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How to Judge Whiskey: What Happens at a Whiskey Competition

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glencairn glass with whiskey at a whiskey competition

Judging at a whiskey competition sounds like a cushy gig until you realize a whiskey judge evaluates and provides specific notes and feedback on 50, 70, or even 100 spirits. But there’s a seriousness to it, and while drinking whiskey may be fun, judging it can be hard work. After my first experience judging at a whiskey competition I wanted to describe the process because other whiskey geeks like me may want to know what goes on when judging whiskey. If you’re new to whiskey and bourbon in general, check out my Bourbon for Beginners guide.

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What Happens at a Whiskey Competition?

Whiskey competitions can provide valuable feedback to distillers and their teams. While some view competitions as just ways to boast medals for marketing reasons, the teams and organizations running the spirits competition often have the goal of helping spirits grow and improve their products. 

Every whiskey competition is different, from the selection of the judges, the criteria for medaling and the scoring method. But in this case, the American Craft Spirits Association brought whiskies from their Heartland Competition to Lousiville Kentucky for judging. 

This competition was sponsored by 17 state Corn Boards throughout the US, and to be considered for an award, the whiskey just had to have corn in the recipe. Individual craft distilleries submitted their whiskies and a team of people coordinated putting the whiskies together in blind flights. 

Judges had no knowledge of the bottles even included in the competition, although we did get to see some of the entrants after all the judging had been completed. It was amazing to see the spread of bourbons, ryes, and whiskies that we had evaluated all together in one room.

Why Look for a Whiskey Judge In Louisville?

Whiskey Judge - whiskey in a glencairn glass with watch glass atop it on a tasting mat with supplies for the tasting

One thing about judging in Louisville, or in Kentucky, in particular, is that individuals here know whiskey. There were individuals who were master distillers, master blenders, whiskey reviewers and writers, coopers, whiskey brokers, bar owners, distilling consultants, and leaders of whiskey communities. In short, it was a team of whiskey heavy hitters, and they took the responsibility of providing thoughtful, useful feedback to the competitors seriously. 

In some cases, the teams of judges were able to give advice that might help improve the whiskey, from discerning faults to adjusting barrel sizes, or time of aging. In a few cases, there were suggestions to adjust cuts of heads or tails to remedy out-of-balance whiskies. While I have no idea how in-depth comments and ratings are at other competitions, I know that my table was serious about providing more than just “liked it”, “loved it” or “needs work” to the categories. 

We found ourselves lingering over the whiskies we didn’t love while we tried to suggest changes that might fix flaws in the distillation, aging, or blending process. Perhaps we were a tougher audience than usual when judged in other locations, but I also know that there were decades and generations (with two father/daughter whiskey legacies) of whiskey experience in the room. These were palates serious about all things whiskey.

Does Everyone Get Drunk at a Whiskey Competition?

Getting drunk or even tipsy as a judge at a whiskey competition is incredibly bad form. Spit cups are provided, and as we judged between 50 and 70 whiskies (I’ll be honest, I lost count after lunch) it was important to make sure that we stayed clear-headed to give valuable feedback to the distillers on their product from the first to the last sample.

The ACSA paid special attention to have coffee, tea, and sodas, along with rather bland food to keep our palates in line with how they usually are when we taste. The general rule is that you start your day and treat your day as you would any other day when you evaluate whiskey. 

Our stations had plenty of pencils, water, almonds, water crackers, and coffee grounds to keep our palates clean and fresh throughout the day.

How Do You Decide Who Wins at a Whiskey Competition?

Whiskey Judge - whiskey in a glencairn glass with watch glass atop it

In some whiskey competitions, each judge scores separately. In others, the table may come to a consensus on the final score and any medals awarded. And before we started the judging process, we had an orientation on the categories and methods the Heartland Competition used for the judging. 

This also included guidance on what makes a whiskey a gold medal whiskey. And while there were different answers (“wow” factor, one you’d buy for your home bar, a whiskey you’d gift to a friend in the industry, one you return to over and over), there was an overall understanding that getting a gold would require a high bar to make sure it was a great exemplar of whiskey quality.

But it’s important to note that in this competition, each sample was judged on its own merits, not against the other whiskies in the flight. 

Besides selecting the best of each category, at the very end of the day, for this competition, the coordinators had a flight of Best in Class where we did judge all of the whiskies to one another to find best overall, and rate the top three gold, silver, and bronze. It was, perhaps, one of the easiest flights because we were comparing them to one another. 

Do You Judge Whiskey Independently or as a Group?

In this case, at each table, the judges would score each whiskey independently, then compare scores and adjust the average score as needed if any outliers felt strongly about how they had rated the whiskey.  While there were sometimes outliers, in general, at least three of the ratings were close together. And if any spirit was close to the cut-off for a medal, we made sure to come to an agreement as to where the rating should fall.

Is It Fun to be a Whiskey Judge?

Whiskey Judge - whiskey in a glencairn glass with watch glass atop it
Bourbon Women represented at the ASCA Heartland Competition.

It was a rewarding experience, definitely, but I will also admit that the amount of concentration and sensory awareness it required was more than I’m used to with my current schedule. Two 3-4 hour sessions of focused nosing, tasting and whiskey evaluation was hard work. But sitting at a table with industry leaders and discussing the balance, flavor, nose, and finish of a whiskey is rewarding even as we worked through spirits that still needed more work.

But when I hear of industry experts judging at competitions where there are 100 or 200 samples, I am in awe of their ability to focus and work through so many spirits and deliver helpful/quality notes and feedback.

At the end of the day I realized I could tick off my last checkbox on my whiskey experiences bucket list. I hadn’t thought I’d ever be asked to be a judge at a whiskey competition, and by the time I got home, I realized my whiskey bucket list was now complete. 

Until I hear about another experience I need to add. 

Do You Really Spit Out the Whiskey When You’re a Whiskey Judge?

Yes, you do. Unless there is a spirit you truly love and want to sip at the end of the day once you are done with the evaluations, you do need to spit a good quantity out. And you can evaluate finish even as you spit out the whiskey. A bit of whiskey always remains in the mouth and as you swallow to clear your mouth after spitting, you can gauge the finish easily. 

Can You Train to Be a Whiskey Judge?

Many professionals in the spirits industry pass certifications like the WSET to gain knowledge and experience about multiple spirits. But these certifications are not always required. The true way to train is to experience and evaluate as many whiskies as you can, good and bad. Each whiskey is a reference point for your whiskey journey, and taking notes, processing what was excellent and what needed work for each sample is a great way to get your palate and your vocabulary acclimated to judge whiskey.

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By on July 30th, 2021

About Heather Wibbels

Heather Wibbels is a whiskey enthusiast (Executive Bourbon Steward, no less) with a passion for cocktails. She loves researching and designing cocktails, drinking cocktails, and teaching cocktails. Mostly whiskey cocktails, given her Kentucky location

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