As I am on a flight back to Las Vegas from San Francisco, I am collecting all my thoughts and emotions while they sit fresh on my mind. I have just spent the last several days with an incredibly esteemed and renowned panel of 47 spirits judges at the 19th Annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition. This year marks my seventh year judging this competition, and based on the talent pool and well-established careers of so many of these busy judges, it truly is like herding cats when it comes time to round us all up at the Hotel Nikko for the four days of the competition. 

This year’s competition boasted 2,700 + spirits entries from all categories across the globe, which will break last year’s record number of entries. It’s truly a testament to how popular and reputable this competition has become. Once all the entries have been received, the full-time competition crack staff properly stores, catalogs and splits up the spirits into their categories and sub-categories ahead of time. 

As the judges congregate for breakfast on the very first morning of the competition, we get an opportunity to say hello and catch up with a lot of our colleagues that we have not seen since the previous year’s competition. Then, the Chairman of the Competition and Editor In Chief of The Tasting Panel Magazine, Anthony Dias Blue, welcomes us with his usual words of wisdom and briefs us on any changes and updates, after which the first-year judges are introduced and welcomed. Might I add, that there’s very little turnover in judge’s seats, so there is a quite lengthy waiting list of extremely highly-qualified spirits professionals that have been patiently waiting for the tap on the shoulder. 

After Andy (Anthony) graces us with his speech, the Director of Spirits judges, Tony Abou-Ganim, aka “The Modern Mixologist,” provides us with a little welcome speech of his own, and we are off! The 47 spirits judges are divided this year into 15 panels consisting of 3-4 judges. Typically, the aim is to always have at least 1-2 judges on each panel who specialize in specific areas of distilled beverages to evaluate those same categories. 

This competition is a beast! So much so, that the organizing committee must recruit a small army of volunteers to help with the many tasks including pouring all the spirits, serving them, clearing the glassware, resetting tables and the many other necessary duties. These volunteers are not being paid, yet we see so many of the same volunteers every single year that we’ve gotten to know them and become fond of them. 

Our mini panel “E” of judges this year was headed by well-known American whiskey author and Bourbon celebrity (also, one of my closest friends) Fred Minnick, along with Whistle Pig ambassador for California and spirits expert, Tony Devencenzi. Also joining us on our panel was David Mahoney, Wine & Spirits writer for multiple magazines including Tasting Panel Magazine and Esquire. And, of course, yours truly!

There is a lead volunteer for each table with 2-3 assistant volunteers. Now that we are seated at our table, we are greeted by veteran lead volunteer, Doug, who is our dude! Doug’s primary responsibility is to manage our panel’s designated flights and keep tally of each of our overall score for each spirit we blindly taste and evaluate. The four of us receive our list of flight categories and quantities (see photo) to be tasted over the next two days before the third day, which is sweepstakes. Each of us on our panel are all tasting the same flights, one at a time, at the same time. Once each of us are all done with scoring our flight’s spirits, we summon Doug and he notes each of our individual scores one spirit at a time by giving it a medal designation that would be the average of our four scores for each spirit. It’s a little more complexed than my description, but it’s a good system and we do a thorough job in making sure each spirit gets its due diligence. We are always provided the spirits categories we taste, the ABV % of each spirit and any special notes that we may need.

Lastly, any spirit the four of us unanimously deem to deserve a Gold Medal gets a “Double Gold” designation (highest distinction) and gets a chance to be sent to sweepstakes on Sunday and compete for “Best Of….” I have outlined the information, below.


Awarded to the very few entries that receive a Double Gold medal for three consecutive years.

Double Gold

Awarded to the entries that receive a Gold medal rating by all members of the judging panel these are among the finest products in the world.


Exceptional spirits that are near the pinnacle of achievement; these products set the standard for their categories.


Outstanding spirits that show refinement, finesse and complexity; these winners are among the best examples of their categories.


Well-crafted spirits that are commercially sound, modestly attractive and free from significant flaws; these winners are excellent examples of their categories.

Best of Class: The best example of each spirit type.

Best in Show (the Competition’s highest honors): Chosen from the Best of Class winners, these awards highlight the best spirit in each of these five categories: Unaged White Spirit, Aged White Spirit, Whisky/Whiskey, Brandy and Liqueur.

The Tasting Panel Magazine Distillery of the Year: Recognizes the single distiller earning the most points, measured by the number and level of awards won.

Importer of the Year: Recognizes the single importer earning the most points, measured by the number and level of awards won.

• Director’s Award of Excellence: Honors
an outstanding portfolio of quality and diverse spirit.

In next month’s issue, I’ll uncover the sweepstakes session and some of the big winners from this year’s competition, my notes and overall thoughts. Stay tuned...