Monday, September 28, 2015
Here Comes the Judge: My First Spirits Competition
When distributor/importer Nicolas Palazzi asked me to be a spirits judge at the Good Food Awards in San Francisco, my first question was how many medals they give out. I'm very skeptical of the spirits award circuit where medals are handed out like candy to nearly every entrant (each of whom pay a sizable fee). Then the companies prominently advertise that they won the triple bronze medal. Not to worry, Palazzi assured me, there are no medals. They either get a Good Food Award or they don't, and only the ones the judges think merit it, based entirely on quality, get the award. There are entry fees, but they are low ($60 per entry compared to over $400 for some competitions).
The Good Food Awards defines "good food" as being "tasty, authentic and responsible." The criteria for entrance are quite strict. In the spirits category, which includes spirits as well as modifiers (bitters, shrubs, syrups, mixers, etc.), the products are required to be free of artificial additives, grown and sourced "responsibly," and largely free of pesticides, GMO ingredients and synthetic fertilizers (I say "largely" because the criteria are very detailed, but the whole thing is very San Francisco). Given those criteria, I'm not sure how many spirits would qualify to enter, but that's not my job to figure that out. I was just there to taste.
And taste I did. In the morning session, we split into three groups, each of which tasted ten to fifteen spirits and another ten to fifteen mixers. Each table decided which items from the first set of tastings deserved to be tasted in the second heat, which would be the awards scoring panel. That afternoon, we tasted the items bumped up by one of the other groups, scored them and recommended which we thought merited awards.
For the tastings, we were only told the type of spirit and proof. I tasted everything from cucumber vodka (which was surprisingly good) to ginger liqueur. In my usual style, I was very conservative with my scoring, and that seemed to be the approach most of the judges were taking. Of the 40 or so products I tasted that day, I think I recommended four for awards. Among the best things I tasted were a raspberry shrub syrup and an apple brandy. There were a handful of whiskeys, but none of them made the grade. They tasted like typical, small barrel craft whiskeys. Of course, based on the structure of the awards being divided into three groups, I didn't taste every spirit that was being judged.
I still don't know what I tasted or what will win awards. That will be announced in January along with the awards for the many other categories, from cheese to honey to cider, but I'll be interested to see what we came up with, and it was a fun way to spend a Sunday.