For lovers of good booze, at least one positive thing came about in 2020: the L.A. Spirits Awards, which has just released its inaugural list of winners. While still very new to the scene, the directors and judges have serious pedigree in spirits and are looking to create a competition that keeps pace with the evolving industry by offering a judging panel as diverse as the drinkers themselves.
In doing so, they hope to shine a spotlight on a wider swath of spirits and be a resource for producers and drinkers alike.
The founders of the L.A. Spirits Awards, Nicolette Teo and Joel Blum, spent years heading up a spirits competition based in San Francisco — Blum helped launch it in 2000 and Teo worked as managing director from 2015-2018. They partnered with Amanda Victoria, another industry veteran, who has long worked in the spirits realm, as a spokesperson and educator for everything from Scotch, to aperitifs, to canned cocktails.
Thanks to their combined decades in the industry, connecting with brands and finding entrants was simple for the organizers of LASA. They had hundreds of entries, “more than we anticipated,” says Victoria, from around the world, representing both established spirits suppliers such as Diageo and new startups. There were around 30 bronze medals awarded, 50 silver, 20 gold, and around a dozen platinum. The top prize, Best in Show, of which there were 16 awarded (list below), represents the best tasted in each category.
The team of directors offers year-round marketing support for all their medalists, from connecting them to media to something as small as writing tasting notes for shelf talkers. “Basically, we won’t leave you once the show’s over,” says Amanda Victoria, director of judging. “When the competition is over, that’s when the directors’ jobs start.”
To boot, a portion of every entry fee was donated to the Equal Justice Initiative. EJI works with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment, and is committed to changing the narrative about race in America.
The judging panel, assembled and led by Victoria, is composed of eight leaders and tastemakers representing many facets of the spirits industry. “Some are journalists, some have worked with very beloved brands that they’ve put on the map. Some are from more traditional bartending backgrounds, some have more traditional consumer tasting backgrounds,” says Victoria. Each was hand-picked for their unique expertise. Also key, LASA prides itself on its diversity and inclusivity. Six of the judges are women, and five identify as people of color.
“I was thrilled to be asked to join the judge’s panel of the L.A. Spirits Awards,” says Karla Alindahao, senior contributor at Forbes. “My fellow judges bring so much more to the table because of our varied experiences — both culturally and otherwise. Spirits judging has long been lacking diversity.”
The original plan was for the judges to convene in L.A. in August, but this wasn’t in the cards this year. The Awards organizers switched to remote judging, with meticulously-labeled samples (each entry was judged blind) and proper tasting glasses delivered to each judge. From there, the judges met and tasted via Zoom together to determine the winning lineup.
Unlike other spirits competitions, this is not a competition where everyone receives a medal. LASA gives four medals: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum, with a Best in Show winner representing the best in each spirit category.
Victoria describes the bronze medal spirits as “the classics that I’d be excited to see if I were vacationing and arrived at a bar.” Silver, she says, represents an exceptional product and what the judges consider standard-bearers. Gold medals went to those that are trailblazers in their categories, while a spirit only attains a platinum medal if it’s been awarded gold by every judge.
There were a handful of categories that really stood out for Victoria this year, including the winner of Best Whisk(e)y and Best Single Malt Scotch, Lagavulin’s 16-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky from Islay, Scotland. Says Victoria, “Scotch has made strides with younger consumers in the past five to 10 years, and Lagavulin, specifically, sets the standard for how things should be done.” Not only is there transparency in processes and sourcing, but they’re leaving behind the gendered expectations of the past and expanding marketing efforts to reflect a comedic and lighthearted nature — propelling the brand to reach a contemporary consumer.
As for Irish Whiskey, the Best in Show award went to The Busker’s Single Malt from Carlow, Ireland. Victoria says there’s a trend toward higher-quality whiskies from Ireland overall. As for The Busker in particular, “They’re doing exactly what the industry needs to push Irish whiskey by offering a range of nuanced production styles and transparency into their ingredients and process,” Victoria says.
When it comes to rum, Ten To One’s Caribbean White Rum took top prize. The founder, Marc Farrell, is a first-generation immigrant from Trinidad who is making rum without the fillers and flavorings that can be found in many big brands. “These guys are everything that L.A. Spirits Awards stands for,” says Victoria. That is, a young, future-looking company that is hoping to convince the U.S. market of rum’s versatility. “It’s rums like this that will bring much-needed education to the consumer and get consumers more excited about the category,” says Victoria.
Not every spirit awards has a ready-to-drink cocktail category, but LASA included it because, as Victoria says, “It’s impossible to ignore.” Victoria has recently founded her own super-premium RTD-line, Siponey, which she chose to exclude from LASA due to conflict of interest. She compares the booming growth of the category to that of vodka in the ’90s. “Ready-to-Drink is redefining how consumers imbibe,” she says. This year, Best in Show went to Dogfish Head’s Blueberry Shrub Vodka Soda, from Delaware.
LASA also awarded a Non-Alcoholic Product. “I don’t like the terms ‘mocktail’ or ‘virgin,’ but I do love the concept of mindful and conscious drinking,” says Victoria. “That’s what this segment of the industry is promoting with these products.” The inaugural winner in this category was the Rosemary Grapefruit Sparkling Hemp Beverage from Portland, Ore.’s Aurora Elixirs.
The rest of the winners can be found below. “We’re honored to share these award-winning products of distillers and producers and to help guide curious consumers in their educated purchases,” says Victoria.
Best in Show – L.A. Spirits Awards
Best Whisk(e)y and Best Single Malt Scotch
Lagavulin 16-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky – Islay, Scotland
Best Ready-to-Drink Cocktail
Dogfish Head Blueberry Shrub Vodka Soda – Delaware, USA
Best Non-Alcoholic Product
Rosemary Grapefruit Sparkling Hemp Beverage, Aurora Elixirs — Portland, Oregon, USA
Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond Single Barrel – Kentucky, USA
Best Small Batch Bourbon
Barrell Bourbon Batch 024 Bourbon – Kentucky, USA
Best Irish Whiskey
The Busker Single Malt Irish Whiskey – Carlow, Ireland
Best Blended Malt Whisk(e)y
Kamiki Blended Malt Whisky – Osaka, Japan
Best Single Malt Whisk(e)y – World
Millstone Peated Pedro Ximenez Single Malt Whisky – Netherlands
Lunazul Blanco Tequila – Jalisco, Mexico
Mr. Mezcal Mezcal – Oaxaca, Mexico
Ten To One Caribbean White Rum – Jamaica and Dominican Republic, Caribbean
Bowling & Birch Gin – Kentucky, USA
Best Flavored Gin
Wild Roots Cucumber and Grapefruit Infused Gin – Oregon, USA
Seagram’s Extra Smooth Vodka – Arkansas, USA
Bittertales Aromatic Bitters – New South Wales, Australia
Mr Black Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur – Sydney, Australia