Mythbusters: The history of whisky awards

Mythbusters: The history of whisky awards

The concept of awarding whiskies for their quality dates back 170 years – and for as long as there have been awards, there have been marketing ploys to exploit them

Mythbusters | 12 Sep 2023 | Issue 194 | By Chris Middleton

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The world’s first recorded whisky prize was awarded to John Wilson’s Cream of the Valley rye. Presented with a diploma by the Maryland Institute in 1851 at the Exhibition for the Promotion of Mechanical Arts, local newspapers reported it was a lowly recognition as the whisky failed to obtain gold or silver medals. Wilson promptly renamed his brand Old Diploma Rye Whiskey, advertising this achievement for many years. This inspired other liquor firms to trademark Gold Medal, Three Stars, and other hyperbolic titles to associate their brands with often-unearned accolades.


During the 19th century, hundreds of local agricultural societies and manufacturing associations in English-speaking countries inaugurated shows to promote local produce, inventions, and enterprise, including awarding thousands of prizes to whisky participants. Winning recognition at shows became noteworthy for distilleries and brand owners to foster domestic sales and attract export agents for new markets as the demand for whisky supplanted rum and brandy. With whisky’s resurgence in the 21st century, dozens of global and local competitions annually dispense thousands of awards. Garnering recognition at spirits competitions helped new and smaller distilleries gain attention for distribution and lure consumers to trial. Some are competitions of elimination; others award medals to a standard, such as one of America’s largest and allegedly most prestigious spirits competitions which conferred gold medals to most of the 2,000 whisky entries as submitting ‘excellent examples’. Others are tournaments where the contest limits positions on a podium to gold, silver, or bronze based on criteria of national, regional, style, age statement, and other classifications for entry.


Community interest and the commercial success of provincial fairs in Western-hemisphere countries encouraged international exhibitions, expositions, and world fairs to showcase material progress. Between 1850 and 1914, more than 240 international fairs were held. As American, Scotch, and Irish whisky gained national acceptance, exhibition organisers added this as a class to wine, beer, and spirits. London’s first Great Exhibition of 1851 handed out 400 medals for brandy, rum, and liqueurs, but none for whisky (except for an Austrian exhibitor with plum whisky). At the 1865 Dublin Exhibition, the first international event to include whisky under fermented drinks, Kinahan’s LL was awarded a prize medal and three years later gained a gold medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle. Repeating Wilson’s pattern by proclaiming awards won, the distillery became a consummate advertiser in British newspapers, promoting the awards for decades after the fact.


The next major Anglo event was the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879. Innes & Grieve won double gold for its Highland malt and John Walker a gold medal for the bulk Old Highland whisky (blended). Its flask (bottled) Old Highland whisky came third with special merit; immediately, ‘Highest Award Sydney Exhibition’ was added to the front label.


One of the most impressive and largest international exhibitions was the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where the organisers minted 39,800 medals for all classes of industry awards; 14 Irish distillers pooled their exhibit under the Ireland section, as did three Scotch brands under Great Britain, and a handful represented Kentucky. For many years newspaper advertisements led readers to believe that I. W. Harper won the best whisky with its bottled-in-bond Kentucky bourbon by gaining the Grand Prize. A whisky from Louisville, Sunny Brook, was the exhibition’s most-awarded whisky with the Grand Prize and gold medal. It also built and operated an old-fashioned replica log still distillery at the fair. Other whiskies awarded regional gold medals were Dewar of Scotland, Elmendorter from Germany, and Jack Daniel’s from Tennessee. A Guatemalan banana whisky was exhibited, garnering much attention but no award; it was during an unregulated era where no laws specified whisky had to be made from cereal mash. 

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