Every year in March, I serve as one of the judges of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and every year, by the end of it, I’m amazed that I made it through. The whole competition — 1,024 spirits judged this year — happens in two short days. Of course, judges are not required to taste all 1,024 personally, but they do taste (and re-taste) at least 160 of them over a weekend. That’s a lot of searing, high-proof liquor scorching one’s tongue. We also drink gallons of water and eat more than our fair share of mouth-soothing, palate-refreshing flavorless cheese. But that’s not all I get out of the experience. The competition, which I look forward to every year, is an unparalleled opportunity to gauge what’s going on qualitatively in the wide world of booze—with plenty of good and bad news to go around.
Flavored booze isn’t getting any better
Bad news first: The gross sprits are getting grosser. They are completely lacking in taste. And by that I don’t mean the way they taste, that’s always been atrocious. No, I mean in the sense that many are shameless, over-engineered panderers to the marketplace. Clearly some spirit manufacturers are just producing whatever their white-labcoat-wearing development teams can come up with and throwing it against a wall to see what sticks.
It all has to do with flavors. Get this: Southern Comfort Lime-flavored whiskey, caramel-flavored whiskey, Crop Harvest Earth Organic Tomato Vodka, raspberry gin, olive-flavored gin. Isn’t gin already flavored with, er, juniper? And these were only just some of the spirits that sound bad. There were many, many more respectable-sounding spirits that simply looked and tasted disgusting For instance, a coffee liqueur that included some sort of coffee ground sludge that one judge described as “diarrhea in a bottle.” And that nasty “orange liqueur” known as blue Curacao that looks more like mouthwash than something you’d ever want to put in a cocktail.
OK, now the good — and there was plenty of good. Let’s start with white spirits. The winner of best in show was such a superb tequila that because of its complexity and floridity I thought had to be El Tesoro (the world’s best, in my opinion). But, no, the best silver tequila was Trago. Now, it’s a brand made at the distillery owned by the Camarena family, which also makes El Tesoro — so perhaps not so big an upset. Trago, however, was wonderful — full of spice and tropical, exotic agave flavor, while remaining impeccably smooth and silky on the palate.
Good gins with surprisingly low price tags
Also showing very well was the entire gin category, with Beefeater 24 taking top honors. Beyond that, however, many inexpensive gins scored remarkably, earning double golds were Gordon’s ($15), New Amrsterdam ($14), and Bellringer ($18). (A note on scores: Spirits can be awarded bronze, silver or gold; a double gold implies a unanimous top score from its judging panel and the opportunity to compete for a “best in class” award and “best in show.”)
What does this tell us? Two things. One, that you don’t have to drop $30 or more to get a great gin. And two, that the general tenor of the judging was for serviceable, work-a-day gin as opposed to some of the more highly refined and flamboyant products. Nonetheless, some excellent boutique gins scored very well, particularly Berkshire Mountain from western Massachusetts, Bluecoat from Pennsylvania (double gold for two years in a row), and G’Vine from France.
Whiskey blends make a strong showing
The brown spirit category also featured some fascinating results. The strongest areas were whiskies, notably American ryes and scotch whiskey — but not only the singe malts (which are always great), but also the blends, which were more than the vapid, easy-drinking tipple for which the genre’s known. Instead, so many of the blends had wonderfully complex aromas, clearly and expressively drawing from their wide variety of stocks — from smoky Islay whiskies to sweeter Speyside scotches, while remaining properly plush and satiny. The winner of the category and scorer of a second double gold was something called the The Grand Bark that appears to be from Sweden. Neither I nor any other judges had heard of it.
The American rye category was again blistering, with Sazerac and Sazerac 18 taking home the only two double golds. Rittenhouse and Templeton ryes also scored well, and happened to be among the most affordable at $18 and $35, respectively.
Judging a flavorless spirit is difficult
And, of course, you’re all trembling to learn which was best vodka. Well, something called Chase vodka won the category. It appears to be from England and unrelated to the large Manhattan bank. Seriously, vodka is by far the most difficult category to judge. It’s also the first. So sitting down at 9 a.m. on a Saturday and trying to figure out how to rate 20 odorless, colorless liquids is one of the more painful tasks of the judging — that and all those flavored spirits.
In general, though, the lessons learned in this judging? First, it was how well many value-oriented spirits scored well, as we saw in the gin category, but also in rum and whiskey. Perhaps this is indicative of an overall enhancement of the quality of these spirits or perhaps it represents a toning down of judges’ tastes to meet the tenor of the times. After all, there are those moments when the simple, rustic and uncomplicated triumphs over the refined and complex. When an ice cold PBR seems more appropriate than a Belgian Triple. Or when a simple shot of Jameson feels more right than a 30-year-old MacAllan. It’s not often, but these occasions do occur, especially lately in a down economy.
Jordan Mackay is the wine and spirits editor for San Francisco’s metropolitan magazine 7×7 and writes The Juice column for Chow. In addition, he’s a contributing writer for Wine and Spirits magazine and a regular contributor to Decanter and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Photo: Just a few of the entrants at the World Spirits Competition. Credit: Jordan Mackay.