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Inside the Intense World of Competitive Spirits Tasting

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What's it like to taste 1,600 bottles of booze over four days?

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Charles Joly

Each spring for the past 15 years, spirits and cocktail professionals have converged in San Francisco to undertake an exciting, if not daunting task. Over four intensive days, more than 40 of the most experienced, tuned palates in the business sit together to nose, taste, swish, swill (and sometimes drink) nearly 1,600 bottles of booze in every category imaginable submitted to the San Francisco World Spirits Competition for evaluation. Winners walk away with bronze, silver, gold, double gold, or the most prestigious "Best Of" and "Best in Show" titles.

For those unfamiliar, San Francisco WSC is the Olympics of spirits competitions and one of the most respected in the world. It sets the bar. Judging for the 2015 competition took place March 19 to 22, check out the gold, silver, and bronze victors, in addition to the "Best in Show" winners listed here.

Photos by Charles Joly

Competition judges come from incredibly diverse backgrounds: restaurateurs, mixologists, sommeliers, beverage directorsit’s a veritable who’s who of booze. And "How do I get that job?" is probably the most oft-asked question. I’ve been honored that San Francisco WSC has invited me to taste with the competition for the past three years, and it’s an event I eagerly await. And though it sounds fun, make no mistake, this is work.

Headed by wine and spirits expert Anthony Dias Blue and spirits educator, veteran bartender and author of The Modern Mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim, who serves as director of judging, the competition brings together the best in the business, including the likes of author/historian David Wondrich, liquid ninja Doug Frost and author/educator Bridget Albert. The common threads between all are a passion for quality spirits, being in sync with your senses, and having the insight to separate what you "like" from recognizing what is categorically well-executed.

While analyzing a spirit certainly draws on some subjectivity, having the aptitude to sip 15 cream liqueurs side by side and remain focused demands objectivity.

While analyzing a spirit certainly draws on some subjectivity, having the aptitude to sip 15 cream liqueurs side by side and remain focused demands objectivity. Points I consider when judging: Did the spirit’s creator achieve what he/she set out to do? What is the quality of the distillate? Are the flavors, texture and aromas in line? How does it finish? Entrants don’t compete against other spirits exactly, but are judged on their own merit within a given category. That is, until the final day of competition.

In the first three days of tasting, judging panels recognize the crème de la crème. The preferred double gold winners are sent to "sweepstakes." Here, all 40 judges sit together and taste through the very best of the double gold-awarded bottles to identify the winner of each category and eventually "Best in Show." It is both the most exciting day and the most daunting. Imagine picking between Ali or Frazier, Degas or Monet, Biggie or Tupac (it’s Biggie by the way). Here, awards will be granted for the best in up to 90 categories. Everything from pisco to extra aged rum to fruit liqueurs. From there, "Best in Show" awards are determined.

Peruse the list. You’re sure to come across some familiar faces and plenty unknown. One of my favorite parts of a blind tasting is the level playing field. You don't know the retail price, what the packaging looks like (that’s a separate competition), and there's no marketing to sway you. Those that made it to Sunday’s round range from $12 Nue Grapefruit Vodka to $725 Johnnie Walker 2015 Private Edition Scotchproof that the liquid must stand up on its own.

Below, my personal 2015 standouts:

Best Vodka
Woody Creek ($30)
Hailing from Colorado, this potato vodka has brought it to the table. With great texture, a very clean distillation but not devoid of flavor, it is both sippable and cocktail ready.

Best Gin
Master’s London Dry ($27)
Not surprising that the 2015 standout gin hails from Spain, the country with the greatest thirst for this venerable spirit. There was no shortage of entries for the competition and double golds went to old faithfuls like Tanqueray and Plymouth Navy Strength. But plenty of smaller scale operations such as Koval, Brooklyn, and Chicago Distilling made their mark.

Best Extra Aged Rum, Best in Show Aged White Spirit
Parce 12 year Colombian Rum ($60)
It’s no secret that I’m part pirate and am a huge advocate for the rum category. This expression by Parce shows that rum stands tall alongside categories that are more traditionally revered. If you haven’t taken the leap into the world of sipping rums (also delicious substituted in your favorite whiskey cocktails), jump right in, the water is fine.

Best Overproof Rum
Don Q 151 ($24)
Even after four days of tasting, the judges were able to sip past the explosive proof of this Puerto Rican offering and hang the double gold. Primed for the resurgence of tiki culture around the world and ready to be shaken, floated or blended.

Best Small Batch Bourbon, Best Bourbon
Knob Creek ($31)
American whiskey has never been hotter, and what more appropriate an offering than Knob Creek to take honors this year. As one of the original Kentucky whiskies to lead the charge in elevating our national spirit, it has remained rock solid through the years. As one can imagine, there was no shortage of hardware given out amongst these categories. American distilleries are producing some of the finest and most consistent whiskies we’ve seen.

Best Craft Distiller Whiskey
Westland Sherry Wood American Single Malt ($70)
American single malt is a category that is coming on strong. While we’re more known for our bold bourbons and ryes, distilleries like Westland are putting out single malts that are giving the rest of the world a run for their money. This expression is particularly layered, complex and sultry.

Best Calvados VSOP
Pére Magloire VSOP ($40)
With all of the categories tasted and awarded, why mention Calvados? Because it’s delicious and you need to know about it. Although this French apple brandy is traditionally sipped straight, it has long been one of my favorite cocktail ingredients. You get fruit, you get wood, and there’s an abundance of complexity and funk in all the best ways. Try it neat, or blend it 50/50 with whiskey in your favorite cocktail.

Best Pisco, Best in Show Unaged White Spirit
Kappa Pisco ($35)
We’ll save the Peru-Chile debate. For now, let’s just focus on this grape distillate besting all of the vodkas, gins, white rums and blanco tequilas as the standout of the bunch. A big statement for the category and exciting regardless of what side of the fence you’re on.

Best Single Malt Scotch 20 years, Best in Show Whiskey
Craigellachie 23 Year ($300)
Perhaps this category is one of the finest rewards of the weekend, as having to sip single malts 20 years or older is a challenge I’ll take. The Scots prove they haven’t lost their mojo with this educated offering. Winning "Best in Show" amongst all whiskies is also something of a herculean feat. I held on to this glass for further analysis. In a slightly more approachable price range, examples from the Classic Malts collection were no surprise with Talisker 10 year, Talisker Storm and Lagavulin 16 all bringing hardware back to the islands for "Best Of" categories. And be on the lookout for the Kavalan. This Taiwan whiskey distillery is already well known by whiskey enthusiasts and I suspect soon it will widen its reach. Earning four double golds and named "Distillery of the Year," it continues to keep even the most established operations on their toes.