Arts & Entertainment

Dowd on Drinks: Competition Judging A Lot More Than Free Drinks

What brands of bourbon, rye and Canadian whisky will you be drinking later this year?

If my vote is typical, Nos. 102, 103, 203 306, 310 and 311 will be the bourbons of choice, Nos. 501 and 502 among the ryes, and maybe No. 703 among the Canadians.

Confused? Don't be. Those are the code numbers for the best samples I judged over the past week as part of the annual, international Icons of Whisky awards, sponsored by Whisky Magazine, the U.K. publication that is the world's leading spirits magazine.

I have no idea what brands the samples represented, nor does anyone else except those who decanted the original bottles into sampling-sized flasks, labeled them with the code numbers and categories, and shipped them to the judges who were participating in the North American portion of the competition. (Earlier "heats" were held in Scotland, Ireland and Canada, with some Canadian whiskies going into the North American portion as well.)

That led me to sample 28 whiskies — 19 bourbons, six Canadians and three ryes.

I can almost hear the usual comments. To some people, alcoholic beverages have one overriding purpose — to get a buzz on. To others, any sort of judging gig is akin to winning the lottery.

I suppose that people do get lost in the numbers when you try to explain that judging a wine competition usually involves trying 135 to 200 or more wines over a two-day period and a spirits competition requires trying several dozen strong entries, often in a day.

What some don't seem to grasp is the fact that you're not doing a tasting or judging just to imbibe. Drinking is not the desired outcome; charting the journey is, from eye to nose to palate.

There are tricks to keeping your wits about you. In wine judging, you rarely actually swallow wine. The mantra is "swirl, sip, spit," and that goes on time after time.

In spirits judging, you also rarely drink the samples, instead allowing the eye and the nose and the palate to do the work for you.

Occasional breaks for nibbles of mild cheese, dry bread or very rare roast beef — a takeoff on the old saw of putting a raw steak on a black eye — help reawaken a palate flattened out by the alcohol.

Wine judging usually ranges from dry to sweet wines.

Spirits are trickier since there is not the same range as in wines. Then, pacing is the key so you have to build in a fair amount of time to allow the palate to bounce back.

Distillers and winemakers enter competitions for several reasons, chief among them the hope that they'll win medals which they then can use in their marketing campaigns. That's where the judges fit into the puzzle. Even if you don't care much about what we do, you'll eventually succumb to the lure of a heavily medaled wine or spirit beckoning you from a slick print ad or TV commercial.

Since I began with references to bourbon, rye and Canadian whisky, here are cocktail recipes using each:




2 ounces Canadian whisky

2 slices of orange

1 cherry

1 sugar cube

2 drops bitters

Lemon-lime soda


In a rocks glass, muddle one orange slice, cherry, sugar cube and bitters.

Add ice, whisky

Mist and top with lemon-lime soda. For dryer version, use club soda in place of lemon-lime.

Garnish with additional orange slice.




1/2 ounce triple sec, chilled

7 dashes each, Angostura and Peychaud bitters

1 ounce bourbon

5 ounces brut champagne


Place triple sec, bitters and bourbon in a champagne flute. Stir and fill with 5 ounces well-chilled champagne. Garnish with a long orange zest and serve immediately.




1 part rye whiskey

1 part fresh-squeezed lemon juice

1 part creme de cacao

Dash grenadine syrup


Pour all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, shake vigorously and pour into a cocktail glass.


              (William M. Dowd covers the beverage world at

  c.2008 Albany Times Union