How did you get into gin and then spirits judging?
I was very lucky when a lovely friend recommended me as a Wine Judge to the International Wine Challenge some years ago. I enjoyed helping out and learning from the more senior judges. My interest turned from wine to spirits gradually and I learned about, and sold, a considerable amount of whisky. Parallel to whisky, I started to learn about gin and other spirits too. Some time later I’ve found myself being one of the busiest drinks judges globally together with helping and providing consultancy to gin producers on five continents right now through our company called International Drinks Specialists.
What else do you do as well as spirits judging?
My main business, International Drinks Specialists, is an evaluation and quality consultancy service but I also write several regular columns in magazines on spirits, wines and cigars. I’ve also started a tasting club in our village, and gin is one of the favourite topics: I love to show our new IDS discoveries to our local friends. My other job, when time permits, is being a clay shooting coach and it is a lot of fun.
When judging a gin, what separates a good gin from an exceptional gin?
A good gin is adequately made, with enough intensity to make it great with a lovely balance between warming and cooling elements and herbal and other aroma and taste components. An exceptional gin is all of the above but its intensity and the complexity is on a level where it would be hard to improve it further. A good gin is what one would be happy to drink; the exceptional is a must have that one wants to buy in multiple bottles to save plenty for later.
Do you have any top tips for aspiring gin judges?
I have written a long article on this: have a quick read here. The principles are the same as the motto of IDS: integrity, professionalism and courage. If you need only one word: “teamwork” it is. The ability to listen to and understand others is the most important factor when judging as part of a panel.
Are there gins which would you always have on your gin shelf or any favourites at the moment?
This is probably the hardest question to answer as we receive around a new sample a day with IDS and there are some we helped to perfect so they will be my favourites naturally. I have a great distiller friend in Iceland and his gin is outstanding. There are many great gins from the UK and we are discovering gems from Wales, Belgium, Iceland, Croatia, India, Africa and even NZ and Tasmania. I still say that classics like Bombay Samphire Gin or Tanqueray Gin and Beefeater Gin are hard to beat just to mention some. It also depends on the occasion, there’s a Cigar Gin that we’ve found exceptional not so long ago. After all, as a busy judge, I really shouldn’t have a favourite. It is more the journey and the discovery that makes gin exciting.
Do you have a favourite gin event that you'd recommend to gin lovers?
There are more and more. The Craft Distilling Expo is very important and a great event. My favourite gin occasion is when I can finally have a proper drink with friends with no actual work attached to it. They are my favourite gin events. It is also great to see many gin exhibitors at the Game Fair as I am their in-house drinks person and I love to have the producers on stage with me for some tastings - even if it is strictly speaking not a ‘gin event’ itself.
Do you have a favourite gin bar that you'd recommend to gin lovers?
Not necessarily a dedicated gin bar but it is my favourite bar on Earth: Duke’s in St James’ is unbeatable with Alessandro and his team making gorgeous Martinis. It is home away from home and perhaps one of the most iconic bars I know of.
What is your top tip for people just starting to discover gin?
Learn the categories and different types first to get a better understanding. Get David T. Smith’s book “The Gin Dictionary” and start learning - on the other hand, just relax and enjoy what you like. No-one should tell others how they should like or dislike their gin or other drinks. It is a lot to do with personal taste and the individual’s memories where smell and taste originate. Everyone is different. The end user is sacred and should be respected.
How do you see the gin industry developing in 2022?
As a judge and consultant, I am not affected by the trends greatly. If for instance flavoured gin fades and more classics come to the limelight I am equally happy. My main interest is in the rise of quality throughout the industry and it is great to see that there are not many really badly made gins left like some years ago. I would love to think that education, the work of consultants and the awards like The Gin Guide Awards itself are all facilitators of quality improvement throughout the industry.
Follow Toby on Instagram or visit the International Drinks Specialists website.