Professionalizing the Award Industry!


Today, there are so many award and medal competitions for which the craft distiller can apply, that it becomes clearer by the year that the award industry is big business. A business with a great business model. The craft distiller pays to compete … and the craft distiller gets an award.

But does the award industry, as it turns into a bigger and bigger business, empower the craft distilling industry or not? Does revenue growth equal professionalization? Unfortunately, no, it doesn’t. So let’s investigate the problems the award industry faces, and the issues this creates for the craft distilling industry.

The goal of this iStill Blog post? To help professionalize the award industry to the extend that it empowers, rather than stifles, the craft distilling industry. But first, let’s explain the business model the award industry uses.

The award industry’s business model

Craft distillers want to compete at medal competitions, because winning a medal is good for marketing and sales. To enter a medal competition, the distiller pays and sends samples. The spirit judges, that the specific competition hires or employs, try out all the entries and hand out awards. The award industry’s business model is easy to figure out: the more distillers participate at a certain competition, the more money they make.

The associated flaws

There are four major flaws with how the award industry performs:

  1. Competition between multiple organizers of medal competitions results in award inflation and medal fatigue
  2. The spirit judges side-hustle as consultants for the craft distillers that participate at the medal competitions
  3. The judgements are based on subjective preference instead of any objective science
  4. No feedback is given to the craft distiller, other than the color of his medal.

Award inflation and medal fatique

As more competitions enter the market, how do you keep on making money, as a medal competition? By handing out more medals. If everybody wins, for sure they’ll be back next year, right?

In the past, a specific spirit category had one bronze, one silver, and one gold medal. Just like in sports. But nowadays every category has multiple awards. Ten to twenty bronze medals for one and the same category? It is the rule instead of the exception. And the same holds true for silver and gold.

Does a specific competition still not have enough medals to satisfy all participants? They have two other modus operandi at their disposal, to make sure everybody wins and comes back to pay for more. First, they invent double gold, platinum, and diamond medals. Secondly, they’ll cut up categories into smaller sub-categories. If there are too many participants in the gin category, they’ll simply cut that category up in “London Dry Style Gin”, “Contemporary Gin”, “Dutch Gin”, or “Plymouth Gin”. How about “Contemporary Barrel aged West Coast Gins”. I am not kidding you, but it certainly feels like the organizers of award competitions are!

What the combination of “everybody wins” and “more medals” results in? In award inflation. Winning a gold medal used to mean something. You were the only one. You were the top pick in a category. What it means today? That you are not only sharing that gold medal with a dozen others, but that you do so knowing that there are still a dozen competitors above you, that are granted the double gold, platinum, and diamond awards. In a category that’s probably only a fifth the size it used to be!

Award inflation results in medal fatigue with consumers. As it becomes more and more difficult for a consumer to find a craft distilled spirit without a medal, what does the medal tell about the quality of the product he is about to buy? Less and less. There you have it: award competitions want to increase their customer base in order to grow their income, at the expense of the value the awards have, both for the participating distillery and the consumer.

Side-hustling judges and organizations destroy objectivity and credibility

Judges side-hustle and organizations like ADI side-hustle. Often, expo’s favor customers of sponsors, so there is a huge bias in who will win the top awards. Most judges also work as consultants for craft distillers, which – again – creates a huge bias towards the customers that work with consultants winning most of the top awards.

With objectivity out of the window, what’s the real value of award competitions? Is it to fool craft distillers out of their hard-earned money? Or do many craft distillers take part in this scam at the expense of the naivety of consumers? Whatever it is, both models are neither ethical, nor sustainable.

The scientific model for spirit judgement is not used

The judges have preferences but no formal training in the science of distillation. They have not been certified by the iStill University. They do not understand or apply Odin’s Holy Trinity of Distillation. As a result the outcomes they generate are arbitrary at best and biased – towards their own customers or sponsors – at worst (see above).

Lack of feedback

The lack of professionally trained judges results in a fourth important flaw in the way the award industry operates: lack of feedback to craft distillers. Craft distillers should learn how to improve their drinks from feedback they get by participating at award competitions. No such feedback is given, though.

The value proposition of the award industry

The value the award industry currently brings to the craft distilling industry is negative. Participating costs money. The value of the medals suffers from award inflation and medal fatigue. The medal ranking is arbitrary at best, but probably a setup or a barney. The people that call the awards have not had any scientific training, so their opinion holds little to no value. And as they do not understand how spirits are made, they cannot give you – the craft distiller – any feedback of any value.

Professionalizing the award industry

For the award industry to become a power for good in the craft distilling industry, quite a few things need to change:

  1. One unified model of award evaluation replaces the current medal sprawl
  2. Award competitions need to become either non-profit or at least open about their earnings and sponsors
  3. Judges are no longer allowed to consult and consultants are no longer allowed to judge
  4. Judges are only allowed to judge after receiving scientific certification

How we’ll help achieve that? Subscribe to the iStill Blog, stay tuned, because more information about the solutions is to be released soon!

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