Spirits judging competitions have always felt a bit gate-keepy. Hell, I judge several of these things and I can’t deny that. They’re often groups of industry pros sequestered in a room in San Francisco, New York, Berlin, Louisville, London, or wherever, and the closest you’ll ever get to them as a consumer is a list they release of their best expressions. But that’s finally changing as the whole spirits industry continues to boom and consumer interest/engagement continues to skyrocket.
At the forefront of bringing the consumer into the fold at spirits competitions is Amanda Blue the owner/CEO of the Tasting Alliance, which puts on the famed San Francisco World Spirits Competition, amongst others (disclosure: I’m a head judge at those spirits competitions). To link the worlds of tasting competitions and the general public, Blue and her team at the Tasting Alliance are launching Top Shelf: An Award Winning Tasting Experience in Las Vegas (June 16 & 17, 2023) at Resort World.
The event will be a chance for the average consumer (or bored gambler) to actually taste the spirits that score medals at San Francisco World Spirits Competition. This is a huge boon for consumers in that chasing down some of the most elite award-winning bottles can be pretty much impossible (especially after a big award win). In this case, that conundrum of never actually being able to taste super elite and rare award-winning spirits is being solved for you (for a price). All that you need to do is show up in Vegas in June and you can actually taste the best of the best all in one place — tickets start at $375.
To break down the whole event, how the iconic San Francisco World Spirits Competition is run, and the power of women in the spirits industry, I sat down with my old friend Amanda Blue. Blue was kind enough to talk through it all, offering a fun conversation for anyone looking for both a peek behind the curtain and a taste of what’s to come from events like Top Shelf. Let’s dig in!
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Let’s jump right into the deep end. How does a huge competition like San Francisco World Spirits Competition come together?
Well, we started in November of 2022 by reaching out to brands and letting them know that we were open. We actually hired someone that would be full-time in our warehouse in San Francisco to accept deliveries from November until we accept our last delivery. Plus, our team just goes to every single trade event possible, boots on the ground.
What does that look like?
When I was in Pro Wine, we walked 30,000 steps a day, just meeting brands, talking about what they want, how they want to break into the American market, what’s important for them, what their process is, what their story is, and just meeting them in person, which is so much more impactful than just sending out an email blast saying, “Hey, we’re open.”
This competition has become about the relationships with the brands. It’s always had a stellar reputation thanks to the integrity of its judging. To add to that, we really are trying to become a service for brands, not just with the competition, but with consumer activations. It’s about bringing brands to trade fairs that they couldn’t otherwise afford. It’s featuring them on our website. It’s about marketing for them year-round, not just the one-month post-competition. And it’s really just about creating genuine relationships with those brands.
What do you learn when you’re out there touching base with brand folks so closely?
I find that people in this industry that have brands are so passionate, engaged, and grateful for any opportunity to show off what they have and it’s actually quite inspiring. It keeps us out on the road. We have a list of every single trade event that’s going on in the world each year and we try to have somebody there from our eight-person team to cover it and let brands know that our services extend beyond the competition.
We’ve both seen the early days when competitions like San Francisco and most others were completely inaccessible to the consumer and now we’re coming into a time where that gatekeeping is no longer tenable. How do you feel the atmosphere has changed around spirit competitions over the last few years?
For us, we knew that in order to make our metals more valuable than any other, we had to engage the consumer.
So walk us through what that looks like.
First, we built a consumer-facing website where people could shop for the winners of our competitions through our collaboration with ReserveBar. They could access educational material like a spotlight on brands. They could learn how to make classic cocktails and signature cocktails from the brands. You know, they could learn about what’s the best European vodka. It’s really a resource for curation because it is a really, really crowded marketplace and we’re giving you just a shortcut to figuring out not just what brands to buy, but about these brands, and what you’re supporting, and who they are, holistically.
That then leads to our consumer event in Las Vegas — Top Shelf — where people get to actually come and experience the brands with the master distillers and the brand ambassadors. Consumers will get to go to masterclasses and learn more about the brands. You’ll learn how to properly taste tequila and how to spot additives. You’ll learn the intricacies of tasting a good whiskey.
We’re giving access to the brands to the consumers that they otherwise might not have.
What can the consumer expect when they show up to Top Shelf this year? You mentioned masterclasses, what else can we look forward to?
We want to make it very engaging. There are going to be 12 masterclasses throughout the two days. We’ll also are having roaming activations, so not just booths, with brands moving throughout the crowd — because, as you know, the lines at some of the more beloved booths get very long. We’ll have a snow cone cart with Shinola for boozy snow cones and little desserts. We’ll be pairing different spirits with foods.
Oh, nice. Anything you can tease us with?
I can. We have a caviar sponsor that we’ll be pairing with one of our winning spirits. Sugarfina — which is a high-end candy — will be pairing their stuff with some winning spirits too.
We’ll have a DJ there and some entertainment as well. It’s a party. It’s not going to be this quiet room where you’re going around and taking your one-ounce pour and moving on. We want people to engage with the brands they love and maybe find some new ones at the same time.
Let’s take a little wider view of the industry. You’re a female owner/CEO and you run an all-female team. Plus, you have a long and deep history in the spirits industry. What have you seen change that gives you hope for the industry’s growth when it comes to people?
Well, I think any growth is reflective of the current social climate. It’s baby steps, but there’s progress. And at some point, you’ll walk into an event like Top Shelf and we’ll have enough female master blenders or female distillers that it’s just how it is and there’s true parity in representation, and you’ll say, “You don’t need to bring that up anymore.”
I feel like within five to 10 years, that’s how it’ll be, hopefully … finally.
And I would argue that you’re at the forefront of making that a reality by pushing forward very vehemently on the ground and behind the scenes. How does it make you feel to see progress for women in the spirits industry, even if it’s baby steps for now?
I feel excited. I feel like the whole community is excited about the inclusion we’re seeing now. Not only with more women running the show but different ethnicities and people from different cultures bringing different kinds of spirits from different backgrounds.
You know, I read that females are a large portion of the whiskey drinkers and that whiskey is not really marketed to women, still. That’s a place in the market that needs to be filled. We all need to recognize that the female consumer is just as important as the male consumer and doesn’t need to have a “female product.” You know what I mean, a vodka that has flowers in it or something like that. We can drink things too, good things, and we want to learn just like every other spirit enthusiast.