Do Whiskey Competitions Matter?

Are Competition Winners Worth the Money?

Perusing the bourbon aisle of any liquor store across the country it’s hard not notice the awards dolled out by whiskey competitions. “Double Gold”, “Best in Class 2014!” or “Winner of XXX Whiskey Competition” seem to be on every third bottle. I understand why brands do this. It lends confidence to the undecided buyer. “Well this bourbon won quadruple gold at the Whiskey Olympics, it must be worth $50”. The question is, should I add “whiskey competitions winner” as a factor in my decision making process?

Let’s look at how Whiskey (Spirit) Competitions work. Read Fred Minnicks recent post about his experience at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.In general, each competition has a similar format. The judges blind taste a round of whiskies and decided who moves forward. After the initial weeding out the whiskies are judged against each other to crown a champion in the different categories. I’m a big fan of blind tasting and think it’s the only way to get a fair and accurate review. Sure, there’s still some personal bias but it’s a much more truthful review when there’s not a logo sitting in front of you. Here are three of the 2015 San Francisco World Spirit Competition Double Gold Winner’s (Blade & Bow 22, Old Forester 1870 and Belle Meade):

SF Double Gold

Here’s my problem. These brands are paying (in some cases $500+) to be entered in to these competitions. If something is terrible how does the competition handle that? Just make the “winners”  sound so ultra, uber, extraordinarily awesome so that the average stuff sounds good too. Here’s the San Francisco Spirits ranking system:

No Medal – does not represent category; Bronze – Good; Silver – Very Good; Gold – Excellent; Double Gold – Exceptional / Superb; Category Winners – Elite, best of the best

Double Gold? This is starting to sound more like a Cold Stone Creamery menu than a whiskey competition.

Whiskey competitions have had their controversies. Mike Veach writes about one of the earliest controversies in his book “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage” (a must read for all Bourbonrs). In the 80’s a blind tasting was set up between Maker’s Mark and Blanton’s to decide which bourbon was better. “Blanton’s won repeatedly, until Maker’s Mark called foul. Evidently, the bottle of Maker’s Mark used was selected at random from a liquor store shelf, whereas the Blanton’s was taken from an exceptionally high-quality barrel and bottled for the occasion and, thus, not representative of what consumers would be buying.” That’s actually really smart and I’m sure it could be going on today. Since brands send in their own bottle (and entry fee) there’s nothing to prevent it. Every time I’m surprised by a winner this story pops in to the back of my mind.

What does this all mean?  To me, Whiskey competitions are fun and make for a good PR splash but other than that I wouldn’t put my money behind the winners. Taste is too subjective. I tend to agree with a majority of the winners but there always seems to be several “head scratchers” in the group. This is probably because we’re relying on the preferences of the judges.

Bourbonr Whiskey Competition

If I were to host a whiskey competition this would be my outline. All whiskies would be purchased by me from a store shelf (or the secondary if not available) and no entry fees from brands. There would be 2 categories: bourbon and american whiskey. Within each category there would be 3 segments: $50 and below, $51-100 and $100+. All Whiskies would be tasted blind with the top 2 from each segment moving to the overall competition. This would actually be a really interesting (and fun) experiment! Who wants to be on the tasting panel? And, what bourbons and whiskies should be included?


    Sounds like a solid way to handle the situation. I’d be happy to sit on that kind of panel. As for entrants, you should probably get a bottle of each product that you could find at the store. As silly as this may sound, I think that the surprises (both positive and negative) that you’d find would be quite interesting.

    Blake – I’d actually be really interested in being a judge in your competition format. As to what should be included, well, that’s a loaded question.

    Blake, Another good read. [of course that’s subjective as well. . .IMO] I’ve enjoyed many a friendly blind tasting among friends. Each is encouraged to bring their favorite. Cost and ABV aside, they are marked in a decanter and tasted by all, neat in Glencarin glass. Weller-12 consistently was selected as a clear forerunner.I would truly enjoy the opportunity to be part of a panel. ‘The truth is in the tasting’!

    A Bourbonr judge! Yes, sir- sign me up!
    Ensuring fairness with a blind taste test is key to making this fair and worthwhile.


    Belle Meade is an interesting choice. As I understand it, two brother own a distillery in Kentucky that is not ready for production. So for now the brothers are providing a “bourbon sourced from MGP Ingredients Indiana distillery”. I guess it is like football. On any given day, any bourbon from any source can be a gold star winner.

    Good read Blake, As I sit in a bar in Owensboro Ky sipping a Pappy 15!
    I would say I would also pick Blantons over MM all day long! Keep’em coming

    Yes! I’ve done several of these informally. Last New Years’ Eve a friend and I did a blind tasting of all of the 2013 Buffalo Trace Wheateds from WL Weller through Pappy 23. I’ll publish the results sometime, which (spoiler alert) was not Pappy.

    I think this is an excellent idea for this group to do on an annual basis. An actual crowd-sourced competition, defined every year, with a variety of categories would go a long way to establishing Bourbonr as a brand in and of itself.

    I’d recommend you do it like the Oscars. Line up your voting population, then send them as complete a list as possible of whiskeys in each category. The voters would choose in the initial round of voting which whiskeys they want to judge in the first place (think of it as releasing the list of Oscar nominees), which would narrow each category down to 5, or 10, etc. whiskeys for everyone to taste. Important: you can make one of the nomination criteria “ease of acquisition”, so that we only taste the whiskeys that are generally available. People can read Jim Murray if they want a screed on how wonderful the BTAC is.

    Once the list is established, you can bring in additional voters if you want, no reason to limit the group, and publish a specific time period for everyone to taste as many of the bottles as they can find. It isn’t scientifically perfect if you don’t have all voters taste all nominees, but this is the internet and we won’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Enough voters will flatten the distortions of who is able to get which bottles.

    Voting should be by category and for overall best. A point system (5 for first, 3 for second, 1 for third) can be adopted, or frankly whatever you want.

    I’d love to do this now, of course, but the best time might be in the winter. 1) More of us are drinking brown in the winter. 2) Most of the bottles are released by the fall. 3) Who cares? Do this anytime.

    Also, could see doing this for Rye (unless you see Rye being part of the American Whiskey segment), for microdistillery only (could have a challenge finding bottles in certain regions) or for Canadian spirits as well.

    OK, my two cents. Feel free to reach out if you want me to help organize.


    I hate myself for this comment, but after all this time I felt it was worth sharing. I’m saying it in a humble and loving spirit, I promise: “bourbonrs” doesn’t need an apostrophe. Neither does “head-scratchers.” They’re just plurals. Again, I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. If I’ve offended I’ll send a GTS ’14 sample, or a Willett gift shop 10 yr sample.

    I want to disagree with you just to get the sample, haha. But, I could not agree with your comment more…

    Author’s “taste is subjective” says it all!
    If we’re going to attempt to qualify Bourbons as to “better”/”best”,
    let’s at least agree that individual tastes are all that really matters.
    For my part, I happen to prefer a wheated bourbon – Weller’s 12 year is my favorite
    (but just try to find it – 80% went to Taxas last rollout, according to the distiller), but
    you may prefer a really classy rye-based Bourbon. So, talk about this blend as a
    distinct category of Bourbon, and don’t let’s lump all Bourbon mash together!

    Selfishly, I’d rather get feedback from “Wheater” aficionados, since this is the flavor
    I prefer.

    I once said that blind tastings are awesome because they teach you that you know way less than you think about whiskey! Sign me up for the panel, it’d be super fun.

    Have to strongly disagree with ANY bourbons being purchased on the secondary market. Who knows if they are real or not. Only liquor store shelves Bourbons entered.

    We are in for judges!

    I think the way to do it is to separate into wheats, rye bourbon, rye whisky, and barrel proofs. Then the best from those 4 categories go against each other.

    That’s how we’ve done it. The barrel proofs always win because of how full of flavor and complex they are compared to watered down. Evan Williams 1783 at $12 a bottle always finishes in the top 2 or 3 and we’re putting it up against $50-$100 + bottles.

    Tasting competitions are a lot of fun especially when everyone tries to guess what they are drinking.

    Great read. I would also be interested in participating on the panel, and gladly provide something on the grill/smoker to assist with the consumption.

    I once bought a bourbon/whiskey off of that touted itself as a Gold Star winner at the San Francisco competition and wondered if it was worth the money I paid. It did turn out to be Very very good and I was pleasantly surprised!!! It was Oola out of Seattle, Washington and it was nice and smooth. I bought another bottle and sent it to some bourbon enthusiasts friends IN Seattle who had never heard of it!! I was glad to see that Knob Creek came out on top this past year. It has always been my favorite “Go-To” bourbon!!!!


    Blake – As far as blind taste tests, I absolutely love them, however in my opinion, I do not think you should break it up by price. Blind, I have put $120 bottle against a $40 (age difference was just as significant) with two other friends, and 2 out of three of us (all seasoned bourbonrs) selected the younger $40 bottle… the other, myself, gave the $120 a very slight edge though was sadly disappointed while I was tasting them both knowing I spent three times as much for one of them, ha. But, having said that, it was excellent to see that I could buy 3 bottles for the price of one and have three times as much good stuff. Therefore, I still believe the best blind taste tests are completed irrespective of variables. And yes, I would participate in a blind taste test any day of the week.

    i will also throw in my hat to be on the taste panel, although I generally don’t spit samples out like the wine tasters do, I agree with another fellow who commented about price categories, I’ve spent some good money on bottles and been disappointed, and also gone for some”bottom shelf” and been pleasantly surprised, I’m always up for a challenge though! I’m currently liking some 17 year old eagle rare, wish I could afford more!


    I would be honored to be on your blind tasting judges panel. I have been cultivating my bourbon palate over the past few years. I currently have over 25 different unopened bottles of bourbon I have purchased over the last few months for a private taste testing session with a couple of my other bourbon aficionado friends. I believe I would do well for your panel. 🙂

    Great idea, and please count me in! My personal take is that the scale should be: under $35, $35-$65, and over $65. There are so many selections that hover in that middle range (Blanton’s, Baker’s, 4R single barrel, Booker’s, Russell’s Reserve, MM Cask, ECBP, etc.) that would be otherwise be separated with the under/over $50 line. Joe S raises an interesting point as well. I don’t think anyone would pick Jim Beam White Label over Four Roses Single Barrel, so maybe you just create 2 categories: value and premium.

    Please do this, and while it might be a large feat to do all of them in one setting maybe make this a semi-monthly or monthly ordeal and publish the results in your blog/ emails. I might not be able to be a panel member, but I am very interested to know the results from more everyday drinkers.

    I’m currently liking some 10 year old eagle rare and find it to be excellent value for the money. It’s better than most stuff out there and only $50. Sign me up to be a judge and we’ll help ensure the winners are deserving and not just expensive.

    That seems like a very sound approach. Price category breakdown is very valuable.
    Quantity of production categories would be interesting. As for which? I’d lke to say all, separate the wheat the chaff, but the top rankings would have to be more elite. “Really good” , shouldn’t take home a metal.

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