ADI San Francisco Travel Trip Diary – Day 6: The Grand Panel Party

The final day of judging was a blast.

I was asked to join the review panel which was just amazing! The review pane judging began in the morning, to help judge the spirits that had gone back for well, review. It really shows the integrity of the process, I think. If a spirit is brought to a table and there’s a big difference in the scores, for example if half think it should get a gold and half think it shouldn’t medal at all, it’s sent for review and given to another table for a second opinion. The reviews had been going on through the previous day, with a mysterious flight arriving here and there that we weren’t expecting. Some unaged rums some honey whisky, even some cream liqueurs.

I felt honoured to be on the review panel. I felt like I’d really grown as a judge through the few days and I loved the opportunity to debate the merits of some tricky spirits. The other judges were great, we had a lot of fun and we debated the hell out out everything. Listening to jock jams, we worked our way through a lot of entries, managing to settle on an appropriate score for each one, and an appropriate song for the wait for the next one.

After a brief lunch everyone got together for the grand panel. The best of the best! Flights of the gold winners of each category came through and for these we had to pick the top three. The quality of these entries was spectacular! There were some great ideas, some really well executed too. I’d love to tell you about them but I’m sworn to secrecy for now and I kind of like that.

Another quick break and time to get ready for the evening do and the opening of the spirits room. There was a sizzle of anticipation as we ate and conversed about the day. It was all quite relaxed until a whisper circulated that the gold medallists had been brought through. Within moments, conversations politely fell away and plates were abandoned. “This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for. This is why we do this”, I was told. I totally get it. The excitement of seeing what everything is, of finding out who makes your favourites, of discovering the new gems in the crown of craft.

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That’s how night began, I remember. I was in full on kid in a candy store mode. Everyone was getting into everything with such vigor! Showing ones they liked to other judges that hadn’t tasted them. Singing their praises with the same passion they’d done on the panels. The night was a riot!! We all had glasses and just pottered around, looking at things, pouring ourselves tipple after tipple. The back two spirits rooms were opened up an hour early because everyone was just so flipping keen to get in there. 800 entries all available and in some cases to take the bottle. It was great mingling with everyone I’d only managed fleeting conversations with and although I was a little too pickled to get out on the late night cigar walk, I had a wonderful, wonderful time. My only regret is that I didn’t get many photos of people, which was my intention. I need to remember those beautiful faces. But, I was having way too much fun! There have been photos being throughout by the lovely Bill, so when they’re available for viewing I’ll share a few for you. It’s a night I’m going to remember always.

ADI San Francisco Travel Trip Diary – Day 5: I Am A Sponge

Over breakfast I was told that I’d be moving tables.

The comfortability I’d found on the first day dissipated quickly into nerves. I felt like I’d have to prove myself again. I sound over dramatic, which I am lets be honest, and it was very good to move around and listen to what other people were thinking and where they were coming from with their ideas. I’m just well aware that I’m swimming with some pretty big fish here, and I want to do it right. I shyly pottered through and sat at the the table. The pace had been upped, with us having to feedback much quicker. Also the debating had become more in depth, with several instances of having to come back to a gin that had a varied response, to discuss and agree on a score that was more in line with what everyone thought.

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This is however, very much my first rodeo and I’m well aware that this is a great opportunity to learn as much as possible. I am a sponge. I was constantly listening to all the tables in earshot, soaking up as much as possible. And, I was overwhelmed at the knowledge in the room. It’s a very humbling to be sat around so many experts. On the first day, I met a lovely gentleman, Jeff, who writes on rum and tiki. I clicked when he mentioned that he had got himself an office to get him out of the house because he was “losing all social skills he’d once developed”, by staying at home writing. My eyes widened, “I get you!” I can spend days sat at home in my pants writing, it’s like an addiction. I don’t feel I can leave the laptop if there’s more I can do and before I know it, I can’t even look people in the eye when I’m up the shops for a pint of milk.

Before the first drinks came out on day 1, we went around the room and introduced ourselves. The room is full of people from all areas of the industry. Distillers, bar owners, bar tenders, importers, distributors, writers, all sorts of people. I realised my hands were shaking as the plethora of incredible introductions crept closer and closer to little old me. Suddenly it was my turn and the whole room turned and looked my way. Silence. That sizzle of anticipation. I swallowed, before projecting my voice calmly and smiling as I said who I was and what I did. Smiles and nods, and onto the next. Relief washed over me like I was bare feet dug into sand on the shoreline. I will remember the moment always.

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So, I’ve been doing ok the last couple of days. I reminded myself of this, and I summoned up the courage to sit on the ‘Gin 2’ panel. It’s a great little table! Ben from Seattle based Big Gin, Ollie from Sipsmith and Keli Rivers who is everything a gin judge could aspire to be. Her palate and knowledge of flavour is exemplary! The notes she picks out are mind blowing. I was marvelling all day at her ability to taste, “this tastes wet and…hot, almost plastic, like when you drink water out of a garden hose that’s been in the sun”. I am a sponge. I have been and will keep learning all I can.

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Gins, gins, gins all day and something a little bit interesting at the end as we step in to help on honeyed whiskys, then unaged rums and finally cream liquors. The diversity of flavour here was amazing. It really was a marathon of a day but we got through it. On leaving I met up with the wonderful Lara Victoria and we went for some Italian food at Don Antonia Trattoria. I had spinach and ricotta ravioli in bolognese with garlic and it was out of this world! The service was amazing and the wine was lovely too, another great Pinot Noir from the local area. Great choice Lara!

Another solid 8 hours sleep and I’m up and raring to go. I’m bubbling with joy to be sat with a coffee, writing. Having not long finished a BA and now part way through a MA in writing, I have been spending a lot of time writing because I have too. Writing because I’m stressing over deadlines. The last few days of finding an hour in the morning to write because I want to, has been absolute bliss and I’ll go as far to say it’s re-sparked my love for it. I must find a way to continue this when I get home. I need to remember to find some time to write for love, even when there’s writing for deadlines.

Anyway, today’s the final day! Last gins in the morning, grand panel in the afternoon and the big do in the evening…but I’ll tell you all about those tomorrow. Let me at’em!

ADI San Francisco Travel Trip Diary – Day 4: The Judging Begins!

Up until now these posts have been more like a travel diary and have been the source for a great joke to tell people, as I’ve had more likes and follows for these than the ones I write about gin. I’m starting wonder if I’m in the wrong business!

Firstly, lets touch on breakfast. A breakfast buffet is provided and to my delight included potatoes, egg, crispy bacon and maple sausages. Ooderally! It was just what I needed after the heavy night before. That, a big glass of fresh grapefruit and a coffee had me bright as a button and ready to go.

Now it’s time to strap up, belt and braces! Because now this business gets serious as it’s the first day of the judging. Having had some training, I knew what to expect and what was expected from me. The ADI is just great. Running for 14 years it’s the second longest running drinks competition in the US and is strictly for craft distillers producing under 750,000 gallons per year, although a lot of the entries are less than this. Feedback is an important part of the competition with distillers not only hoping for awards but also hoping for feedback that can give them guidance on how to improve their product. Everyone conducts themselves in such a professional manner. I was delighted to approach the table and see everything I needed set out and an ADI pin which I have been wearing with pride. The judges are there to focus on the drinks and each table has a steward that takes and brings anything they need. Big shout out the the stewards! They worked their socks of all day and did an amazing job at keeping everything moving.

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The guys I’m on the table with are just great. Absolutely lovely and a mix of distillers, importers and myself a writer. I was told that the tables are set up very carefully to included people from different parts of the industry that will pick up different things to give insightful feedback and collectively, a well rounded score. Use of the spittoon is important and I used the spittoon with every gin. The event at three days long is a marathon and it’s important to pace your palate and be confident in what you’re tasting. There are even alternate judges provided who can step in to take a flight if your palate needs a break. It’s seen as highly professional to request an alternate judge for a flight as there is a pace to keep and it allows the table to keep moving whilst not losing the quality of the judging.

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It was such an enjoyable day. I was in my element! Panels would pour over the smallest details and debate for some time to ensure everyone was satisfied with the final mark being awarded. The discussions were lively and great fun. The whole thing was wonderful for my confidence. There were moments when I was well in line with score and feedback, equally there were points where I would be controversial to the group, and I did it with conviction. This happened with all the judges at points and there were some great comments on my judging. After the first day I felt like I’d learnt to swim and I could hold my own in the water. Let me tell you, it’s a great feeling.

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Judging from 9 – 6 with a brief lunch in between, I was ready for some dinner. A few of us met up and went to a great little wine shop, called Tiburon Wine about 5 mins from the hotel. It’s run by a lovely chap and has an extensive range of very good wines and seating. We enjoyed a couple of glasses while we were there, one a Pinot Noir from Santa Cruz that was absolutely beautiful. Gorgeous earthy notes on the nose built up for a gentle palate that exploded into a natural raspberry finish. It was really special. After a few glasses, we went to the Italian and shared a few starters including calamari and sausage with fondue. For mains I went for Garganelli with Prosciutto, cream and leeks and once against found myself wobbling joyfully back to the my room. What a day!

Its 7.30AM PST, 3.30PM GMT. The travel diary is all caught up. I’m getting ready, going for breakfast and super excited about doing it all over again!

ADI San Francisco Travel Trip Diary – Day 3: Islands and Inductions

I wasn’t blessed with the weather that morning. It was dark and wet. I took a cab from the hostel to Pier 39. I knew the ferry left from close by and I was keen to see the Sealions.

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Flying in over the bay, I had caught a glimpse of the Golden Gate bridge and Alcatraz, but I really wasn’t prepared for how beautiful the area is. As we pulled away from the gloomy, partly obscured skyline of the city, I realised that the Golden Gate is not the only bridge and there are various suspension bridges connecting different islands. The ferry is a wonderful way to do some sightseeing. It passes quite close to Alcatraz, which even from a distance, seems desolate, the blue water and skies doing little to detract from the dark history.

 

As we came closer to the peninsula across the way, small specks dotted over the rocky and lush green outcrops turned into houses. Amazing houses of different colours and sizes built into the steep sides, on stilts, some right down kissing the waters edge. Putting myself into the shoes of someone who lived there, I tried to imagine what it must be like waking up to such a beautiful view every morning. I don’t know if I can quite imagine the serenity.

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Firstly we stopped in Sausalito, a lovely little spot and a common visit for tourists who hire bikes to ride over the Golden Gate and return on the ferry. Then we stopped at Angel Island, a state park that looks rather beautiful from a distance, although listening in to conversation, I found out that it was used as a quarantine station to screen visitors for the Bubonic Plague in the late 1800s with buildings including a detention centre and leper house. In the early 1900s it served as an immigration station and during World War 2 it served as a detention centre for Germans, Italians and Japanese, arrested from Hawaii as Fifth Columnists. For such a beautiful place, I’ll bet it’s seen terrible things.

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Next stop Tiburon. After marvelling at the beauty of the area, of this cluster of lush, emerald jewels set in gently lapping sapphire seas, I was amazed to see us pulling in to another one of the peaceful settlements and docking. The colours here are so vivid. There’s a sense of tranquility on these peaceful shores. I disembarked from the boat and trotted along to the hotel. Luckily I was allowed to check in early, giving me time to land and get some supplies in before heading down for the new judges induction.

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It was wonderful to see some friendly faces amongst the new judges. I was excited, and nervous. The thing about judging is getting confidence in your opinion. Back in the UK, I am getting to  good level with that as I’ve been doing it a while, but when you’re in the US the goalposts change a bit. What Is looked for in the categories, flavour profile, the quality of the spirit can be different. We did a little training using 4 vodkas, scoring and writing feedback before discussing it on our tables. It was very much a learning curve, especially for myself with less experience with vodka than gin. It was really interesting to see the different things that people were picking up and it gave great insight into what was expected of us.

In the evening a reception was held in the downstairs bar. I had an absolute whale! Being around such a prominent group of people I was a little nervous until I’d had a couple of drinks and the dutch courage kicked in! I began with a St George and tonic as it seemed like the right thing to do, being made in San Francisco. Then I picked up a glass of bubbly rose to join in the celebration and then it was martini martini martini!! I requested 209 gin as it’s another local and boy a 209 martini with a big salty olive is just a glorious thing! As the night went  and the blood moon came out I’d met some really wonderful people. Everything shuts down relatively early around here, so there was just enough time to head up the road and get some Italian food and a final glass of wine before I wobbled joyfully back to my room. It was a great day full of new experience and dipping my toe in to the process of judging, I felt ready and excited to be a part of it.