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The Online Scotch Whisky Awards

Awards have become a significant tool for corporate marketing executives. This has created a symbiotic relationship between brands and even the most well-meaning whisky awards. Other awards, I’d argue, have always been vehicles for moneymaking. Whilst some people talk about the weaknesses with these awards as a conspiracy theory, I’d rather present some evidence to demonstrate these points.

The integrity (or lack thereof) of industry awards is a phenomenon which is not exclusive to whisky. In my own industry certain communications and PR companies boast about being able to write an application that will all but guarantee a nomination; they will have a very good idea if a product has a strong chance of winning long before the independent peer review panel scrutinise the applications.

I once nominated myself for one of these awards and sought the support and sponsorship of my company. I was shortlisted and eventually won an industry Young Professional’s Award in 2013. With most awards you must nominate yourself or your product while your chances of winning rely largely on the quality of other entries that year. I eventually won my category and was duly presented my award by the Scottish comedian Kevin Bridges, who’s observational humour was particularly cutting as I returned to my seat being heckled as the only bald guy with a moustache who’d won a YOUNG professionals award! Burn.

Having fully disclosed my own awards experience, I want to highlight some of the practices which whisky awards use that somewhat undermine the integrity of the awards themselves. Firstly, they use many different categories, so that entrants can gain an award for being the “Best Single Malt bottled on a Friday in May when the wind was blowing from a North Westerly direction.”

They also might deliver gold on the basis of the best of the nominations of a particular year rather than based on a particular standard, such is the case with the Scotch Whisky Awards. You don’t need to be great to get a gold award, you just need to be marginally better than the other entrants. There is a ridiculous situation that occurs when very few whiskies are entered in multiple categories as perfectly exemplified by the official results for Scotland from the International Whisky Competition:

SCOTLAND

Best Single Malt Scotch
1st Place: Aberlour A’Bundah – 95.8 Pts
2nd Place: Ardbeg Ardcore – 94.9 Pts
3rd Place: Ardbeg Corravreckan – 93.8 Pts

Best New Scotch Release
1st Place: Ardbeg Ardcore – 94.9 Pts
2nd Place: Dewar’s Double Double – 36 Year Old – 94.3 Pts
3rd Place: Ardbeg For Discussion – 8 Year Old – 92.8 Pts

Best Single Malt Scotch NAS (No Age Statement)
1st Place: Aberlour A’Bundah – 95.8 Pts
2nd Place: Ardbeg Ardcore – 94.9 Pts
3rd Place: Ardbeg Corravreckan – 93.8 Pts

Best Single Malt Scotch 10 Year Old and Under
1st Place: Ardbeg For Discussion – 8 Year Old – 92.8 Pts
2nd Place: Ardbeg Wee Beastie – 5 Year Old – 92.3 Pts
3rd Place: Glenmorangie The Original – 10 Year Old – 91.6 Pts

Best Single Malt Scotch 12 Year Old
1st Place: Glenmorangie Lasanta 12 Year Old – 92.8 Pts
2nd Place: Glenmorangie The Accord 12 Year Old – 91.7 Pts
3rd Place: Aberlour 12 – 90.9 Pts

Best Single Malt Scotch 13-14 Year Old
1st Place: Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban 14 Year Old – 92.2 Pts
2nd Place: Ardbeg Fermutation 13 Year Old – 90.8 Pts
3rd Place: Glenmorangie Elementa 14 Year Old – 89.7 Pts

Best Single Malt Scotch 15 Year Old
1st Place: Glenmorangie Cadboll Estate Batch No. 2 – 15 Year Old – 91 Pts
2nd Place: The Glenlivet 15 Year Old – 87.7 Pts
3rd Place: Bowmore 15 Year Old – 87.5 pts

Best Single Malt Scotch 16-17 Year Old
1st Place: Glenmorangie The Tribute 16 Year Old – 90.9 Pts
2nd Place: Aberlour 16 – 88.9 Pts
3rd Place: Glenfarclas 17 Year Old – 87.5 Pts

Best Single Malt Scotch 18 Year Old
1st Place: Aberlour 18 – 90.7 Pts
2nd Place: The Glenlivet 18 Year Old – 90.3 Pts
3rd Place: Glenmorangie 18 Year Old – Extremely Rare – 89.8 Pts

Best Single Malt Scotch 19-25 Year Old
1st Place: Ardbeg 25 Year Old – 92.45 Pts
2nd Place: Ardbeg Traigh Bhan 19 Year Old (Batch 3) – 91.8 Pts
3rd Place: Glenmorangie 19 Year Old – Finest Reserve – 90 Pts

Best Peated Single Malt
1st Place: Ardbeg Ardcore – 94.9 Pts
2nd Place: Ardbeg Corravreckan – 93.8 Pts
3rd Place: Ardbeg Uigeadail – 93.6 Pts

Best Islay Single Malt
1st Place: Ardbeg Ardcore – 94.9 Pts
2nd Place: Ardbeg Corravreckan – 93.8 Pts
3rd Place: Ardbeg Uigeadail – 93.6 Pts

Best Highland Single Malt
1st Place: Glenmorangie Lasanta 12 Year Old – 92.8 Pts
2nd Place: Glenmorangie Signet – 92.7 Pts
3rd Place: Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban 14 Year Old – 92.2 Pts

Best Speyside Single Malt
1st Place: Aberlour A’Bunadh – 95.8 Pts
2nd Place: Aberlour A’Bunadh Alba – Batch 4 – 92.5 Pts
3rd Place: Aberlour Casg Annamh – Batch 5 – 91.4 Pts

Best Lowland Single Malt
1st Place: Glasgow 1770 Single Malt Scotch Whisky – Peated – 89.1 Pts

Best Cask Strength Scotch
1st Place: Aberlour A’Bunadh– 95.8 Pts
2nd Place: Ardbeg Corryvreckan – 93.8 Pts
3rd Place: Ardbeg Uigeadail – 93.6 Pts

Best Blended Scotch
1st Place: Dewar’s Double Double – 32 Year Old – 94.4 Pts
2nd Place: Dewar’s Double Double – 36 Year Old – 94.3 Pts
3rd Place: Dewar’s Double Double – 27 Year Old – 93.55 Pts

Best Blended Scotch 10 Year and Under
1st Place: Dewar’s Ilegal Smooth – 8 Year Old – 91.9 Pts
2nd Place: Dewar’s Portuguese Smooth – 8 Year Old– 91 Pts
3rd Place: Dewar’s Japanese Smooth – 8 Year Old – 90 Pts

Best Blended Scotch 12-15 Year Old
1st Place: Dewar’s 15 Year – Old The Monarch – 89.1 Pts
2nd Place: Dewar’s 12 Year – Old The Ancestor – 87.5 Pts

Best Blended Scotch 16-20 Year Old
1st Place: Dewar’s 18 Year Old – The Vintage – 89.6 Pts
2nd Place: Chivas 18 Year Old – 88.2 Pts

Best Blended Scotch 21-24 Year Old
1st Place: Dewar’s Double Double – 21 Year Old – 91.43 Pts

Best Blended Scotch 25 Year Old And Over
1st Place: Dewar’s Double Double – 32 Year Old – 94.4 Pts
2nd Place: Dewar’s Double Double – 36 Year Old – 94.3 Pts
3rd Place: Dewar’s Double Double – 27 Year Old – 93.6 Pts

Best Blended Scotch – NAS
1st Place: Dewar’s White Label – 87.5 Pts
2nd Place: William Lawson’s Blended Scotch Whisky – 86.7 Pts
3rd Place: Cutty Sark Blended Scotch Whisky – 85.1 Pts

It should also be noted that whiskies which scored below 85 points are not mentioned at all by the International Whisky Competition (out of respect for the dead)! A fairly light analysis of the awards here demonstrates that the main parent companies who entered were Bacardi, Pernod Richard, and Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey. We can also assume that a number of categories had less than three entries, so the awards were given out by default, such as that for best Lowland Malt. You can also gain some idea just how many fees are being paid to these commercial awards.

Costs for entering include the samples which need to be supplied free of charge to the organisers. This is usually one or two bottles. In the case of the Scottish Whisky Awards the two bottles are stretched between the almost 50 tasters on the panel, whereas the International Whisky Competition requires two bottles between just 5 judges. They must be very spill prone there.

Then there are the fees. From £79 per brand with unlimited entries, to $400 per entry at the International Whisky Competition. Other awards such as the Whisky Magazine’s awards and the International Wines and Spirits Competition have fees of around £150 + VAT for each entry. The John Barleycorn Awards offer winner’s the chance to buy their trophy for $215! They also double their money-making chances by running the awards twice a year! Don’t forget the tables to be purchased at the glitzy gala dinners, either; single tickets can start at £285 and full tables from just shy of £3000.

The International Wines and Spirit’s Competition is not shy in presenting case studies of businesses which have grown and financially benefitted from the winning of awards. IWSC, in addition to the fees, are also sponsored by a number of the potential winners such as Pernod Ricard, Kavalan, and Whyte and Mackay. This stands out, as most other awards appear only to be supported by the service industry within the supply chain and ancillary businesses. Pernod Richard brand Chivas Regal 12 year old Blended Scotch Whisky was awarded a spectacular 92 points and a silver medal in 2022. Malt has not reviewed Chivas 12 however I did review the enhanced Chivas 13 and can extrapolate a score significantly below that of the IWSC.

Not all awards are created equal. There are ways to suss out these awards and pick those with the most reliable results. Take for example the Scottish Whisky Awards, who identify all the judges. I can certainly spot a few faces who I know are pillars of integrity within the industry. Multiple judges mean any individual’s conscious or unconscious bias is smoothed out. If you have no idea who the judges are for a particular award, I’d question the transparency.

Consider the fees; awards charging hundreds for each entry require repeat business to keep the event ticking over. Regular high scores and shiny awards are necessary, or a brand will simply spend its marketing budget elsewhere. Again, the Scottish Whisky Awards come top of my analysis by charging a single entry fee… but even the Scottish Whisky Awards are fallible.

Whisky awards organisations need the whisky marketers as a symbiotic relationship. Most whisky is marketed as a premium product. The justification for premium products is that they are better than the equivalent product from their competitors. Whisky awards, especially the shiny gold stickers that adorn the products help to provide “independent” verification of the manufacturer’s claims. Only a few whisky brands have elevated themselves above premium into luxury, in which the quality is inherently implied in the lifestyle they sell. There can be no surprise that the luxury brand owners are the ones pushing the awards hardest.

In 2021 YouTube whisky sensations Ralfy and Roy – with a combined subscribership of almost 200,000 – decided there was another way to do whisky awards: led by the consumers themselves. Both have championed the need for value in whisky over the years and both are pushing back against the cyclical price hikes driven by brand premiumisation more than rising overheads.

The Online Scotch Whisky Awards were born. This year the awards will continue to deliver their core values of integrity, positivity, collaboration, and inclusivity. These values are closely aligned to those we have here at Malt: independence, diversity, and humility. As such we will collaborate and join the pool of online collaborators who will identify and nominate and shortlist the nominations with the winners selected by public vote.

Where these awards differ is that there are no processes through which brands enter or engage with the awards; they are consumer nominated. The shortlist is then voted on by the public. There is no entry fee to sway the financial model; indeed, currently the awards are funded purely by Roy and Ralfy. The awards will not be accepting samples. As Roy said at the launch of the 2022 awards “the only way a brand can engage is by making great whisky, and making it available at a great price, then they will stand a chance of getting a nomination. The awards ceremony will be online without the expensive and fancy gala dinner. If you have any doubt about the drinkability of the awardees do look at the 2021 winners and you can compare it to the review I independently gave last year’s winner.

We’ll be encouraging you all, as Malt readers to give your opinions on the nominations when it comes to the public vote at the end of September. I’ll be back to give you some encouragement nearer the time. We anticipate that these awards will be the most important to the whisky drinking community in time, who will look past the bottles with more gold medals than a 5 Star General and find those bottles which deliver flavour and value.

Graham

Graham is at the consumer end of the whisky world; constantly seeking out a bargains and generally very cautious with his limited budget. An occasional visitor to distilleries and a member of the odd whisky club. He does not collect whiskies but has a few nice ones put away for some future special occasion. He enjoys discussions with the wider whisky community and may resemble the ‘average’ Malt reader.

  1. Roy says:

    Welcome onboard! This made for very interesting reading. While we don’t see it necessary to supplant any existing awards programme, we do see a space where drinkers and enthusiasts, with vast (often expensive) experience, can have their say.

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