Awards, awards, everywhere ...

Awards, awards, everywhere ...

This month, spirits commentator Neil Ridley ponders whether there are too many spirits category awards these days, and what it actually means to win one.

I've been glued to my television the past few days, gripped by the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang - in particular, the rather unlikely edge-of-your-seat viewing of the Men's Biathlon. It was here that after a lengthy bout of (quite slow) cross-country skiing, followed by a lie down to shoot at some targets, two competitors eventually crossed the line in an extraordinarily climactic dead heat, the gold medal decided by the tightest of photo finishes. The spoils and adulation going to the winner; the silver and the feeling of what might have been, to the loser.

So near, and yet, so far.

My viewing reminded me of a whisky awards judging session that I was involved in a few years ago. The decision for the accolade of 'World's Best Single Malt' was a dead heat between two whiskies and, after three tense recounts, the winner was decided by a single point. Both were absolutely worthy of victory but, on this occasion, I felt that the loser had been edged out because it wasn't as bold as the other, despite having more appealing subtleties and balance.

Perhaps, like the skiers, it just didn't lunge forward in quite such a brazen way at the finish line.

Sometimes, no matter how 'elite' a panel of expert judges are, certain whiskies can fail to earn the recognition they truly deserve. The fore-mentioned situation serves to highlight one of the fundamental flaws of judging competitions; the human palate's susceptibility to 'big' flavours, no matter how expert it may be. Despite the many awards judgings I've taken part in - often containing a pool of well-experienced whisky aficionados - the slightest discrepancies in how these judges score (and it does happen, believe me) can mean success for an unlikely winner and disappointment for another.

To determine an 'ultimate' winner is a little like pitting a snowboarder against a figure skater

Taste is, of course, subjective and whisky, for example, contains the broadest range of flavours in any spirit, so to determine an 'ultimate' winner is a little like pitting a snowboarder against a figure skater. Absurd? Yes, but, conveniently very newsworthy, for both the competition and the distiller, especially if the winning whisky happens to be something - or from somewhere - unexpected.

To the victor, winning an award can be an enormously positive experience. However, it can also pose far more problems than expected, thanks to the increased attention - both wanted and unwanted.

For a small, new-to-world whisky brand, the demands on the already-limited stock available, lack of adequate distribution and anticipation of what's coming next, coupled with the inevitable 'well, it's not as good as that time it won…' from certain 'critics' a year or so later, can dramatically alter the course of one's sound business plan into a position of fighting unnecessary fires and dealing with the fall out. And, all the while, drinkers try to grab the winning liquid by whatever means they can, usually from a secondary retailer or auction site for a vastly-inflated price. 

I may have painted a rather gloomy picture, which, of course, is the worst-case scenario. Yet, at the right time, winning the 'right' award can bring huge benefits.

To enter every award in the hope that you'll find success, though, is a thankless - and expensive - task. There are so many out there today, some with a great deal less credibility and judging expertise than they purport, and a few with rather convenient award categories and sub-categories set up to lure new brands into parting with substantial entry fees and stock.

For a fledgeling brand, quality should be at the heart of everything it does. This should also extend to the awards it enters.

The more reputable ones (The IWSC, for example) come with a rigorous scoring system and a panel of genuine experts - drawn from all aspects of the drinks business, but largely from those who actually make the stuff, all of whom are subjected to a scoring consistency test before they're allowed anywhere near the entries. 

Awards have become an unavoidable part of how we judge the quality and credibility of practically everything these days. As spirits gain more profile internationally, the pressure on distillers to win awards increases too.

So, if you're thinking of entering one, just make sure its the Olympic equivalent, where the medals are indeed solid gold, rather than the foil-coated chocolate ones given out at the school sports day.

Expert analysis

Global Scotch whisky insights - market forecasts, product innovation and consumer trends

Global Scotch whisky insights - market forecasts, product innovation and consumer trends

After hitting a high-water mark for global sales of 95.7m nine-litre cases in 2012, the global Scotch whisky market has since witnessed four consecutive years of declining sales, during which it has more