Spirit Hub’s guide to the world of craft spirits judging competitions.
For independent distillers, much of their joy comes from the looks on people’s faces. The face of utter satisfaction having just sampled some of the finest meticulously crafted small batch spirits the world over.
But satisfied customers are only one of the rewarding perks in the distilling profession.
Industry recognition is just as gratifying. Really, who doesn’t like being awarded glimmering medals and affirming distinctions. Spanning every industry there are ceremonies celebrating all sorts of accomplishments.
The spirit of competition is not lost on the craft spirits industry.
Across the country, highly-competitive, annual craft spirits awards competitions hand out a variety of accolades, which, when awarded, announce the certifiable excellence of the spirits.
Craft spirits judging competitions
Founded in 2007, the American Distilling Institute Judging of Craft Spirits is the oldest and largest running spirits judging competition devoted solely to craft spirits. Since its first days, the competition has grown exponentially.
The 2020 competition saw 990 different entrants. Of those entries, three-quarters walked away with medals, and for the first time in the history of ADI’s Judging of Craft Spirits, more silver medals were awarded than bronze. Make no mistake, these aren’t participation trophies. There are well-earned badges honoring the artisanship of the bottled spirits.
Built off a similar model to ADI’s Judging of Craft Spirits, the American Craft Spirits Awards have been running annually since 2014. Like the ADI’s 2020 competition, the American Craft Spirits Awards had their competition grow. Never mind the fact they had 500 unique spirits from 42 states, the craft spirit awards added a new category in 2020: Ready to Drink.
Both of these craft spirits judging competitions are run the same way.
Flights of spirits are tasted blind by panels of judges and given a numerical score out of 100. The panels are composed of distillers, wholesalers, retailers, mixologists, journalists, and reviewers, subjecting the entries to a diverse blend of industry experts.
They differ slightly in how they award the medals. The ADI doles out awards following a deliberation period by the judges where they come to a consensus on which bottles receive awards. At the American Craft Spirits Awards, medals are awarded based on an average score among the panels. A score between 70-79 earns a small batch spirit a bronze, 80-89 silver, 90-100 gold.
The process is similar across most of the world’s spirit judging competitions.
Competitions like the San Francisco World Spirits Competition or the New York International Spirits Competition are based on similar judging panels. But they aren’t limited to craft, or spirits for that matter. But just because these small batch spirits are rubbing shoulders with the Goliaths of the spirit industry, doesn’t mean the Davids can’t shine too.
As one of the world’s oldest spirit competitions, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition helped chart the course for the rest of these famed competitions when it was founded back in 2000. Countless independent distilleries have brought home medals in the past two decades.
Like R6 Distillery, who brought home silver medals two years running for their R6 Bourbon. Or Prohibition Craft Spirits, who walked away with a silver in 2018 for their NULU Reposado.
On rarified air is the SIP Awards. The internationally recognized spirits judging competition stands apart from the rest as the only one where the judges are a different kind of expert. The consumer.
Tasting blind, the consumer-based competition doles out awards much like the rest of judging competitions. With awards ranging from Bronze to Best in Class, one thing is certain if the spirits hold a distinction from the SIP Awards: That guy down the bar recommends it.
The New York International Spirit Competition also runs things differently.
At the New York spirits competition, the judges are only trade buyers. Putting winners like Tenderfoot Malt Whiskey by Wood’s High Mountain Distillery and Rye Whiskey Finished in Port Barrels by Five & 20 Spirits directly into the hands – and mouths – of the buyers making decisions at one of the biggest beverage markets in the world.
Unlike the rest of this list, Wine Enthusiast doesn’t hold an annual competition solely for spirits. But, in their annual Wine Star Award, there’s a category for Spirit Brand/Distillery of the Year. And in 2020, Uncle Nearest is one of the nominees.
In addition to the award, Wine Enthusiast provides spirit ratings, reviews, and tasting notes. Like the rest of these competitions, the spirits are tasted and rated by industry professionals.
The experts at Wine Enthusiast award spirits a score out of 100. The higher the number, the higher the recommendation is that the spirit should occupy space on your bar cart. A score in the low-eighties signifies a good value that comes recommended with a score between 98-100 represents the absolute “pinnacle of quality” whereas spirits rated in the 80-82 range are for “less-critical circumstances.”
Wine Enthusiast also keeps a searchable database of all their spirit scores, including brief reviews and quick tasting notes. All the information needed
High honors of the craft spirit awards
It’s rare, but it’s not impossible for every spirit in a given flight to medal, even gold medal! So each of the competitions have “Best of” awards to signify true achievement in the realm of craft spirits.
Like Virago Spirits Four-Port Rum. Who walked away with Double Gold, Best of Class, and Best of Category honors at the 2019 ADI Judging of Craft Spirits. That means a couple of things for the small batch rum.
First, Double Gold. That means each individual panelist awarded Four-Port Rum a Gold medal. The Best of Category title is given to spirits that have won Gold or Double Gold and are agreed upon as being exceptional representations of a given category, like blended bourbon or classic gin.
Finally, Best of Class is given to bottles that have won both Double Gold and Best of Category.
The American Craft Spirits Awards has similar awards, but as their competition is based points, Best of Class and Best of Show are awarded to the top scoring entries in each spirits style and the entire competition respectively.
They also give out a Best of Innovation award. In the scoring process, judges award spirits with “innovation” points. At the end of the competition, the spirit with the most innovation points in each category earns the Best of Innovation title.
The Spirit of Competition
There’s more to competition than a sparkling medal and some bottle stickers. And it’s the foundation of every creative profession: Constructive feedback.
These craft spirit judging competitions don’t just hand out distinctions. As the judging panels fill out their score cards, there’s a space for the judges to leave comments. A free space for the judges to talk to the distillers.
To tell them about memorable flavors. Remarkable tones. The spirit’s successes and the potentials for improvement. Because distilling is a long process. It’s a labor of love where the most minor, incremental tweaks can change a spirit in drastic ways.
What doesn’t win one year, could win the next. And that’s what the craft industry is all about.
Constant change in the relentless pursuit of better, uncommon flavors.