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.

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.