One of the things I look forward to every year is whisky judging at the IWSC (International Wines and Spirits Competition) in June. It is, to be clear, a tremendous honour to be a part of this historic competition – the oldest and most respected competition of its type. I didn’t realise until I got there this year that 2019 was my 10th year as a judge, so I thought a little retrospective and some insight would be appropriate.
To try and set the scene, you have to imagine a couple of dozen of the industry’s great and good assembling in the unglamorous but functional IWSC HQ buildings at Dunsfold Park. And yes, this is the same Dunsfold Park of Top Gear fame – in years past, we would be pleasantly distracted by the distant roar of the latest McLaren supercar being put through its paces by a nutter from the show.
In my first year of judging I was extremely nervous and felt understandably overwhelmed at being in the company of the likes of David Stewart, Bill Lumsden, Richard Paterson, Jim Beveridge, Martine Nouet, Jim Swan (RIP), Jim McEwan et al. These people were, in many cases, my whisky heroes and I was now expected not only to mingle with them but to sit and judge whiskies with them!
Bless Jim McEwan – in seeking to reassure me that first year, he put an arm around me and said, “Can you believe that YOU are here with all of these guys?” Errr, thanks Jim…
I know for a fact that my fellow judges look forward to the judging week immensely. It is a rare time in which they can put aside all the marketing bollocks that they have to kowtow to and can just spend some time nattering with their mates. The whisky judging itself is, as it should be, taken very seriously, but some of the banter – occasionally during judging, but normally in the pub afterwards – is simply brilliant.
To give one example, during a panel where judge A is chuntering to judge B about a whisky which has clearly had E150 (Caramel) added for ‘colouring’ purposes, Chair Judge C overhears said chuntering and says, “Are you saying that you think there is some caramel added to this whisky?”
Judge A retorts: “No, I think they’ve added some whisky to this caramel!”
Judging normally starts at around 10am and finishes around 2-3pm, depending on the number of whiskies. Usually between 60 and 70 whiskies are tasted in each panel, of which there are three every day. Whisky judging starts on Tuesday and ends on Friday, so three panels of 70 whiskies for four days is… around 840 whiskies!
All the whiskies are tasted blind, of course. At no point do we know exactly what we are tasting – we’re just told the category and if it is cask strength. Nowadays, we are tasting whiskies from all over the world – and not just from the established Japan, India or Taiwan, but also South Korea, China, Italy, France, England, South Africa, Myanmar and many more.
To keep things interesting (like they’re not already), judges do not know what styles of whisky they will be tasting – or who their fellow judges will be – until arrival at Dunsfold on the day. And even then, the whiskies on your panel might be massively diverse. For example, in one panel this year we started with NAS (No Age Statement) blended Scotch whiskies and then went on to 30-40-50 year old Highland single malts. Sounds great – and it is – but it’s quite a challenge for the palate. It’s also done at speed. You really only have a couple of minutes with each whisky, in which you have to decide whether it is good, then how good – and then write a few notes about each one.
After every flight each judge gives their scores (out of 100), which are compiled by the judge tasked with operating the ‘computer’. I use inverted commas, as these are computers that can really only cope with an Excel spreadsheet, which is a good job. It manages to spit out an average score for each whisky.
There then begins a discussion in which the judges will decide on the final medal for each whisky tasted. Not every whisky gets a medal. Occasionally you will find a stinker and sometimes one that has suffered a cork defect. For a whisky to get a Gold or Gold Outstanding everyone on the panel must agree that this whisky is deserving of it. It’s not always an easy task, but it’s a fascinating and rewarding process.
Did I mention that we then go to the pub? Well, after all of those palate-drying, highly alcoholic spirits (which we do spit out, by the way), what one needs desperately is a nice cold beer and a natter. What do we natter about? That’s maybe for another post…