Paul Dempsey Ian Burrell China

A select few of us have the opportunity to share our passion and knowledge of beer, wine and spirits as part of a drinks competition jury panel. On this guest blog post, Paul Dempsey – pictured below – Commercial Manager (International) at Speyside Distillers and Spirits Competition Judge, opens up on what the experience entails in his own words….

“There are many ways a spirits producer can attempt to stand out to prospective customers.  Retailer recommendations (especially from those great spirits stores that it’s difficult to visit in person right now), advertising, product placement, fancy packaging & awards can all play a part.

I’ve been fortunate enough to serve on several awards juries over the last few years, and have included some FAQ’s below to provide a little more information for anyone that’s ever wondered how those shiny awards medals make it onto the bottles.

What are the competitions?

There’s a myriad of competitions for wines & spirits each year.  Some, like the International Wine & Spirits Competition (IWSC), Spirits Selection by Concours Mondial de Bruxelles (CMB) and the World Whiskies Awards are large international events, though there are national and regional events on the calendar in every country too.   Some events are staged in the same locations each year, whilst others such as Spirits Selection for example, have a different host country for each edition.

Who runs them?  

Many are arranged by media organisations and publishers of trade magazines, others may be managed by dedicated event companies, trade associations or community groups.  They can be funded by a combination of entry fees, sponsorships (often by packaging suppliers and design agencies) and ticket sales from follow-on trade shows or awards ceremonies. In some instances, trade associations and government agencies may provide support too.  Award winning products can also purchase the medal labels that you may see adorning certain bottles on a shelf.

Who are the judges?

Juries usually comprise a combination of writers, producers, trade buyers, sommeliers, retailers & distributors, and can vary in size from event to event.  The jury for the last Spirits Selection event for example, involved over 100 judges from 30 countries.

What does the judging entail?

In most cases, this will involve a table of judges reviewing groups (flights) of samples.

They are asked to award scores on various criteria, such as aroma, complexity, balance & finish.  The scores are aggregated to give each product a score (out of 100, for example), and medals awarded if the product’s total is over a certain specified score.

It’s therefore possible to see several products receiving Gold or Silver medals at the same event, so the awards are a reference point for quality, rather an award for 1st, 2nd or 3rd place, although in some cases,  standout products may be highlighted as “best in class” or similar.

In my experience, the tastings are always blind, & the judges have no information as to the producer or price of a product – it’s all about identifying well-made, high quality spirits.

Any surprising results?  

Always!  In recent years, some supermarket own-label spirits have performed particularly well, receiving several “best in category” accolades – proving that great quality is not solely the reserve of higher price brands .  Stereotypes are often challenged too – from over 1,700 spirits entered into the 2019 Spirits Selection tastings, just 7 whiskies achieved the highest “Grand Gold” award. Only three of these were Scotch Whiskies (all from small producers or independent bottlers), with distilleries from Taiwan, France and India collecting the others.

What are the benefits of an award?

Some retailers or trade buyers monitor the major awards programs when considering new products, and an award can also open new markets.  My own distillery received our first listing with the LCBO (government liquor board in Canada) following a high score from a US judging panel.  The competition organisers also exhibit at international trade events, so a winning product may be shown or endorsed at events such as Prowein, BCB, Tales of The Cocktail or Vinexpo.

Many of the awards bodies can also provide data to show uplifts in sales of award-winning products.  Some of these can be dramatic – another of our whiskies topped its category at the World Whisky Awards, resulting in the entire batch selling out in a fraction of the time anticipated. The next batch of the whisky sold out to our distributors in 48 hrs.

And the benefits of taking part as a Judge?  

There’s the opportunity to taste some of the best new releases, and the opportunity to network and learn from fellow industry professionals.

Business cards and trade leads are exchanged, reciprocal distillery visits arranged, and even distribution agreed. As an example, my first conversations with our current distributors in Poland and France took place at judging events.  Education also plays a crucial part, with Judges invited to attend seminars, tastings and site visits, or take part in focus groups.  All heaven for spirits enthusiasts!

Any memorable highlights?  

Many!   Visiting the small Bauza Pisco distillery in Chile, and the massive Fenjiu distillery in China a few years later was a real thrill. Sharing a seminar stage in China with whisky writer Dom Roskrow was an honour, as was meeting the many well-wishers who followed the Spirits Selection events there in 2019 (pictured at start of blog post).

Turning up at festivals during my “day job” and running into fellow judges from previous events is always fun too, and usually leads to some great drams!

Visiting Pisco Bauza Distillery in Chile, 2017
Visiting Baijiu Fenjiu Distillery in China, 2019

How are judges recruited – do you need qualifications? 

There isn’t a standard process.  I worked with spirits distributors for a number of years – working with whisky, tequila, rum and liqueur producers – before joining a distillery in 2014. In my current role, I regularly present at festivals and tastings around the world, and received an invite from Spirits Selection to take part in their 2016 event.

Since then, I’ve taken part in further Spirits Selection events, along with sessions for the World Whisky Awards in London, and also the Warsaw Whisky Awards, which take place as part of the fantastic “Whisky Live” festival in Poland.

World Whiskies Awards 2018 panel

Regarding education, I have WSET qualifications, and have completed some whisky coursework too.  Some judges hold IBD (Institute of Brewing & Distilling) diplomas, or have degrees and doctorates, whilst others have a lifetime of experience of working with wines & spirits to draw from.  The one common link is that all have an interest in Spirits that goes well beyond a day-job, the kind of people that can’t drive past a distillery or new spirits shop without stopping the car!

How do you become a judge?   

Some organisations may have an application process; others may have a database of judges they can call on for specific events.  Many of the competitions list their judges on their web sites too so don’t be afraid to get in touch with any of the judges or organisations to let them know of your interest.

Competitions run throughout the year, though due to the current Covid-19 situation, entry dates for several have been extended, and some locations are subject to change. Please check the individual competition websites for details.”

Media Interview in Bulgaria, 2018

For reference – Useful Links:

Spirits Selection sessions in Bulgaria, 2018 – featuring Judge interviews and distillery footage

Spirits Selection footage from 2019, China  – includes great images of the Baijiu distilleries

If interested, click on links below for more information on each of the following drinks competitions:

International Wine and Spirit Competition

Spirits Selection

World Whiskies Awards

International Spirits Challenge

International Whisky Competition

Scottish Whisky Awards

Spirits Masters

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