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