The Los Angeles County Fair has been holding one of the top wine competitions in the nation for 75 years. Limited to California wines up until just before the turn of the century, the expanded to include wines from around the world, and today the Los Angeles International Wine Competition is one of the most prestigious in the United States.
The competition also serves as the platform for wine education programs and tastings during the annual Fair, as spotlighted here last fall.
Over the years, Fairplex has continued to expand its educational outreach into the worlds of wine, beer and spirits, along with olive oils and other agricultural products. The Fair’s first spirits competition was held in 2007, but was only focused on tequila. The following year it opened to all distilled spirits, and it has continued to grow annually. In 2010, the spirits competition added a separate category for mixers and garnishes.
Thanks to an invitation from competition honorary chairman Dana Chandler (Chopin Vodka) and his wife Sally, I was fortunate to take a behind-the-scenes look at this year’s Los Angeles International Spirits Competition.
The judging panel included a diverse collection of experienced and noteworthy evaluators representing a variety of interests throughout the beverage industry – from mixologists, sommeliers and restaurateurs to beverage distributors, news columnists and a vice president from BevMo (Brian Bowden).
Fairplex Creative Administrator Colene Nath worked brilliantly behind the scenes to organize the 2014 Los Angeles International Spirits Competition, which this year received 347 spirits entries from 134 producers representing 32 nations. She said there were 89 entries in 29 whiskey categories alone. That itself was a tremendous increase in that division over previous years.
Colene said other big growth category was Shochu, a Japanese spirit distilled with rice, barley, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, Thai rice or a number of other ingredients. There were 40 Shochu entries in six categories. She told me that one of the judges said that last year’s Shochu division winner saw a doubling of its sales in Japan after winning at this competition.
The mixer category also has continued to flourish, with everything from Bloody Mary and Mai Tai mixes to rim salts, bitters and garnishes.
“Last year the judges debated about giving the Best of Show award to a mixer, but felt that wouldn’t be right. So the mixers were awarded separately from the spirits,” Colene said.
The well-known brands of distilled liquors already have strong followings, so the event is all the more important for new distillers and those who might not be as well known. It’s also an opportunity for established brands to test new products.
All winners are able to tag their bottles with award decals when they distribute their products to stores, which is a benefit to their marketing efforts to boost retail sales.
After watching four separate tables filled with judging panels, Colene offered me the opportunity to sit in on an afternoon judging session of the top whiskeys. At my table were Alfredo Gama, Southern California spirits manager for Wine Warehouse; Michael Nemcik, founder of Red Clay, an event service and beverage consulting company; and Ryan Steely, owner, creative director and designer at SOA32 Creative. Ryan not only participated as a spirits-tasting judge, but he also headed the packaging design competition panel.
Earlier in the competition, the judges had selected the gold medal winners from all of the whiskey categories. They did not know what brands they were sampling, but they were aware they were tasting within each category, such as single barrel bourbons, small batch bourbons, and so on. The gold medal winners from those categories then advanced to this panel, which selected the top whiskey from the gold medal-winning Bourbon, Canadian Whisky, Scotch, Rye Whiskey, American Whiskey, Irish Whiskey and other categories.
Much like judging wine, spirits evaluation is a step-by-step process that begins with a visual examination of the spirit and a deep inhale to capture the aromas and smells.
“It’s a lot like judging wine in that you start with the nose and search for the characteristics in each glass before you taste it,” said Michael Nemcik. “Then you let it work along your mid-palette for the flavor notes. After that you measure whether the finish is strong and smooth. Is it hot or not? Is it a long finish or a thin finish? You look for a longer finish, a smooth finish. You don’t want one that hits hot and then goes away quickly. You’d rather it be smooth and consistent as opposed to on and off.”
Added Ryan Steely, “The higher alcohol spirits are the hardest to judge because of the burn they leave in your mouth.”
Given the rich flavors inherent with good whiskeys of all varieties, I naturally assumed this would be one of the easiest and most pleasurable divisions to judge. Likewise, I assumed that vodka would be much more difficult, since it is often described as “colorless, odorless and flavorless.” However, Steely disagreed.
“Vodka is not as difficult as you would think, because good vodkas are fairly complex with distinct characteristics,” he said, but cautioned that flavored vodkas are much harder to evaluate.
“Most tend to start with a base vodka that is not as good, and then smack it full of a cotton candy syrup or whatever else they put in there, which makes it unpleasing. We’re really judging the flavored syrups rather than the spirit itself.”
While the judges knew the categories for each of the gold medal whiskeys they were re-evaluating, I was without the benefit of a judging sheet, so I didn’t know which glass contained a Canadian whiskey and which was filled with Scotch. But after sampling from the 13 different glasses that were set in front of me, I was pleased to learn that the whiskeys I preferred the most (bourbon and rye) were the same varieties I prefer at home. I appreciated all of the whiskeys that I sampled (and dutifully spit), and I would have loved to test the wide variety of other spirits that the judges examined over the two-day competition.
The judges at our table and those at the adjoining table were in agreement in awarding the top whiskey to Glenmorangie Quarter Century 25-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch. It also received the Best of Show for the entire spirits competition with an impressive 98 points. Other people must think it’s decent, too, because on the competition results sheet lists the retail price at $579.
The Powell and Mahoney Sriracha Bloody Mary Mix took Best of Show for mixers. Best of Category awards included (by category): Shochu: Satsuma Godai, Shochu, Sweet Potato; Tequila: Dos Vidas Blanco, 100 percent Blue Agave Tequila, Mexico, Silver Plata; Vodka: Chopin Rye, Unflavored; Liqueur: Schwartzhog, Amaro/Bitter; Gin: Half Moon Orchard Gin, unflavored; Brandy: E&J Distillers Brandy XO, Cognac XO; Rum: Bayou Spiced Rum. A list of all of the award winners can be found here.
The third and final day of the event was a bottle packaging design competition, in which Steely, Gama and Flori Cademartori, a graphic and fashion designer, looked over a dozen different design categories, including typography, container, illustration and so on. I’ve featured some of the finalists among the pictures posted here.
Tastings of award-winning spirits, as well as beer, wine and olive oils, will be available at the “Cheers!” food and beverage festival at Fairplex on Saturday, June 21. Tickets are available online.