SF Days 4-6 – ADI – Judging of Craft Spirits 2020

Last year I was relatively disciplined with writing posts each day. It was easy to find a little time on waking up or going to sleep and it’s really good for my head to help evaluate the experience.

This year it’s been very different. This year I’m returning to friends.

The ADI family are such a fantastic group of people, their knowledge and experience is just extraordinary. And, now I’ve got friends there, there is just too much to talk about and too much fun to be had geeking out over spirits.

So, the last few days have flown by and it’s time to catch you up.

Firstly, the ADI Judging of Craft Spirits was mindblowing, again. The standard of quality of the entries get’s better and better every year. Medalling is one thing, but the real value to the submitter is the feedback. The panels are organised to include a mix of industry types, from distillers, to media, bar owners and distributors. By doing this, the feedback is varied and the final judgement of score comes from all different angles. There is, in fact one of each of these making up each panel. So each spirit is equally covered by these types. Once we’ve scored, we talk. We discuss our score and feedback. Some spirits are quick to agree on, others take time. There was one spirit alone that took a thirty minute debate with several people to score. The integrity of the judges is something that I really prize. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s professional and the passion for the spirits being judged is second to none. I think you need this, because as the 2-3 days of flights comprise somewhere between 50-60 per person, you do need to love doing it to keep the detail of notes flowing until the end. It’s such a worthwhile and wholesome experience.

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Last year I focused on gin. This year I got to try my hand at all sorts of spirits! I tasted gin, barrel aged, whisky, rum, aquavit, crème liqueurs, all sorts! The education I gained from discussing these spirits was a lovely boost to my always growing expertise. That’s the thing with judging, especially at the competitions where the scores and opinions are discussed. It’s always an education. I firmly believe that even the best judges should be open to opinion. Sometimes you can be quite decided on something and then with someone else’s explanation you understand the spirit in a different way. As I like to say, there is always something new to learn, even when you think you know it all. And, it’s that ability to listen and reevaluate with more information that I think is a big factor of being a good judge. Sometimes it can get a little heated in these debates, and it’s important to respect the other judges and their opinions. Something I learnt last year that was a huge boost to my confidence, is that everyone’s opinion is valid at the table. We’re all there because the organisers see something in the way we judge spirits that they can get behind and even if you and someone else on the panel come from different directions, you can always talk it out and settle on a compromise.

The evenings were full of fun. The annual drinks and Uno night was amazing. Everyone chips in to a grazing table and drinks. A ten person game of Uno is quite the feisty experience and it is probably the best night of the bunch for good conversation with the crowd. I missed it last year but was honored to be a part of it this time round.

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The judges all worked together and made excellent progress through the first two days, so the third day was a lot easier and a few of us went for a walk along the seafront. The view of San Francisco and Golden Gate bridge was spectacular and sightings of sea lions and porpoises made my day. After popping into a great little thrift shop near the lodge, I hopped on into my first podcast, discussing RTD’s with industry greats David T Smith, Keli Rivers and the ‘man on the street’ Joe Barber. Eric Kozliks Modern Bar Cart is a fantastic show and if you’ve any interest in spirits I highly recommend you check out what he does here. He’s got a wealth of show’s covering all sorts of topics. I will also share a link to the RTD show once Eric has had a chance to edit out all of my faux pars, of which I’m sure there are plenty.

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Once we had a bite to eat, we judged the grand panel which is the best of the best, all the high medallers. At this stage, it’s a lot easier as we only need to decide on a top three as feedback has already been gathered in the previous round. That said, choosing between the high medallers is a tough choice, even when still in categories, and especially with gins where the spirits can be so very varied. Big plus for me, after we were finished I still had a bit of time to get in the pool and jacuzzi and enjoy some sunshine which I desperately needed to do seeing as I had left such miserable temperatures at home to be there.

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The evening soiree was some next level stuff! Having access to try all of the entries is such a beautifully indulgent thing and the joy of recommending favourites and the shared enthusiasm is wonderful. The glorious reveal of the ‘opening of the spirit room’ was enhanced somewhat with the addition of karoke. Honestly, singing karoke with so many amazing people in a room of seven hundred and fifty odd bottles of spirit is one of the best experiences I’ve had in this industry. I thoroughly hope that this will be a regular thing. Please take note, ADI! It only finished a week ago and I’m already looking forward to next year.

Once again I was careful to stash some RTDs before bed, so once again I got to take a morning dip with a Bloody Mary. Now I’ve done that two years in a row, I’d like to say that it’s a tradition. So after full holiday mode sipping in the morning sun, it was time to head back to the city for some more adventures and drumroll please: to pick up my lost purse!

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SF Day 2 – Chinese New Year, Cheers and Coco Bang. Day 3 – the Hangover

I’m doing this in a slightly higgledy piggledy fashion this year, due to snatching times to write. Last year gave me a little time in the mornings to sum up the day before, this time I’ve got more people to see, which is a great thing, but that means less time to write. The plan is to cram it in here and there and after the event I’ll have a couple of days to get back on track.

So, where were we?

I took a stroll downtown for the Chinese New Year Parade. San Francisco is just amazing for the sheer size and scale of their events. The Chinese Lunar New Year Parade is massive and the largest of it’s kind outside of Asia. Seeing the community come together to enjoy the parade was wonderful and the bright colours and rich smells of Chinese food really brought life to the culture and it was beautiful.

I posted up in a little bar called Sutters Saloon, waiting for my friend, Kristy, to get down from Pier 39. Little did I know that this would be the start of a whirlwind adventure of a day, and an evening that would change the course of the trip. We get chatting to some people in there who were visiting from Philadelphia and Florida. The drinks started to flow and over a few hours I had tried my first White Claw (hard seltzer), Mezcal Old Fashioned, a Limonchello that tasted like lemon meringue and several St Georges (which had to be done, obviously!)The staff there were so hospitable and I thoroughly recommend stopping in there. These good times were intermittently interrupted by my dashing outside to watch parts of the parade that was passing right outside the bar and took about 3 hours to pass it completely, it was huge!

Golden dragons danced around the large blasts of firecrackers. The firecrackers were incredible! Enormous explosions echoed off the walls of the downtown high rises, bouncing down the streets and up into the sky. Music played over the noise, and the relentless beating of drums kept a rhythm that carried the parade of floats and dragons and dancers along. The efficiency of the operation was mindblowing, with huge streets being shut from downtown traffic for the day, and the procession was followed by street cleaners who returned the streets to normality as if nothing had happened, whilst firecrackers continued to explode in the distance.

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By this point we were all a little woozy, so took a trip up to the Owltree Bar which is a great little spot for a cocktail, and before long the group we were in grew and we went across the road to Coco Bang for some Korean fare. Korean food is fab! It’s really popular here and it’s no surprise with the rich, aromatic flavours. Those lovely people who invited us to tag along, thank you so much for your hospitality! It was really kind of you to take us under your wings and show us a good time. At this point we were drinking beer with Sojo (Korean rice wine) bombs. And this apparently, was the beginning of the end!

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After a great night I began trotting home then had the terrible realistation I did not have my phone or my purse. Now, as a youth I was terrible for losing things, and intermittently I still will now. However it has been quite a long time since the last incident so I’m not beating myself up too much. Losing those things overseas and only 2 days into the trip could really spoil things if I let it. But hey, I’m a pretty resourceful girl so I got directions and found my way back to the hostel, and after another great night of late conversation with residents there, I managed to get three hours of sleep. A lovely lady promised to watch me if I rested my head on a sofa in the common room as I was nervous that without my phone that I’d miss breakfast. So, I got some sleep, with the intention of hatching a plan in the morning.

So, Day 3, and time to sort out day 2.  Let’s just call it ‘the Hangover’ After breakfast I got online to chat to Kristy and discovered that there had been another bar after Coco Bang and no one could remember the name of it. You’ve got to love a mystery. I found a most excellent trick on google ‘find device’ and confirmed my phone was still in Coco Bang! Hooray! I checked out and went out into the City, armed with a map. I had some money from room deposits etc, so I made my way down Kearny Street to the beautiful Yeubu Gardens and the Samovar Cafe, where we had brunch. Eggs Royal had to be done and the smoked, flaky salmon that sat underneath the dreamy, creamy eggs was delicious. Kristy was a babe. Not only did she sort me out with getting things and my transferring her money, we got some bits we needed at target, and had a G&T at her hotel and she made me feel a hell of a lot better for my troubles. A friendship has been forged for life there. We’d arranged to meet someone at Coco Bang at 4pm. It was all coming together. At 4pm we went and discovered they had my phone, but not my purse! It was a rather crushing disappointment. At this point we had to take a lyft over the Golden Gate Bridge and to Tiburon. Now armed with my phone, I froze everything and checked through the transactions of the cards looking for clues. Aha! The name of another bar! I rang them and they were closed but I spoke to the owner last night, he’s going to check with the staff if they’ve had it handed in. If so I can totally grab it in a few days. Just knowing its safe would be great, if not, hey, these things happen, no one has spent anything on my accounts and I’m surrounded with good people at the ADI who have offered to help me out with taking money out for me if I transfer it. Essentially, we are all good here.

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So, on arriving here in Tiburon, I was overwhelmed with joy at the comfort and indulgence of the room, the huge bed, the private bathroom and the coffee. After the fun of the hostel it’s great to have somewhere to relax and get some catch up time. I rushed to get ready and sat through some vodka training. It is such a great group! It’s a lovely little family of people with a real passion for spirits and such a warm reception too. We had a little soiree with a free bar and nibbles including potato and mozzarella croquette bombs that were absolutely incredible!! It was great catching up with everyone over a few cocktails and there are some wonderful newcomers this year too. It’s such a great event. A late night chatting next to the outdoor fire drew to a close and I put myself to bed in earnest, only to awake at 3.30am. I thought I had a handle on the jet lag this year but oh no, it’s is pretty fierce! Last year I had a few more days before the event so it had settled quite well. This time, I think, I’ll be a little out of sorts for a few days and probably settled in time to come home.

And here we are. The first day of judging. it’s now 5.30am here, 7.30pm at home. I’m going to get up and get ready for breakfast. What does today have in store? Who will I be judging with? Will I find any great spirits? Will I find my purse? Stay tuned for the next exciting installment.

San Francisco Day 1 – Flights and Flip Cup

I’ve been so excited to come back to San Francisco. It’s such a cool place. If you’re not been, put it on your list. It’s a place that everyone should experience at some point. Although the revolutionary mentality of the 60’s counter culture gave way to the roaring force of Capitalism, there remains a residue of liberalness and ease. The mindset of the people here is just lovely.

Always up for a bargain, I booked no frills basic flights with Norwegian Air. No food or drink and carry on luggage. But, for £300 for a return from Gatwick to SF, it’s great deal and one that makes travelling here much more accessible. Plus, it included a charge to overset the carbon footprint which is a grand thing. The flight took 9 hours direct and my plan to tire myself out and drink a fair bit before the flight worked wonders. And bonus, I booked a window seat on the back row, which people don’t really like, so I had the row to myself and was actually able to stretch out and get some sleep, a first for me as I rarely sleep on transport and get too excited to sleep on flights.

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SF is 8 hours behind the UK. I’ve often said I’d love a ‘Bernard’s watch’ in my life to pause and catch up here and there. The flight was a great opportunity for that as we left a 2.20pm UK time and landed at 4.50pm SF time. The warm temperature (18degC which is gorgeous compared to the chill at home) easing off into a pink and purple dusk sky, set against the mountain ridges was beautiful and I immediately found my love for it again. The Bay really is a beautiful place.

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I took the BART system to Montgomery and took a nice stroll to the hostel. Travelling light is great. No dragging around of wheeled cases. Everything I need is in a large backpack (overhead sized), and it makes getting around much easier. I’ve got enough in there for 5 days and I’ll hit a launderette half way through the trip. The hostel I’m in, the Green Tortoise, is based in North Beach near City Lights Bookstore, which is somewhere I’ll visit every time I’m here. The strip is very colourful with a lot of nightlife, bars and lap dancing clubs and it’s a great place to go out. The Green Tortoise is somewhat of an institution, a family run hostel that’s been going since the 70s. Unlike the hostels I visited here last year, there is a wonderfully social aspect and within minutes of getting here I was greeted with a free meal and sat with a group of ladies who were all travelling alone, as a meet and greet. There was such an interesting array of characters! And, before long we all signed up to partake in an event called the Beer Olympics.

Having played beer pong once in my life, and thoroughly enjoying it, I was keen to get involved. It was a really well organised event. Reigning in 30 wildly drunk youths took some work, but everyone played really well! I captained my team, ‘Mint’ and played four games, beer pong, beer bingo, beer paper scissors and flip cup. My, do I love flip cup! It’s been a long time since I played drinking games and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Flip cup is definitely coming home with me. Flip, flip flipadelphia!

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The hostel is pretty cool, there’s a huge ballroom with seating, ping pong, and a stage with instruments so people can jam. You can drink your own alcohol here so we brought back a few drinks and sat up having big chats about the meaning of life until the early hours. There’s always so much you can learn from talking to people, it’s such a mind opening thing. On the other hand, I also locked myself out of my hostel room in my pants, and woke the poor girl in there with panicked knocking at the door, ”let me in! Let me in! Please help me!.

Due to the evenings frivolities, I overslept and missed breakfast. But, I got a recommendation and hit up a great little place called Brioche where I had Eggs Benedict and marveled at the eggs, which were some of the best I’ve ever had. The yolk had the consistency of a cream, the hollandaise sauce was slightly orange and it tasted amazing. Honestly, the food here and the coffee is so damn good. Plus, the soda. American soda is crazy calorific (280 calories in a bottle of grape fanta), but it’s so good! Whilst I write this, I’m indulging in my guilty pleasure – Mountain Dew.  I used to love the stuff when we had it in the UK years ago. They stopped selling it at some point, probably because it’s sweetness breached food standards (170 calories in a 355ml can). We do have Mountain Dew Citrus blast, which I think is marketed as some sort of energy drink, but it is just not the same! So, it’s always first on the list to seek out whenever I’m in the US.

So, here we are! I’m all caught up and getting ready to head out for the Chinese New Year parade, which is the largest celebration of its kind outside of china. There’s an enormous golden dragon, firecrackers and all sorts of delicious food. I’m pretty sure I’ve already exceeded today’s calorie count but hey ho, I’m super excited to try some great food. It’s a gorgeous day here, and it’s time to put the laptop down and get out there to enjoy it.