Ten judges. Thirteen gins. Six lessons.

On Friday afternoon, Seattle Gin Society founder Gene Shook convened a panel of judges, given the arduous task of blind tasting and rating 13 gins, most of them from Northwest microdistilleries. As we readied our pens and palates, Shook encouraged brutal honesty, reminding us that “Seattle nice isn’t necessary here.”

I was surrounded by people who know their stuff. People like Big Derby Distilling Co. owner Jason Parker, and Skip Tognetti of Letterpress Distilling (whose leterpressed business card is more elegant than my wedding invitations). And bartenders like Anu Apte of Rob Roy and Andrew Friedman from Liberty. These folks make gin or use it in the course of their professional duties, though none of the participating distillers had any bottles being judged. The juniper-flavored spirit has proliferated at local distilleries, many of which are glad for a product to sell while whiskey or bourbon age to readiness. But can these newcomers measure up to the classics in the gin canon? Here are a few pieces of insight gleaned from an afternoon of tasting and judging with the pros.

It’s hard to pass a uniform judgement on gin. How do you compare a dry creation perfect for a martini with another, more floral version begging to be incorporated into a cocktail? Unlike its darker contemporaries, gin has very few defining characteristics other than its juniper backbone.

Get your nose in there. A dignified sniff from three inches above the official Ginvitational shot glass didn’t yield nearly as many notes as a deep inhalation with nostrils firmly inside the glass.

Even the pros can be surprised. In a room full of people who make or sling gin for a living, judges were surprised by how high—or low—they rated a few familiar labels in the blind tasting.

We are aesthetically hard to please. Judges were rather merciless when evaluating the packaging, deeming some labels too cluttered, others too subtle, making it tough to identify a particular gin on crowded shelf. Speaking of which…

Bartenders have strong opinions on bottles, not just their contents. Apte and Friedman had a lot to say about bottles that are too tall to fit on a shelf, as well as versions with unconventional shapes that take up too much space. Bottles with low, squatty necks may look cool, but can make for an awkward grab and pour during a busy shift.

Like any micro-batch product, locally produced gins can vary by batch. Okay, maybe that last one is obvious to everyone else.

The Seattle Gin Society’s inaugural Ginvitational was held Saturday at Cal Anderson Park. Ginophiles and members did some tasting of their own, and by the end of the day Shook was ready to declare the winners. Hopefully next year a local gin will best the Brits.

The 2012 Ginvitational Winners

Best Gin: Martin Miller Westbourne Strength
Best Northwest Gin: Captive Spirits Big Gin
Best Washington Gin: Batch 206 Counter Gin
Best Oregon Gin: Smalls
Judges’ Award: Sun Liquor’s Gun Club
Members’ Choice: Citadelle
President’s Choice Washington: Sound Spirits Ebb and Flow
President’s Choice Oregon: Organic Nation

Judges’ Honorable Mention: Oola

Highest Score: Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength with an 8.6

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