The Fine Art of Being a Whiskey Judge

“So let me get this right? I guessed all four bourbons in a blind tasting, including a couple batch numbers, and you’re telling me that I wouldn’t make a good bourbon judge?”


“Screw you!  I know more about bourbon than you, and have drank more bourbon than most others!!”

This person probably does know more about bourbon than me, and quite possibly has drank more bourbon than most.  And therein lies the problem.  Any respectable competition is judged blind, and when somebody has so much experience with one particular spirit that they can correctly identify every pour and a couple batches, then the blind gets tossed out the window.  There are several qualities and factors that go into the makeup of being a judge, whether for wine, spirits, or cocktails, as it pertains to the beverage industry. The two most important factors to me are objectivity and experience/knowledge.  Judging has to be done without bias against a particular spirit, or spirit category, and whether or not you like or dislike a particular spirit or spirit category.  It’s hard to be completely objective when you know what you’re drinking.

whiskey judge

Hard at work being a whiskey judge (image via Tony Menechella)

To quote veteran wine/spirits judge and executive sommelier in Spirits Larry Wilcox, “I think the most important factor is that a judge must evaluate the spirit based on how well it is made based upon the category the spirit was entered. Judging is not about whether a judge likes the spirit category or product being judged. In this way the spirit can be awarded a medal (or not) regardless of how many spirits are entered in that category. It is therefore important that the judge has the background to know the definition of the spirit category and general knowledge of how to make the spirit. That does not mean they need to be a distiller, producer, or blender. But probably more like a distributor, importer, liquor store owner, spirits teacher, or someone who has independent skin in the game.”

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So is being a judge, whether for spirits or wine, as sexy or glamorous as everyone might think it is?  I would dare to say no, but it could also depend upon the character of the judge.  Consider the following – many competitions are completely at your own expense, and some of the larger ones may offer compensation in the form of your lodging, airfare, mileage, or even monetarily.  All are different, but there is always out-of-pocket expenses.  So given that, if it’s not financially rewarding, why does one want to be a judge??

For me personally, first and foremost, getting invited to participate and judge is an honor!  It’s a testament to the time and commitment to honing one’s palate, and the accompanying education across a broad spectrum of spirits, and being recognized for one’s study of the craft.  A second reason is the networking and camaraderie that is gained over time. Meeting like-minded individuals, and gaining new friends.  As certified wine judge Kristen Lindelow says, “we judge for the hedonistic pleasure of mentally dissecting wines, discovering new places, and meeting new like-minded friends.  I discovered ‘my people’ when I started judging wines.”

Sadly, as with any industry or profession, ego and narcissism can also be a reason.  Some love to see the word “judge” associated with their name, and are quick to tell you all about it, along with their expertise and prowess, for hours!!  Anyone who’s been in the food or beverage industry for any length of time has met individuals like that.  It’s their personality, and I’ve known a few who haven’t been asked back to a competition or event because of that trait.

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A lot of blood, sweat, and tears goes into honing one’s craft; in this case, spirits.  It should be an honor to be selected to judge in a competition, and the reward is in your passion, and meeting like-minded individuals, some of whom you may end up calling a friend, which I can personally attest to over the years, not to mention, the fun and fellowship.