila Avion Is That Great Tequila in Glass 7!
The Big Reveal – Tequila Avion Is That Great Tequila in Glass 7!

This year at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, some of the big winners were Tequila Avion, which won Best Blanco Tequila, Best Overall Tequila, and the highly-coveted Best White Spirit. Isle of Jura 1976 was named Best Whisky, beating out a strong field of spirits which included Knob Creek Rye, which got Best Rye, and Bushmills 21, which won Best Irish Whiskey. Other big wins included Cockspur Rum for Best Dark Rum and Vizcaya for Best Aged Rum. Perhaps the biggest upset of the competition was Boulard Clavados XO, which retails for $110, beat out Hennessy’s Cognac Richard Hennessy, which sells for $3500 a bottle, for Best Brandy.

In addition to giving awards, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition is an important indicator of trends in the industry. Judges for the competition are tastemakers, and so key spirit trends often originate at the competition. Perhaps the biggest and most clear trend came with the monster Tequila Avion win. The judges clearly indicated that the Tequila category is the hot spirit category and that blanco tequila, over the more expensive and longer aged reposado, anejo and extra anejo, is where the excitement is at. Other key trends include a renewed interest in rum and aged rums, the emergence of Pisco and Aquavit, and the increasing popularity of aperitif spirits like Aperol.

Here’s the list of the major wins:

Platinka Original Vodka ($25) – Best Vodka
Effen Cucumber Vodka ($30) – Best Flavored Vodka
Krogstad Aquavit ($25) – Best Aquavit
Tanqueray London Dry Gin ($20) – Best Gin
Tequila Avion Silver ($40) – Best Blanco Tequila, Best Tequila, and Best Unaged White Spirit
Alquima Reposado Tequila ($54) – Best Reposado Tequila
Don Celso Anejo Tequila ($47) – Best Anejo Tequila
El Tesoro Extra-Aged Anejo Tequila Paradiso ($110) – Best Ultra-Aged Anejo Tequila
Real Matlatl Tobala Mezcal ($125) – Best Mezcal
Waqar Pisco ($45) – Best Pisco
Maison Leblon Cachaca Reserve ($30) – Best Cachaca
Rhum J.M. Rhum Agricole Millesime 2001 ($120) – Best Rhum Agricole
Cockspur Fine Rum ($18) – Best Dark/Gold Rum
Vizcaya Rum XVOP Cask ($38) – Best Aged Rum and Best Overall Aged White Spirit
Knob Creek Rye ($36) – Best Rye Whiskey
Old Forester Birthday Bourbon 2011 ($50) – Best Bourbon
Canadian Mist Black Diamond ($15) – Best Canadian Whiskey
Jameson 18 Year Old Irish Whiskey ($85) – Best Blended Irish Whiskey
Bushmills 21 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey ($125) – Best Irish Whiskey
Isle of Jura 1976 ($750) – Best Single Malt Scotch, Best Island Scotch, and Best Whisky
Laphroaig 10 Year Old Single Malt Scotch ($46) – Best Islay Single Malt Scotch
The Dalmore Single Malt Scotch ($1300) –  Best Highlands Single Malt Scotch
The Balvenie 17 Year Old Single Malt Scotch ($129) – Best Speyside Single Malt Scotch
Whyte & McKay 30 Year Old Scotch ($290) – Best Blended Scotch Whisky
Yamazaki 18 Year Old Single Malt Whiskey ($120) – Best Other Whiskey
Cognac Richard Hennessey ($3500) – Best Cognac
Boulard Calvados XO ($110) – Best Calvados and Best Brandy
Aperol ($22) – Best Aperitif
Grand Marnier Quintessence ($799) – Best Fruit Liqueur and Best Liqueur
Mozart Gold Chocolate Cream Liqueur ($28) – Best Cream Liqueur

Be sure to also listen to the recording of our live broadcast from the 2012 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.