For the last decade Ultimate Spirits Challenge (USC) has been the go-to spirits competition for industry professionals as well as savvy consumers. This is thanks to the unwavering integrity of the director and chairman Paul Pacult, and co-founders Sue Woodley and David Talbot. The blind tasting methodology, caliber of judges, and back of house team create something unique in the world of beverage competitions: honest, impartial scores, rated by the best of the best.
I found my way to USC nearly a decade ago as a journalist. I had investigated how the fine line of objectivity and subjectivity comes into play when judging wine and spirits while studying ethical philosophy, and was thoroughly impressed with the painstaking detail of how USC was operated.
The first striking detail was the judging room, which was and remains a panorama of industry leaders like Dale Degroff (King Cocktail), Joaquin Simo (Pouring Ribbons), Don Lee (Existing Conditions), and Jillian Vose (Dead Rabbit). Second, the back of house, operated by Leo Degroff, is a well oiled machine that allows the judges to receive thoughtfully crafted flights of spirits in the same category.
Everything is tasted blind by panels of 2 judges for an initial score. Scores are on a 100 point scale based on appearance, aromas, taste, and overall balance, keeping typicity of the category in mind. High scorers go to the finals round where they are tasted by a different panel of 2 judges. Regular breaks and a carefully curated space keep the judges and their palates comfortable throughout judging days.
Since my first article about the competition nearly a decade ago, I have become more and more involved, and now have a unique role where I get to partake in almost every aspect of the competition, including judging. Having an intimate knowledge of the inner workings allows me to confidently say that the results are fair, accurate, and reliable.
Despite the unique challenges of this year, Ultimate Spirits Challenge 2020 was carried through, with results released a few weeks ago. It’s important to taste spirits regularly to see how their recipe and taste may have changed, and this is especially true of mezcal that can vary widely batch to batch. This year there was a more diverse representation of mezcal brands, and about an average number of entries with 16 total, slightly down from the 22 entries of 2019.
The category as a whole continues to score high all around, proving to be one of the categories that exhibits high quality all around. Of the 16 total entries, 13 scored 92 and above, 4 of them scoring between 95 and 96, receiving the highest accolades of Extraordinary with an Ultimate Recommendation.
The best in class for 2020 is Vago Elote, with a high score of 96 points. This was especially synchronistic given the untimely death of maestro mezcalero Aquilino Garcia Lopez. Below are the top 2 scoring mezcals with their tasting notes from the Ultimate Spirits Challenge team, full mezcal results available here.
Vago Elote, 96 Points, Extraordinary, Ultimate Recommendation
Nutty corn aromas jump from the glass. Almost creamy in texture, the smoky sweet foundation supports toasted and roasted corn, as well as freshly wet corn husk and uncooked corn kernels. The flavor of heirloom corn shines through and through this iconic mezcal.
Del Maguey, San Luis Del Rio Azul, 95 Points, Extraordinary, Ultimate Recommendation
High toned aromas of minerals, river rocks, and lime zest are flinty, pungent, and ever evolving. Bright and juicy in the mouth, more granite earthiness is met with campfire smokiness, while fruity flavors of pineapple and soursop keep coming through. Easy to love.