The Irish comedian Dylan Moran has a great routine about wine:
“There are two types of wine essentially, and everybody knows this. There’s the one where you drink it and go, "Mmmm, well that’s ok, can we get eight of those please, give us eight of those." There’s the other one, you know, where you go "Ga…bt…Jesus, WHAT is that?"
But with spirits, 'tain't always that easy. There are lots of different kinds of spirits, distilled from many different things, and the range of flavors is enormous. And there’s been an explosion in the spirits market lately, what with the renewed interest in cocktails: there are more vodkas, rums, gins, whiskeys, than ever. So how are you supposed to figure out what’s what? To separate the plonk from the good stuff? And would the same spirit work in very different cocktails?
To address these kinds of questions, there are various judging panels and organizations that have sprung up to rate spirits, kind of the modern equivalent of the gold medals awarded by expositions of yore – the Stolichnaya vodka and Angostura bitters bottles bear these medals proudly, for instance. And the Ultimate Beverage Challenge, which invited me to drop by their cocktail judging recently, is attempting to go one better. Not only are they identifying what they say are the best examples of various spirits – they’re trying each of the spirits in classic cocktails to see which one comes out on top. As David Wondrich told me, the same tequila might not work as well in a Paloma or a Tequila Sunrise as in a Margarita. So, it was the judges' task to taste them all. (Wondrich also noted, a touch wearily, that they'd tasted twenty Palomas so far that day -- the second of three days of judging -- and that they'd been going since 10am.)
And, this year brought another changeup: not only was the UCC evaluating spirits on their own, and spirits in various classic cocktails, but this year they also added signature cocktails: recipes that a liquor brand presented to showcase their own spirits. These were judged head-to-head on the basis of which recipes were most appealing and tasted best, but obviously they weren't going to try, say, Old Raj gin in a cocktail specifying Hendrick's.
When I walked into the judging room, the cocktail dork in me was impressed by the star caliber of the judges: the owners and managers of some of the best bars in the country were there, as well as spirits writers, beverage consultants, and other exponents of the mixological art. (DeGroff! Saunders! Sharpe! Bezuidenhout! Meehan! Tello! Hess! Wondrich! Reiner! Regan! Shine! Pacult! All of whom looked as fresh as daisies, and most of whom I'd seen not-terribly-long before at the Bulleit Rye launch the previous night!) Several tasting panels huddled around bars where bartenders turned out several identical drinks from standardized recipes. (Because it’s a double-blind competition, the bartenders were mixing from numbered carafes, not labeled bottles.)