I was privileged to have attended this international event as one of its drinks judges, sampling and rating spirits from across the globe such as whiskies, cognacs, brandies, rums, vodkas, gins, piscos, grappas, baijius and tequilas, amongst other spirits. These were all assessed and classified by a panel of over 100 internationally renowned experts including drinks industry authors, trainers, global ambassadors for different categories such as agave spirits or cachaça, as well as people with many years of experience working across the drinks industry. For a full list of those judges involved in 2021 – click here.
The competition was initially started in 1999 and it is held in a different country every year, enhancing the event’s international scope and providing better exposure for award-winning spirits worldwide. This year there was a record 1,801 entries from 47 countries, grouped in 42 different categories and this diversity of entries reflects world consumption. For example, as the most consumed spirit in the world, Chinese Baijiu continues to top the entry chart, but close on its heels are the sugar cane distillates, rum and cachaça.
The Concours Mondial de Bruxelles itself was originally established by Louis Havaux and held for the first time in April 1994. Initially reserved for wines, it was only joined by spirits in 1999.
Finding the ‘right’ spirits amongst the thousands of commercially available products is no easy task. Even though taste and personal experience are still the best guides, the consumer in search of reliable quality cues can also have complete confidence in medals from the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles.
The competition has garnered its reputation by rigorously selecting renowned judges of proven expertise. The organisers provide tasting conditions of the highest standard and have invested unsparingly in post-event checks of award-winning spirits. Additional analysis are also carried out regularly on spirits that display the precious Concours Mondial de Bruxelles bottle sticker. These checks are conducted so that consumers can rest assured that the ‘Concours Mondial’ seal is a reliable measure of quality.
“The winners of this competition are true standouts because there were no participation awards. Everyone’s point of view is heard out.” Robin Robinson, author and founder of Robin Robinson LLC
The choice of host country does not occur on a random basis: the organizers target growth markets, both for production and consumption of spirits. After Chile in 2017, Bulgaria in 2018, China in 2019, and Brussels in 2020 and 2021 (due to the pandemic), the 23rd edition of the event will be held in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe, offering a unique opportunity for the West Indies’ archipelago to showcase its time-honoured expertise in distilling sugar cane. The event will take place from 20th to 23rd June 2022 and it will coincide with the 17th Route du Rhum, the prestigious transatlantic yacht race held once every four years.
The organizers ensure the judges enjoy optimal tasting conditions. The wide array of products and high alcoholic strengths make sensory analysis of spirits challenging. The number of samples tasted per session is deliberately restricted to 35 and Spirits Selection by Concours Mondial de Bruxelles attaches great importance to training its judges. This year for example, we heard from Derek Sandhaus on Baijiu, a subject which he knows well having lived in China, authored a number of books on the Chinese spirit and co-founding Ming River Baijiu.
The tasting sessions are held over three mornings, behind closed doors. Every care is taken to ensure the best possible conditions: light, strictly controlled humidity levels and air temperature (between 18 and 22°C), observance of a monastic silence in the tasting rooms, impeccable glasses and service. Before each tasting session, a palate preparation exercise is conducted to harmonize and calibrate marks given by judges.
Samples to be tasted are grouped in consistent flights based on the characteristics stated by the producer and analysis certificates, after checks ensuring they have been entered in the right category. The samples are presented to the juries in ascending order of alcohol content and descending order of residual sugar content. Each spirit is tasted individually and not comparatively. Each panel is given a list of 4 to 5 flights which will be tasted in the order set out by the organisers, with a maximum of 35 samples per morning.
All series of spirits proposed for tasting to the international jury are of course served blind. The organization of the Competition guarantees the total anonymity of the samples. The filling of glasses is done in the preparation hall out of the judges’ sight. The tasters do not know the origin, the price and the possible marks and awards obtained by these samples. Only the category to which each sample belongs is mentioned on the tasting form to be filled in.
Competing products are tasted and marked using the tasting sheet developed by the Spirits Selection technical management. Selected criteria involve :
- sight: clarity, appearance, colour
- smell: intensity, honesty and quality
- taste: intensity, honesty, quality and persistency
- Overall balance
Marks for each criterion determine the overall weighted score for each sample.
Each panel is placed under the authority of a chair person appointed by the organization, who is responsible for the smooth running of the tastings and checks the quality of spirits served and the score sheets and allocation of points. On a more general level, the panel chair is expected to be attentive and ensure the tastings run smoothly. The chair sets the tempo for the tastings and is responsible for a certain consistency in the way marks are awarded within the panel. At the end of a flight, all the information is collected directly by members of staff for a final check before the results are processed.
The huge array of spirits available makes comparative tastings complex. It is impossible for a taster to be fully proficient in every category. With input from panel members, Spirits Selection has developed a guide – Spirits Sensory Guidelines – which describes the specific characteristics of each category and subcategory. The competition also holds master classes prior to the event to present and discuss the evolving document. This allows the judges to refine their judging for the categories they are less familiar with.
“The key features of Spirits Selection are its independence, its strict standards and its quality control.” Thierry Heins
“With a team of professionals and international judges selected for their tasting abilities, we can guarantee reliable results that are recognised by the industry and appreciated by consumers. Our quest for reliability and promotion of the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles endorsement are the primary missions of our organization.” Thierry Heins, Spirits Selection Director
The quality of all drinks entries was very high in 2021 and this was matched by the professionalism of the organisers and their support throughout including the training and masterclasses available, which coupled with the judges involved, ensured a high standard of judging. For reference, all the results for the 2021 edition are now available online – click here to access them.
I should add that there was also some time to get to know fellow drinks judges and local producers from Belgium, such as Belgian Owl Distillery; Distillery of Biercee; and Mont St Jean microbrewery & microdistillery overlooking the famous battlefield of Waterloo amongst others.
We also had some fun along the way!