The San Francisco World Spirits Competition (SOLVED)
After hearing the results of the 2019 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, I was left with more questions than answers. If I’m being totally honest, I did my fair share of complaining. How can you name a single barrel product “Whiskey of the Year?” That barrel was clearly hand selected by someone at the given distillery because of its complexity and depth of flavor. I posted on my Instagram page advising people to be aware that the newest winner was a single barrel and needed to be treated as such. The barrel, from which the bottle was filled, will most likely never produce a single bottle that we will see on the shelf of our local liquor store. These thoughts, and somewhat frustrations, led me to ask myself what it would actually be like to judge that many spirits all at once? I’ve been so critical of the process, but never gave any thought to a possible solution. The old saying goes “complaining about a problem without giving a solution is called whining.” I’ve been whining about the outcome. In a world where opinions are about as abundant as grains of sand, valuable solutions are about as rare as a clean shirt at a spaghetti dinner. We all want to tell people what’s wrong with something, but nobody wants to take the time to come up with a better solution. In my self-observation I want to do something different and come up with a solution.
Complaint 1- Too many samples, too close together. There is no way you can sample that many alcoholic spirits and have your palete hold up. I’m no expert, but sometimes I like to sit out 6 or 7 bourbons and blindly rank them in order. After the end of this short test, my palete starts to dull. So, I can’t imagine accurately judging a spirit when your palete is waiving the white flag.
Solution: Spread out the competition over multiple occasions. I know this isn’t economical, but to truly judge a spirit correctly your palete needs to be in tip top shape. Rum needs to have its own competition date, tequila needs its own weekend, and whiskey obviously needs a weekend dedicated to the best spirit on the docket. Yes, it’s going to cost a lot of money, but this move will take the competition to another level and all the judges’ expert tasting will be more accurate.
Complaint 2- Transparency. If you asked me what I’d be doing on a Sunday during the fall and winter seasons, I’d most likely say, “Watching football.” Two teams battling it out to see who is the better team. There is a clear winner and loser. Even if I think my team was cheated, I acknowledge who the winner was. Our society works on a black and white scale. Winner and loser. If I was only shown the outcome of the football game and wasn’t provided with the series of events that led to my team losing, it would be a lot harder to swallow. How did my team lose to an inferior opponent? What happened? I’m filled with more questions than I have answers.
Solution: Let us see how the competition works. We need a behind the scenes view of the competition to allow us to watch the action. Give us data with the difference flights. Let us see which whiskies were stacked against each other on different flights and the outcome of said matchups. I would love to see some of my favorite whiskies matched up against other whiskies judged by some of the top paletes in the industry. This information would be extremely exciting and be so fun to dive into. I know this data is recorded so just release it. This would be a cheap way to open up the curtains a bit and let us whiskey geeks into the world of judging spirits.
Complaint 3- Single Barrels. Yes, this is one of my biggest complaints. How can you judge a single barrel product that was hand picked and sent to the competition by the distillery. That is not a representation of what that product is. Yes, you may get an extremely great barrel from a single barrel product, but you may also get a dud. When something is judged do you think it should be judged at its absolute peak or do you think it should be the average product? I think it should be the average bottle. When you slap that sticker on the side of the bottle, signifying double gold, you are saying the best bottles from this line have won the double gold. Chances are, yours won’t taste as good as the one that was sampled.
Solution - This one was the most difficult for me as there is no real answer. How do you make sampling single barrels fair? One answer is to do things exactly like they are done now, but take it one step farther. Among my first solution, I talked about spreading out the competition over several different dates, depending on the spirt being judged. This would need to be the case for fixing the single barrel problem. After the top whiskies are selected, then we need to do one more small judging. Logistically, I don’t have an answer for exactly how this would happen, but my solution would be to sample 3 different barrels from each product. And the distillery does not get to choose them. They are pulled by random. Again, I don’t have a good answer logistically how you would pull this off, but this would give a better overall look at that product than just one barrel. If a total of 4 barrels were sampled, and then a product was named king, that would make me feel a bit better about the selection. Where would they sample the extra pours? I would suggest sending them to the judge to allow them to judge it in the comfort of their own home. Sample bottles with a numerical identification number can be sent and a form in which to fill out their list of bourbons in order from best to worst among the 15 samples. 3 samples of each of the 5 top whiskies. This would work on any single barrel product and not just whiskey. Economically, this wouldn’t pose much problem, but the problem would lie in acquiring all the extra samples after the top 5 whiskies were declared. Some of the winners may be bottles that are extremely difficult to find and production is low.
Some of these solutions are a bit easier to swallow than others, no pun intended, but as any change for the better, a small step forward is better than no steps at all. My love for my favorite bourbons is not hinged on whether it out measures other bourbons, although it would be fun to see them in action. Just like my love for the Cincinnati Bengals, my fandom is not dictated by what teams they beat. I am a fan no matter how many wins they have on their record. Even if recently that has been more difficult than years past. If my favorite bourbon succumbs to a bourbon giant, then I’m still a fan. As stated before, my favorite pours were not decided on the back of a wooden wagon. Let's make this competition more about the competition and less about the results. Nobody gets excited about seeing the score at the Super Bowl, they want to see the game, or maybe the commercials. What makes bourbon enjoyable is the journey and this is no different. Let us get excited about the journey and then see the results. In the end, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition still gets to slap their stickers on the side of their top bottles, but all I’m asking for is a little more. A little more for us bourbon geeks. Let us see the action. Pull back the curtain just a bit more and show us you truly want to make this competition one of a kind.
Concerned Bourbon Geek