You Be The Judge: A Look Inside This Year’s New Orleans Spirits Competition

Posted on: Jun. 01, 2023 | | By: New Orleans Spirits Council

An accomplished bartender and bar owner (and one of our judges this year) told us a story about a competition he participated in a few years ago. He was seated on the brandy panel with three of the most accomplished brandy distillers and negociants in the industry. As both a BNIC and BNIA educator, he was feeling rather confident about his skills in brandy.

The first flight came out. Everyone reverently inhaled to see what notes they could pick up.

One long-time distiller spent a little extra time nosing his sample, then finally lifted his head. “Something went badly wrong on the third day of fermentation,” he announced.

Our bartender judge looked up and calmly thought, “That’s it. I’m done here.”  

He felt outgunned — he didn’t have the expertise to assess the spirit at this granular level. He hadn’t spent a lifetime of daily assessing spirits as they passed through every stage of their creation: from fermentation through distillation and on to aging.

But what he did have, based on two decades of standing behind a bar and talking to customers and watching their reactions to each and every spirit, was a deep understanding of what consumers liked and what they didn’t — something the distiller has almost no understanding of. Our judge knew what flavor profiles sold, and what didn’t. Maybe something went wrong on the third day of fermentation. But maybe something went very right in the fourth year of barrel aging. He might not know what exactly happened, but he knew whether the spirit worked or not. He knew that a spirit that may not be a sipper may be the perfect element to blend into a cocktail.

At the New Orleans Spirits Competition, we strive to staff our judging panels with judges who bring a diversity of viewpoints. Each panel of (usually) four judges typically has one distiller per panel to bring a technical viewpoint. Then we have one or two bartenders who have wide experience sampling liquor and know what can work with cocktails and what can’t. And then we have one or two others, typically spirits writers or liquor distributors who have broad experience interpreting consumer needs and preferences when it comes to drink. 

Here’s how our judging process works: It starts in the registration process, where we ask for numerous details about the production process. This is used to categorize the spirits into like groups and make sure the judges are evaluating apples with apples and oranges with oranges. The products are divided into flights of similar spirits and ranked within the flight from lighter to darker, usually from low-ABV to high. Before the flights even hit the tables, each spirit is tasted by the stewards to cull out and adjust for the inevitable surprises.

The day is planned with clear, more delicate flights at the beginning of the day, graduating to heavier, more palate-busting flights before lunch. After a palate reset, we again move through the afternoon from lighter spirits to more-challenging products by the end of the day.  

A flight of about a half-dozen spirits is brought out in numbered tasting glasses. Judges are given limited information — class of spirit (rum, brandy, liqueur, etc), proof, and sometimes additional information, such as if it’s a hazelnut liqueur or a whiskey aged more than 10 years, finished in a vermouth cask, a gin with a signature botanical of orange blossoms, whatever necessary information that can be relayed without tipping brand identities.

Judges nose and sip through each flight in silence, and for each spirit they make notes about its aroma, palate, and finish. They note any flaws in appearance or any exceptional qualities of flavor. And then they rate each spirit with a score between 50 and 100. Each one is rated on its own merits instead of by comparison, or ranking. A gold medal is a gold medal regardless of whether there are three deserving spirits in a flight or none. We do not award medals for participation.

Once the pencils are down, judges reveal their scores one by one, compare tasting notes, and are free to resample any of the spirits and discuss. At this point, the judges strive to reach a consensus on medal winners. If a spirit sits on the cusp between, say, silver and gold, with two judges falling on either side, they debate until one side prevails. 

The preliminary judging round this year took place in early June. Our three dozen judges were seated on nine panels — and these included industry stalwarts Jim Meehan, Tiffanie Barriere, Laura Cullen, Peggy Noe Stevens, Molly Wellmann, Karen Hoskin, Paul Clarke, Danny Ronen, Keli Rivers, and Tracie Franklin – as well as production people who provided insight to the process, such as Karen Hoskin, Ashley Barnes, Lisa Wicker, and Scott Blackwell. After hundreds of spirits were sampled, the top scorers moved on to a championship round to determine “Liqueur of the Year,” “RTD of the Year,” and the like.

New this year: the championship round for four classes of spirits — whiskey, gin, rum, and agave spirits — were withheld from the grand panel to be judged live in front of an audience at Tales of the Cocktail. We’ll seat panels of fresh judges, this year including Jeff Berry, Dale DeGroff, Abigail Gullo, Monique Huston, Ian Burrell, and Chris Montana, who will follow the same protocol as the preliminary judging but also rank their favorites from top to bottom. This will determine the last of the “Best of Class” winners.

What’s more, the audience will find the same six spirits in front of them and will be able to sample and score along with the judges. (The results are for their own edification and won’t contribute to the final tally.) After all the judges’ scores are in, the brands will be revealed and the Whisky of the Year, Rum of the Year, Gin of the Year, and Agave Spirit of the Year announced.

So if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a spirits judge, join us on Monday, July 24 and taste along. The hour-long judging sessions will be at 10 a.m. (Agave), 11:30 a.m. (Gin), 1:00 p.m. (Rum) and 2:30 (Whiskey). Admission is included in either the Week Pass, Tasting Ticket Package, Day Pass, Bartender Day Pass, or the Tasting Room Day Pass, available through the Tales of the Cocktail website. Click here to purchase tickets.

And if you would like to try some of the medal-winning spirits, join us for a pour during “Meet the Distillers”, Friday, July 28 from 2:00 to 6:00 pm in the Lakeview Room at the Ritz Carlton, where we will also announce the Distillery of the Year! Click here to purchase Meet the Distillers tickets.

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