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What’s it like to judge a spirits competition?

My “job” duties can be quite interesting. Beyond the day to day operations of Cocktails By Mail and Wine & Such, quite often there’s something unusual on the to-do list. One day I am moving 6000 boxes, the next welding metal for new shelves, and the following at New Covent Garden picking up flowers.

This week I was doing something I look forward to every year- Judging at the IWSC.

The IWSC, is The International Wine & Spirits Competition.

An annual wine and spirit competition founded in 1969 by the German/British oenologist Anton Massel. Each year the competition receives entries from over 90 countries worldwide. The awards given by the competition are considered as high honours in the industry.

Depending on the points out of 100 awarded, submitted products can receive gold outstanding, gold, silver, or bronze awards, and there are no limitations on how many of each which can be awarded. There is also an extensive range of trophies each year, awarded to the best product in a category.

Each day of judging I am on a panel with three other people. We have a general main category to judge each day. This year I was on the panels for Tequila & Mezcal, Liqueurs, Contemporary Gin, Aquavit, Ouzo, Absinthe, Fruit Brandies, and Flavoured Gins. Each category is sub-categorised to help us judge like for like, ie: Reposado Mezcal, Honey Liqueurs, or Japanese Contemporary Gins.

Judging spirits is a unique challenge. You must park your personal taste preferences at the door, as you really need to focus on the quality of the spirit in the glass, not whether or not you personally would drink it. This might seem counterintuitive at first, but isn’t as tricky as you might think.

First, most of the spirits we try are in fact delicious. Very few are faulty or of such poor quality they are “unenjoyable.” Second, I love all spirits- there are only a few very particular flavour profiles I dislike, spices like cumin for example, which are usually pretty easy to detect. When I come across a gin or liqueur with cumin in it, I have to just realign my brain to remind myself what it is I am judging. 1) Is the base spirit well made? 2) Are the flavours in balance with each other? 3) Is the sugar/acidity/ABV in balance? 4) Is there complexity and depth?

By going back to these objectives (well sort of objective) it helps keep my personal preference in check. In fact, I gave a Gold Medal to a liqueur that had cumin in it, because even though I hate cumin, it was used so well in the spirit adding just enough earthy complexity I couldn’t deny it was delicious!

The second tricky part of judging spirits is keeping your nose sharp all day long. We nose each spirit, and taste every one. When you are doing this for 65 spirits in a day, your nose can quickly burn out.

Have you ever had a situation, where you enter somewhere really stinky, but after 15 minutes you don’t notice it anymore? Welcome to olfactory fatigue. Here’s a Wikipedia page about it if you want more information.

The same thing can happen when we are nosing the spirits constantly one after another. We all have our own tricks to keep our noses from burning out. My personal ones are sniffing my shirt (which doesn’t have any fragrance on it) or the water crackers provided for us. Another trick is to make sure you nose each spirit in different orders. Depending what you sniff just prior, the aromas coming off a spirit can change drastically.

Olfactory training is a real thing, and something I am constantly practising in my day to day life. Walking down the street, when I pick up the whiff of something I force myself to place the scent. Is it weed? Petrol? Cut grass? This constant reinforcement of smells makes it much easier to recall the aromas when detected in a spirit.

Another difficult part of tasting 65+ spirits is how much the alcohol tears up your mouth and lips. Even though we are spitting, just having that much alcohol in your mouth and on your lips is really drying. Especially if you are tasting Navy Strength gins or Absinthe. Some of the Absinthes were 68% ABV! By the end of the day, your lips are wrinkled, parched, and exhausted. Drinking water constantly and nibbling on crackers helps, but it really is a workout for your mouth.

Judging at IWSC is an absolute blast though. Beyond getting to taste some amazingly delicious stuff, like that mezcal that smelled like freshly peeled banana skins, getting to discuss and learn from the other panel members is invaluable. I’ve sat on panels with some absolute legends, and my palate has become more refined because of them. Distillers are especially helpful as they are able to help me recognize when an aroma is actually a fault in a spirit, or how a certain technique in distilling comes across in the final product.

I have to send a big congratulations to all the spirits who have earned a medal (though I have no idea who that is until the IWSC releases the results). And here’s to the people who push boundaries and are creating better spirits everyday.


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