Paul Pacult, the spirits writer/columnist/publisher, is someone I have known and admired, for many years. When he and his team invited me to observe and learn about their recent Ultimate Spirits Challenge, I jumped at the opportunity.
I’ve often wondered about tasting and judging events and the resulting awards from a number of standpoints. Are they impactful? Does the trade or consumers pay attention or care? How sound is the methodology?
So, with the opportunity to get a close and upfront view of a spirits judging, I set out to address these questions.
First, the playing field is crowded, if not cluttered. There are loads of events, competitions, tasting and judging programs, all over the country and growing globally. A brand enters, gets tasted along with its competitors (but not always) and gets a score, or more likely, a medal. Sort of like summer camp color wars or school spelling contests. Everybody wins something.
In contrast, I was impressed with the professionalism and high standards of the Ultimate Spirits Challenge. But, the remarkable aspect is the rigorous process and caliber of the judges.
I won’t bore you with the details. You can find them at their website.
Suffice to say that the judges include a who’s who of world-class bartenders, buyers, consultants, educators and journalists. The tastings are done over a four-day period, in small panels, until each entrant has been blind tasted by all of the judges. Paul Pacult and his co-chairman of the challenge, Sean Ludford, have set up an elaborate evaluation program with checks and balances along the way.
What I like most about it is that, at the end of the day, you get a score. No medals, no trinkets, and no “atta boys” – just a number that shows where the judges think the brand is in relation to others in their category.
I know a few readers, who just about now, are thinking, “Stop already, these awards and scores are meaningless…no one cares.”
From a marketing and brand building perspective, in a cluttered market place, a decent score allows a brand to stand out and provides bragging rights with the trade. The most notable use of scores was when Sidney Frank ran all those ads comparing Grey Goose to other vodkas. If I’m a startup brand, a high score gets me noticed. For an established brand, a score helps stave off the new startups nipping at the market share.
Maybe consumers don’t care, but I doubt it. The same clutter busting that applies to the trade works here as well. “Hey there, Joe, try this…it got a 96 rating.” In a world where brand loyalty depends on price, it’s nice to know that quality still matters.
Ah, but to enter something like the Ultimate Challenge, takes guts. It’s not expensive, but there is the high cost of the risk that the world will learn that your baby is ugly. Unlike other competitions, Paul’s scores are always published for everyone to see. You can’t delete the results. Which is one of the reasons I like it.
In fact, I look at the results with an eye toward which brand did not enter in a given category. What are you worried about?
The results are here
By the way, the Ultimate Challenge folks also have a wine and cocktail challenge coming up. They gave me a chance to see what it is like to be a judge. I tasted 3 rums and my scores were the exact opposite of the judges – the brand that scored a 96 got my lowest rating.
That’s why they use expert judges and why I will just stick to drinking.