A Word About Awards
Awards... What are they worth, and what do they mean?
Spirit awards exist for the benefit of three groups;
- The consumer, who hopefully gets some idea of a whisky’s qualities before spending a fortune buying lousy whisky
- The producer, who gets to benchmark his product against others, and additionally gets publicity and kudos that equates to sales success if they win a medal or trophy
- The event organiser, who gets to charge producers a lot of money to enter the event and attend gala dinners so they can have their photo taken accepting a medal.
The public has an expectation driven by a lifetime of watching the Olympics on the television screen, that a gold medal means the best of the best, a silver next best, and bronze third best; but that isn’t the way it works in spirit competitions. That premise holds water when talking trophies, but not medals.
Generally, to win a medal the whisky scores within a points band, and typically for a gold medal in a whisky competition that is 90 points or more. A whisky must be pretty good to score 90 points, so that sounds fair enough. Well that rather depends on who the judges are, how many of them are involved, whether they judge individually or as a group, and if their scores are moderated. It isn’t easy to judge whiskies, and it isn’t easy to run a competition.
The best competitions have lots of judges and their scores are moderated by a senior judge. That makes good competitions expensive to run. It is self-evident that people are different. So are whisky judges. One judge may score the same whisky as another judge, but consistently awards scores a point and half lower than the other judge. That index error can be countered by having control samples spread within the tasting flights to indicate levels of index error in scoring that can later be smoothed out with score moderation.
It is natural for judges to have a preference in style, no matter how hard they try to be objective. If one judge is a peat lover, it will inevitably show through in his scoring. That is why the best competitions have separate awards for peated whiskies and regions for example. Of course that can be taken too far. I dream of winning the “World’s Best WELLAND SA Whisky”!
The Malt Whisky Society of Australia ran for some years the 'Australian Malt Whisky Awards'. They were ahead of their time. They ran it properly with as many as thirty judges, moderated scores, reference control samples for score and palate calibration. It was a not-for-profit event, so the price for entry was on a cost recovery basis. In my opinion the event is yet to be equalled in Australia for quality from either the consumers’ or producers’ perspective.
There are other good Australian spirit awards, but they generally don’t have as many judges and frankly lack the credibility of the San Francisco Wine and Spirit Awards, the World Whisky Awards and even the MWSoA Malt Whisky Awards. As a consumer I would certainly not put the same weight on a gold medal from the Tennant Creek Wine and Spirits show as I would from the London Wine and Spirits Show!
It is quite common for a trophy winning, gold medal whisky in one competition to completely miss out, or at best score bronze in the next competition for the exact same whisky!
Some competitions seem to hand out medals like confetti and charge a lot of money to enter, they are money making events for the organisers. Other competitions seem irrelevant. Unless I am intending to sell into the Chinese market why would I bother entering an Asian spirit competition? Next time you are in a bottle shop pull out your magnifying glass and read the fine print on the little gold medal stickers on the bottle. You might be surprised at what you read! Some competitions are more of a popularity contest for the brands or personalities involved, and that is fair enough provided a whisky wins an award for Most Popular rather than Best of.
At Tin Shed we have taken a minimalist approach. We enter the Tasting Australia Spirits Awards because it is in our backyard, relatively inexpensive and supportive of our local industry. We also enter the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards run out of Melbourne because that event is relatively inexpensive, supported by Australian Distillers and pits our product against pretty much all of our Australian made competition.
We only patronise one international competition, the World Whisky Awards. It usually costs in excess of $2,500 AUD to enter this event by the time you pay entry fees for say two entries, courier fees, UK excise and duty, and of course the lost profit on the three bottles of expensive whisky required to enter. This competition is perhaps one of the most highly regarded internationally. The judges are taken from a world-wide-panel and they have many years' experience behind them. We are also competing against whiskies from around the world and of course success in this event pays off! I was invited to participate in the final round of ranking with the 2022 event. Samples arrived by courier and were tasted blind over Zoom with a judging panel from around the world. These whiskies have already survived the knock-out rounds, so were the best of the best. The standout point to take away from this exercise is that the judges’ opinions of the whiskies varied dramatically. To win World’s Best Whisky you not only need to have an exceptional whisky, but an element of luck is required to get your product in front of a judging panel that likes your style of whisky.
The last competition we enter isn’t even a competition. It is arguably one of the best events because it is free except for postage of tasting samples, it puts our whisky on a level playing field with many world-wide whiskies and the judging is self-moderated because all entries are judged by just one man. I am referring to Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. Jim and his Whisky Bible have always been controversial, never more so than these days, but behind the controversy lies a consistent view and appraisal of thousands of expressions of whisky. As a benchmarking tool for a producer this is a valuable resource, especially as the cost is just a few small samples and some postage. It is pretty handy for the consumer as well.
At the end of the day the only judge that matters is you, the consumer. It is your dollars you are spending and it is your palate that has to be satisfied.