How to Recognize the Greatness Within
( 6 min read )
At Elijah Craig, turning grain into gold is what we do best. Take a closer look at some of the awards & accolades our Bourbons have won in recent years—and what it takes to earn them.
In January 2018, we received some exciting news. Out of hundreds of samples submitted globally throughout the year, the experts at Whisky Advocate magazine had just named Elijah Craig Barrel Proof (B517) their 2017 “Whisky of the Year.”
Whisky Advocate’s Top 20 are selected every year from a collection of whiskeys that have been rated “outstanding” (90 points or higher on a 100-point scale) by their Buying Guide reviewers. They are then ranked based on a variety of factors—including quality, value, and availability—as well as a series of blind tastings.
“Pitted against pricier competition from the U.S. and around the world, Elijah Craig Barrel Proof held its ground again and again,” wrote Whisky Advocate’s Executive Editor, Jeffery Lindenmuth, in his review. “Our tasters put the whiskey to a real-world test, dousing it with water and sipping it on ice...They were amazed at how this bold whiskey stood proud.”
They were not alone in recognizing the Greatness Within®. Barrel Proof previously earned industry acclaim in 2017 at the World Whiskies Awards; received Double Gold and “Best Small Batch Bourbon – 11 Years and Older” at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (SFWSC); 95 Points at F. Paul Pacult’s Ultimate Spirits Challenge; and Gold at the SIP Awards.
And that’s just Barrel Proof. In 2018, Elijah Craig Small Batch also took home Double Gold and “Best Small Batch Bourbon” at the SFWSC, known internationally as one of the most influential competitions in the world of whiskey.
So what makes an award-winning Bourbon – and how do the judges come to a consensus? Every competition follows its own rules and regulations for discerning quality, whether they’re judged by some of the industry’s most refined palates or by everyday consumers.
Judges & Juries
Founded in 2000, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition gathers the biggest and most respected names in the spirits industry for a four-day tasting event of epic proportions. In 2020, there were more than 3,000 global entries across dozens of categories, submitted by legendary producers as well as small craft distillers. Among the judges were SFWSC founder, Anthony Dias Blue; Master Mixologist, Tony Abou-Ganim; award-winning bartender, Ivy Mix; and the founder of Crafthouse Cocktails, Charles Joly.
But while many competitions assemble an esteemed panel of judges, not every competition relies on expert opinion. The prestigious SIP Awards, for example, “caters to the opinions and palates of the discerning public,” and stands apart as the only international spirits competition to be judged by everyday consumers.
The Tasting Process
Whether being appraised by industry insiders or casual whiskey enthusiasts, one thing that most spirits competitions recognize is the importance of blind tasting.
To taste “blind” means the judges are given very little information about the spirit they are sampling, outside of the category (e.g. Small Batch Bourbon, 6-11 Years) and occasionally the proof. Other identifiers – such as brand name, distiller, place of origin, and price point – remain undisclosed, and some even use opaque drinkware to conceal the color of the whiskey. This helps ensure the integrity of the results by eliminating any biases—conscious or unconscious—a judge might have towards a particular producer or label. And as with wine tasting, the judges don’t actually swallow; they sip, swish, and spit.
According to G. Clay Whittaker, who covers Whiskey & Bourbon for Men’s Journal and has been tasting professionally for nearly a decade, “Objectivity is what has kept [the San Francisco World Spirits Competition] running for nearly 20 years. There’s a careful screening process for new judges, and not all judges are asked back every year.”
Scoring systems vary by competition, although there is typically no quota for how many medals can be awarded. At the SIP Awards, spirits are scored for their aroma, taste and finish on a scale of 1-5, with one being underwhelming and five being exceptional. Medal placement is calculated using a proprietary algorithm, which factors in the number of entrants, the number of judges, and score trends within each category.
In San Francisco, judges are asked to assign ratings to each individual tasting: Gold, Silver, Bronze, or no score. Two or more Gold ratings from the panel will earn the spirit “Double Gold.” However, judges must also arrive at a consensus in each round. “Though each spirit starts the competition on smaller panels,” Whittaker explains, “at each subsequent level, it will be tasted by more judges. When Elijah Craig Small Batch took home “Best Small Batch Bourbon” in 2018, it was unanimously selected by forty judges in a blind tasting.
Striving for Greatness
Over the years, Elijah Craig has been fortunate enough to take home many of the industry’s most coveted accolades, and has earned a reputation for producing consistently high-quality Bourbons. We are proud of the recognition we receive from both our fans and our industry; but we’re not ones to rest on our laurels. We’re only as good as the next Small Batch Bourbon we produce. We’ll let others discover the Greatness Within®.