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!

Educating and Challenging the Distilling World!

Hi Veronika,

I’m so pleased to tell you I’ve completed the online course!

I have no idea why I thought I had actually to possess an iStill Mini before it was worth completing the rest of the course after my initial start ages ago.

This is a simply fabulous online course. But of course you already know that. I love learning, and have studied at several universities. Rarely, very rarely has my attention been as constantly and powerfully gripped as during the videos on this course. Every minute, indeed every few seconds at times, I’d be noting down another new important learning.

From the outset in early 2018 of my realising my next adventure would be into distilling I knew I wanted to control and get the best out of available flavours, so using a bespoke fermentation from which to distil, and that’s won me awards already. But I can see so many ways in which to adjust what I’ve been doing for the better. And I’m gobsmacked to know I’m going to be creating rums, brandies and whisky! Ha! How fabulous is that.

Please pass on my thanks to particularly Odin of course, but to all of you in the team that has enabled iStill to educate and challenge the distilling world.

I look forward to meeting yourself again and some of the rest of the team very soon.



Tony Hobbs, Director
Tranquil Still ltd

iStill Congrats Copperpenny Distillery on a Challenging yet Amazing First Year!

Hello Odin!

First of all – Happy New Year to you, Veronika and the entire iStill family. I must apologize for the radio silence over the past months – we had the mis/fortune of being overrun by our first year of operations, and what a year it was. I apologize because these are the times when we should have been sharing our wins and losses with the iStill family, but instead we found ourselves clinging on for dear life as the business pulled us in every direction, leaving zero time for Jenn and I. We launched the tasting room and cocktail lounge at the beginning of 2022 with massive support from the local community and it has been a big success – despite little to no promotion, we are being sought out by people from all over the city. It seems that there was a big demand for an elevated cocktail experience in our brewery district (we have 8 craft breweries within a 2 block radius of us) – and Jenn’s amazing lounge design certainly has made an impression on locals and travellers alike.

Our Gin No. 005 has been very well received indeed – I’m curious where you heard of it – we’re always interested to know how and to where word travels. Winning at the Spirits Masters in London was amazing (considering we entered to get tasting notes primarily) and then just last month, at the PR%F Awards in Las Vegas we managed to land two double golds as well. Seems we are on to something. Most importantly, our customers love it. We’ve started a bit of gin revolution in Vancouver – people now realize that the commercially available gins leave a lot to be desired. Actually, I think has a lot to do with the style of gin that we made No. 005 – it is a very versatile spirit that doesn’t dwell overly on the Juniper and lends itself well to most cocktails for that reason – and it makes a mean Negroni, which is what we set out after as we found most gins really blew up Negroni cocktails because of their excessive citrus notes. We’ve got a number of new gins in the works that promise to be very unique, and uniquely BC – which is something important because it lends itself well to a taste of place – important for the story and experience.

The iStills have been running great and have allowed us consistent results that other distillers can probably only dream of. We have only scratched the surface of their capabilities since we have been mostly focused on running our daily business operations – the lounge operates 6 days a week and seats about 60 people. We have struggled from the beginning with staff issues – first it was impossible to find any, and then it grew so quickly we start to struggle with management and HR issues – it was all-consuming and unbelievably stressful. We had to close for the past two weeks just to catch our breath which works well since most people around here take a bit of break from our industry immediately after New Year’s festivities.

We are looking forward to what the new year will bring – we’ve got a lot of great ideas for spirit production, and now we’ve got to see if we can leverage the award wins a bit and get Copperpenny out in front of more people who haven’t heard about us yet.

Talk very soon,

Jan Stenc | Co-Founder | Copperpenny Distilling Limited | C +1.604.307.2983

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Copperpenny Distillery’s second double gold award in just the first year …

Today We Honor Aris!

Aris has, over the last decade and more, helped out numerous distillers. He freely shares his experience and his time to help craft distillers around the world make better decisions.

To celebrate and honor his contributions, Aris has been appointed as Member of the Watchkeeper Charter – a unique fellowship of people with one unique quality in common: their actions empower the craft distilling industry.

Aris with his Charter and the iStill Watch that goes with it …

Aris wearing the iStill Watch …