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Where’s the gold – how to navigate whisky awards

It’s that time of year again – whisky awards season! Long a controversial talking point in the world of booze, whisky and spirits competitions have been increasing in number and influence over the last decade.

Behind the bar, we’re constantly asked about award-winning whiskies. But we find that most consumers are confused by the sheer number of awards and competitions out there, and know even less about what they actually stand for. Which whisky won what award? What does a gold or silver medal represent? And how was the whisky judged: by a panel in a competition environment, or by a certain Panama-hatted Englishman?

Judging ‘Champion Whisky’ at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards 2019


In the whisky world, the three major competitions the industry keeps tabs on are the World Whiskies Awards (founded 2007, results announced 28 March 2019), the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (founded 2000, this year’s awards judged 22-24 March), and the International Wine and Spirit Competition (founded 1969, results announced 30 July 2019).

But there’s dozens more out there, and even local competitions like the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards run by the RASV (results 4 April) and the new Tasting Australia Spirit Awards (results 6 April) are capturing the attention of local distillers and consumers.

We’ve had a number of current and former Whisky & Alement staff judge and also chair panels at various awards. Assessing whiskies and awarding medals is never easy, but we’re very fortunate at the bar to score and blind taste new whiskies and spirits every week (check out our ever-growing list of whiskies reviewed and scored by the team each month). The complexity of the task is made much easier with a lot of…erm, practice.

Australian Malt Whisky Tasting champion, Tasting Australia judge, and Whisky & Alement co-owner Brooke Hayman evaluating whiskies – Photo Scotch Malt Whisky Society


How is the judging performed? Every spirits competition will have slightly different methodology and criteria. Some competitions are judged all at once over consecutive days, some send samples to individual judges for personal evaluation before final rounds of assessment are conducted, and some, like the International Wine and Spirit Competition, also perform a chemical analysis of each spirit judged.

Co-owner Julian White, panel chair at the Australian Distilled Spirits Awards 2019 – Photo RASV


The whiskies are presented blind and judges will then assess the nose, palate and finish of a whisky and award points for character, complexity and balance. Whether the expert’s thoughts on a certain whisky coincide with your own, well, that’s the fun of the whole game.

We strongly encourage all whisky lovers to do some blind tasting every now and then. It’s great fun, and the process is perfect for re-evaluating your prejudices to certain styles and brands. Even better, you often end up discovering new favourites in places you’d never think to look.


The Whisky & Alement Team