Thursday, March 21, 2013

Judging the Judge

Judging spirits competitions over the years has taught me a few things about life. As I head into the San Francisco International Spirits Competition this weekend with 39 of my friends and peers of "expert palates", and then to the American Distilling Institute Conference in Denver next weekend, I thought I might reflect on a few of those.
  1. Life is like a round of 16 blind vodkas samples. There's nothing like starting your day looking down the barrel of a loaded vodka tasting. We usually start these things with vodka,as it is the least flavorful and therefore requires the most concentration without palate disruption from something more powerful tasted before it. Each glass looks basically the same and until you stick your nose in there, you have no idea what to expect. As I sit there in my white lab coat, running through taste descriptors in my head, I'm reminded of college. Staring at the blank page of the inevitable term paper, knowing I have to write 20 pages and make it spectacular. I doubt myself and my abilities (I'm human). Then I remind myself that I've trained long and hard for this, logging years of study and tasting, visiting distilleries around the world and sitting through countless seminars. And then I start thinking about the proposal I didn't get done and needs to be out by Saturday. And the fact that I forgot to call the garage and get that part ordered for my broken trunk latch. Damnit, I have a dentist appointment Tuesday. I look up. "Shit, they're on the fourth glass already!" Damned ADD. And then I dive right in. Another day in the life...
  2. Spitting is key to survival. Everyone always asks me, "How do you drink that many in a day?" In some of these competitions we only do 30-40 tastings in a day, and others upward of 70-90. And it can be most daunting on your palate. One of the first competitions I judged was a rum competition in New Orleans and I had a rough go at it because I didn't really spit. The rums were so good. And I was in New Orleans. Nothing added up to spitting out that delicious juice. But it is a bit like being a bar owner for the first time. All of that booze is yours and so you figure, "I can drink whatever I want, however often I want and not answer to anyone." Well, eventually you answer to someone when there's booze involved. I've had friends kicked off of panels and discredited for not spitting. In the end you realize that to be a pro in this business, you have to earn respect, give respect and maintain respect. Respect for others, yourself, and more than anything, for booze. When life gives you a mouthful of 40% alcohol, with sharp burn and a gag reflex, spit it out, but don't be afraid to spit it out and pick up that next glass. It might just hold a velvety smooth, aromatic morsel of deliciousness. But you'll never know, until you spit out the junk and try it again.
  3. "Drink the first round." All of that being said, we do spit the majority out in a pro judging. But then the judging is done, you've got a room full of professional beverage industry experts from around the country (and the world in some cases), all in the same hotel with a free night or two on their hands.Let's just say we don't sit around and play cards. So the next morning is always a challenge to get started. But again, we're pros, so this is nothing new. The ol' hair of the dog routine works on Sunday morning when you've got a Sunday Funday lined up and no worries, but when you're trying to keep your cool and get through another 70 spirits, giving them all a fair shake for their effort, entry fee and dreams, you've got to take this stuff seriously, pick yourself up by your booze straps and move forward. Another day in the life, as they say. Whether you are a coffee drinker, a yoga buff or a morning jogger, we all have different ways of getting going. When your a professional spirits judge...you do what we do.
  4. Pass the cheese, please. Have you ever said "It left a bad taste in my mouth"? And when you did, what did you do to change that? In the spirits judging world we eat cheese and crackers. You have to "reset your palate" quite often and this is how we do it. Lots of cheese and crackers. And water. And Cheese. And Water. Resetting your palate is one of the most vital skills you have in life, so you have to have a known way to do it for yourself. Things go wrong all of the time and we can't just dwell on it. Great things happen that will live on and on, but the sun rises the next day no matter what and you have to reset your palate. Hopefully that next glass is a perfectly complex XO cognac and not a cloyingly sweet, artificial liqueur. But if you go in to with absinthe on your tongue, the experience just won't be the same.
  5. Subjectivity is the root of all marketing. When I teach my spirits and cocktail classes, no matter the subject matter, I always try to make sure people understand how subjective taste is. Everyone's palate is different and the key to understand your likes and dislikes in the culinary world is understanding your own palate. and no one can tell you are wrong for liking or disliking something. You may be ignorant to something better out there or to understanding what it is your tasting, but you still have an opinion as to whether or not you like it. So be confident in that while pushing yourself to understanding more about why you like it or dislike it. It doesn't mean you have to debate it in public or write about it on Facebook or take a picture and send it from your phone. It just means that you have enhanced your life by knowing what you enjoy and what displeases you. Whether it is politics, economics, or vodka...ultimately, you are the judge.