Is there such a thing as the perfect whisky competition?
I don’t like to give people the runaround. So, no. It doesn’t exist. We could just end this blog post here if you’re were hoping to find an answer to such a question. Because even the Online Scotch Whisky Awards, while very commendable and done with the utmost integrity, are not faultless. That’s just not possible.
But the Online Scotch Whisky Awards have a lot going for them. Initiated by Roy Duff from Aqvavitae and Ralfy Mitchell from well… Ralfy, these awards are done by the whisky community. And for the whisky community. (More on that later.) Whereas most other whisky competitions, or maybe even all of them, are whisky industry affairs with commercial intentions.
I’m sure that sent a shiver through some of you reading this. The word commercial. It shouldn’t have, but from having been a part of the whisky community for well over a decade, I know how much of a trigger it can be for some. And I’ve also seen many times how whisky competitions are discussed in a conspiratory, hush-hush way. As if the entire industry is trying to trick us into buying whisky we really shouldn’t.
That’s just stupid. (I’m Dutch, so I’m expected to be direct.) I’m not naive, I know how the world works, and the whisky industry IS commercial. That’s not a bad thing. It should be commercial. All distilleries are businesses. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have been around for such a long time.
And whisky competitions are businesses too. They’re not scams, but rather commercial enterprises. They cost money to put on. People need to be employed, there’s usually lots of logistics involved. And thus whisky brands pay an entry fee. Or cough up money for an awards dinner, or to use branded stickers on their bottles if they actually win something.
Having said that, I’ve always had a healthy scepticism of whisky competitions. For example, no whisky competition is an exhaustive representation of the whisky landscape. Any competition is limited by how many entries it receives. Also, whisky awards are a marketing tool (another scary term for many whisky drinkers). They’re not necessarily intended as a service to the consumer, but held from a commercial vantage point for brands.
Most importantly, it can seem like participating in a spirit competition pretty much guarantees some sort of award. The San Francisco World Spirits Competition has been known to hand out a medals to more than 60 percent of its entrants. Same for the World Whiskies Awards. You can interpret this to mean that modern whisky is mostly a high-quality drink (which I believe it is), or that these competition have a lack of standards (which I don’t believe is usually the case).
As always, things are more nuanced. We live in a grey world, not the black-and-white one that I so often see painted in online discussions. Here’s an explanation for why so many medals are handed out from someone involved with one of the biggest spirit competitions in the world.
“We realize that those entering their products enter what is considered the best of what they distill. Medals are based on what the industry standard is for a whisky, many products meet the standard. It is nota comparative competition until the sweepstakes round. This is why there are so many medals.”
In short, in many competitions the whiskies don’t initially compete against one another, but are judged on their merit, just like when I write a review. A whisky doesn’t have to beat out dozens or hundreds of other whiskies to win a gold medal. It just has to be really good.
Nevertheless, it can be confusing. How much is a medal worth when so many whiskies win one? Which brings me right back to the Online Scotch Whisky Awards, which are about as straightforward as can be. Nine categories. Nine winners. And that’s it.
Contrary to commercial competitions, the Online Scotch Whisky Awards are very much done from a consumer standpoint. Independent from brands (which don’t enter samples of their product) and with the help of a community of collaborators. A core group (of which I’m not a part) identifies the initial nominations, which is then streamlined by the entire group of collaborators (which I am a part of), before letting the winners be selected by public vote.
It’s not a perfect process. Even with independence from brands it’s impossible for the Online Scotch Whisky Awards to be exhaustive. Us whisky enthusiasts tend to spend a lot of time in an (online) echo chamber, and there’s a limit to our combined knowledge of the whisky landscape, making it easy to overlook brands that may have been equally deserving of a nomination. And with a public vote there’s always the danger of an award becoming a popularity contest and merit is thrown out the window.
But the Online Scotch Whisky Awards present a different process. One with high aspirations and morals. It is a praiseworthy, admireable attempt at highlighting well-made, affordable whiskies from around the world without any financial model. These awards are about putting the whisky consumer first and not feeling any pressure from brands that would have paid a (sometimes hefty) fee to enter their product. That’s a process I’m glad to be contributing to, even if it is in just a small way.