Spirits Judging

Spirits Judging

Chapter 1: Knowledge and Experience

“So let me get this right? I guessed all four bourbons in a blind tasting, including a couple batch numbers, and you’re telling me that I wouldn’t make a good bourbon judge?”
“Screw you! I know more about bourbon than you, and have drank more bourbon than most others!!”

This person probably does know more about bourbon than most, and quite possibly has drank a lot more bourbon too. And therein lies the problem: a respectable competition is judged blind, and when somebody has so much experience with one particular spirit that they can correctly identify every pour, and/or a couple batches, then the blind gets tossed out the window. There are several qualities and factors that go into the makeup of being a judge, whether for wine, spirits, or cocktails, as it pertains to the beverage industry. Two of the most important factors in judging are objectivity and knowledge/experience. Judging has to be done without bias against a particular spirit, or spirit category, and whether or not you like or dislike a particular spirit or spirit category. However, it’s hard to be completely objective when you know what you’re drinking.

To quote veteran wine/spirits judge and Executive Sommelier in Spirits Larry Wilcox, “I think the most important factor is that a judge must evaluate the spirit based on how well it is made based upon the category the spirit was entered. Judging is not about whether a judge likes the spirit category or product being judged. In this way the spirit can be awarded a medal (or not) regardless of how many spirits are entered in that category. It is therefore important that the judge has the background to know the definition of the spirit category and general knowledge of how to make the spirit. That does not mean they need to be a distiller, producer, or blender. But probably more like a distributor, importer, liquor store owner, spirits teacher, or someone who has independent skin in the game.”

Whether it be for spirits, wine, beer, cocktails, etc., there really is no substitute for knowledge and experience. The knowledge of the different spirits categories, the spirits that fall into those categories, and how they’re made. The hands-on experience with those various spirit types to recognize and understand the intricacies of the spirit in front of you, but in a relatively short period of time. Most competitions utilize a 100 point scoring system, and while the verbiage may vary, they will contain similar components. For example, a Spirits Evaluation Form may contain the following categories and values:

  • Smell = Aroma + Bouquet (25 Points)
  • Mouth Feel (20 Points)
  • Taste (25 Points)
  • Finish (25 Points)
  • Overall Impressions (5 Points)

In a competition, judges will often have approximately 5 minutes per spirit, so quick deductions and decisions have to be made. If a single judge’s score significantly differs from that of the other judges’ at your table (7+ point differential), the judges have to be prepared to make their case as to why and where, and open to altering their score if need be. This does and will happen.

Chapter 2: Why do you want to be a judge?

Is being a judge, whether for spirits or wine, as sexy or glamorous as everyone might think it is? Most would dare to say no, but it could also depend upon the character of the judge. Many competitions are at the judge’s personal expense, while some of the larger competitions may offer compensation in the form of lodging, airfare, or mileage. All are different, but there are always out-of-pocket expenses. So given that, if it’s not financially rewarding, why does one still want to be a judge?

First and foremost, getting invited to participate and judge is an honor! It’s a testament to the time and commitment to honing one’s palate, and the accompanying education and experience across a broad spectrum of spirits, while being recognized for one’s study of the craft. A second reason is the networking and camaraderie that is gained over time. As Certified Wine Judge Kristen Lindelow says, “We judge for the hedonistic pleasure of mentally dissecting wines, discovering new places, and meeting new like-minded friends. I discovered “my people” when I started judging wines.”

Sadly, as with any industry or profession, ego and narcissism can also be a reason. Some love to see the word “Judge” associated with their name, and are quick to tell you all about it, along with their expertise and prowess, for hours! Anyone who’s been in the food or beverage industry for any length of time has met individuals like that. Judges who display that personality stand a great chance of not being asked back to a competition or event.

Chapter 3: How do you apply to be a judge in a competition?

First and foremost, perform an honest assessment on yourself, and don’t hesitate to ask peers or friends to participate, while thinking about and answering the questions below. You will be surrounded by industry professionals, and get one chance to make good impression.

  • Do I have the education and experience?
  • Am I objective?
  • Why do I want to?
  • What are my strengths and weaknesses?

Second, put together a brief resume that details you education, experience, and strengths. Once you’ve done that, based upon your knowledge/experience and strengths/weaknesses, research the type of competition that you may be interested in. A google search for spirits, wine, cocktail, or beer competitions will bring up a plethora of options. For example, if your strength is American Whiskey, you may want to look at the North American Bourbon and Whiskey Competition, which is held annually in New Orleans. But, as the name implies, it’s not just American, so you should have some knowledge and experience with Canadian Whisky.

If you feel confident in an international spirits competition, you should be prepared for anything and everything; World Whisk(e)y, World Brandy, Rum, various Botanicals, Pre-mixed Cocktails, Vodka, Gin, etc. For example, at the Denver International Spirits Competition in 2019, a judge had the following types of spirits at their table:

  • Vodka
  • Gin
  • Flavored Gin
  • Aquavit
  • Rum
  • Bourbon
  • Straight Bourbon
  • Rye
  • Straight Rye
  • Pre-Mixed Cocktails
  • Liqueurs
  • Blended Scotch
  • Premium Blended Scotch

This is why you identify your strengths and weaknesses. Very few people are experienced with every type of spirit. For example, a judge may struggle with Vodka. While this judge may have the education and production knowledge for the category, they may lack the hands-on experience of drinking the spirit. This judge should do their best to judge the spirit, but should ultimately defer to those at the table with more experience.

Finally, once you’ve identified the competition(s) that you’re interested in, look for a specific contact on their website for judging, and send your resume along with an introduction. This can be a resume and cover letter combined, and if you personally know someone who has judged in the competition that you’re looking at, ask them for a reference. As Liz Edwards, Founder and Director of the San Diego International Spirits Competition and Festival says, “When I invite judges to be part of the blind tasting, I look for judges who have years of experience in the industry. Those that have judged before and also those that are active in the industry, I also check the social profile of the judge, and most important any certifications. The judge needs to be a team player and find it an honor to be on the panel.”

Chapter 4: Sample resume

I’ve been in and around the spirits industry and business for 20 years, and have over 15+ years of experience with spirits from all over the world, including many various and different production methods. As a Judge, my strengths are experience, objectivity, and a willingness to defer and adjust my score when warranted.
I would list {Insert name} as a reference.
Below is my Spirits Resume, and I hope you will consider me as a potential judge for the {Insert name} International Spirits Competition?
Tony Menechella, CSS


  • Certified Specialist of Spirits, Society of Wine Educators, 2017
  • Certified Cognac Educator, BNIC of Cognac, In Progress
  • Certified Spirits Educator, Society of Wine Educators, In Progress

Professional & Community Involvement

  • Member, American Wine Society
  • Member, Society of Wine Educators
  • Judge, San Diego International Spirits Competition, 2020
  • Judge, Denver International Spirits Competition, 2019
  • Judge, North American Bourbon & Whiskey Competition, 2018, 2019
  • Judge, Finger Lakes International Wine Competition, Spirits, 2017, 2020

Speaking Engagements

  • The American Wine Society National Conference, 2019
  • Blind World Whisk(e)y
  • World Brandy


  • The Whiskey Wash, February 2019 – Present


  • Bourbon on Main, Frankfort, KY – Staff Training, February 2019

In closing, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears goes into honing ones craft; in this case, spirits. It should be an honor to be selected to judge in a competition, and the reward is in your passion, and meeting like-minded individuals, some of whom you may end up calling a friend, which I can personally attest to over the years, not to mention, the fun and fellowship.

Tony Menechella, CSS