The art and instinct of judging


What brands of bourbon, rye and Canadian whisky will you be drinking later this year?

If my vote is typical, Nos. 102, 103, 203 306, 310 and 311 will be the bourbons of choice, Nos. 501 and 502 among the ryes, and maybe No. 703 among the Canadians.

Confused? Don't be. Those are the code numbers for the best samples I judged over the past week as part of the Icons of Whisky awards, sponsored by Whisky Magazine, the U.K. publication that is the world's leading spirits magazine.

At this point I have no idea what brands the samples represented, nor does anyone else except those who decanted the various bottles into sampling-sized flasks, labeled them with the code numbers and categories, and shipped them to the judges who were participating in the North American portion of the competition. (Earlier "heats" covered Scotland, Ireland and Canada, with some Canadian whiskies entered in the North American "heat" as well. See results here.)

Our task was to follow a set of judging guidelines in evaluating and ranking each entry by balance, complexity and character according to Whisky Magazine's 10-point scale: 9-5 faulty, 5.25-6.75 very poor/poor/average, 7-7.5 good, 8-8.75 excellent, 9+ exceptional. As noted in the guidelines "By the way, 10 is impossible. There is no such thing as perfection." We then were to ship our pronouncements to Norwich, England, HQ of the magazine, from whence they'll go into the global finals.

That led me to sample 28 whiskies -- 19 bourbons, six Canadians and three ryes.

Let's stop right there. I can almost hear the usual comments. "How do you keep from getting wasted?" "Boy, I wish I could get a job like that." "Can you really tell one kind from another?"

I hear that sort of thing when the topic is wine judging or spirits judging. To some people, alcoholic beverages have one overriding purpose -- to get a buzz on. To others, any sort of judging gig is akin to winning the lottery.

Yes, I enjoy such activities. Otherwise I wouldn't do them. But, it is interesting to hear public perceptions of such an arcane and often misunderstood undertaking. I suppose that people do get lost in the numbers when you try to explain that judging a wine competition usually involves trying 135 to 200 or more wines over a two-day period and a spirits competition requires trying several dozen strong entries, often in a day.

What some don't seem to grasp is the fact that you're not doing a tasting or judging just to imbibe. Drinking is not the desired outcome; charting the journey is, from eye to nose to palate.

There are tricks to keeping your wits about you. In wine judging, you rarely actually swallow wine. The mantra is "swirl, sip, spit," and that goes on time after time. In spirits judging, you also rarely drink the samples, instead allowing the eye and the nose and the palate to do the work for you.

Occasional breaks for palate refreshers like bites of mild cheese or very rare roast beef -- a takeoff on the old saw of putting a raw steak on a black eye -- help reawaken a palate that has been flattened out by the alcohol. Wine judging usually ranges from dry to sweet wines, with different schools of thought on whether to begin with a palate-clearing bubbly or having that between the flight of reds and whites. Spirits are trickier since there is not the same range as in wines. Then, pacing is the key so you have to build in a fair amount of time to allow the palate to bounce back.

Distillers and winemakers enter competitions for several reasons, chief among them the hope that they'll win medals which they then can use in their marketing campaigns. That's where the judges fit into the puzzle. Even if you don't care much about what we do, you'll eventually succumb to the lure of a heavily medaled wine or spirit beckoning you from a slick print ad or TV commercial. Gotcha.

Since I began this discussion with references to bourbon, rye and Canadian whisky, here are cocktail recipes using each:


2 ounces Canadian whisky
2 slices of orange
1 cherry
1 sugar cube
2 drops bitters
Lemon-lime soda

In a rocks glass, muddle one orange slice, cherry, sugar cube and bitters. Add ice, whisky Mist and top with lemon-lime soda. For dryer version, use club soda in place of lemon-lime. Garnish with additional orange slice.


1/2 ounce triple sec, chilled
7 dashes each, Angostura and Peychaud bitters
1 ounce bourbon
5 ounces brut champagne

Place triple sec, bitters and bourbon in a champagne flute. Stir and fill with 5 ounces well-chilled champagne. Garnish with a long orange zest and serve immediately.


1 part rye whiskey
1 part freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 part creme de cacao
Dash grenadine syrup

Pour all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, shake vigorously and pour into a cocktail glass.

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