Start reading labels at your local liquor store, and you’ll see lots of impressive-looking medals. All these bronzes, silvers and golds are of course supposed to convince you to buy the bottles they’re plastered on, but should you even pay attention to them? Well, it’s complicated. While there’s a lot of marketing gimmickry at work with these awards, some still retain value as arbiters of quality. Once you understand a little bit more about how these awards work, you’ll be able to sort the good from the bad and might just keep yourself from being bamboozled.
“Awards can help people get more comfortable with trying new spirits.” says Emil Jattne, co-founder of Brooklyn Gin. “They are a kind of a way in the door.” Jattne started his distillery back in 2011 and resisted entering competitions until 2015, when he relented because they were part of doing business. “Larger spirits companies can spend money on advertising, but for small guys like us, we always get the question, ‘have you won any awards?’” Luckily for him, that year he won a gold medal from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and a double gold from the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition.
But there’s a rub. “Because brands have to pay to enter, there’s a problem that if brands don’t get awards, they get mad. This leads to lots and lots of medals being given out,” says Michael Neff, the manager of bar programs at both Manhattan’s Holiday Cocktail Lounge and Los Angeles’ Clifton’s Cafeteria. Neff has served as a judge at spirits competitions both large and small and says any spirits competition’s legitimacy “all depends on the structure—not necessarily the judges but the overall circumstances.”
Both Neff and Jattne cite the San Francisco World Spirits Competition as one that’s definitely trustworthy. The annual competition takes great pride in selecting qualified judges, among them Fred Minnick, a longtime whiskey writer with three booze books under his belt, most recently Bourbon Curious. “These competitions are all very different, but they are fair,” says Minnick, who’s served as a judge for both the World Whiskies Awards and the San Francisco competition for several years. “Think of it like this: As a college-football fan, do I trust the AP Poll more than the Coaches Poll?”
This doesn’t mean all spirits awards are legit. The AP and coaches polls might both be worth considering, but there’s also that one fanatical blogger who insists Bemidji State is the best team in the country. It’s tough to suss out how “real” a given award is, but looking at how specifically it subdivides its categories can help. Are there one or two categories for vodka, or are they giving separate sets of medals for each individual flavor? Another red flag is too many awards. If you see a dozen medals on a bottle and haven’t heard of any of the competitions, you can be pretty sure the brand is more focused on marketing than making tasty liquor.
And it’s important to keep in mind that spirits medals are not like Olympic medals. Gold doesn’t mean first place, silver doesn’t mean second place and bronze doesn’t mean third place. Most competitions give out multiple medals of all types in each category. In the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Minnick says, only about 10 percent of the spirits entered go home without a medal of any kind. In other words, if a brand is crowing about its bronze-medal wins, that doesn’t mean very much. “People aren’t sending in crap liquor for the most part,” Minnick says. “A bronze is an average-to-good identifier, silver is very good and gold is very good to excellent. For a double gold, everybody at the table has to agree—those spirits are all great.”
That “medal inflation” is one of the issues F. Paul Pacult wanted to fix when he set out to create a better spirits competition with the Ultimate Beverage Challenge. The publisher and editor of F. Paul Pacult’s Spirits Journal, Pacult has been writing about wine and spirits for a wide variety of publications since the early 1980s, and he’d been a judge at competitions of many kinds for decades before starting his own in 2009. “Tasting spirits and wine blind is the hardest thing that any of us do. The burnout factor is high,” he says. “I found that if I was faced with a flight of 25 old-vine zinfandels or 16 or 17 Islay single malts, that’s really tough on the palate. If you’re number 22 in that flight, you don’t get a fair shake.”
To counter this, Pacult takes pains to make Ultimate Beverage Challenge judge friendly, limiting the number of things judges taste at a time, spreading judging out over five full days and tasting spirits both neat and in cocktails. The competition also eschews medals, instead giving out numeric scores up to 100. But that doesn’t mean the scores are evenly spaced from 0 to 100: Pacult says his threshold for “what people look for” is a 90, and the competition doesn’t even publish scores lower than 80. (Of the 700 spirits judged in 2015, less than 10 percent got less than 80, Pacult says.) Explaining the high scores, Pacult says, “in general, spirits right now are the best across the board that they have ever been.”
So where does all this leave you, the drinker? Unfortunately, awards can be as confusing as they are helpful. There are lots of competitions out there, but it’s probably best to only pay attention to the best-known and most reputable. Neff and Jattne put the aforementioned San Francisco World Spirits Competition, New York World Wine & Spirits Competition, World Whiskies Awards and Ultimate Beverage Challenge on their lists, along with the competitions run by the American Distilling Institute and American Craft Spirits Association. Beyond those, you kinda have to do your own research—check the website and look for lists of judges and explanations of procedures. And look at how recent the awards are, too: The blue ribbon on every can of PBR, for example, traces back to 1882, which doesn’t tell you much about it today.
Or, you could always just taste the booze and decide whether or not you like it. “All of these awards are advertising, and you should take them with as big a grain of salt as any other kind of advertising,” Neff says. “It’s 90 percent bullshit, but the 10 percent of it that isn’t is valuable. They could have spent money on a billboard, but instead they put their spirit up against others.”
AND NOW, A WORD FROM SOME BARTENDERS