International Whisky Competition 2011 – Chaos in Chicago

by Oliver Klimek on April 11, 2011

“The International Whisky Competition is the premium whisky competition in the world.”

So the website of the competition proudly states. Bold words indeed from the newcomer who entered the ever-growing award and competition circuit in 2010. Charging $500 for each bottle entered into the competition at least made them the most expensive by far.

They had set the bar very high, but the 2010 competition was less than convincing. I already reviewed the event last year.

A fact that I was unaware of when I wrote the article was that the competition had suffered a massive false start. On an early version of their website, they announced a number of Malt Maniacs as judges for their 2010 competition. But none of them had actually been asked before the announcement.

As I am now a member of this group myself, I was eagerly anticipating if the 2011 awards would live up better to the self-proclaimed “premium” status. I would like to point out that my MM membership has not influenced my opinion. First and foremost I am a whisky lover and a blogger writing about things that should not remain uncommented.

The Mess Continues

Entrants?

Until the beginning of the competition – scheduled from 7th to 9th April in Chicago’s Hotel 71 – the website listed 12 entrants. A few last minute entrants were announced (according to the organizers entered by themselves!) on Twitter and Facebook but never found their way to the homepage. On day 1 (Thursday) of the competition the number of confirmed entrants was 16. Only 15 were tasted. One confirmed entrant (DSP Black Deluxe Whisky) was not tasted, yet the organizers said that the results were to be announced on Saturday. On Friday, “3 new bottles” were announced, subsequently three more whiskies were tasted on Saturday, one of them being the DSP. So actually the competition had 18 whiskies. The DSP probably would have gone untasted if they hadn’t received the two late entries.

The final list of entrants:

  • Black Dog Reserve 18 Year Old Scotch Whisky
  • Black Dog Centenary 8 Year Old Deluxe Scotch Whisky
  • Whyte & Mackay Glasgow Special Blended Scotch Whisky
  • Antiquity Blue Ultra Premium Whisky
  • Royal Challenge Finest Premium Whisky
  • McDowell’s No. 1 Platinum 100% Premium Grain Luxury Whisky
  • DSP Black Deluxe Whisky
  • Bruichladdich “Rocks” Islay Single Malt Whisky
  • Bruichladdich (Port Charlotte) PC7 Islay Single Malt Whisky
  • Usquaebach 15 Year Old Blended Malt Whisky
  • Kilchoman Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky 3 Year Old Single Cask Release
  • Compass Box The Peat Monster
  • Spice Tree
  • Black Ram
  • Lion’s Pride
  • Very Old Barton
  • Lark Distillery Rum Finish 2011 (Cask 77)
  • Lark Distillery Cask Strength Port Barrel

Judges?

Even after the end of the competition the website listed six judges. Only one of them, Blair Bowman from Aberdeen, actually came to Chicago. Because of the low number of entrants the organizers could not afford to pay the expenses of the other judges. Blair had also been announced for the final 2010 panel but had to back out because he was only 20 then and not legally allowed to drink alcohol in the USA.

To save costs, Chicago locals Justin Koury of Grapevine Consulting and Mike Miller of Delilah’s Bar were made part of the judging panel on short notice.

One name figuring on both the first 2010 and the 2011 lists is Binod K. Maitin. He is vice president of United Breweries, the Indian company that owns Whyte & Mackay among others. 17 of the 47 entrants of 2010 happened to be Whyte & Mackay products. 7 of the 18 entrants of 2011 happened to be products of the UB group as well.

Categories?

Right before the start of the competition it was announced that there were 5 categories with gold, silver and bronze medals each. The names of the categories were not given. On Sunday winners in only three categories were announced.

Results?

Official results were announced on Facebook and Twitter:

Best Scotch Whisky:
Gold Medal: Compass Box Peat Monster
Silver Medal: Usquaebach 15 Year Old
Bronze Medal: Bruichladdich Rocks

Best Young Whisky
Gold Medal: Bruichladdich PC 7
Silver Medal: Black Dog 8 Year Old
Bronze Medal: Four Roses Single Barrel

Whisky of the Year
Gold Medal: Lark Small Cask Aged Cask Strength (Tasmanian Single Malt Whisky)
Silver Medal: Kilchoman Single Cask Strength (Islay’s Farm Distillery)
Bronze Medal: Royal Challenge (Finest Premium Indian Whisky)

Please note that the winner of the “Whisky of the Year” gold medal, Lark Small Cask, is not identifiable with one of the two Lark whiskies on the list of entrants. The label pictures provided on Facebook indicate that both entrants have cask strength and were aged in small casks.

Sponsors?

The website states: “The Johnson Whisky Tot from Bottega Del Vino is the Official Whisky Tasting Glass of the 2011 International Whisky Competition.”

On some pictures of the actual tasting posted to Facebook it could be clearly seen that Glencairn glasses were used.

Website?

As of today, the website consists of 2010 results, the now obsolete “Wisdom of the Masses” award as well as outdated lists of entrants and judges.

Video?

The entire tasting was recorded as a video livestream. A professional cameraman was announced to cover the event but it turned out that he only shot the promotional videos. The livestream was shot with a cheap webcam under bad lighting conditions. For most of the time you could only see dark silhouettes in front of a brightly lit window. The sound quality was badly impaired by annoying background MP3 music that turned much of the conversation into incomprehensible murmur.

Global audience was 13 at the maximum.

Scoring?

The day before the competition, the official scoring sheet was published.

It would be possible to dedicate an entire article to this, but let’s stick with these major issues:

Packaging

A whisky without tube or box and fancy bottle shape will always score lower, regardless of its quality.

Category Authenticity

The tasting was done blind in flights of 3 drams. Composition was announced to the public but not known to the tasters.

  • Can you judge category authenticity, if you don’t know what category the dram belongs to?
  • Even with proper categories like whisky regions, who defines authenticity? Could an unpeated Bruichladdich for example ever score at “Islay” category authenticity?

Presence of Alcohol

The “Taste” section lists a “presence of alcohol” score. Pure ethanol has no taste of its own. Of course we note its presence in a whisky in the nose and on the palate by the characteristic alcohol burn or bite. But this is merely a mouthfeel effect which happens to be appropriately addressed in the proper section. In the “Taste” section it makes no sense.

Influence of Wood

Can a whisky that is overly woody ever have a good “balance” score? These two subscores are not independent from each other.

Speed?

The first 5 flights of 15 drams in total were tasted within 75 minutes. Tasting time was roughly 10 minutes for a flight with 5 minutes of rest in between. The packaging was scored before the tasting session, so the judges gave 21 subscores to every whisky in just over three minutes time.

Summing it Up

The 2011 International Whisky Competition leaves me with two primary impressions: Lack of professionalism and lack of transparency.

So many glitches can be found that it is hard to believe that this competition will ever be able to recover next year. Last year the organizers promised to make it better, but they failed. I don’t think the lousy participation level can only be blamed on the economic crisis.

By far the most alarming point for me is the continuing placement of someone in the panel of judges who is a senior executive of the company that entered the most bottles. Even if he was finally withdrawn both times – the mere fact that he was seriously considered speaks volumes and destroys all credibility.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sylvain Allard April 11, 2011 at 11:52 pm

Thanks for your comments and insights.

We’ll definitely incorporate most of your suggestions (category / ratings / website / judges) into the 2012 International Whisky Competition and step up our game.

We recognize it’s not an easy task to come up with a top-level whisky competition but it is our goal to get there. Cheers!

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Marc (WhiskyBrother) April 13, 2011 at 9:54 am

It’s a joke. I can only imagine how hard it is to start a new competition, but these guys just don’t seem to know what they are doing. I’d be surprised if they are still around next year, and even if they are and do start growing, their credibility with serious online whisky drinkers may never recover.

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