Of all the things that have crossed my path since starting to work in the drinks world, judging whisky competitions is one of the most enjoyable. However, many people don’t know what’s involved. The final round of judging for the World Whiskies Awards was earlier this week, so here’s what went on…
Get to the venue
It sounds obvious, but not everyone who judged the award lives in London. On my table alone there were folks from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Ireland, India, Scotland and Canada, as well as a couple of us who caught the tube in. There were some very early mornings for a few of the judges.
Prepare the palate
…or as I like to call it, ‘grab a cup of coffee’. With a day of tasting ahead, it’s wise to grab some breakfast, but you don’t want to impact on your ability to taste. This is where coffee comes in as a saviour for me. I’m so used to the taste of coffee that it acts as a palate resetter, helping me get to try some whisky, no matter how many Sausage & Egg McMuffins I’ve eaten to line my stomach.
Taste the whisky
As with most competitions, the whiskies were presented blind. The only information we were given was which category the flight was, letting us know a little of what to expect from the glasses in front of us. My technique for competition judging doesn’t vary much: I nose all the whiskies a couple of times, making a few notes and marking down any that are outliers – strong, peaty, weak or downright strange – so that I can adjust my tasting order to avoid destroying my palate. I then taste my way through, make some notes, do some preliminary scores, try close-scoring whiskies again to be sure, and come up with my final scores.
There’s one thing I haven’t mentioned – spittoons. When you’re tasting more than 40 whiskies in a day, you (unfortunately) can’t drink them all. I may have saved my favourite of the final flight to sip on while the other tables wrapped up their scoring, but every other whisky ended up in the spittoon.
Scoring the whisky
Scoring is a controversial subject. I don’t write scores when I do blog posts and don’t generally think in numerical scores when tasting whiskies. However, by the nature of competitions, you need scores to choose between the drams.
By the time the whiskies at the World Whiskies Awards have got as far as the final day of judging, they’ve already been tasted, scored and considered worthy to pass through at least one previous round, so the quality is high, which can make judging very difficult – if you have a pair of excellent drams, choosing the better is not as easy as you may think.
Over five years of judging, I’ve found various ways to work out how to score a dram, as each competition scores differently, but in the end it’s down to experience – practice makes perfect, and when the practice is trying excellent whisky, it’s not all that bad.
After the final flight – the eight top single malts from the competition, a very hard round to judge – we all headed to the pub. However, for the awards administrators, the hard work begins. They collate all the scores, add everything up and work out the winners. The World Whiskies Awards will be announced on 30 March 2017, so we all have two months to wait – even the judges…