Judging spirits with the company they keep

Competitions in the spirits world generally fall into one of two categories. Either the spirits themselves are sipped neat and judged for their inherent qualities, or cocktails in which they are featured are judged for the skill of the mixologist who combined them with other ingredients. (For the moment I'm going to forget about flair or speed competitions. Actually, I'm going to forget about these permanently.)

Both approaches are useful, yet both approaches come up short. Comparing gins sipped neat always feels like an academic exercise to me since I rarely drink gin neat. And if I'm trying new cocktails made with gin, I tend to wonder, would this actually be significantly better using Aviation rather than Gordon's?

Paul Pacult apparently wondered, too. He, along with Wine Enthusiast's David Talbot, and Spirit Journal managing editor Sue Woodley are launching a series of three events under the umbrella of the “Ultimate Beverage Challenge.” These will be staged at the Astor Center in New York City next year, in March, April, and June. The first will be a spirits competition, and the last a wine competition. Both are tweaked to refine and improve existing judging methods, but neither are radically different from competitions taking place elsewhere.

But the second event — called the Ultimate Cocktail Competition — relates most to the real drinking world, and strikes me as the most overdue. In this, spirits will be judged side by side in various standard cocktails. “UCC is going in the opposite direction of how all other cocktail competitions are conducted," Pacult says in a release. "We’re going to evaluate spirits categories in the context of how they taste in representative cocktails. For instance, gins will be tasted in five classic gin cocktails against other entered gin brands. So, one gin might be recognized as the 'Best Gin in a Gin & Tonic' while another might garner 'Best Gin in a Dry Martini' honors and yet another might win as 'Best Gin in an Aviation.' This unique methodology will trail-blaze a new era of spirits and cocktail evaluation.”

Pacult's being aided in this by, among others, Dale DeGroff and David Wondrich. 

Stay tuned for more information. The web site listed on the release is www.ultimate-beverage.com, but as of this morning it's a broken link. [UPDATE: The link is working now.]