Judging Protocols

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The American Distilling Institute is dedicated to running rigorous and professional spirit Judging that strives to promote the craft distillers and blenders that are producing the finest quality artisan spirits and to give participating producers valuable, unbiased, third-party feedback on the quality and process of their spirits. To that end we have developed the following protocols that we believe allow us to meet these goal. We make our protocols publicly available so that producer, wholesalers, retailers and consumers can know the process by which each spirit is evaluated and the high standard by which medals are awarded.  


Pre-Judging and Classification of Spirits

Before the judging begins, all spirits will be received by a HPS Epicurean and put in a secure area. Boxes remain sealed upon arrival until the week prior to judging. Once the boxes are delivered to the judging venue, the judging team will open the boxes and sort the spirits by class and category. A list of classes and categories can be found on the submission guidelines page.

Once the spirits are organized by class and category they will be divided into flights, starting with the clear spirits with lighter aromas and tastes, and proceeding to oak-matured spirits or flavored spirits that might linger on the palate. Each flight of spirits is ranked with the lower proof spirits going first, and the higher proof spirits ranked toward the end of the flights. Each day’s tasting begin with flights of lighter spirits and finish with spirits that have a longer-lasting effect on the palate – those that are flavored, spiced, heavily smoked, hopped or sweetened.

The Judging Process

Judges are seated in panels of four to a table, each assigned to specific classes of spirit that play to the expertise of the specific judges at the table. All panels are seated at individual tables in the main room. Each panel is provided with distilled water, neutral crackers, raw almonds, spit buckets, score sheets, pencils, a pencil sharpener, and water glasses. The judges are picked to provide a mix of experience between various areas within the spirits industry — distillers, wholesalers, importers, retailers, bartenders, educators, and journalists/writers.

Judges perform sensory evaluations of the spirits and enter their perceptions on the score sheets provided. Judges are expected to be professionals and can consider a particular spirit flight in any manner they deem appropriate, but it is recommended they nose through the flight at least once before beginning to taste.

Score Sheets

Tasting notes and judges’ comments are entered onto the score sheet. The scoring of spirits is based on a 100-point system with four main categories of consideration: Nose, Palate, Balance, and Finish. Each judge assigns an overall score with a correlated medal recommendation or no medal recommendation for each spirit. Below 70 no medal is recommended, 70-79 for a bronze, 80-89 for silver, and 90-100 for gold. The score sheet asks the judges for comments regarding the best qualities of the spirit, and also how the spirit can be improved. This feedback is of primary use to the distillers so rude, sarcastic, or unconstructive comments by judges are not acceptable.


After all the spirits in a flight have been scored the entire panel will award double gold, gold, silver and bronze medals for spirits judged worthy of recognition. Each spirit’s average score serves as a starting point for the panel’s discussion for what medal, if any, should be awarded. If all the judges in a panel recommend a gold medal and the panel believes the spirit to be exemplary, they may choose to award the spirit a double gold medal as an outstanding example of its class and category. It is not uncommon for no spirit in a flight to receive a medal. Neither is it uncommon for several spirits within the same category to receive gold medals (or silver or bronze). In the case where no spirit in a category is awarded a medal, neither will Best of Category be awarded.

Best of Class

After all the spirits in a class have been evaluated, a grand panel is formed for the sole purpose of determining the “Best of Class” awards for both US and International spirits. Flights sent to a grand panel will consist of either US or International spirits that have been awarded BOTH a double-gold/gold medal AND “Best of Category.” If a class has fewer than three entries or no gold/double-gold medals were awarded, no “Best of Class” will be awarded.

During a grand panel, no formal written evaluation is made and previously awarded scores are not taken into consideration. Judges will record their top three ranking of spirits on a ballot, which is collected and the results tabulated by the recorders. In the event of no conclusive majority, a ranked scoring system will be used to calculate the winner and the spirit with the highest score will then be awarded “Best of Class.”

Packaging Awards

Without any additional cost to the entrant, ADI will award bottles with innovative and/or outstanding packaging awards for Excellence in Packaging. Bottles will be judges on overall originality, creativity, graphic design, integration of bottle design to label style, and aesthetic appeal. Each spirit submitted for judging will also be considered for the packaging award. Producers who wish to enter spirits for whom there is no category, may enter bottles for only the packaging award.

Judging Staff

Judging Director

The Judging Director oversees all judging operations and to ensure that all functions are performed smoothly and efficiently. During the judging the director works with the Lead Judge, and Lead Steward to ensure that questions from judges are answered appropriately and to assigning alternate judges to panels. Finally, after the event the Judging Director is also responsible for ensuring that all tasting notes are compiled and prepared to be sent to distillers, and that all awards and associated materials are prepared for the awards gala.

Lead Judge

The Lead Judge operates as a referee for all activities in the judging room and a liaison between the panels and the staging room staff. Any questions from the panels about the formulation of a spirit (proof, source grain, age, flavorings, etc.) are directed through the lead judge. She will answer process questions to the best of her ability without giving away information that could reveal the brand or distillery. Whenever possible, the lead judge sits in passively when each panel reconciles the scores and medal recommendations of a flight, and is available for consultation. The lead judge is neither allowed in the staging area nor to see the bottles before the completion of judging.

Anchor Judges

Anchor Judges are responsible for leading their panel through each flight of spirits. For each flight a steward will present the anchor judge with score sheets and a flight list. The anchor judge is responsible for distributing the score sheets to their fellow judges and ensuring they are filled out correctly. When all judges on a panel have completed their score sheets for a flight, the sheets are handed to the anchor judge, who compiles the numeric scores and medal recommendations for each spirit. The anchor judge is forbidden from asking another judge to change their score or medal recommendation against their will. After all the spirits in a flight have been evaluated, the anchor judge will lead a conversation with the judges to determine if any medals will be awarded. When the outcome of a flight is determined and tallied by the anchor judge, the score sheets and flight list are returned to the steward. In the rare case where a panel cannot come to a consensus, the anchor judge or the judging director may ask for the flight to be evaluated by another panel.

Spirit Judges

Spirit Judges are assigned to a panel that will be asked to evaluate about 80 spirits per day. Each panel consists of three spirit judges and an anchor judge. All judges will be asked to analyze the overall quality of each spirit, write tasting notes, and assign a numerical score which corresponds to a medal recommendation or no medal recommendation. On the last day of the judging, spirit judges will be regrouped into grand panels that will determine the best of class awards from those spirits which earned both a double-gold or gold medal and best of category awards.

Alternate Judges

Alternate judges are to be ready to, and will be required to, sit in on a panel at any time. Alternate judges sit in on several flights a day to keep in calibration with the other judges.

 Lead Steward

The lead steward oversees the stewards and staging room operations, including the categorization of spirits and creation of flights. The lead steward determines when to send flights out to the judging panels and ensures that flights are correctly poured and liaises with the Lead Judge over spirits queries.


Under the supervision of the lead steward, stewards are responsible for sorting entered spirits into their respective classes, categories, and then into flights. The stewards are responsible for properly pouring, and serving flights as well as answering questions from the judges. If a steward is unsure how to answer a question or how much information to divulge, they will relaying the question to the lead judge and/or the lead steward.


The recording team  and medal awards from the judges’ sheets, as well as scanning pages and collating tasting notes. Before the judging starts, they assist stewards in inventorying entries, categorization of spirits, and creation of flights. The recording team, after receiving completed score sheets from the stewards, they are responsible for inputting scores, log medals earned, average scores, spirit rankings, and best of category designations. The recorder will compile a list of all spirits that received an award.



ADI’s judging protocols are available for information purposes only. These protocols may not be copied or reproduced in any way without the written consent of the American Distilling Institute.