I love to watch the Olympics. You look at a sport you like and you see the best athletes in the world compete. The best one wins gold, the runner-up wins silver, and the athlete in third place gets a bronze medal.
I hate what goes on with medal competitions in the craft distilling industry. Even though clear cut categories and rules should be easy to define, it has turned into a self-serving shit-show. The few good competitions of old (IWSC and San Fransisco to name but two) are devalued by a pandemic of Medal Fatigue.
Too much, too little
First, there are way too many medal competitions. It’s worse than watching a boxing world-title match, because there’s even more associations, institutions, and organizations than the ones “catering” to the needs of the Noble Art of Self-Defense. And craft distilling doesn’t even have an “undisputed” category, where a boxer (or drink) can become the best of all competitions in a certain weight (or drinks) category.
Secondly, there are way too many medals. Instead of handing out one gold, one silver, and one bronze medal per category, medal competitions now offer multiple gold, more silver, and many, many bronze medals. Heck, most competitions now offer double gold, diamond, and platinum medals as well.
Thirdly, there are way too many categories. Gin, whiskey, brandy, rum, vodka … yeah, that makes sense. Irish whiskey, single malt whisky, bourbon … that makes sense as well. But aged, contemporary, column distilled, London Dry Style gin as a separate category? Really?
All of the above is the result of my fourth pain point: most medal competitions have become businesses. The goal is not to help create better craft distilled spirits, but to make money. Medal competitions only make money when people participate. People only participate when they can win a medal. Ergo: the more medals a competition invents and hands out, the more participants it will attract, and the more money it will make.
This leads to the fifth point, and why I (and I feel our whole industry) have a severe case of Medal Fatigue. The ever growing number of competitions, handing out ever growing numbers of medals, to attract ever growing numbers of participants has lead to strong devaluation. Wanna know the value of winning medals, nowadays? At many of the medal competitions: zero. Often it doesn’t mean shit, other than that you paid. In fact, I feel that I can make a strong case for the value of these medal competitions being negative instead of zero. At least on an industry level.
The reason why I feel that, on an industry level, most medal competitions have become a negative is because they cost money and don’t add value (unless your customers are interested in purchasing make-belief). But there is more: the industry has become self-serving. I’ll give a few examples and then move on to see if there are solutions or general directions, that we as distillers can take to achieve improvement over the current situation.
Examples of wrong
As a first example, imagine an organization that depends on regional craft distilling chapters organizing a trade-show. This is how they compensate the local craft distillers for their time and energy: the members of the organizing regional chapter win most of the medals. How’s that for home-advantage?
As another example, imagine an organization that needs big, new, major sponsors, to make ends meet. Guess what they offer as an informal part to their media kits? Major sponsors get to pick the winners …*
A third example is on two medal competitions competing over international status. The more international you are, as a medal competition, the better, right? So guess what happens if you come from an exotic or at least not yet participating country? Expect favorable treatment …
More examples of wrong? How about this: do you know what objective taste model a medal competition uses to judge your spirits? Here is the answer: most do not use one.
Do you think a judge (or group of judges) can rate any drink correctly without an objective taste model? Again, the answer is negative. What this means? It means they taste from personal preference at best. And guess what gets destroyed after tasting 6 or 7 drinks? Exactly, a judge’s (and anyone’s) pallet. Please know that some judging sessions include over 150 drinks … Start to see the problem here?
A final issue is feedback. Or better phrased: lack thereof. If I come in second best at the marathon, I know to whom I lost, by how much I lost, and probably – together with my trainer – why I lost. If there is one goal in medal competitions, it is that they give feedback for the individual producer to learn from, so that he or she can have another shot at gold next year, with improved chances to success.
How amazing our industry would look like, if we would have well-trained judges, using an objective model, to help us improve our spirits on a continuous basis! Do you think there is any medal competition out there that gives you feedback? Let alone actionable feedback? Again, the answer is almost exclusively “no”.
Much needed improvements
For medal competitions to improve to the point of adding value, instead of discrediting craft distilling’s long-term reputation, here’s what I feel needs to happen immediately:
- Establish a simple and clear-cut categorization. May I suggest just brandy, gin, liqueur, rum, tequila, vodka, and whisky? Less is more.
- Every category only has one gold, one silver, and one bronze medal winner.
- Every medal competition uses an objective taste model, and:
- Gives its participants feedback on scoring and on suggested improvements, so the ones not winning today can return as better distillers tomorrow.
Here is what I feel craft distillers can do to help cure the industry from Medal Fatigue:
- Insist that the above four simple rules are followed by any medal competition the craft distiller participates at.
- Refrain from participating, when the above rules are not met (to stop future spread of Medal Fatigue).
Here’s what iStill can do to help fight Medal Fatigue:
- Start the discussion.
- Invite competitions and judges to use our Holy Trinity of Distillation model to objectively score drinks and give actionable feedback to participating distillers.
- Open up the iStill University Program to spirit judge participation for proper training in our objective taste model.
- Certify those medal competitions that comply with the aforementioned four simple rules.
When everybody wins, we all loose …
*) Nota Bene!
We are proud to see iStill customers over-represented at winning the medals at those competitions that matter. It reflects the hard work, the dedication to recipe development and in-house quality spirits production, that we know they value above all else. We are happy to inform you that we do not (can not and will not) sponsor well-reputed medal competitions like for example (but not limited to) IWSC and San Fransisco.
Out of respect for the hard work and major investments that our customers have put into their distilleries (no minor part being spent on iStill equipment), we have always, directly and immediately, walked away from sponsoring competitions and trade-shows that “proposed” we help pick the winners. This is and will always be our north star. Even where it means that we have to turn down major, industry-wide marketing and trade-show opportunities, now and in the future.
Drs. H.E.J. (Odin) van Eijk, MScBA, etc.,
CEO of iStill.