Reflections on Drinks Competition Judging

“How do you even end up with this amazing job? What’s the trick?”  

I get this question all the time, and it is usually accompanied by the preconception that being a drinks competition judge sounds like an easy and glamorous way of making a living. Quite the opposite, but it is the duty of an experienced industry professional.  

I began my career in an independent wine and spirit shop, stocking shelves to help fund my wine and spirits studies. This experience ignited my passion, and I continued to progress towards the WSET Diploma, ending up working in wine retail after University. A dual wine and spirit career started, as I tried many Scotch Whisky jobs and also worked as a head sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant in London; after that I worked as a drinks and cigar buyer for a private club and cigar lounge group. It has led to the formation of International Drinks Specialists —our evaluation and quality control service— and I have been invited to join The Council of Whiskey Masters as Judge and Senior Examiner of their training programme. Right now, I am also one of the busiest independent drinks judges globally, but how did I make it happen?  

Preparation—the studies.

It is naturally very important to build up lexical and technical knowledge alongside tasting practice and vocabulary. Some say it can be a natural talent but it is better to stay away from myths and legends and to lay out a study plan. Some generic spirit schools and courses are great to build a base but these are often a bit behind the front line of action and also need to categorise and generalise some knowledge in order to have a clear and established marking system at the examination end. Things are very rarely black and white and the industry is changing. Personally I recommend considering a WSET course, for instance, for your initial studies. It is a good start but at a higher level, one needs to research and experience each genre of drinks themselves in more depth. The same applies to tasting systems: there’s obviously a set of aromas and tastes, textures and finishes but some people find it enough to write a long shopping list-like tasting note of aromas and flavours instead of describing the quality and the true experience of sampling the spirit. How does the nose predict the palate? Are the different aromas in harmony or is there a focused lead aroma/taste driving the particular sample. Complexity or a single focus, intensity or subtle elegance? Writing a tasting note is easy, writing a really good descriptive note that helps people to understand that particular drink is harder. The reason I’ve decided to get involved with other organisations, for instance The Council of Whiskey Masters, is the desire to be able to help to build better and more complex evaluation and tasting systems than just the well respected and useful, but somewhat limited, approach to tasting that some organisations take. Do not take me wrong here, the WSET, for instance, is the equivalent of your driver’s licence: important and essential in many cases but our quest is to get to the level where one can easily handle an ice rally stage in Finland…. After that is covered, let’s have a look at how to start becoming a judge.

Step One

Personal introductions and recommendations. It all started when a great friend and colleague encouraged me to apply to be an associate judge for one of the biggest drinks competitions, and I started to learn about the process. It is imperative to understand the difference between each award. All of them are slightly different and it is good to learn about them a bit before one starts working with them. Different scoring systems, different judge hierarchy, different levels of tasting note writing and many other variations and subtle differences occur. Some score out of 10.0 or 100, others have stars, many like precious metal medals similar to the Olympics and some love adding new highest medals with double diamond platinum-type accolades. It is after all to serve the focus audience and to inform the consumer correctly about the quality of the entered product. There are many competitions that can help to make a brand and others might be total waste of time for many reasons including the quality of judges or the reputation of the organisers. They are not equal and they are definitely not just the same.

Step Two

Keep being recommended and introduced, and learn from your peers. In time, I was being offered positions as a judge at other competitions, and after a steady progression I am now privileged to judge internationally on five continents, in the company of master distillers, whisky making legends, esteemed scientists and MWs. I consider myself very lucky to have been promoted to panel chair judge at many global events and am a regular judge at many other  local competitions worldwide. Most of these organisations operate a peer evaluation system (some are a little too dependent on them, others should arguably use them a bit more), but they usually have an element of using other judges to assess one’s work. It works as a natural feedback system for the organisers. I am fortunate to have had a handful of international mentors and friends who have recommended me for other judging work, including fellow Council board members Steve Beal and Arthur Nägele, and countless other kind and patient colleagues have supported me on my journey. Like all jobs there are both positive and negative aspects to judging. I like having the chance to learn about new drinks, and about colleagues’ perceptions of each category. Seeing the way others view different product groups and other people’s creations is a good way to get to know more about yourself and your insights. It also provides an opportunity to see the interactions between growing trends and the quality of product being released.

Step Three

Learn impartiality and integrity. Judging has a fantastic social side and catching up with fellow judges and friends is a useful way to keep up with industry gossip. Ultimately, we run these competitions to inform the consumer about great drinks and to help the industry to improve the product. It is not about the judges’ egos but the assistance we give to the decision makers and consumers. Our personalities are not important, our judgement is. This is when we mention influencers and the invalidity of some celebrity judges. It has been tried and tested many times and has mostly been unsuccessful. Influencers and celebrities may have big followings but sadly they are rarely impartial nor experienced enough, in which case including them can be a recipe for an unbalanced panel and an inaccurate result.

On the other hand, this career can be challenging when taken seriously. Wine and spirit judging is mentally tiring, and even if you spit everything (as a professional should), it is inevitable you will get fatigued after hours of concentration and focus. Some say alcohol gets absorbed through your gums, but even if there is a trace of residual alcohol consumed,

if one drinks enough water then the effect is negligible. The story of the drunken amateur guest judge sounds amusing but is not something a professional would ever consider. Getting merry during the tasting just isn’t an option, even if some people might find that sad. Focus has to be maintained, as we only have a limited time to appraise the hard work of those that have submitted their beautiful drinks creations. My worst fear is bringing a score down and being absolutely wrong by not being focused enough. I would rather make a fool of myself and hold my hands up than diminish someone else’s efforts and damage their brand image. Chairing with a radical person is also really tough, especially if they can’t admit to having a bad day or being too personal. On the other hand, one has to be pronounced as sitting on the fence will result in a similar score for every sample purely out of the fear of having an opinion. Everyone has a taste and it is not a disaster to fall back to the personal instinct in some cases asking yourself “How is this sample? Would it give me joy to drink it? Is it great? Will people enjoy it?”

Part of our work at International Drinks Specialists is to guide producers and brand owners through the dangerous and confusing waters of drinks competitions. Some are a waste of time and to be avoided but others can be the best investment a brand can make if they get a high accolade. Sadly some look better in their marketing of their awards and competitions than they are in real life. I should stop here for a second to tell you that in my other job I am a professional clay pigeon shooting coach. And I would like to add that I am a better coach than I am a shot, and also a better judge than I am a winemaker or distiller naturally, and both roles require different skills within their respective industries. We have seen many top shots being not so great coaches and some top winemakers or distillers being, at times, difficult and counterproductive to work with as panellist judges while some others know the game and are a delight to work with.

My advice for getting into drinks competition judging is fairly simple. It is easy to start, just apply to be a judge on a competition organiser’s website —that is not the hard bit. Competition judging is harder than it seems though. Not as difficult as many other jobs, but it is still professional work and not just a jolly with free drinks and just using one’s own taste and preferences. It is also not just about putting lovely images on social media and updating your Insta or LinkedIn profile. One has to be humble, willing to learn, and a real team player with no big ego. A good level of knowledge is an obvious minimal requirement; however, the learning must never stop. Patience and focus are important too. Beginner judges (sometimes called associates) often want to shine more than to learn. There is nothing wrong with enthusiasm, but it is important to listen to the rest of the panel and not to go to town on something that is unanimously decided to be a different medal or score by the rest. We are all learning after all. It is also hard to keep personal taste out of the game too, but not impossible. It is a lame excuse to say, “I do not like this type of product, I would not drink it”. If this is the case, that person is neither experienced enough nor impartial enough and should not be on the panel. It is all about the judge’s suitability, impartiality, and integrity after all. In the end, we are there as judges of quality within that given category.

One also needs to find the balance between “sitting on the fence” and being over exaggerated in scoring. Try to understand the category and judge the samples accordingly. People should not be afraid to score high when the sample is good. Learn from each other. It is important to admit if one or two samples are not the strongest part of one’s specialist knowledge. It is better to hold your hands up and admit an error in scoring, or lack of understanding, than to bring scores down by personal error. Be humble. No judge is there for their personality, we are doing it as we have tried countless examples of the product and we have experience and knowledge in this particular field. Trust yourself with the evaluation of the samples and scores. Consistency will be recognised. Funnily, sometimes I run my own little statistics on the side to see how am I doing on the day compared to the average and median of the group, but that’s mainly because I am a fast taster and note writer; I only recommend doing this side exercise after the samples are evaluated, scored and comments ready. In the end, evaluating and bettering ourselves is every professional’s duty.

That’s the personal and social aspects of judging covered, the next big topic is the actual assessment of quality and the description and scoring of the samples. Firstly, impartiality is difficult and everyone needs a reminder of the only question that counts: “Given the information and product groups provided, is it a good quality sample in that category?” regardless of whether one personally hates that type of spirit or loves it. We are there as impartial quality assessment professionals. The more you “hate it” the better it might seem to the ones who love that style. I personally always take people to the side and ask them about it when they say “I can’t judge this as it is not my cup of tea”—a professional judge has no cup of tea but is someone who’s there to decide on the quality of the sample on its own and compared to the standard of that respective category. Secondly, sometimes we find cross category entries or even some in the completely wrong category by mistake or misunderstanding. Would you pour a 50 years old Speyside Scotch down the sink just because  it was accidentally entered into the young-and- peaty category? In this case, raise this with the  panel leader and it should be investigated with the organisers. I’ve seen multiple mistakes, even by the distillers themselves, not to mention the marketing managers or agencies entering samples to the wrong category, or the competition organisers flighting it in the wrong group accidentally and even the servers or the judges’ making errors themselves by just misplacing samples. We are here to investigate the true quality and reward it. That’s our mission as judges and the main aim of the awards is to help top quality to shine and to inform the consumers and buyers of our findings.

Another important mantra is not to compare different products against each other too much, it can be misleading and wrong in some cases. It is not like a race where there is only one 1st and 2nd etc. Theoretically all could be just ”bronze”, “silver” or if it is a disaster, most could be kicked out, or even, in case of a miracle, every sample could get a “gold” medal. Try to  judge the product against itself.  It is hard in practice but it is worth remembering this.

The final advice is simple: try as many samples—preferably blind and then revealed and memorised—as possible. Always assess the liquid before you apply your conclusions as we have seen hundreds of cases of reverse-engineered tasting notes forced wrongfully on slightly similar but altogether different samples. An easy mistake and tempting too: it is easy to prematurely decide that the sample has to be this-and-that expression of that famous distillery. That’s misleading, self-defeating and wrong. Rather just keep blind tasting and assess the quality and describe the aromas and flavour in your own words instead of regurgitating the official tasting notes from the marketing materials or copy-paste blogs and the specialist media. Using prefabricated modules as parts of tasting notes will not lead to actual learning and will definitely not help with recognising product styles or groups (or actual products themselves) at blind tastings. Make your own tasting notes so next time, if the same product comes up, you will be more likely to recognise it. We have seen it at blind tasting exams: copy/pasting at a “master” level can be misleading especially at an exam. After all we are all human and we need to keep practising in order to stay on top form.

Finally, after all the more serious notes and advice, one last idea; relax and don’t forget to enjoy yourself—having a fun and friendly environment at the tastings makes light work for everyone.

Tobias “Toby” Gorn

Co-founder and Senior Partner, International Drinks Specialists
Member, Judge and Senior Examiner, The Council of Whiskey Masters

In The Welsh Wind

It’s now time to highlight a very special distillery in Wales. Peculiar name, great location and a lot of knowledge and innovation makes this project very exciting and unique. Not to mention their journey on the route to their very own whisky.

In the Welsh Wind Distillery was founded by Ellen Wakelam and Alex Jungmayr as a direct response to the inspiration they found in the small craft gin distilleries of the Scottish Highlands during a trip in September 2017. The couple had previously set the course of their lives together during a three-month adventure, walking and wild camping around the circumference of Wales. They returned from the walk to set up in business, initially turning to Alex’s baking skills, catering for holiday makers, and providing bread to local businesses. When Alex developed a gluten intolerance, they sold up and headed to Scotland where they happened upon a bottle of locally distilled gin.

In the Welsh Wind was founded 3 months after they came back from Scotland, in January 2018 with a £25,000 loan from a family member. Through a twist of fate, the first gins they created were for other brands and businesses rather than their own: first a local bar, then a Maltese business looking for a gin producer. The business now makes over 60 custom spirits for different brands, including a number of the Welsh brands, as well as for international customers. The distillery launched its own In the Welsh Wind and Eccentric ranges in 2020.

They are very innovative but respectful of tradition and equally unafraid to tread their own path. With no formal distilling qualifications, Ellen and Alex established an award-winning business and now run a successful apprenticeship programme to upskill others in the industry. Both the In the Welsh Wind and Eccentric ranges feature award-winning spirits including Global Spirit Masters top medals in both gin and vodka. Alongside gin, the distillery is pioneering a 100% grain to glass Welsh Origin Whisky. They work with a local farmer to use grain grown at and within 10 miles of the distillery and have developed their own in-house malting process so that the grain stays in Wales. Rather than kiln-drying the grain, the distillery’s approach is to mash in on green malt, so that the flavour of the grain remains prevalent, and will result in a whisky with a distinctive flavour profile attributable to the land where the grain is grown.  Inspired by the Islay distilleries, the team are particularly interested in the influence the cask has on spirits – not only on gins, but on the new make which will become their first Welsh Origin Whisky. Wales has no tradition of peated whisky, so the cask has a key role in the final flavour of the finished spirit, along with the locally grown barley. Their Welsh Origin Whisky 30 litre cask offering allows those with an experimental inclination to choose from 10 different cask seasonings. The eagerly-anticipated whisky will be ready from 2025.

In the Welsh Wind has a wonderful line up of spirits and many other expressions are maturing quietly and waiting for the perfect time to be released. They also distil for other companies and are great at creating and hosting events including their gin making experience with their miniature stills to be operated by the guests. It is a great location and a fantastic distillery to visit.

TASTING NOTES:

In the Welsh Wind Dry Gin – 43% ABV

Bright zesty nose, lots of oily citrus, juniper and crisp green herbs in the background. Sweet spices shine through (maybe cinnamon or cassia bark? Maybe Welsh cake?) cool, refreshing and round on the palate. The alcohol is well integrated and fresh. The spice is nicely present on the palate. Nose and palate in order and the palate delivers the beautiful promise of the nose. It has a long spicy finish with cooling juniper throughout. This is a slightly spicier modern take on a classic dry gin and it is fantastic in a G&T or many traditional and modern gin cocktails.

Palo Cortado Finish Gin ITWW – 43 % ABV

Lifted strong juniper and citrus with a nice plump fruity touch, cherry, raisins and a floral cherry blossom note on the nose. There’s lemon peel and spices and some gentle wood notes adding to the sherry character. It is smooth and nutty with white almonds and apricots. Tangerine and grapefruit supported with cedar, pine and juniper. Soft and delicate on the palate, luxurious mouthfeel with a gentle richness and a long fresh finish. A great composition of flavours. It is amazing in a dry martini but substitute the vermouth with either Palo Cortado or Fino sherry and use both an olive and a big lemon zest for garnish.

Mackmyra 8 yr old single malt whisky finished and independently bottled at 48% by In the Welsh Wind Distillery

A beautiful collaboration between a Welsh genius and a Swedish cult classic. It is In the Welsh Wind’s first independent bottling under their own label. They have added their own ‘In the Welsh Wind’ touch: a final flourish in a Banyuls fortified wine cask in order to finish this beauty. It is complex and expressive with toffee and caramel, silver birch bark and even reminiscent of pine tar, along with the sweet rich notes of Banyuls sweet wine from the cask, unpeated and stitched together with a refreshing and smooth bergamot citrus finish. This is a modern single malt with a lot of character.

INDIA: EMERGING AS A THRIVING DESTINATION FOR WHISKY ENTHUSIASTS

While it may not be officially recognized yet, India, the world’s most populous country, is rapidly becoming one of the most promising markets for whisky sales. Rojita Tiwari provides insights into this growing trend.

In a noteworthy development, India has surpassed France to become the largest scotch whisky market for the United Kingdom in terms of volume, according to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). This achievement highlights the steady growth of the Indian whisky market, which is projected to maintain a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of approximately 12% between 2021 and 2026—an exceptional rate compared to other regions.

At a recent drinks festival held in Mumbai, Diageo India’s Chief Business Development Officer, Shweta Jain, expressed the company’s serious consideration of expanding its domestic whisky portfolio, with a particular focus on the craft spirit segment. This move follows Diageo India’s successful introduction of United’s Epitome Reserve and two expressions of Godawan single malts. In a similar vein, Bacardi has introduced three new whiskies in the Indian market—Bacardi Legacy, Dewar’s Japanese Smooth, and Dewar’s Double—within the past two years.

The renowned global drinks major, Beam Suntory, has also recognized the potential of the Indian market and launched its Oaksmith (blended) whisky variants, targeting domestic consumers. Pernod Ricard, another key player, introduced Oaken Glow in 2021—a blend of aged scotch whisky malts imported from Scotland and bottled in India. Responding to the growing demand for single malts, Pernod Ricard has also launched its first Indian single malt, Seagram’s Longitude 77.

The Whisky Evolution in India:

For a long time, Indian whiskies faced skepticism due to their reliance on molasses as a primary ingredient. Domestic spirits producers such as United Spirits Limited (USL), Radico Khaitan, Allied Blenders and Distillers (ABD), Khodays, John Distilleries, and Tilak Nagar Industries dominated the Indian whisky market. While ABD’s Officer’s Choice (blended) whisky continues to top the global Millionaire brands list, a new generation of whisky consumers has begun to gravitate towards premium blended whiskies and single malts.

Pernod Ricard’s introduction of Royal Stag and Blender’s Pride whiskies in 1996, which incorporated Indian grain spirits and imported scotch malt, brought about a significant change. However, the true turning point arrived in 2004 when Amrut Distilleries introduced its first Indian single malt, thereby giving Indian whiskies a notable image makeover.

Taking inspiration from these developments, John Distilleries, based in Bengaluru, established a subsidiary company and a distillery in Goa, leading to the introduction of Paul John Whisky in 2012, further propelling the Indian single malt journey.

Current Market Dynamics:

It is important to note that whisky brand preferences and styles in India can vary regionally and evolve over time. While popular brands such as Officer’s Choice, Royal Stag, Blender’s Pride, Signature, Imperial Blue, and 100 Pipers continue to enjoy a large consumer base, the real growth lies in the premium whisky segment. Consumers are increasingly willing to invest more in higher-quality and exclusive whiskies.

Craft spirits are driving trends in the industry. Although relatively new, many small, independent distilleries are emerging, offering unique and innovative whiskies that appeal to a younger and more experimental audience. Brands like Radico Khaitan’s Rampur single malt range, Piccadily Distilleries’ Indri single malt, and GianChand—the first single malt from Kashmir, produced by Devans Modern Breweries—are perfect examples of the experimentation and innovation seen in new world whiskies. These brands have introduced innovative flavors and blending techniques, making them more appealing to a larger audience.

What Sets Indian Single Malts Apart?

“The new GianChand single malt is one of the most fascinating whiskies I have come across. Unlike any other Indian malt I have encountered before,” said a famous whisky critic.

Indian single malts have gained popularity among whisky experts and consumers alike due to several factors:

1.       Unique Aging Process: The Indian climate, characterized by high humidity and temperature, accelerates the aging process, resulting in faster maturation compared to scotch or other single malts. This imparts a distinct flavor profile to Indian single malts.

2.       Local Ingredients: Indian single malts primarily utilize locally grown six-row barley, abundant in the northern regions of India, and locally sourced water, giving the whisky unique characteristics.

3.       Innovative Techniques: Being part of the modern world whisky-producing regions, Indian distilleries have the freedom to employ innovative techniques in creating their single malts. For instance, Indri is finished in three types of casks, Amrut combines Indian and Scottish barley aged in a combination of ex-bourbon and new oak casks, while Rampur Asava single malt is finished in an Indian Cabernet Sauvignon wine cask.

The success of Indian whisky brands in international markets has fostered a sense of national pride. Indian whisky makers emphasize the cultural significance of their craft spirits, contributing to the growing momentum of Indian single malts in both domestic and global markets. These brands have not only won numerous awards and accolades but have also expanded their presence in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan, exponentially increasing their reputation and acceptance in recent years.

The Indian whisky market is categorized into Bottled in Origin (BIO) for imported whiskies, Bottled in India (BII), Blended & Bottled in India for premium blended whiskies, India Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL), and Indian single malts.

The Blended and Bottled in India segment also holds promise, with recent entrants like Consilium Black Whisky by The Consilium Whisky Company offering artistically crafted blended whiskies. Consilium Black presents two variants: a blended Rye Malt (imported barley malt from Scotland and rye malt from Germany bottled in India) and a blended peated whisky called Cigar malt.

In 2022, India imported 219 million bottles of scotch—a growth of more than 200% in the category over the past decade. This surge in demand for premium whisky, coupled with an expanding consumer base eager to explore new options, has contributed to this significant growth.

Trivia: Did you know that India’s first single malt, Solan No 1, was first produced in 1835 and is still available in the market? It is a whisky made at Kasauli Brewery (formerly produced at Solan Brewery) and remains India’s first single malt whisky.

Shochu by Toshio Ueno and Marie Cheong-Thong

Foreword by Tobias Gorn – Editor-in-Chief:

During the recent pandemic and its lock downs and long winter nights, there was a ray of light and excitement in the form of a course lead by two of my friends and fellow IDS members, Toshio Ueno and Marie Cheong-Thong, organised by Sake School of America. This incredibly rich topic with all its mysterious historical background, complex and fascinating technical details and incredible diversity of subtle but rich aromas and flavours was an excellent new subject to learn more about and to explore Japanese culture and history through. Thanks to this course that opened a new world up to me: to an all rounder drinks judge with not too many surprises out there anymore, it was indeed a great revelation and an exciting new field altogether. Recently Marie agreed to have a series of articles in WW&M and we are ever so grateful. Thank you.

Shochu: The Drink of the Gods

The world of spirits – of the imbibing kind – is indeed intriguing, from whisky to vodka to a plethora of world gins to Asian spirits and many, many more. The one commonality is that distillation is involved in their production. And along comes SHOCHU.

What is Shochu

Shochu (焼酎) is the national spirit of Japan. On April 14th 2012, the Japanese government officially announced that sake and shochu were now Japan’s National Alcoholic Drinks.
Shochu is made from selected grains and interesting Japanese fruit and vegetables – yes, starchy vegetables to be exact – through a rather complicated process, as with everything Japanese. “Rule of thumb” consists of using a shochu-specific koji to saccharify the starch in the main ingredient – this is sort of a ‘malting’ process if you are more familiar with whisky-making terms. The moromi (mash) is then fermented using shochu-specific yeast then the mash is distilled in a pot still or continuous still. There are 372 shochu distilleries and a handful outside of Japan. Korea also has a very similar drink, “soju”, but this is NOT to be confused with the Japanese shochu.

Background

China was drinking rice wine (huangjiu) 7000 years ago. This was made by very sophisticated fermentation methods. As rice grains are always threshed and dehusked, germination and malting is never an option in alcohol making, unlike beer. The magic ingredient was QU. This predates the Japanese koji, which is now integral to all TRUE Japanese spirits (Japanese rums, gins, vodka and whiskies excluded as they are made the traditional way). The Japanese learnt from the Chinese: not quite sake but a rather crude version using the likes of Aspergillus, Monascus and Rhizopus moulds which, through their very active enzymes, break down starch into sugar. The earliest form of sake dates back to the Yayoi period, when the rice farmers were living in mud huts with thatched roofs of rice straw. Spores of Aspergillus Oryzae, which was harboured in the straw, dropped into bowls of steamed cooling rice left overnight on tables. Enzymatic reactions from amylase on rice together with ambient yeast created the first known sweet fermented (porridge-like) drink called “sake”. By the 11th Century sake making had progressed with some crude milling of rice, water, koji and yeast, making sake a cleaner, semi-filtered, more imbibable drink, though rather oxidised, stale and cloudy: the true beginnings of Japanese alcohol that was later transformed into the Kome (rice) Shochu as we know it today.

Asian Spirits

While Japan and China drank sake and huangjiu, the rest of the world ticked along. Europe had wine, beer and other fermented drinks. The Mongolians were drinking fermented milk. By the 13th Century, the origins of the alembic had been discovered and were initially used to distil perfumes and medicinal concoctions in the Mesopotamia region of what is now Iraq. Much has been written on the heady aromatic perfumes, herbal & floral tinctures and the medicinal potions created, and, of course, the amazing properties that alcohol can bring to one’s mind and health.
Through the Silk Road and European conquests and missionaries spreading their word, tales of the alembic and its uses travelled far and wide. There were two distinct routes. The first heading west from Mesopotamia, upwards through Europe where wonderful elixirs including vodka, whisk(e)y, brandy and gin sprouted. From Spain, Portugal and England, with maritime exploration, the technology headed across the Atlantic to the Americas and the Caribbean.
The other, and certainly the more mysterious route, headed east into India and the Far East towards China (13th Century), going south over land down to Laos (14th Century) and Thailand and on to the Philippines, eventually reaching Okinawa (15th Century) and the main islands of Japan (16th Century) via four possible routes.

It wasn’t until the mid 16th Century that awamori and shochu came about. The earliest known written record of such drinks was made in 1546 by Portuguese merchant and sea captain Jorge Alvarez, while staying in the Satsuma region (now Kagoshima, Kyushu), where his diaries mentioned, “To drink, there is an Orraqua made from rice”. Then 1559 saw a comment written, on a wooden plaque, by two carpenters at the Koriyama Hachiman shrine in Kagoshima, claiming the monks were very stingy and never offered them any shochu while they were working on the shrine. This showed that shochu was probably served to important guests at the shrine and the lowly carpenters were not included.

Japan was an isolated island with closed doors, actually, locked doors. From 1603 to 1868 during the Edo period no foreigners (gaijin) were allowed in. The only country it traded with was what used to be the Kingdom of Ryukyu (now Okinawa). Therefore the birth of Japan’s distilling industry started in Okinawa with awamori, a type of shochu made with Thai rice. From there alcohol making spread very quickly into Kyushu using various agricultural products including sweet potato and barley. Within years Japanese had a national spirit that was delicious and versatile. Rules and regulations were quick to set in as the Japanese government saw a cash cow providing revenue in the form of alcohol taxes. Today shochu can be made from a maximum of fifty-five “allowed” ingredients and has to be equal to or less than 45% ABV. Incidentally, there are other rules set, including a very interesting one by the UK’s Margaret Thatcher on her trade visit to Japan, to protect the UK’s Scottish Whisky industry. To distinguish barley shochu from whisky, the colour intensity of barley shochu after ageing in wood has to be lighter than that of whisky, with a spectrometer reading of less than 0.08. This is great evidence that shochu is technically a distant cousin of whisky. More on that in the next issue when we delve into the different shochu available, classifications and other quirky trivia.
The most popular shochu are currently imo (sweet potato), mugi (barley), kome (rice), soba (buckwheat) and kokuto (brown/black sugar). Awamori is a shochu made in Okinawa and fits into this category too. And not so surprisingly, actually more shochu is drunk in Japan than sake.

Fermentation and Distillation

There are many types of fermentation, including the original caveman version of chewing seeds and grains then spitting into basins and allowing the “mash” to ferment in the open in the presence of wild yeast.


The ferment (usually 8-10%ABV) is then distilled to form the end spirit. TRUE Asian spirits, including Japanese spirits such as shochu, baijiu (from China) and soju (from Korea) fall into the multiple parallel fermentation category. Asian-made whiskey, rum, gin and vodka are from malted grains (multiple line category). Cognac and the likes of fruit brandy are of course the single line version.

To learn more about Shochu, The International Sake School runs one day Shochu Advisor courses regularly in London, Europe and the rest of the world. This course is taught by Marie Cheong-Thong. For further information, please contact:
Marie@thelarderat36.co.uk

Ikkomon Imo Shochu – Satsuma Imo is the sweet potato variety that has been used, made with Sweet potato white koji. Made ‘Otsurui’ –  normal pressure distillation in Kagoshima Prefecture   –   25% ABV

Floral, fresh and very fragrant on the nose, with aromas of roses and lychees, reminiscent of Gewürztraminer-based wines from northern Europe, and boiled sweet potatoes. Think of lychees, jasmine tea, and rice pudding. The medium-bodied palate is elegant and crisp, with a touch of sweetness and plenty more fruity and floral notes, followed by a soft and slightly herbal finish with a touch of citrus. It is very smooth and clean throughout.

Great with spicy dishes, excellent neat but great on-the-rocks and it works with Indian tonic water and lemonade. Great with just a splash of soda as well.

IDS Score 94 points

Kurokame Imo Shochu  – made out of the Otsu sweet potato variety from Kyushu  with Black rice koji, distilled under normal atmospheric pressure in Kagoshima Prefecture   –   25% ABV

Pronounced and elegant on the nose, with woody and earthy notes, reminiscent of rye bread and mushrooms, and the mineral  and floral aromas of roast sweet potato with some toasted almonds and even marzipan with some lime blossom. On the palate it is savoury and rich, with a lovely body and weight to it, and just a touch of acidity balancing the richness and a lovely umami sensation deepens the complexity. It is delightfully smooth and refreshing throughout.

It is great neat and can match heavier main dishes and it makes a nice after dinner digestif – worth trying it with hot water on a cold winter day. 

IDS 95 points

Ark Jakuunbaku (Unfiltered) Barley Shochu – Otsu Rui barley Shochu made with black barley koji and single distilled under normal atmospheric pressure in Fukuoka Prefecture   24% ABV

Fresh and grassy, with plenty of roast barley and some savoury malted aromas and fruity hints on the nose. The palate is delicate, sweet and savoury at the same time, with a pleasingly creamy texture. Think of roasted barley, nutmeg, cinnamon balanced by lime zest and curry leaf. Nice aromatics and fresh grain notes come through from the barley, and a touch of grassy and floral notes return, followed by a long and complex finish and just a touch of a warming sensation in the end.

It is refreshing and great on-the-rocks, or served with water or cold soda water and it can work in many cocktails too. 

IDS: 93 points

Tobias ‘Toby’ Gorn – On Drinks Competition Judging

‘How do you even end up with this amazing job? What’s the trick?’ I get this question from non-industry friends all the time, and it is usually accompanied by the preconception that being a drinks competition judge sounds like an easy and glamorous way of making a living. Quite the opposite, it is the duty of an experienced industry professional, with not so much remuneration.

At the risk of sounding like I’m self-promoting – as everyone’s story is different – I would love to share mine with you before we start on the technical details. I began my career in an independent wine and spirit shop, stocking shelves to help fund my wine and spirits studies. This experience ignited my passion, and I continued to progress towards the WSET Diploma, ending up working in wine retail after University. A dual wine and spirit career started, as I tried many Scotch Whisky jobs and also worked as a head sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant in London; after that I worked as a drinks and cigar buyer for a private club and cigar lounge group. It has led to the formation of International Drinks Specialists – our drinks evaluation and quality control service and I have been invited to join the The Council of Whiskey Masters as Judge and Senior Examiner of their training programme. Right now, I am also one of the busiest independent drinks judges globally, but how did I make it happen?

Preparation – the studies. It is naturally very important to build up lexical and technical knowledge alongside the tasting practice and vocabulary. Some say that it can be a natural talent but it is better to stay away from myths and legends and to lay out a study plan. Some generic spirit schools and courses are great to build a base but these are often a bit behind the front line of action and also need to categorise and generalise some knowledge in order to have a clear and established marking system at the examination end. Things are very rarely black and white and the industry is changing. Personally I recommend considering a WSET course for instance for your initial studies. It is a good start but at a higher level, one needs to research and experience each genre of drinks themselves in more depth. The same applies to tasting systems: there’s obviously a set of aromas and tastes, textures and finishes but some people find it enough to write a long shopping list-like tasting note of aromas and flavours instead of describing the quality and the true experience of sampling the spirit. How does the nose predict the palate? Are the different aromas in harmony or is there a focused lead aroma/taste driving the particular sample. Complexity or a single focus, intensity or subtle elegance? Writing a tasting note is easy, writing a really good descriptive note that helps people to understand that particular drink is harder. The reason I’ve decided to get involved with other organisations, for instance the Council of Whiskey Masters, is the desire to be able to help to build better and more complex evaluation and tasting systems than just the well-respected and useful, but somewhat limited, approach to tasting that some organisations take. Do not take me wrong here, the WSET, for instance, is the equivalent of your drivers licence: important and essential in many cases but our quest is to get to the level where one can easily handle an ice rally stage in Finland….  After that is covered, let’s have a look at how to start becoming a judge.

Step One – personal introductions and recommendations. It all started when a great friend and colleague encouraged me to apply to be an associate judge for one of the biggest drinks competitions, and I started to learn about the process. I will be forever grateful to Nicola for her support and persuasion, and for the help of the other kind judges who offered me guidance and assistance. It is imperative to understand the difference between each award. All of them are slightly different and it is good to learn about them a bit before one starts working with them. Different scoring systems, different judge hierarchy, different levels of tasting note writing and many other variations and subtle differences occur. Some score out of 10.0 or 100, others have stars, many like precious metal medals similar to the Olympics and some love adding new highest medals with double diamond platinum-type accolades. It is after all to serve the focus audience and to inform the consumer correctly about the quality of the entered product. There are many competitions that can help to make a brand and others might be total waste of time for many reasons including the quality of judges or the reputation of the organisers. They are not equal and they are definitely not just the same.

Step Two – keep being recommended and introduced, and learn from your peers. In time, I was being offered positions as a judge at other competitions, and after a steady progression I am now privileged to judge internationally on five continents, in the company of master distillers, whisky making legends, esteemed scientists and MWs. I consider myself very lucky to have been promoted to panel chair judge at many global events and am a regular judge at many other local competitions worldwide. Most of these organisations operate a peer evaluation system (some are a little too dependent on them, others should arguably use them a bit more), but they usually have an element of using other judges to assess one’s work. It works as a natural feedback system for the organisers. I am fortunate to have had a handful of international mentors and friends who have recommended me for other judging work, including Steve Beal, Winnie Bowman, David T. Smith and Arthur Nägele, and countless other kind and patient colleagues have supported me on my journey.

Like all jobs there are both positive and negative aspects to judging. I like having the chance to learn about new drinks, and about my colleagues’ perceptions of each of the categories. Seeing the way others view different product groups and other people’s creations is a good way to get to know more about yourself and your insights. It also provides an opportunity to see the interactions between growing trends and the quality of product being released.

Step Three – learn impartiality and integrity. Judging also has a fantastic social side and catching up with fellow judges and friends is a useful way to keep up with industry gossip. Ultimately, we run these competitions to inform the consumer about great drinks and to help the industry to improve the product. It is not about the judges’ egos but the assistance we give to the decision makers and consumers. Our personalities are not important, our judgement is. This is when we mention influencers and the invalidity of some celebrity judges. It has been tried and tested many times and has mostly been unsuccessful. Influencers and celebrities may have big followings but sadly they are rarely impartial nor experienced enough, in which case including them can be a recipe for an unbalanced panel and an inaccurate result.

On the other hand, this career can be challenging when taken seriously. Wine and spirit judging is mentally tiring, and even if you spit everything (as a professional should), it is inevitable you will get fatigued after hours of concentration and focus. Some say alcohol gets absorbed through your gums, but even if there is a trace of residual alcohol consumed, if one drinks enough water then the effect is negligible. The story of the drunken amateur guest judge sounds amusing but is not something a professional would ever consider. Getting merry during the tasting just isn’t an option, even if some people might find that sad. Focus has to be maintained, as we only have a limited time to appraise the hard work of those that have submitted their beautiful drinks creations. My worst fear is bringing a score down and being absolutely wrong by not being focused enough. I would rather make a fool of myself and hold my hands up than diminish someone else’s efforts and damage their brand image. Chairing with a radical person is also really tough, especially if they can’t admit to having a bad day or being too personal. On the other hand, one has to be pronounced as sitting on the fence will result in a similar score for every sample purely out of the fear of having an opinion. Everyone has a taste and it is not a disaster to fall back to the personal instinct in some cases asking yourself  ‘How is this sample? Would it give me joy to drink it? Is it great? Will people enjoy it?’

Part of our work at International Drinks Specialists is to guide producers and brand owners through the dangerous and confusing waters of drinks competitions. Some are a waste of time and to be avoided but others can be the best investment a brand can make if they get a high accolade. Sadly some look better in their marketing of their awards and competitions than they are in real life. I should stop here for a second to tell you that in my other job I am a professional clay pigeon shooting coach. And I would like to add that I am a better coach than I am a shot, and also a better judge than I am a winemaker or distiller naturally, and both roles require different skills within their respective industries. We have seen many top shots being not so great coaches and some top winemakers or distillers being, at times, difficult and counterproductive to work with as fellow panellist judges while some others know the game and are a delight to work with.

My advice for getting into drinks competition judging is fairly simple. It is easy to start, just apply to be a judge on a competition organiser’s website – that is not the hard bit. Competition judging is harder than it seems though. Not as difficult as many other jobs, but it is still professional work and not just a jolly with free drinks and just using one’s own taste and preferences. It is also not just about putting lovely images on social media and updating your Insta or LinkedIn profile. One has to be humble, willing to learn, and a real team player with no big ego. A good level of knowledge is an obvious minimal requirement; however, the learning must never stop. Patience and focus are important too. Beginner judges (sometimes called associates) often want to shine more than to learn. There is nothing wrong with enthusiasm, but it is important to listen to the rest of the panel and not to go to town on something that is unanimously decided to be a different medal or score by the rest. We are all learning after all. It is also hard to keep personal taste out of the game too, but not impossible. It is a lame excuse to say, ‘I do not like this type of product, I would not drink it’. If this is the case, that person is neither experienced enough nor impartial enough and should not be on the panel. It is all about the judge’s suitability, impartiality, and integrity after all. In the end, we are there as judges of quality within that given category.

One also needs to find the balance between ‘sitting on the fence’ and being over exaggerated in scoring. Try to understand the category and judge the samples accordingly. People should not be afraid to score high when the sample is good. Learn from each other. It is important to admit if one or two samples are not the strongest part of one’s specialist knowledge. It is better to hold your hands up and admit an error in scoring, or lack of understanding, than to bring scores down by personal error. Be humble. No judge is there for their personality, we are doing it as we have tried countless examples of the product and we have experience and knowledge in this particular field. Trust yourself with the evaluation of the samples and scores. Consistency will be recognised. Funnily, sometimes I run my own little statistics on the side to see how am I doing on the day compared to the average and median of the group, but that’s mainly because I am a fast taster and note writer; I only recommend doing this side exercise after the samples are evaluated, scored and comments ready. In the end, evaluating and bettering ourselves is every professional’s duty.

That’s the personal and social aspects of judging covered, the next big topic is the actual assessment of quality and the description and scoring of the samples. Firstly, impartiality is difficult and everyone needs a reminder of the only question that counts: “Given the information and product groups provided, is it a good quality sample in that category?” regardless of whether one personally hates that type of spirit or loves it. We are there as impartial quality assessment professionals. The more you ‘hate it’ the better it might seem to the ones who love that style. I personally always take people to the side and ask them about it when they say ‘I can’t judge this as it is not my cup of tea’ – a professional judge has no cup of tea but is someone who’s there to decide on the quality of the sample on its own and compared to the standard of that respective category. Secondly, sometimes we find cross category entries or even some in the completely wrong category by mistake or misunderstanding. Would you pour a 50 years old Speyside Scotch down the sink just because it was accidentally entered into the young-and-peaty category? (sorry for the lame example) In this case, raise this with the panel leader and it should be investigated with the organisers. I’ve seen multiple mistakes, even by the distillers themselves, not to mention the marketing managers or agencies entering samples to the wrong category, or the competition organisers flighting it in the wrong group accidentally and even the servers or the judges’ making errors themselves by just misplacing samples. We are here to investigate the true quality and reward it. That’s our mission as judges and the main aim of the awards is to help top quality to shine and to inform the consumers and buyers about our findings.

Another important mantra is ‘not to compare different products against each other’ too much, it can be misleading and wrong in some cases. It is not like a race where there is only one 1st and 2nd etc. Theoretically all could be just ‘bronze’, ‘silver’ or if it is a disaster, most could be kicked out, or even, in case of a miracle, every sample could get a ‘gold’ medal. Try to judge the product against itself. It is hard in practice but it is worth remembering this.

The final advice is simple: try as many samples – preferably blind and then revealed and memorised – as possible. Always assess the liquid before you apply your conclusions as we have seen hundreds of cases of reverse-engineered tasting notes forced wrongfully on slightly similar but altogether different samples. An easy mistake and tempting too: it is easy to prematurely decide that the sample has to be this-and-that expression of that famous distillery. That’s misleading, self-defeating and wrong. Rather just keep blind tasting and assess the quality and describe the aromas and flavour in your own words instead of regurgitating the official tasting notes from the marketing materials or copy-paste blogs and the specialist media. Using prefabricated modules as parts of tasting notes will not lead to actual learning and will definitely not help with recognising product styles or groups (or actual products themselves) at blind tastings. Make your own tasting notes so next time, if the same product comes up, you will be more likely to recognise it. We have seen it at blind tasting exams: copy/pasting at a ‘master’ level can be misleading especially at an exam. After all we are all human and we need to keep practising in order to stay on top form.

Finally, after all the more serious notes and advice, one last idea; relax and don’t forget to enjoy yourself – having a fun and friendly environment at the tastings makes light work for everyone.

Tobias ‘Toby’ Gorn – Co-founder and Senior Partner – International Drinks Specialists – Member, Judge and Senior Examiner of The Council of Whiskey Masters