By Rob Allanson

Judged by Association

Rob finds a craft distilling scene bursting with stunning spirits
I recently had the pleasure of being invited to Louisville, Kentucky, to be a judge in the inaugural American Craft Distillers Association (ACDA) spirits awards.

It was great to be back in Kentucky, despite the bitterly cold winter it was in the grip of. How very strange seeing Louisville covered in the white stuff; normally I see it in the heat of the summer when the rickhouses hiss and groan with joyful maturation.

Only being there for a few days it was a full on visiting schedule but it was lovely to spend some time catching up with people I haven't seen in an age: hearing from Chris Morris about the plans for Woodford Reserve, seeing the new experimental warehousing being built at Buffalo Trace (and the gorgeous little micro-still that has been installed), taking a tour round Alltech's brewing and distilling site and meeting with the Kentucky Distillers' Association to hear of its future developments. Like the rest of the whisky world, Bourbon's heartland has stepped up a notch in recent years and is a very exciting, thrilling and busy place at the moment. Demand for Bourbon and Rye is still increasing and there is an industrious hum to Kentucky as distillers raise their game to meet the demand.

The main bulk of the trip was concerned with two days of judging the wares offered by ACDA's members.

The association has hoved into view at just the right time when the craft distilling scene is becoming big enough to need a body to help address issues at the various levels of government.

Its goal is a network of distilling entrepreneurs who collaborate, sharing knowledge and experience.

Of course one of the first things you have to do with an organisation like this is define your membership base, and this meant tackling that thorny idea of what is craft? Well the ACDA defines craft distillers as those whose annual production of distilled spirits from all sources does not exceed 100,000 proof gallons removed from bond (the amount on which excise taxes are paid.) A sensible approach I think.

So to the judging. Meeting my fellow assessors was both exciting and humbling at the same time. The wealth of talent that had been assembled at Ted Huber's Starlight Distillery for the two long days was incredible. There were current craft distillers, fellow journalists and some of the distilling engineers and managers who have created today's Bourbon industry; and in some cases are now assisting the burgeoning craft scene. Presiding and guiding this formidable collection of knowledge and palates was Dave Pickerell, distilling guru, whiskey consultant and former master distiller at Maker's Mark. Some of the stories at the Brown Hotel's bar after the judging ranged from the geeky to the outlandish and amusing. The things that have gone on at distilleries over the years! Sadly that adage of 'what goes on tour stays on tour' must prevail.

Everything was judged blind and during the course of the two days the standard of liquid was staggering.

I remember reading a piece several years ago slamming this nascent sector for the quality of its produce. Not any more. Things have improved dramatically and some of the brands out there are phenomenal.

Handily I was on the whiskey panel, covering all sorts of styles and ages, from Bourbon less than a year old to malted ryes (a cracking style) and corn to aged Bourbons. Some of these whiskeys challenge the notion that older is better. Many of the younger liquids showed a great deal of integration, balance and promise.

I was also drafted in to tackle the gin category: styles including Old Tom, London Dry, contemporary and Genever. I might have found a new love in the Genever category, which at the end I discovered came from the innovative Corsair Distillery.

Safe to say that my palate got a serious work out during those two days, but it was a pleasure and an honour to join such an esteemed group.

I hope that all those who entered are encouraged by our comments and that the winners are proud of their liquids.

Don't listen to the naysayers, pay attention to this category and explore it, because there is some stunning stuff being made across the States.