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Food & Drink

Texas whisky beats Scotland's finest in London blind tasting

Photo: Photo by Scott Andrews, License: N/A

Photo by Scott Andrews

Chip Tate and his hand built condenser.

Click here for a tour of Balcones Distillery

It seemed like history repeating itself last December when Balcones Single Malt Whisky beat out the competition in a blind tasting in London, England. Taking top honors at Best in Glass, a judging of new international whisky releases, the contestant from the five-year-old distillery in Waco, Texas, bested some of the most time-honored names in the Scotch industry, such as The Macallan, Glenmorangie, and The Balvenie (which entered a 17-year-old single malt). Soon referred to as “The Judgment of London” in the blogosphere and heralded in the New York Times, the win by Balcones was notable as the first time an American whisky had won the five-year-old competition, organized by the editors of the British online journal The jury included 11 UK industry notables, including Alice Lascelles, drinks columnist for The Times, of London, and spirits editor for the magazine Imbibe, andBen Ellefsen, director of prestigious spirits vendor Master of Malt.

There are many larger, older competitions, such as the San Francisco World Wine & Spirits Competition (where Balcones single malt and corn whisky have taken Double Gold Medals), but beating the Brits on their home turf raised the pulse of many an American spirits and wine aficionado.

The win harkened back to 1976, when a California cabernet sauvignon from Stag’s Leap Cellars took first place over a range of Bordeaux at a blind tasting in Paris. The competition was judged by 11 French wine experts, and organized by British wine merchant Stephen Spurrier (who dealt exclusively in French wines). Dubbed “The Judgment of Paris” by the press, the upset victory staggered the French, who were appalled that an American had won in a field considered synonymous with European culture — wine making. It was the tipping point for American vineyards, which rushed to compete in the world market.

The 1976 Paris win led to great gains by the American wine industry, and was a pop-culture moment, too — chronicled in Bottle Shock, a film that debuted in 2008 at Sundance Film Festival, and in Judgment of Paris, a book by George M. Taber now in production as a movie. Whether this award will be looked back on as a similar moment in the rise of the nascent craft-distilling movement is yet to be seen.

Asked whether the comparison to the 1976 competition was apt, Best of Glass organizer Neil Ridley told the Current, “It's flattering for this award to be compared to such a significant event in the history of American wine making, but I don't think we're alone in our support and praise for American craft distillation, or indeed the production of whisky made elsewhere, for that matter.” Past winners in the London tasting have included a blended Scotch whisky, two Scotch single malt whiskies — and a Japanese whisky.

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