I was invited recently, as a juror at the international competition-Spirits Selection 2015. The event took place between August 26th and 28th in Guiyang, China and received an entry of 1,395 spirits from 44 producer countries. These spirits were tasted (blind) and evaluated by 83 master blenders, buyers, importers, journalists and writers from the world of spirits representing 23 nationalities.
Guiyang is located in the province of Guizhou in Southwest China and it is also home to a number of Baijiu distilleries, including the famous Kweichow Moutai. The competition organised by Concours Mondial de Bruxelles (CMB) and hosted by the Guiyang city government and private stakeholders was a symbol of excellence showcasing the Chinese hospitality.
The three days schedule was packed with tastings and visits to the nearby counties to experience the rural and cultural aspect of the region. Trips to beautiful Kaiyang County and Qingyan ancient town brought the visitors few steps closer to the Guiyang ethnicity. On the last day of the trip, we were invited on a special tour to the house of the legendary baijiu producer, Kweichow Moutai, which offered great insight into the production of baijiu.
The first rule of the competition is that the products are tasted blind. While the CMB Wine competition allows the panel to know the names of the wines, in the end of every session, in case of Spirits Selection the names of the spirits are not revealed until the end of the competition. In order to rule out major discrepancies, the same flight can sometimes feature the same spirit twice. The only information shared by the panel chairman before tasting is the number spirits in each flight and the category of spirit that we are going to taste.
During the three days of the competition, I tasted around 93 glasses of baijiu, whisky, rhum/rum and pisco.
The spirits are always evaluated and scored out of 100 on the basis of colour (10), intensity on the nose (30), intensity on the palate (40), harmony or equilibrium (20). To finish each flight on time and to avoid too many disagreements, the panel chairman takes the lead and offers his/her guidance wherever necessary without influencing the jury’s decision. S/He is also the one who handles the distribution, collection and the final handover of the score sheets to the organisers.
Here’s an account of my experience at the Spirits Selection 2015 and a basic guideline to judge spirits like a pro.
Tasting with the Experts
Every panel consists of 6 members including the chairman. The panellists representing their respective countries are spirits writers/producers/sommeliers or industry professionals. I was lucky enough to have a tequila expert from Mexico, a cachaca expert from Brazil, One cognac expert from France and two Baijiu experts from China in my panel-No1. Hence, there wasn’t a single dull moment during the competition. Tastings among the industry veterans can provide a great opportunity for learning and facilitate the exchange of ideas. So, always keep your eyes and ears open.
Three step process to Taste Spirit
Tasting wine/beer/spirits is kind of an art because the alcohol actually communicates with the taster in a way that only an artist can very well fathom. But it is also a science, as this requires the engagement of all your senses, which ultimately results in a sensory experience.
Use your eyes to evaluate the colour which tells you about how long, where and what type of barrel the spirit was matured etc. The nose is to gauge the intensity, smell and identify the aromas and flavours (get into specifics). Taste is to evaluate the palate expressions that also could confirm or go against what you gathered from the nose. This process takes a little longer as you need to also take into account the aftertaste, the finish.
Tasting without Prejudice
This is a very important step to keep in mind while tasting spirits. Sometimes tasters have their reservations towards a particular category of spirit but it is always advisable to be less judgemental and more open to try everything that is served on the table. It is interesting to analyse and guess the intricacies of a particular spirit, the region that it may come from etc.
Guide to understanding and tasting Baijiu
As China was the host city this year, Concours Mondial de Bruxelles Spirits Selection 2015 had over 500 baijius for the tasting. Here are some basic steps to know more about this fascinating Chinese spirit.
Baijiu means ‘white alcohol’. The production of baijiu depends on natural processes and organic raw materials. Water, Qu-the unifying feature of all Chinese wines and spirits, which turns grains into alcohol, Grains such as mainly rice and sorghum. Also in certain baijius, wheat, corn and other grains and starches as well as grain husks are used. Baijiu is a distilled spirit, so the process is mainly divided between Qu making which means rotten grain filled with yeasts, moulds and bacteria and preparation of ingredients, saccharification and fermentation and then distillation. Aging baijiu smoothens the rough edges of a raw spirit, reducing its harshness while offering more rounded flavours. Most baijius are matured at least six months and premium baijiu distillers typically age their spirits for at least three to five years. What really distinguishes traditional Chinese alcohol aging from other western spirits is the exclusive use of clay aging vessels. The process of blending is what distinguishes a distillery’s premium quality baijiu from the regular ones. As the spirit is fermented in batches, there is a great deal of disparity in the relative quality and flavour of each mash and also within various stages of an individual mash. Purified water is added to the blend to bring down the alcohol level in the end. Very often the same blend is bottled between 36%-65% abv to appeal to the different set of consumers. After blending the finished spirit is stored in stainless steel vats before bottling.
Baijiu made of rice or sorghum is the more appealing style of Baijiu, however, the most traditional and heritage style of Baijiu are filled with very strong aromas and have herbs and medicinal ingredients.
India at Spirits Selection 2015
Interestingly, there were three Indian spirits companies who participated in the competition this year and two (Amrut Single Malt and Paul John single malt) have won one gold medal each and Paul John has received three silver medals.
The results are here
The next CMB Spirits Selection in 2016 will be held in the land of Tequila-Mexico and the jury will certainly have a great deal to learn about one of the most popular spirits in the world.
This article originally featured on All About Daru