The 2019 Judging of Craft Spirits once again showed itself to be a unique snapshot of the industry. Spirits entered into the competition this year indicate an overall increase in the quality of craft spirits as well as some continuing and emerging trends.
Every spirit entered is tasted blind by ADI’s expert judging panels, and medals are awarded based solely on the quality of the spirit in the glass. Because of the exacting standards of our judges, our competition has one of the lowest medal rates in the industry, for many years hovering in the 50% range. In the past couple of years that number has slowly crept upwards, and in 2019, our medal rate was 77%, meaning over three-quarters of all spirits entered earned an award. While we have worked to maintain our high standards for awards, one possible explanation for our increased medal rates is that the overall quality of craft spirits in the market is rising. As with wine and craft beer before us, craft spirits started with a small handful of skilled and experienced producers and has mushroomed into a vibrant marketplace that has grown in quality.
As in 2018, we are seeing continuing trends in the growth of American brandy and agave spirits, while moonshine has flatlined with significantly fewer entries than its peak a few years ago. Another growing trend is the number of whiskeys that because of aging or mashbill do not meet any of the more specific type definitions for labeling. And lastly, we saw a large increase in the number of Ready-to-Drink cocktails (RTDs), which makes sense considering RTD sales grew by 60% in 2018.
Keen to keep pace with the growing quality of craft spirits, the judging has taken steps to improve the quality of judges’ feedback to entrants, and to grow ADI’s direct promotion of award winners. Providing thoughtful and helpful feedback is half of the mission of ADI’s judging. To that end we have continued our efforts to digitize score sheets. Entrants have expressed concern that the handwritten notes are sometimes hard to decipher, and the scanning process sometimes decreases the legibility of the writing.
In 2018 we first tested an electronic version of scoring with a single judging panel. The test was a success. For 2019 we expanded to five panels, and the continued success led us to implement digital score sheets as the default system going forward. This new system will eliminate confusion from handwritten and scanned notes. And in addition to improved clarity, digital score sheets allow for more extensive and specific notes without worry of running out of space or dealing with the fatigue of writing by hand all day.
Similarly, we are gradually making improvements in how we promote the winners of our competition. In addition to sending out embargoed press announcements, we use social media to announce gold and double gold medal winners in the spring and fall to help draw attention to the best spirits and distillers in our community.
ADI is now also putting winners out in front of consumers by sponsoring and staffing tables at select tasting events, with the aim of reducing total cost of participation while maximizing exposure with engaged consumers.
Finally, we would like to thank all the stewards, judges and, most importantly, the distillers who entered our 2019 Judging. The list of winners that follows represents not only the best of craft spirits but also some of the best spirits period being produced in the world. ADI is happy to champion your hard work and dedication.