Thursday, April 9, 2009

"They're very rigorous, the judging exams."

"Yes, I could have been a judge but I never had the Latin. I never had the Latin for the judging. I didn't have sufficient to get through the rigorous judging exam. They're very rigorous, the judging exams. They're noted for their rigor. People come staggering out saying, 'My God, what a rigorous exam!' So I managed to become a miner - a coal miner." Peter Cook, "Beyond the Fringe."

Spirit companies rightfully like to brag when their brands win awards, especially major assessments like the San Francisco World Spirit Competition and the Polished Palate International Rum Festival, both held in late March. But as a judge at both I received a few perplexed emails after the competitions from interested parties when brands they represent did less well than the reps thought they ought, or less well than obscure or lower-end brands did.

Take the vodka category at the S.F. comp, for instance. Double gold winners included a $9 vodka (Ruskova Select) and two $13 brands (Smirnoff 21 and UV). Clearly, these are brands even judges might not order if they had a taste for vodka, given how much imagery sells vodkas.

Which is why the judging is such an instructive process, and why, for me, the most exciting part of the process is finding out, after all the scores have been toted up and awards dispersed, what I liked and what I didn't. There are always brands that I think I fancy that I am embarrassed to learn I actually scorned in a tasting, just as I am surprised and intrigued when something I may have once ignored scores high on my sheet.

Vodka may be the easiest spirit to drink, but it's the toughest to judge; say for argument's sake that the whiskey and Cognac flavor and aroma spectrum includes one hundred distinct components, the rum spectrum 75, tequila 50, and gin 20 (these are completely arbitrary numbers, but you get the point). How many would that leave vodka - 5? 10? Texture, of course, matters, but with so much flavor stripped out of most vodkas by the multiple distillations, a taster is left looking for flaws, rather than any outstanding quality that is universally acknowledged.

For me, rye vodkas stand out, though I like some potato varieties as well. Neutral spirits that offer mostly cleanliness and little character would rarely get a gold from me; in fact, my group in S.F. gave only one vodka a gold medal.

And what makes me a judge? Well, I do have the Latin (and the liver) for the judging, but it's mostly because, in this business, you are what - and how much - you taste, and I try to taste it all.

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