Friday Five with L.A. Spirits Awards founders Nicolette Teo and Joel Blum

Welcome to the Hops & Spirits Friday Five, where we ask five questions to interesting people in the alcohol world.

This week’s spotlight is on Nicolette Teo and Joel Blum, founders of the L.A. Spirits Awards.  The L.A. Spirits Awards is one of the few competitions managed by competition experts who judge spirits quality from the perspective of a new generation of experts: not just spirits experts. The L.A. Spirits Awards also offers annual marketing support for the winners, with an emphasis on becoming a catalyst for both start up spirits brands and the larger companies.

1) What drove you all to launch L.A. Spirits Awards?
NICOLETTE TEO: Joel and I had worked together for years for a large and well-known spirits competition—me as Managing Director and Joel responsible for its visual identity and marketing voice—whose owner was very hands off and trusted us to run the company as we saw fit. During our time there, we helped the competition grow enormously in size and prestige, but we were limited in what we could achieve because it wasn’t our company.

JOEL BLUM: Yes, we felt that the spirits competition industry as a whole wasn’t growing with the times and we knew we had the bandwidth and knowhow to take it into the 21st Century. We wanted to create an event that made more sense for the modern spirits industry it served. From a modern entrant user interface, to better post-competition marketing support for winners, to a judging team that would better reflect the diversity of spirits industry producers and consumers.

NT: One problem we observe among all competitions is that their judging panels are made up primarily of older white men. We aren’t against older white men—as Joel says, he’s one himself—but as a bloc they simply don’t represent all that’s happening in the industry. It’s become younger, more diverse, and in many ways more imaginative and innovative. We believe a competition’s judges should reflect that.

2) How do these awards differ from other competitions?
NT: There are several major differences. Most competitions are owned and managed by one or more of the judges who give out their awards. Our system is structured so that only our judges judge while only we, as managers, manage. These are blind tastings, where the judges know nothing about the entries that might influence their opinions. As managers we speak with entrants, handle products, decide their tasting order, assign them to the appropriate judges… We simply know too much about each entry to set aside biases. This “separation of Church and State”—of judges and management—is the only way to provide a truly objective assessment of entries.

There are few if any competitions besides L.A. Spirits Awards with our management experience, and the importance of this cannot be overstated. Competitions are incredibly complicated machines with thousands of moving parts that must work in unison to efficiently and accurately track and manage entries and awards. Spirits experts, as a rule, have no expertise in keeping this machinery running smoothly.

JB: An analogy I like to use is that of a car mechanic: You could be the best mechanic who can fix any car, but that doesn’t mean you have any idea how to run a garage.

There are other important differences: After announcing their awards, most competitions move on to planning their next year’s event. But entrants aren’t simply seeking a pat on the back for making fine products; their awards are powerful marketing tools they use to build their brands, to attract new customers, and ultimately to sell more product. This is really why they enter—and we’ve committed to developing as many programs as possible to help winners make the most of their medals long after the judges have gone home.

NT: Another huge differentiator concerns the people who make up our judging team. As we’ve mentioned, today’s competitions’ judging teams aren’t in general a very good reflection of today’s spirits industry or its audience. In response, we’ve assembled a truly diverse team of amazing judges. They’re incredibly talented spirits experts of all stripes who live in the real world and are better known for creating trends than for following them.

3) Why is L.A. Spirits Awards so important right now?
JB:  Well, as we said, spirits awards are marketing tools, but the COVID-19 pandemic has created huge challenges for spirits producers—especially the smaller craft distilleries—whose old ways to reach customers and promote their products don’t necessarily work as they once did. They need as much help as possible to adapt their marketing strategies to this new normal. We’re committed to helping our winners through this adjustment period, using our extensive marketing background, in a way that we haven’t seen from other competitions.

So much that we do is conceived with our entrants’ marketing goals in mind. Whether it’s assembling the best judges who lend more authority to our awards, or exploiting new media options to help promote our winners, adding value to our medals to benefit our winners is the raison d’être of every support program we offer or plan to offer.

Further, I think it’s pretty well understood that the world is not going to return to the “old normal” when the pandemic passes. We’re agile enough to adapt and remain important to the spirits industry no matter what the next new normal throws our way.

4) Why did you all decide to have the annual marketing support component?
JB: This goes hand in hand with what we’ve just said about why L.A. Spirits Awards is so important. A competition that doesn’t understand the marketing role of its awards is not going to do everything in its power to increase their value for its winners. Marketing support is essential to maximizing our awards’ value.

5) On to the industry in general, what are you all expecting for tasting trends in 2022?
NT: In just the past two years, certain trends have emerged that will certainly continue their upward climb:

  • A boom in non-alcoholic (NA) spirits: We’ve put a special focus on this category because it’s so hot right now. We even added judges in 2021 with specialized knowledge of NA products. It’s an unusual category that not many spirits experts are familiar with—or even have an interest in. But to ignore or belittle it would be a huge error. And there’s evolution within the category, too; 2021 saw many functional NA spirits, products that emulate familiar spirits (like bourbon or gin) rather than present as their own unique drink.
  • A veritable explosion in ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails: RTD entries this year increased 422% over 2020, and we don’t attribute this solely to 2020 being our first year and we weren’t on everyone’s radar This is absolutely not a fad; this category will continue to grow, especially as the quality of RTDs continues to improve.
  • A new way of looking at tequila and other agave spirits: We’ve seen a serious shift by consumers who once considered tequila to be just a party spirit. Each year there’s greater appreciation of quality agave spirits as products to be savored and appreciated. In line with that, we’re seeing a significant uptick in tequila and mezcal brands entering our competition, and in lesser known products like cristalino tequila.
  • The rise of North American single malt whiskeys: The number of American single malts is noticeably increasing, as is their quality. What was once an underappreciated category is now winning Gold and Platinum medals from our judges. 
  • A shift in the popularity of new gin styles: New western/contemporary style gins have been around for ages, but we see this category surging in the last couple of years. In 2021, the number of entries of new western/contemporary gins were double those of London dry gin entries.

Learn more about the L.A. Spirits Award, visit their website at https://www.laspiritsawards.com/.

Published by Jonathan Greene

Jonathan Greene is the host of the Hops & Spirits Podcast. Jonathan loves craft beer, whiskey and telling great stories.

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