Double Gold - San Francisco Spirits Competition. Silver Medal - World Spirits Festival. What does this mean and who really cares about these so-called prestigious awards? It seems that every week when I open a new box of bottles, there is another product with a sticker posted on the front label that cries out, "Look at me! I'm good! Now you know how good I really am!" Somebody asked me earlier today in the store about a whiskey selection and they said, "Well maybe I should get this one because it won the gold medal." I then showed her the other fifty bottles on the shelf that had also 'won' gold medals and that seemed to put things in perspective for her.
Recently on a more prestigious whiskey blog site, there was a discussion about industry folk getting upset when their product received a low score. John Hansell himself wrote that not every whiskey can be the best ever - there simply have to be some bad ones out there. However, it seems that more and more products have found a way to become distinguished on the retail shelf, be it the shiny gold of a medal sticker or a necker tag that displays how points it won from Paul Pacault. There are enough awards out there for everyone and somehow every major brand has found a way to win one of them. It seems that in today's high-end liquor store there really are no bad products, or even mediocre ones for that matter. It's sort of like Who's Who From America's High School Students, but the alcoholic version. You get a letter telling you how great a young scholar you are and then you pay a fee to be posted in a "prestigious" catalog of pupils, and to top it all off, they charge you for the actual book you appear in. In return, students get to add it to the long list of acolades on their college resume as a distinguishing mark in their favor. A mutually beneficial relationship if their ever was one, this formula has been adapted for the liquor and wine world with astonishing efficiency.
Now before I get carried away, I am 100% behind some form of consumer advocacy in the liquor world. Just this morning I was shopping for SLR cameras and I consulted CNET and Consumer Reports for advice. The difference between these non-partisan services and the spirits competitions however is night and day. One offers detailed information about a specific product, pros and cons, positives and negatives, while the other simply states (as broadly as possible): good, very good, best - that's it. If someone does bother to add a bit more information, that description is carefully censored to cut down to the bare bones necessity - 92 points, nuff said.
I could probably write about ten pages of examples to illustrate my point, but this is a blog and blogs are made for quick, succinct updates that can be read in a few minutes. Let me say this and I'll leave it at that: medals are meaningless, points even more so. For every expert out there who loves a product, I'll find you someone who hates it and vice versa. Expert panels will always exist, but we as retailers need to stop relying on them to sell products because they're ruining this industry and our ability to educate customers. Whiskies are not trophies. They should not make you cool for owning one or envious for not owning one. Whiskies are drinks and they are meant to be enjoyed with friends. Some are better than others. Not all whiskies are for everyone. If it got 97 points and you hate it, don't drink it. If it got 75 points and you love it, then who gives a shit? Drink it and move on. This is supposed to be fun.