Of the more than 300 entries in the first-ever craft spirits judging administered by the newly-formed American Craft Distillers Association, only 35 percent took home prizes. The winners group included Charleston’s High Wire Distilling Co., which claimed bronzes for its Hat Trick Botanical Gin and Quarter Acre Sorghum Whiskey.
The judging panel rated spirits on their stylistic integrity and balance, rather than their relative merit, which resulted in a rum category with no gold medal recipients. According to interim executive director Penn Jensen, in laymen’s terms, golds were reserved for spirits that judges would proudly display on their back bars. Silvers went to spirits the judges would want to buy, and bronzes meant “this is good stuff.”
“It’s not the Special Olympics,” Jensen says of the national competition, which concluded last week with an awards ceremony in Denver. “Not every spirit gets a gold. Making the medal round is a big deal.”
In addition to its selectivity, Jensen says the judging was distinguished by transparency, intended to prevent judges from allowing self-interest to guide their decision-making; supervision by licensed distillers; a rigorous double-blind format and the preparation of extensive tasting notes for entrants.
“Perhaps you disagree with these guys, but you have explanations telling you how to improve,” Jensen says.
Prior to the 2013 formation of the American Craft Distillers Association, the American Distilling Institute – which calls itself “the voice of craft distilling” – functioned as the industry’s primary trade organization. But some of its professional members chafed at the group’s for-profit status, and the preponderance of hobbyists among its ranks.
“Our membership consists of licensed distillers, and ADI deals with people wanting to get into distilling,” Jensen says. “It’s more like we’re graduate school; that’s how we look at it.”
The awards ceremony was one element of the association’s inaugural convention, which included sessions on tax parity; debt financing of whiskey in barrels; marketing and OSHA compliance.
“The winners were really delighted and proud, because these medals have been earned,” Jensen says. “It means something.”