Once again, ADI’s Judging of Craft Spirits took place in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we were blessed to have perfect weather when we received 11 pallets of some of the world’s best craft spirits. Over the years we have been able to build a fantastic crew of stewards, who along with a small group of staff received, sorted and prepared flights for the almost 1,000 spirits entered into the competition. Then over the course of three days, 45 of the top experts in distilled spirits blind tasted and wrote feedback for every entry.

Since 2007, it has been our mission to help promote the craft distillers and blenders that are producing the finest quality artisan spirits and to give participating producers unbiased, third-party feedback on the quality and process of their spirits. And in keeping with that mission we have added a few new benefits for our competition. This year we completed the process of fully transitioning to all-electronic score sheets. Our digital score sheet provides clearer and better feedback to our entrants, is quicker to process and allowed us to save over 4,000 sheets of paper. In addition, we now run two annual social media campaigns to reach those interested in craft spirits and spread the word about our gold medal winners, once in the spring and then again during the October–November–December sales period.

We have also partnered with Whiskies of the World and the Indie Sprits Expo to present select winners from our competition at these exciting and well-attended consumer tasting events. ADI staffs the booths and shares your award-winning spirits with the public, helping to build better brand awareness. While some of these events have been impacted by the current restrictions on large gatherings, we are looking forward to getting back out there in the fall to promote and support our winners.

Lastly, we announced that starting this year all our Best of Class winners would be able to have a half-hour meeting with the senior sales executives from Total Wine & More. We know how imperative it is that craft producers sell what they make, and we believe that this will be a good opportunity to strengthen and grow the reach of these fantastic spirits. We hope that this is just the beginning; we are looking to build more partnerships with additional retailers that are passionate about craft spirits and interested in working with the most innovative distillers in the world.

Each year, the selection of spirits distillers choose to enter provides an interesting snapshot of the market and tends to reveal interesting trends in the world for craft spirits. Long gone are the years of countless bottles of white whiskey; the industry has matured and this year that was on full display in bourbon. During flighting we roughly break up whiskeys based on their age (less than a year old, 1 to 2 years, 2 to 5 years, and more than 5). In the past, the number of entries has been more heavily weighted at the younger end of the spectrum. However, this year, that middle category of whiskeys aged between 2 and 5 years, particularly in bourbon, has exploded. We received 72 craft bourbons that fell in that age range, more than all the other bourbons combined. This points to the fact that a good portion of craft distillers have passed through the phase of getting by on selling white whiskey and whiskeys less than 2 years old. There are now a significant number of craft straight whiskeys in the market, with many approaching 4 years old and beyond.

Another interesting trend we see is a significant increase in blended whiskey and blended bourbons. There have been a couple of well-known craft producers that made their name by blending and bottling whiskeys, which allowed them to sell mature spirits while building their own production capacity. But, despite these well-known cases, the number of these spirits from other craft producers has been small or nonexistent. Four years ago, we had just one blended whiskey out of hundreds of entries. However, this year blended whiskey and blended bourbon accounted for more than 10% of all whiskeys entered, with the vast majority of them being a combination of purchased spirit and the distiller’s own aged spirit.

The other interesting trend in whiskey seems to be the growth in flavored whiskey. Many of the entries in this category are using novel flavor combinations that were intriguing and some of which our judges quite enjoyed. It is too early to say if this trend will turn into the flavored vodka bubble that burst some years back, but for now, it will be interesting to see the public response and the never-ending creativity of our industry.

This creativity mixed with consumer interest has also produced a dramatic increase in the number and quality of craft RTDs. With almost 40 entries this year, I don’t see any slowdown in this growing category anytime soon. Many consumers are looking for variety, quality and the convenience to enjoy their favorite cocktails at home or on the go. For many years RTDs were poorly produced by large brands, so it is no surprise that craft distillers have helped reignite interest in this floundering category.

Year after year, the number of new craft distilleries has continued to grow both domestically and internationally. Not surprisingly, ADI’s Judging saw continued growth in the number craft spirits from around the world, including some notable entries from Mexico, South Africa, Lithuania, Cambodia and even a spirit made in Kyrgyzstan from mare’s milk. The language of craft spirits is universal and while we may not be able to communicate verbally, you can taste the same passion, dedication, and creativity found in the best US craft spirits.

Luckily for our judges, quality is something you can taste, and for our 2020 competition there were a lot more craft spirits to celebrate. Over the past decade craft distillers have been honing their craft, some of which has come through the sharing of knowledge and information that is at the core of what ADI seeks to facilitate. The increase in quality of craft spirits is also reflective in the number of medals our judges awarded. Of the 990 or so spirits entered, about 75% earned a medal, most of which were bronze or silver. For the first time ever, the number of silver medals slightly edged out bronze, while gold and double gold accounted for only 11% of all medals. This distribution demonstrates that our judges’ standards have not softened (almost 25% of all entries received no medal at all), but rather the overall quality of craft spirits has continued to rise, and we are proud to recognize that fact.

ADI is happy to celebrate the accomplishments of our community, both in the spirits you make and in the commitment you have demonstrated to our nation as a whole and our communities during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Congratulations to all our winners, and we look forward to once again raising a glass together in gratitude and celebration.

See Best of Class, Excellence in Packaging and Best of Category listings here.

Medal winners are listed here.