Time to post one of the oldest pieces sitting in my drafts folder. Alternatively titled “How to Get Blacklisted from the Spirits Industry”.
Before I go into some depth on this rant let me say that I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. Most educated absintheurs seem to feel exactly the same way. I also know that some people might hate my guts for this. It’s just a topic that comes up every time someone wins an award for an absinthe.
Let me also say, this just pertains to absinthe. Awards for whisk(e)y, rum, vodka, gin, and whatever else are not on the table here. This is an absinthe blog so this is just relevant to absinthe.
So without further disclaimers let me get straight to the point. Not a single medal ever awarded to any modern absinthe means anything. This might change in the future but just because you see a portfolio that’s heavy with awards or a nice medal sticker on a bottle, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a good absinthe. Sure some good absinthes sport an award, but so do many crappy brands and even fauxsinthes.
The problem is absinthe’s greatest general problem; a lack of education. More often than not a lack of judges willing to educate themselves. Why care about such a niche market? That’s the greatest problem, and there are others, but for the most part judges don’t know enough about absinthe to know what the hell they are doing. Do they know the difference between the taste of wormwood and tails (huge difference but some newbies confuse the two)? Can they tell if the absinthe is historically accurate by taste? Do they even judge to standards or just to what they personally like?
You can contact the organizations putting on these awards, but if you have my luck you will not get an answer.
Instead of just bitching about how I don’t give any credit to awards I’ll offer up some solutions to the problems that I see.
1. No producers, distillers, brand ambassadors, etc. on the judges panel.
This should be obvious but anyone financially involved with an absinthe being judged has a vested interest in skewing the results towards their favor. You can be sure that even in a blind tasting they can pick their product out of the set. This is a terrible thing to see, but also the hardest to work around. Often the people who know the most about absinthe are also the ones making it.
2. Double blind process.
Speaking of blind tasting here’s another good way to remove bias. Blind simply means that the judge doesn’t know what they are judging. Instead it is listed as “1”, “Q”, or “Square”. You double that up with the person administering the tasting having no clue either. No helpful winks from the lady setting down a glass in front of you. Only those who poured out of the bottles know which symbol relates to which brand, and they don’t get to see the judges until it is over. This method is used in experimental science to remove bias and for any serious competition it should be used as well.
3. Educated judges.
Do the judges know absinthe or have they only tasted one or two before this competition? Why should I trust the results? Did one judge give high marks to an absinthe he said had “Aromas of popcorn, vinyl, wet cement and chalk”? If so, I don’t trust him because that sounds gross, and not like what any absinthe should smell like. Also, for those in the know, that’s not what I think that particular absinthe smells like either.
4. Openness of criteria and process.
I like data. If I see an award the first thing I’m going to do is critique the award. Was the absinthe critiqued on aroma and taste only or did they take into account color and louche? Was the absinthe presented accurately or did a bunch of people drink it straight like complete rubes? Was the entrance criteria focused on historically accurate absinthe or just anything labeled absinthe? If your competition actually means anything then you should have nothing to fear from disclosing your methods. Also, disclose sponsors. If “Brand X” gets double gold and was also a majority sponsor of the event then I have some serious questions that need answers. Are judges forced to give an award to the top few or can they withhold an award? This last one is especially interesting considering the size of absinthe market might mean only three entrants. That’s an immediate medal just for entering, if medals can’t be withheld.
5. No more awards for bottle and label design.
That stuff belongs to art and marketing competitions, not spirits awards. What matters here is what is on the inside of the bottle. There’s a certain brand out there that enters in to any competition they can and has a huge array of awards. Very few of those awards are for what is inside the bottle. Presenting awards for the outside only confuses the consumer at best and outright dupes them at worst. Imagine if people thought the above mentioned brand was actually good because they see awards everywhere? Most would probably think they’ve had the good stuff and say that they don’t like absinthe, when if they had real absinthe, they just might like it.
6. No drunk judges.
Do the judges properly spit or do they drink it down and get plastered? How many absinthes do they review at a time? If I see a competition that goes through 20 absinthes in a row (and I have), I don’t really trust those last 10 results if there wasn’t a healthy amount of time between them all for the judges to let their palates recoup and brains sober up.
There’s not a single award given to absinthe that doesn’t fall prey, in a large way, to at least one of the above. So both large and small I discredit all awards and competitive events when it comes to absinthe. There’s just not enough awareness and knowledge among the general population to trust a “judge”. I know because I’ve tasted winners of the same event with vastly different impressions. I see high medals given to oil mixed cheapsinthe, fake absinthe, and artificially colored nonsense which ruins the credibility of these awards.
Some of you may be asking why bother with repairing these awards at all? We have websites with consumer reviews and averaged scores, so what gives, just use those? The answer is simple. Average Joe at the liquor store will see a medal and make a decision. They don’t want to surf the web for half an hour to get reassurance on a $70 bottle. That medal gives the consumer a sense of reassurance, and marketers know this. Medals are great for separating the good from the bad, but only if they actually mean something. Otherwise it’s a duplicitous endeavor that hurts the category by turning otherwise interested people away. Absinthe is coming back, slowly. As a niche category it’s even more important that standards be upheld, lest real absinthe be lost to history yet again.