Photo Credit: Max A. Solano

Without question, this is one of my favorite times of the year! Why? Because, for me, March usually brings many bounties that I thoroughly enjoy … The start of spring, MLB baseball pre-season, St. Patrick’s Day, NCAA March Madness, and my favorite, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The latter is a three-day spirits event (March 13-15) that usually hosts some of the brightest spirits minds and experienced palates; basically, the who’s who from our magnificent spirits industry. So, it’s no surprise why it is the most coveted, highly-respected and largest competition of its kind in the world. And, this year, marked SFWSC’s 20th anniversary.

Please understand one thing. For me, it’s a tremendous honor to be a part of this elite judging panel and completed my 8th year as a judge, so, I take this very seriously. For many of us, it’s the only time of year that these judges get to spend time with one another and thoroughly enjoy the amazing camaraderie. And, coincidentally, this all takes place in one of my most absolute favorite cities in the world. There was no question that this was going to be the biggest and best competition year, yet. 

Then, just like that, COVID-19 arrived! In late January, as we began receiving accounts of COVID-19 cases in different parts of the US, many planned trade events, seminars and conventions slowly began to cancel, including WSWA and the Nth Whisky events, among many, many others. I suspected that it would just be a matter of time before conversations would take place about whether this competition would be postponed or worse yet, cancelled. And, sure enough, as California began cracking down on large group gatherings, I knew it was inevitable. First, we received word that the celebrity cocktail competition taking place the day before the start of the competition was cancelled. Then, the annual judges dinner the evening of the first competition was also nixed. So, where did the actual competition stand? Just two weeks prior to the start of the competition, an email went out asking this year’s judges to decide whether we press on or cut our losses. And, of course, I began to immediately lobby to move forward with the competition with it already being so close to the date. The next day, we received the announcement that it was indeed moving forward! 

Then, as we were just days away, I began receiving word that some of the judges were beginning to rescind their participation per their companies’ immediate implementation of a no travel policy due to the Coronavirus. This, of course, posed a last-minute scramble to secure the judges that had been on the waiting list! So, needless to say, there were quite a few first-year stand-in judges, but even with that, many of these guys and gals were rock stars in the industry. 

The morning of the first day of the competition we were all gathered when we were welcomed by our long-tenured Director of Judges and good friend, Tony Abou-Ganim. However, due to precautionary measures, the founder and CEO of SFWSC, Anthony Dias Blue, was not in attendance for the first time ever so, it just did not have the same feel. As the individual judging panels were posted, I had noticed that I was chairing panel “E” for the very first time. Two thoughts came to mind: How cool is this? And, secondly, I really must be getting old!

Our panel seriously lucked out as we had a great volunteer team solely dedicated to us led by Sr. Volunteer, Doug Salin.

As we sat down at our table Friday morning, we were given Panel E’s flight syllabus for the first two days laying out the categories and size of the flights. Looking down, we were starting off with vodka, which was unfortunately, underwhelming, followed by gin, “flavored” gin (don’t ask what constitutes this since gin is already flavored) and mezcal. There were a couple of standouts from the gin categories, as well as the mezcals but the rest were a mixed bag, mostly of average or lesser quality. However, the next nine flights were mostly American whiskey, consisting of bourbon of different age groups, some craft distiller whiskeys and single malts. We simply lucked out! Aside from the first flight of straight bourbon, which did not put out anything exceptional, the next few, well … EUREKA! It was one stellar flight after another. One of my closest friends and American Whiskey savant, Fred Minnick, whom was not able to attend this year, would have even been very impressed. And, I will tell you that the craft distillers’ flight was also quite impressive! Most were excellent quality distillates, although a few would definitely have benefited from additional barrel maturation time, but the future looks very bright for the state of craft spirits. 

As we completed our two days of tastings, we were now ready for Day 3: Sweeps!

When I have written about this competition in the past, I had made it abundantly clear that this is everyone’s most exciting part of the weekend... hands down! Per usual, there were close to 100 double-gold medal recipients that made it to sweepstakes and not sure how many other double-gold medal winners that did not make it. But, as we went through each category and voted as a group, there was a consensus developing in my head. This was most likely the least memorable sweepstakes in terms of exceptional finalists I have been a part of. Do not get me wrong, there were some marvelous representations from some of the categories, such as American whiskeys, other single malt whiskies (Asian), some brandies and gins. On the other hand, there were several spirits that I pondered over how these were the best representations of their respective categories, and how they even received double-gold medals. As the old cliché goes, “It is, what it is!”

Despite all the unseen obstacles and challenges that this organization faced this year, they still did an amazing job and had an unprecedented 3,000+ spirits entries! I know that six months ago, or even three months ago, this is not what they had envisioned for being such a milestone year. But, rest assured, barring any other world pandemic, they will absolutely more than make up for it in style. I look forward to being there and covering it, once again.