I was honored to be selected to be among 78 judges from 26 countries around the world a few weeks ago in Plovdiv, Bulgaria to judge a wide range of world spirits.  Honored because the prestige of the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles Spirits Selection has something to teach other competitions.  While its not highly visible in the US, it is very well known everywhere else.  Here are a few takeaways

1. The organizers took pains to mix up the judges at the tables with different backgrounds.  I obviously was whiskey oriented, but everyone had a different spirits orientation.  That led to a lack of dominance by any one person as we all tended to want to hear what the other’s perspective was and everyone, in spite of some language differences, was heard out.  We didn’t converse until we had laid down a score and any advocacy made for a higher score on any entry had to pass a stringent test.

2. The organizers held a day of master classes prior to the event to present and discuss faults and defaults in individual categories and then followed up with a highly detailed spirits default guide that outlined what those qualities were in each of the categories to be judged.  Extremely helpful if you weren’t intimately familiar with the nuances of something like grappa and wanted to make sure that what you were detecting is considered an attribute, not a flaw.

3. We were exceedingly stingy on prizes and weren’t dinged for it.  One flight came across our noses in which only one entrant was awarded a silver and no gold awarded.  Ultimately, the winners of this competition are true standouts because there were no “participation” awards.  This is a tragic and key flaw of many competitions as many people who put these together have never sold a bottle of liquor in their lives and have little understanding of what the dynamics of the marketplace are, they look at it from a perspective of “purity” or are just there to make money in a business venture.  No one ever moved bottles off a shelf by displaying a Double Bronze or a Silver medal from an unknown competition that awarded 40 of the same to other brands.  The winners of these medals can confidently say their brands were put to the test by some of the best in the world and they won an award base on the true merits of an outstanding product.

4. Most important: we were not bombarded with high-alcohol spirits for 6-8 hours at a time.  We were presented with only 4 flights in one day, there were no more than 12 in a flight, and there were no two flights of the same category in a single seating.  I see some postings on social media of judges saying they’re tasting “75 vodkas today” and if I was a brand owner I’d think, “fuck that, I don’t want to be the 74th brand in front of them”.  Apparently, others in the world are immune to the malady of anosmia, which is the fatigue of olfactory lobes in the nasal passages, especially enhanced by being stressed by constant exposure to high amounts of ethanol in a short period, but I’m not. The organizers brought that keen understanding to the Concours and worked to prevent that.  That gets high marks from me and should encourage other brands to submit their products to them in the future.

5. Get ready, because baijiu is going to be a thing.

6. I think the Bulgarians have something with their rakija, a brandy made from either grapes or fruit.  It goes in the opposite way that brandies in the US are moving, it has less punch for cocktails but its lightness makes it an ideal home product for drinking casually.  But it’s going to take some marketing muscle to put that argument together.

7. It was wonderful to spend a week with some of the most interesting people in other parts of the world focused on something we all loved.  And we got to learn about Thracians!

Robin Robinson – Founder of Robin Robinson LLC, boutique consultancy dedicated to growing and sustaining samll spirit brands, providing education and training to the wholesale tier – New York, US