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View Full Version : How do you win Best Bourbon at a tasting?



SmoothAmbler
03-27-2013, 11:49
I thought some folks here might find the story of the competition process interesting. Here's the link:

http://fredminnick.com/the-inside-story-to-best-bourbon-at-the-san-francisco-world-spirits-competition/

It'd probably the best insight into the process that I have seen.

smknjoe
03-27-2013, 12:06
When I googled the "Texas made" bourbon gold winner that's what popped up. Do they not distinguish between straight and other bourbons?

Yeti
03-27-2013, 12:10
Very fascinating read. Thanks for the link.

amftx
03-27-2013, 12:16
Well the first step is... get the judges really drunk...

Rockefeller
03-27-2013, 12:38
... guess the '12 BT version isn't that bad

VAGentleman
03-27-2013, 12:44
Very interesting that the judges are allowed to comment and try to sway the other judges on their opinions. Thats very opposite from what I would have expected.

Kalessin
03-28-2013, 08:35
"Fascinating" is the word that comes to my mind, too.

I'm amused that they have to spend a day or two tasting flavored vodkas before getting to the whiskies... purgatory before being let through the gates of heaven, I think...

Echoing what those have said before me in the thread, I too am surprised that judges can discuss and try to influence other judges' opinions: the power of suggestion is very strong. I'm also surprised that the competition doesn't use "off the shelf" bottles in the proceedings, though I'm not sure how to guarantee that, especially with 35-year-old scotches being priced up to the thousands of dollars these days. Sadly, the value of the awards makes trying to game the system worthwhile, and I would guess it's been that way for a very long time.

And finally, if the Pappy 15 that won the final round of bourbon is that sublime, well, that may be proof right that the magic isn't entirely Stitzel-Weller's legendary and fast-vanishing juice.

Meruck
03-28-2013, 08:57
The "taste" of bourbon is so subjective that the winner of any contest is in the end irrelevant unless your most commonly used phrase is "baaahhh". Its like having a pie contest. One judge may truly love apple pie while another"s favorite maybe gooseberry. Apple pie must be compared to apple pie just as a wheater must be compared to a wheater. I enjoy the P-15, but I have read on this very forum that there are those who actually drink and enjoy OGD 114.

There's no accounting for taste,

Beer&Bourbon
03-28-2013, 09:53
IMHO some of you are just thinking about this the wrong way. I think these competitions help to point out interesting spirits to try. I don't buy that gold/double gold/best in category is actually a better whiskey, but it does point to interesting ones that I haven't tried before. In a world filled with too many things to try and not enough time to try them, it helps identify items to put on my to try/buy list.

I'm pretty sure the company has to enter the product in to competition (which includes sending a bottle or two of the spirit to be judged). I think Pappy gets entered every year since the payoff is increased demand (their primary business model). I would like to see how some low shelf entries would do in this competition, but they're on the bottom shelf either because they're crap or because the producers don't want to spend more on a particular label (or because the brands want to give people in the know a good bourbon at a good price - HAHA, unlikely business model). I'm ok with VoB BiB (or HH white label) not being recognized for how good they are by the general public as long as the whiskey doesn't change and the product remains on the bottom shelf.

squire
03-28-2013, 11:02
How much do the producers have to pay to enter their bottles for judging.

VAGentleman
03-28-2013, 12:01
I also found it interesting that they tell the judges the age and proof. That can definitley sway judges as well. See the comment about 80 proof whiskies not winning(maybe they shouldn't but that could certainily sway a judge with the bias towards higher proofed whiskey)

squire
03-28-2013, 12:06
I expect the Scotch and Canadian whiskys are 80 proof.

squire
03-28-2013, 12:07
Being informed of the age and proof means the judges are not tasting blind.

SmoothAmbler
03-28-2013, 14:12
In think it's important to know the proof when tasting "blind". Judging heat or burn or whatever you want to call it would be impossible if you didn't know that.

The price is $475 (I think) per bottle submitted.

squire
03-28-2013, 14:22
If I'm tasting to choose the best of the lot why is it important to know the proof?

Tennessee Dave
03-28-2013, 16:40
Thanks for sharing this.

SmoothAmbler
03-28-2013, 17:53
I'm not sure you need to know proof to know what you like best. But to compare similar products at vastly different proofs, I would think it's important to have that piece of information. Knowing the proof helps you understand why one whiskey might have more heat or burn than the other. There's a reason many of the experts compare spirits at the same proof.

However, I completely understand your position. After all, those distillers sent in the product at a certain proof for a reason.

fminnick
03-29-2013, 07:18
Being informed of the age and proof means the judges are not tasting blind.

Actually knowing the age and proof but not the brand does mean it's blind. When blind tasting wine, I know the grape and country. A double blind tasting means you know zero about what you're tasting. I've tasted with some master sommeliers who tasted the wine and could even tell you the trellis system of the vineyards. It's amazing to observe these guys.

The best bourbon palate, I'm told, was Booker Noe. He could randomly double blind taste him and he could tell you everything about the bourbon.

HighInTheMtns
03-29-2013, 08:05
Actually knowing the age and proof but not the brand does mean it's blind. When blind tasting wine, I know the grape and country. A double blind tasting means you know zero about what you're tasting. I've tasted with some master sommeliers who tasted the wine and could even tell you the trellis system of the vineyards. It's amazing to observe these guys.

The best bourbon palate, I'm told, was Booker Noe. He could randomly double blind taste him and he could tell you everything about the bourbon.
"Double blind" means the subject and the experimenter both do not know what each sample is. Your definition is simply incorrect.

FWIW, I agree with Squire. You knew that the whiskey in question was 11 or more years old, you knew it was 107 proof, and you were fairly sure from palate that it was a wheater. "Please don't be Pappy?" You already knew it was Pappy; no other bourbon fits that description. It simply wasn't a blind tasting. I don't question your ability to judge spirits, but calling this a blind tasting is nonsense, and your definition of double blind is even worse nonsense.

fminnick
03-29-2013, 08:44
"Double blind" means the subject and the experimenter both do not know what each sample is. Your definition is simply incorrect.

FWIW, I agree with Squire. You knew that the whiskey in question was 11 or more years old, you knew it was 107 proof, and you were fairly sure from palate that it was a wheater. "Please don't be Pappy?" You already knew it was Pappy; no other bourbon fits that description. It simply wasn't a blind tasting. I don't question your ability to judge spirits, but calling this a blind tasting is nonsense, and your definition of double blind is even worse nonsense.

Jim, you are referencing the double-blind definition for medical testing. For wine, this is the definition of double-blind: "
A version of "blind tasting" where wines of different varietals are tasted at the same time. The challenge of "double blind tasting" is to determine the varietal and origin of the wine."
http://www.recipetips.com/glossary-t...sting-wine.asp (http://www.recipetips.com/glossary-term/t--36968/double-blind-tasting-wine.asp)

A more thorough University of California definition explains:…"‘Double blind’ describes tastings in which the evaluator is given no explicit information about the wine at all, and evaluates the wine only on the basis of properties she discerns by perceiving the wine in the glass. ‘Single blind’ generally describes tasting in which the evaluator carries out her evaluation perceptually after being told either (i) a general property about the whole class of wines being evaluated (say, their shared geographic region, or the grape from which they were made), or (ii) the list of producers of the wines to be tasted, but not which producer made each individual wine."http://aardvark.ucsd.edu/perception/blind_tasting.pdf

We tasted blind by industry standards.

HighInTheMtns
03-29-2013, 08:59
Jim, you are referencing the double-blind definition for medical testing. For wine, this is the definition of double-blind: "
A version of "blind tasting" where wines of different varietals are tasted at the same time. The challenge of "double blind tasting" is to determine the varietal and origin of the wine."
http://www.recipetips.com/glossary-t...sting-wine.asp (http://www.recipetips.com/glossary-term/t--36968/double-blind-tasting-wine.asp)

A more thorough University of California definition explains:…"‘Double blind’ describes tastings in which the evaluator is given no explicit information about the wine at all, and evaluates the wine only on the basis of properties she discerns by perceiving the wine in the glass. ‘Single blind’ generally describes tasting in which the evaluator carries out her evaluation perceptually after being told either (i) a general property about the whole class of wines being evaluated (say, their shared geographic region, or the grape from which they were made), or (ii) the list of producers of the wines to be tasted, but not which producer made each individual wine."http://aardvark.ucsd.edu/perception/blind_tasting.pdf

We tasted blind by industry standards.
Fair enough.
I do think that age and proof of a bourbon can be far more revealing than varietal and origin of a wine. They could just give you the same information for a whiskey: "bourbon, USA," "single malt, Japan," etc.
This is the problem with revealing age and proof: as I said, the bottle that was the subject in your article is one whose identity one can be reasonably sure of from the information given. There are many others. If you were holding out hope that you were tasting some other wonderful 11+ year, 107 proof wheater that no one had heard of yet, I have to believe that you were guilty of willful suspension of disbelief - which, by the way, I think is FAR better than saying "OK, number 38 is the Pappy. It wins." ;)

Also, I understand that you're not responsible for setting up the rules and only had to operate with the information given you, so doing your best to not decide which is which based on age and proof was likely the most impartial way for you to proceed.

higgins
03-29-2013, 09:13
With due respect to the fact that Mr. Minnick is working within the parameters of his profession, those definitions of 'blind tasting' are ridiculous. The purpose of a blind is to remove bias, whether it be in medical testing or taste testing.

There is no doubt in my mind that knowing the proof, and especially age, of a whiskey introduces a bias into the tasting. Do you really expect to not have any preconceived notions when you know that you're about to taste a 35-year-old scotch whiskey?

fminnick
03-29-2013, 09:41
With due respect to the fact that Mr. Minnick is working within the parameters of his profession, those definitions of 'blind tasting' are ridiculous. The purpose of a blind is to remove bias, whether it be in medical testing or taste testing.

There is no doubt in my mind that knowing the proof, and especially age, of a whiskey introduces a bias into the tasting. Do you really expect to not have any preconceived notions when you know that you're about to taste a 35-year-old scotch whiskey?

I completely see your point. But, I will say that many older single malts performed poorly. In the end, it's not a perfect system. I've been asked to judge again next year; and hopefully, I can contribute some ideas to improve the competition. I love the idea of a double blind round, but I don't think many people would enter it. Would a trendy high-end several-barrel finish beat Devil's Cut?

higgins
03-29-2013, 09:50
I love the idea of a double blind round, but I don't think many people would enter it. Would a trendy high-end several-barrel finish beat Devil's Cut?

I think that's the real hang-up. There has to be some compromise between unbiased testing and actually getting the distillers to enter their products into competition.

I just wish they hadn't taken an important and already defined term such as 'blind' and misrepresented it in this way. Oh well, just add it to the list of pet peeves I have with the wine industry.

fminnick
03-29-2013, 09:59
Maybe we can influence change.

squire
03-29-2013, 10:25
Bear with me Fred, I believe if I hand an expert a glass of white wine and only tell him it's from Germany he should be able to spot the grape, region and then get more specific or else he's not an expert.

If I hand an expert a glass of whisky and tell him more than it's a Bourbon then he will be tasting on information rather than expertise.

fminnick
03-29-2013, 11:52
Bear with me Fred, I believe if I hand an expert a glass of white wine and only tell him it's from Germany he should be able to spot the grape, region and then get more specific or else he's not an expert.

If I hand an expert a glass of whisky and tell him more than it's a Bourbon then he will be tasting on information rather than expertise.

Great statement, Squire. I think the answer is it's complicated. Germany is a great country to bring up with whites, because you're mostly looking at two grapes--Riesling and Gewürztraminer--for whites. A marginal palate could detect a sweeter Riesling over the dryer Gewurztraminer. But, what if you threw in an airen? Could they detect this mostly Spanish variety? I know about 2 percent of the wine professionals could. They are the Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers, the Navy Seals of wine. The rigorous training they go through is amazing. Just because somebody can't spot the grape does not mean they're not an expert. It just means their palate at that moment could not detect it. Plus, there are so many variables in wine. The fermentation styles, the higher tannins in French oak, the coconut in American oak and the various toasting methods. I saw a Spanish winery that used square barrels. Who could taste that?

So your point about bourbon is accurate. The taster will no doubt go on the information given. But, I don't want to taste bourbon up against Canadian whisky or Scotch before I taste against other bourbons, because there are different rules and traditions in making these. I hope I understood your statement correctly and properly addressed it.

Can whiskey tasters ever get to the point where we can spot the exact warehouse of a product line the Masters of Wine can with Riesling? I don't know if we ever will, because I only know what the distillers release. Wine is mostly transparent, but whiskey companies often call themselves a distillery when they're not even a distillery.

Bourbon Boiler
03-29-2013, 12:16
I don't really like this procedure either, but no information can bias as well. I'm sure everyone has taken a bite of some food in their life, that they thought was something else. When that has happened to me, I've never liked the immediate taste. However, when I take a second bite knowing what it is, I like it. Granted, bourbon is so tightly defined that there isn't a whole lot of room for variety. However, if someone made an extremely aged, high proof bourbon, if it didn't taste like what the judge expected to taste I could see a negative result.

I'd still take this over knowing exact age and proof, but I don't think there can be a perfect methodology.

squire
03-29-2013, 12:21
Good point about the MWs Fred, I wasn't shooting quite that high. What I had in mind was Gewrtz-Riesling, Moselle-Rhine, that sort of thing.

I would like to sit down with the taster who can distinguish a Rye whisky with 53% rye, 35% corn, 12% malt as opposed to a Bourbon with 58% corn, 30% rye, 12% malt.

Other than the social aspects I'm not interested in another distillery tour but would greatly like to spend a morning in the tasting room with the Master Blenders nosing samples.

Leopold
03-29-2013, 17:41
FWIW, I agree with Squire. You knew that the whiskey in question was 11 or more years old, you knew it was 107 proof, and you were fairly sure from palate that it was a wheater. "Please don't be Pappy?" You already knew it was Pappy; no other bourbon fits that description. It simply wasn't a blind tasting. I don't question your ability to judge spirits, but calling this a blind tasting is nonsense, and your definition of double blind is even worse nonsense.

A blind tasting is an impossibility. Witness Beefeater's Gin winning "Best Gin" two years in a row at the competition Mr. Minnick is describing (well deserved as it's a fine, fine Gin). Even an amateur Gin fan could pick out Beefeater's with one simple whiff. So what does the judge do? Pretend it's not Beefeater's? And you can say the same thing about Cointreau, or Bailey's, or Grand Marnier Liqueur, and on and on.

This is as good as it gets for this sort of thing. And by the way, if this "blind" stuff bothers some of you, you should be outraged that not one single Whisk(e)y publication evaluates Bourbon, Rye, or Whisky blind. To a person, they know exactly what they are tasting. Obviously this affects their ratings, for good or ill.

In the end, there isn't a perfect method for this sort of thing. And each competition/whiskey publication chooses the path that suits them best. There's nothing wrong with that.