Spirit Competitions: The hidden truth
I will start by saying that, spirit competitions are important. They are important for smaller brands to gain visibility, they are important as sometimes the only thing other than a P&L statement a potential investor will look is the type of awards the brand or spirit received to make decisions. It can also help drive sales, think bar managers and sometimes even shift consumer behavior if the buzz is greater and catches mainstream media and of course it goes without saying that the product itself must be good as well.
Now, I will be the first to admit that getting an award and being recognized by my peers and members of the industry is among one of the highlights, and has further and more lasting benefits. It just feels good to know that you are the best for that specific category of spirit for that year.
On the other hand, it can be misguided for the following reasons.
1. An award should span only for that single year upon it was judged and won.
So, let’s take a bourbon as an example, this small batch bourbon won a Gold back in 2014. Why is the competition and more importantly the distillery owner allowed to use the same award stickers several years later?
Again, I understand --- you are proud. You want to show your product is above the rest in terms of quality. I get it.
But for the same reasons you should not plug the same sticker year after year, unless of course you won those multiple years.
Simply because that winning barrel or blend you submitted back in '14 is not the same with your current batch, there are changes with your corn, the way you mashed and fermented, the way you distilled and barrel aged, and although you want it to be consistent, I can guarantee you that deep down you know that it’s not but you still decide to use the promotional stickers.
2. There should be a way to certify the product was in fact produced and not tampered with.
Now let’s talk about certificate of authenticity, it goes that without saying that most distilleries are honest, hard working men and women that support their families with this business.
But since I thought it about it, it means that someone else has thought about it as well, because let's face it --- we are all the same kind.
Could I simply put better juice in my bottle other than my own, seal it and send in for judging?
What if it won, best of class, triple golds and a place among the best of the best. Would that allow me to propel my business to the next level? Would it allow me to grab media attention of a "small brand winning big?"
I hope that you get my point, and in fact I can bet you had the same thoughts, it’s just that nobody ever shared these in public.
And with that, I want to stress that as distilleries are becoming more competitive, we could start seeing similar events that would only hurt our reputation as an industry, thus on how we can go about protecting our liquid assets (see what I did there), along with providing a certificate of authenticity to the judging competition.
3. Special blends and ways to "cheat" the system should not be allowed and should come with consequences.
Going hand in hand with the above, there is no clear definitions or rules for brands that bend the rules a little too much, as with the above example and like any other example that one person can think to produce two bottles that they can put in front of their judges, that did something special or out of the norm just to enter it in the competition with the best chances of winning when in fact their next batch will not be the same process wise, spirit wise and sometimes recipe wise.
And although it’s hard to investigate or even surface these special blends, we should have clear rules that in the event of such event, consequences will occur.
4. There should be only one winner per category. Gold, Silver, Bronze.
This one strikes home for me, as I was raised to be competitive and always go for 1st place.
We have grown accustomed to everyone getting a trophy, which is wrong.
Competitions are there for us to compete. This means that only the best get the chance to stand on the podium.
What if everybody in the Olympics got a medal?
And in the case of distilled spirits, it’s the same simple rules. Only one winner per category and per medal, not 2 not 10. This means that for Gin, there can only be one distillery that can win Gold, one brand can win Silver and one bottle that can win Bronze, and for the rest of us, sorry try again next time!
But you see this won't ever work, why? Because there is too much money to be lost if the above was to implement, brands would simply not return as the percentages of winning just dropped dramatically.
I wanted to close by saying, that again competitions are a good thing, we need them, but we also need to start re-thinking competitions and sometimes combined with a scarcity mindset can lead distillers and brand owners taking shortcuts to come on top.
P.S. The above article is my honest thoughts on the gaps I see with the industry, I'm not implying that anyone including myself has cheated their way to a score, but simply a statement of the possible avenues a brand can use to "cheat the system".