47 Whiskies, 48 Medals – The International Whisky Competition

by Oliver Klimek on April 11, 2010

On April 10 the The International Whisky Competition (IWC) closed its doors. It was being held in Chicago where a panel of six high profile whisky experts judged 47 whiskies that had been entered into the competition. Awarded were gold, silver and bronze medals in 16 categories, making it a total of 48 medals.

The results in the most important category “Whisky of the Year” were:

  • Gold: The Yamazaki 1984 – 25 Year Old Single Malt
  • Silver: The Dalmore 40 Year Old
  • Bronze: The Yamazaki 12 Year Old Single Malt

48 medals for 47 whiskies? Now that’s what I’d call a fair winning chance. But let’s take a closer look.

The lists of entrants is indeed quite stunning. 17 of the 47 whiskies (that’s more than a third) are products of Whyte & Mackay who more or less entered their entire range into the competition, from the simple NAS Special blend over several Juras to the luxurious Dalmore 40. Other producers were much more reluctant to join the party. Of all other Scottish distillers only Grant’s took the chance and entered their Glenfiddich 15 and two decent Balvenies. Obvioulsly this was done to show at least a little presence. This means that only 5 Scottish distilleries officially sent bottles to the competition! Independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail provided bottlings of six more distilleries, so the picture looks a little less bleak. But with only one disclosed Islay single malt (An 8 yo Caol Ila from G&M) the competition was far from being representative for the Scotch Whisky industry.

Other entrants included Suntory who sent in four of their Japanese whiskies, Fortune Brands who entered two Maker’s Marks but not a single Laphroaig [!], Canadian Forty Creek distillery and Lark from Australia.

A Very Amibtious Project

A look at IWC’s Wikipedia page (yes, they managed to create one that survived the tough Wiki scrutinizers – hats off to that feat!) shows that the original plans for the competition included even 35 categories. But in light of the reluctant turnout, the presenters did well to cut down the programme. The fact that without virtually any Islay malts to at least save the Islands category they included the Tasmanian Lark with the Juras really demonstrates a certain helplessness. Tasmania is almost as big as Irleand. No Irish whiskeys were present in the competition, by the way.

Caught by Reality

One has not to look far to find the reasons why the participation of the whiksy industry was so disappointing. In summer 2009 there was a lively debate on several blogs about an inflation of whisky and spirit competitions and about how meaningful the plethora of awards is at all.

To sum up the discussion, in the official Bruichladdich blog Mark Reynier even stated:

“We don’t bother anymore. We recently won a gold medal for Design & Packaging at one of them, I forget which, despite not entering; and Bruichladdich Eighteen just won a gold but I can’t remember where.”

Take these sentiments together with the current economic situation, a wide range of whisky festivals all over the world that distillieries visit over the course of a year, then add the unlucky schedule, squeezed in tightly between the two rather prestigous San Francisco World Spirits Competition in March and the International Wine and Spirits Conmpetition on April 30, and don’t forget the entry fee of $500 per bottle – the highest of all competitiors by a margin – and there you have it.

Technically they did everyhing right. They created a professional website, took full advantage of social media by joining Twitter and Facebook long before the actual event, they launched teaser videos on Youtube and set up the already mentionend Wikipedia page. But somewhow the promised fireworks just fizzled out.

The website has an Alexa traffic ranking of over 7 million, which a newly set up blog gets more or less automatically after about a month only by putting up a dozen of posts. By the way, my current Alexa rank is 2.2 million, and I don’t consider this site to be one of the premier whisky addresses on the web (just yet…)

A new kid on the block wants to grab its piece of the cake, I think is the sentiment that many whisky producers have when they are presented with “just another one of those competitions”. and they will think twice or trice before paying a high fee for “just another award”. And judging from the entry statistics, it seems that Mark Reynier is not alone in the industry with his opinon on competitions and awards.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Gal April 11, 2010 at 11:11 am

Only 1 Islay in the competition and 40 W&M?
it’s a joke!
i never buy whiskies if they win gold. i count on fellow people i know, blogs, reviews, and tastings…

it’s a sham!

Reply

Oliver Klimek April 11, 2010 at 11:15 am

Well, there were 17 W&Ms, the 40 was the age of the Dalmore ;-) But still…

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Gal April 11, 2010 at 11:20 am

ah, my mistake. 17 is too much anyways. was Richard Paterson the judge? ;)
still…
no Ardbeg? Laphraoig ? Caol ILA , Lagavulin? those are cornerstones of every bar.

this competition is a joke

Reply

Oliver Klimek April 11, 2010 at 11:26 am

Whyte & Mackay have visibly increased their presence everywhere, online and offline. They seem to me inmidst of a major marketing campaign. But they are not to blame if they are the only ones who take these competitions seriously (or want to take profit from the absence of competitors). It’s their good right to do so. It just shows that the whisky market as a whole is oversaturated with awards.

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Sylvain Allard April 21, 2010 at 6:39 am

The fact Diageo decided to wait and see did hurt the number of bottles we could have gotten from Scotland. Nevertheless, the format was and is still innovative and we will keep pursuing our passion: judging whiskies with strict and professional criteria.

Thanks for the constructive criticism, we’ll improve for next year! Judges will enter their ratings on iPad and there will be more interactions with the public!

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Oliver Klimek April 21, 2010 at 7:57 am

Sylvain, thank you for the comment. Of course, when announcing an event like this you will never know how the participation will be before the deadline. I wish you the best for getting more entrants in next year’s competition, but I think it will take a lot of effort to convince producers that it really is more than “Just another award”.

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Jeff August 31, 2013 at 6:59 pm

The problem presented with this being “just another one of those competitions” is largely of the industry’s own making – the whole “gold medal” system is nothing more than fodder for promotion and advertising for the winners – which, in turn, encouraged more awards to start up to help the industry out – and consumers just aren’t taking the bait the way they used to, even as (or because) the number of available competitions and awards is ever increasing. In short, the entire issue of awards has the appearance of being “whored out”, with just too many awards, too easy to win. As for the ‘high entry fee” of $500 per bottle, producers might be wise to save their money, but I’ll have more sympathy for them when they can’t write off the cost as a promotional expense – and they have more sympathy for me by dropping prices.

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