To Judge Spirits, You Need to be Unbiased

This year, we thought about how we could improve the competition, and it did not take long to realize that we were not giving spirits enough attention. Seeing the growth of the spirits industry, we decided to add “spirits” to our name—The Finger Lakes International Wine & Spirits Competition (FLIWC). We will have a separate judging panel composed of professionals who are well-versed in various spirits. They will spend the second day of the competition judging all the spirits entries.

One of the judges on the panel is Tony Menechella, a Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS) and an avid supporter of the FLIWC. He believes that blind judging in an unbiased way is extremely important.

Below is a segment of an article he wrote about the topic:

Any respectable Competition is judged blind, and when somebody has so much experience with one particular spirit that they can correctly identify every pour, and a couple batches, in a blind tasting, 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. The two most important factors to me are objectivity and experience/knowledge. 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. 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.”

To embody the same amount of excellence in blind-judging spirits as we do with wine, we are using the NEAT Glass, which is a step-up from other tulip glassware used to judge spirits. The unique design helps with the judging process by showcasing the best of each spirit. NEAT donated 360 glasses and are our official “Spirit Glass Sponsor” for this year’s competition.

We spoke to Tony about his involvement in the industry and about the NEAT Glass.

First, how did you become involved in judging spirits? What about your introduction to the Lagavulin 16 YR Single Malt Scotch prompted you to start this journey?

I actually got my initial Judging at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition in 2017.  Some Spirits were submitted, and Lorraine Hems asked me if I’d be interested in participating, as she was aware of my spirits background and experience.  From there, a fellow wine judge from NY referred me to a friend of hers who hosted various Competitions, and in 2018, he invited me to Judge in the North American Bourbon and Whiskey Competition in New Orleans.  Evidently, I performed well enough to get invited to Judge in the Denver International Spirits Competition in Denver in 2019.  This year, I’m back in the Finger Lakes, and will be Judging in the San Diego International Spirits Competition in August.  It’s truly an honor to me, and I love the new people I’ve met because of it, some of whom I call friends! 

Lagavulin 16 was a game changer for me because it was unlike any Scotch, or Whisk(e)y that I had had up to that point.  In a Whisk(e)y, it would be the equivalent of going from a Chardonnay to a Cabernet Sauvignon in wine.  It was so different, and it showed me how Scotch has as broad of a flavor profile as wine can, and left me wanting to learn and experience more, and with different types of whiskies.  That eventually led to delving into all Spirits.

Do you judge wine as well? What would you say are the largest differences between judging wine and judging spirits?

I don’t judge wine but feel that there are more key similarities than differences.  With both, you have to be educated and have the experience with different spirits and wines.  For instance, in Scotch, you have to be experienced with all of the different regions, finishing, etc. In wine, with a Cabernet Sauvignon, you should know, and be able to recognize the differences between a Napa, Bordeaux, Australian, etc.  

You also need to check your ego at the door, be objective, and be open minded.  If you are not strong on a particular type of spirit, or varietal of wine, then you have to defer to those who are.  I personally struggle with Vodka, but will do the best that I can, and defer to those at the table who may know more.

A key difference would be the higher alcohol content in spirits.  Although you’re spitting, those who are not used to that should probably not judge spirits.

Why is the NEAT Glass such a game changer when it comes to judging spirits?

The NEAT Glass was a game changer for spirits because of its engineered design.  By flaring out at the top, the ethanol dissipates immediately out the rim of the glass, leaving just the aromas of the spirit.  Because of that, you do not burn out your olfactory senses as quickly because of the alcohol when judging, and getting alcohol fatigued.

Neat, straight up, or on the rocks?

Personally, I drink everything neat, and let the spirit open gradually as it oxidizes over time.  Professionally, I tell everyone to drink it however YOU like it, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. 

To learn more about Tony, please visit his website, www.tonymenechella.com.