Are alcohol awards a good guide to quality?

Is a gold medal a guarantee of quality? It depends who has awarded it.
Is a gold medal a guarantee of quality? It depends who has awarded it. Photo: iStock

Gold, we all instinctively understand, equates to top step on the podium. From athletics to academia and the arts, there can be only one numero uno when the medals are handed out.

Except when it comes to the world of judging our favourite tipples. Here, it can sometimes feel like gold medals are handed out like placards at a political rally.

Harsh? Well, if you've ever found yourself in a bottle shop on the way to a dinner party, panicking about selecting a great drop, you've probably seen them – an array of bottles plastered with impressive-sounding medals and awards.

"Is this gold medal-winner better than that gold medal-winner? And what about this one with two gold medals? Gotta be good, right?"

Competitions have long been a part of the drinking landscape. These events were developed to encourage and foster excellence in their fields and, ostensibly, to help consumers discover the best stuff around.

But you could easily argue the opposite these days, when it's harder than ever for the novice consumer to understand what the gold medal or international prize in question actually stands for.

And the winners are ...

At their best, awards can shine a light on an exceptional product you normally mightn't come across. Sullivans Cove's incredible win at the World Whiskies Awards this year is a great example. When I caught up with the tiny Tassie distiller's marketing man Bert Cason recently, he rightly pointed out that such an award – which effectively labelled his drop the best single malt whisky in the world – can give small, independent products the international attention they deserve.

Behind the bar, I've fielded innumerable questions about prize-winning drops. Interestingly, though, I'm rarely asked about the actual competitions. Who were judges? How was it conducted?

The World Whiskies Awards is one of the most significant and respected awards in its field, but nevertheless just one example of the hundreds of different wine and spirit shows out there vying for the attention of producers and consumers. Everyone in the game is acutely aware of what these awards can mean for the development of not only particular brands, but whole industries.

Eyes on the prize

When you win an award, of course you want people to find out about it. Different companies and producers approach this in different ways.

Many producers in the Australian wine industry have long pinned medals to their labels to assure consumers of the quality of their products. But with more than 60 different wine shows in Australia alone, thousands of medals being awarded each year, and a general lack of understanding about what each medal signifies, it's understandable that many of us are a bit confused when trying to pick a winner.

Mike Bennie, one of Australia's top wine writers and presenters, has previously expressed concern with this system. "In essence, medals and awards can make it easier, but they also increasingly offer confusion," he told me.

"The benefit of medals is that those that have been awarded a medal do, by the virtue of the wine show system, make an 'upper echelon of wines' within that show, and have had to pass across a number of wine industry experts to be awarded as such."

But he also mentioned that the sheer number of wine shows have lessened the impact of such awards. This, along with the invaluable information new technologies are providing, and a shift in interest toward the 'process and provenance' of wines, are diluting the impact of wine show medals.

Other producers in the spirits and beer worlds approach awards with cautious optimism. Cameron McKenzie, the head distiller of Melbourne-based Four Pillars Gin, thinks awards are a good benchmarking exercise.

Four Pillars recently earned a Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition after being awarded unanimous gold medals by the judging panel. But even after this prestigious endorsement, McKenzie told me that Four Pillars will still be selective about which competitions it would enter.

"We don't employ a scattergun approach. When we do send our gins to a competition, it's because we have a great deal of respect for the judges involved."

The Feral Brewery, in Western Australia's thriving Swan Valley, has been awarded a plethora of gongs in recent years. However, sales and marketing manager Steven Finney told that me that they don't get carried away with their success. "At Feral we like to be humble about the medals we win and the way we go about promoting them," he said. "Craft beer is still in its infancy and we want people to discover what styles they enjoy and what styles they don't. We don't want to tell the consumer one beer is better than another because it has a medal on it."

Reward for effort

It's an obvious maxim, but everyone's tastes will differ. I've always been impressed by people who, instead of regurgitating the views of a judging panel or a publication, actually take the time to understand what they enjoy and are able to articulate why they do.

Ultimately, choosing a fine tipple is more likely to succeed – and intrigue those around you – if you put some thought and research into your selection. Now that's one type of competition I'm happy to be a part of.

How do you choose beer, wine or spirits? Do awards and medals sway your opinion?

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