It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and I’m sitting in front of 12 glasses of vodka. It’s not a bizarre fraternity hazing, it’s work: Every year I am a judge in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the largest of its kind. After the vodka comes rum, tequila, whiskey, gin, flavored vodka, fruit liqueur … if it’s been distilled, it’s likely to appear in this contest. Over 850 different bottles were submitted from more than 450 distillers in 21 countries, though I myself tasted only around 150 liquors over two days. All the judges—who include famous bartenders like Dale DeGroff and Audrey Saunders, as well as writers like F. Paul Pacult and David Wondrich—are divided into panels to winnow down the field, so no individual tastes everything. Thank goodness.
It’s exhausting, and if it sounds like fun, you might have a problem (I spit everything and probably drink about a gallon of water per day). But it’s always instructive; I rarely bother to sit down to comparatively taste things like vodka. And though there are some unpleasant categories to judge—flavored tequila, for instance—I always manage to learn something about spirits and the spirits industry I didn’t know. So here are a few things I learned in this year’s competition.
Canadian Whiskey. Thanks to brands like Seagram’s 7 and Crown Royal, Canadian whiskeys are derided in the spirits and bartending communities as innocuous blends. These are the brands people order with Coke, 7UP, or ginger ale, and what I thought I would be getting when I saw the category listed on my tasting agenda. Instead, I was treated to a great flight of whiskeys, including several that my panel awarded gold medals. It’s surprising that, at $10 a bottle, Canadian Mist won a double gold medal; it won gold last year too. To me, it was bested by the likes of Forty Creek Barrel Select and Pendleton. I also really liked Canadian Club “Sherry Cask.” Amazingly, the most expensive of those high-quality whiskeys is only around $25.
Sweet Tea Vodka. I chuckled when I saw this on the list for my panel. I knew the category existed but had no idea there were so many. A lot of them come from the same company: Firefly, a South Carolina–based distiller. I was surprised that the flavored vodkas were so tasty. Far and away the best-balanced (not too sweet) vodka was Firefly’s Mint Tea, which we accorded a double gold. Seagram’s Sweet Tea Vodka also took a gold, and the rest of Firefly’s line (regular, lemon, and peach) received silvers and bronzes.
Suntory. I knew that the Yamazaki whiskies from Japan’s Suntory were great, but I didn’t realize quite how great until I tasted them blind in a field of excellent whiskeys from Ireland, Scotland, and the United States during the competition’s “sweepstakes” round to determine the best whiskey in the world. There among the eventual Best Scotch winner (29-year-old Port Ellen) and Best in Show Brown Spirit (Parker’s Heritage Collection Bourbon) were the Yamazaki 12- and 18-year whiskies. Both received quite a few votes in the finals. Even among the best they showed impeccable balance, wonderful complexity, and yet were marvelously smooth. I will be getting some for my home bar.
Courvoisier. The Best Cognac category ended up in a tie. One of the winners was the outrageously priced Hardy Cognac Rosebud Family Reserve. It was delicious. However, the other winner was the more attainable Courvoisier Exclusif Cognac.
Cachaça. Weber Haus Silver won Best in Show White Spirit last year and Best Cachaça this year. I think it was not only the finest cachaça, but also the highest-quality cane spirit (including rum) in the competition.
Aquavit. Finally, after years of coming in second place, Linie Aquavit from Norway broke through and won the competition as Best in Show White Spirit. I’ve written about the overlooked category of aquavit before. It was great to see one get its due on the big stage—Linie is amazing.