Paul Pacult, whose most recent competition — the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, held March 5-9 in New York City — just released results, is the dean of American spirits evaluators, and his trio of competitions legitimately vie for leading contest honors. We check in on what happened at this year's event from behind the scenes:
Mix: This is the third year for the Ultimate Spirits Challenge. What are your general observations about what companies are entering in the competition?
Paul Pacult: It's been made clear that since our initial Ultimate Spirits Challenge 2010, the quality level in the entries has risen substantially as suppliers/importers/producers/marketers have come to view USC as the platinum standard of spirits competitions worldwide. Industry executives who care about reality have told me that spirits competitions that still pass out medals like Coney Island hot dogs in July are losing traction and believability. As one industry vice president of marketing said to me last January, "What am I supposed to do with a bronze medal that 20 other competing brands have?" In my view, the medal-bestowing competition model that started in the late 19th century has overrun its course. Savvy industry marketers and influencers comprehend that this dated model's time has long passed. What they care most about today in the 21st century is credible, honest, independent evaluation of their product in a group of peers by qualified experts utilizing an up-to-date scoring system. That's progress — not hot dogs.
Paul Pacult at the Ultimate Spirits Challenge, held March 5-9 at the Astor Center in New York City.
Mix: There has been a modest proliferation of spirits competitions recently. What should buyers take away from the results of the Ultimate Spirits Challenge?
Pacult: The heart and soul of any competition lies in the collective expertise of the judges and the evaluation system. The fact that the USC attracts only the finest, most qualified spirits authors, journalists, educators and consultants in the world — authentic recognized, award-winning authorities — says a lot about who we are. The fact that we, with great care, employ small flights of four to six spirits, the most appropriate crystal glassware, the proper service temperature, the best environment and a unique multilevel evaluation system all point to the near-fanatical commitment to do things correctly. The industry and media people who observe how we run things at USC see firsthand that no corners are cut. In my mind, right now there is only one spirits competition in the world that shows proper respect to spirits and distillers: Ultimate Spirits Challenge. If this is taken in some quarters as a gauntlet, fine.
Mix: Any surprises this year for you, either in terms of who won or what you found judges to prefer?
Pacult: No. As I viewed the final tabulations and which spirits got good scores of 80 or more and which received Chairman Trophies or were cited as Finalists, I concluded that the judging panels did an extraordinary job of separating the sublime from the very good from the good. The judges' preferences run with the tide of quality for each category and this is why we hire the finest people to serve as USC judges. They are level-headed, equitable and consistent in their appraisals.
Mix: Have you found some categories providing superior entrants over others?
Pacult: Across the board this year, suppliers entered their upper-echelon marques. One assumes that is because they trust the USC to get it right. We don't pander to anyone because we need advertising pages. USC is all about truth-in-competitions, come what may. Sometimes people don't like their scores and that's because the judges don't like their products. If you want to see how your spirit honestly compares with its categorical peers, enter USC.
Mix: As someone who tastes all the time, do you have any advice for buyers who keep purchasing brands based on popularity rather than quality?
Pacult: There will always be fad brands and subcategories in spirits. A fad is a lot different from a trend. Trends I generally like because they are usually driven by public demand. Fads worry me on occasion because fads are tools of marketers who still have face acne. That said, popular brands provide cash flow so that distillers can develop new and exciting line extension programs on top marques. It's a yin/yang situation often. As a critic, I have to live with whipped-cream vodkas and cloying liqueurs or lame-flavored vodkas. That's part of my job, and because I don't particularly care for them doesn't mean that suppliers will stop listening to marketing quasi-geniuses.
Mix: The Ultimate Cocktail Challenge is coming up June 4-8 in New York City. What sort of things have you learned from that experience?
Pacult: I've learned that the UCC is the most dynamic, mercurial and intriguing of (the Ultimate Beverage Challenge's) trio of competitions because it's the most innovative competition of the three. It's the only cocktail competition of its kind in the world. In the UCC, spirits producers get to see how their, say, gins stack up against competitive brands in three classic cocktails as judged by the leading bartenders of our generation. Tequila producers who enter the UCC Classic Challenge get to see how their tequilas fare in a Margarita, Fresca Verde and El Diablo. That's a bonanza of valuable information, both for distillers and for marketers. I love the UCC Classic Challenge because that's the soul of UCC, assessing how well spirits perform when married with other ingredients in timeless cocktails. Wow! But the really astute suppliers also enter the UCC Signature Challenge, which is geared directly at specially created recipes for specific spirits. Those are likewise judged by the panels. Either way, suppliers and marketers learn how their spirits do in serious drinks.
Mix: What are you drinking these days?
Pacult: Last night, Sue — my wife and partner — made a Pegu Club, and I mixed a gin and tonic with Tanqueray London Dry and Fever Tree Tonic Water. Who knows what tonight will bring? For me, either a Whiskey Sour or a Sidecar.