The workings of whisky competitions

Johan Tanner

How do we really know which is best? What should we bear in mind when choosing whisky?

Like all whisky lovers, from beginners to experts, I sometimes need a little guidance when navigating the wonderful world of whisky. This could be anything from discovering a unique new bottle, the contents of which were distilled tilting southwards on an incline before being matured to the strains of a sitar strummed by a specially commissioned India guru, to advice on choosing the nicest standard issue bourbon on the market.

To help me with this task, I often rely on the recommendations of others and results from different types of competitions. When it comes to contests, I’ve noticed that it’s important to know how they work, in order to draw the right conclusions from the results. Allow me to try to share some of my experiences in this area.

Let’s kick off with the type of competition which normally results in one of those miniature gold medals being printed on the label of the bottle.

This is normally the sign of a big contest with a grand title, although in some cases, these medals can be fairly meaningless and fail to provide any real guarantee that the liquid inside is better than any other.

The problem with these types of competitions is that there are so many of them, and they apply totally different methods to choosing the winner. Some are independent, some are fully sponsored and others charge exorbitant fees in order to take part, which puts a lot of people off. Some are judged by a jury of consumers and others by experts, while the number of jurors can vary greatly.

The biggest contests are normally aimed at the largest brands and best selling products, which means it’s more unusual for the unique entrants to enter (or win). So how should we interpret the results?

When I see an award from a major international contest I normally firstly check that it exists, and then look at how the jury panel is made up. I like to know if the event is open to all, of if there are certain restrictions to participation (such as cost, regulations, etc.). It’s also really important for me to try to understand how many prizes there are in relation to the competition entries, as it’s not unusual for there to be so many categories that two-thirds of the whiskies entered end up winning an award, which isn’t of that much help to me as a consumer.  In this case, it’s more important to keep an eye on the one-third which didn’t receive an award …

Examples of major competitions include the International Wine and Spirits Competition, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the World Whiskies Awards. These large-scale events have been around for a while, and despite not being completely impartial they still offer good guidance for consumers. My favourite is probably the SIP Awards, which is the biggest competition with a jury made up of consumers, and maybe therefore the best qualified to say which whiskies are popular among people in general.

A Swedish contest that I think probably best represents the taste of the people is Maltwhisky-VM (the Malt Whisky World Championships), which is organised every few years by the Swedish whisky doyen Henrik Aflodal. This event tries to keep the field as wide as possible and make it easy to take part, with juries diligently assessing entries during knockout competitions taking place over one year, followed by a final judged by a panel of over 100 consumers.

There are also more local-orientated contests which are normally held in conjunction with exhibitions, both in Sweden and overseas. These events are often run by exhibition organisers with the aim of attracting local exhibitors to take part and, if all goes well, bring more visitors to their stand as well as win a nice certificate to take away with them. These contests also take a variety of different forms, and there are almost as many arrangements as you’ll find in their international equivalents. In this case, it’s also important to bear in mind that it’s generally only the exhibitors that are attending the fair who take part, which means the contest perhaps doesn’t really provide a representative selection of the world’s whiskies.

And finally, there are a number of awards associated with renowned, self appointed experts, like Jim Murray, who presents his good and bad selections in his whisky bible every year. I don’t place a lot of stock in these types of awards, as a single person doesn’t normally represent anything more than their own taste.

So what conclusions can you draw from all this? Are all competitions and awards simply manipulated marketing and pretence to persuade consumers to buy more whisky, regardless of whether it’s good or bad? I’d put it like this. I think you can gain a lot of guidance from these events, provided you take the trouble to find out whether the competition is representative for you as a whisky drinker.


/ Johan Tanner, “Professorn”,