The Ultimate Spirits Challenge (USC) was held this year from March 5 to 9 in Astor, New York. This annual event assembles panels of qualified experts to rate a variety of spirits on a 100-point scale. This includes whiskey, which is divided into several categories: American Whiskey, Bourbon, Rye, Tennessee Whiskey, Blended Irish Whiskey, Pot Still Irish Whiskey, Single Malt Irish Whiskey, Irish Poteen, Canadian Blended Whiskey, Japanese Whiskey, Blended Scotch Whiskey, Blended Malt Scotch Whiskey, Single Malt Scotch Whiskey, Indian Single Malt Whiskey and French Blended Whiskey.
Several whiskeys featured prominently at this year’s USC were already been covered by The Whiskey Reviewer, so below is our own guide to this years results. In many instances, we at The Whiskey Reviewer were left scratching our heads at how the scoring turned out.
Also, take advantage of the opportunity to compare our easily understood rating system based on the American school letter grade with the more widely used, yet more confusing numerical system, which counts only scores above 95 or 94 as being seriously worthy of consideration, and thinks of anything drinkable as scoring above 85! Defeats the purpose of having a 100-point scale if almost everything is in the top tenth percentile, does it not?
- Blanton’s Single Barrel: This classic that virtually started the single barrel movement in the bourbon industry was given an A rating by us. At the USC, Blanton’s earned a score of 98 and the Chairman’s Trophy.
- Buffalo Trace: Buffalo Trace Distillery’s entry level bourbon got a C+ grade from us, and USC gave it a 91.
- Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr.: We recently reviewed this year’s installment of the Colonel E.H. Taylor line, the famous “Tornado Survivor” bourbon, and gave it an A rating. USC placed it second in the bourbon category with a score of 97, hard on the heels of Blanton’s.
- Four Roses Single Barrel: While we liked the Four Roses Single Barrel quite a bit, we only gave it a B rating. USC liked it a lot more, giving it a score of 95.
- Four Roses Yellow Label: Four Roses entry level label was scored near the bottom this year with an 88, while we gave it a C+.
- Four Roses Small Batch: This is where The Whiskey Reviewer wonders what the USC panelists were thinking. We panned this bourbon as OK, but basically overrated, and the USC 2012 continued with the overrating part. We gave it a C; USC gave it a 95!
- Knob Creek Single Barrel: On the other hand, The Whiskey Reviewer thought much more highly of Knob Creek’s new label. We gave it an A, while the USC scored it with a 95.
- Woodford Reserve Small Batch: USC gave Woodford Reserve a score of 96. We rated it with an A-.
- Bushmills Black Bush: This is one where we really have to wonder what happened with that blind taste testing. Bushmills Black came in 4th this year with a score of 95! We thought it was thoroughly average stuff, and gave it a C grade.
- Bushmills White Bush: See above. Bushmills White came in just behind Bushmills Black, with the same 95 rating. We gave it a C-.
- Jameson 18 Year Old: We thought Jameson 18 Year Old was a bad bargain, as a B+ that retails for around $85. USC loved the stuff, on the other hand, giving it a 97 score which put it in 2nd this year!
- Jameson: Plain old Jameson scored a (relatively) reasonable 92, which we can’t argue with (given that the USC scores anything drinkable as above 88 or 90), since we gave it a C+.
- Midleton Very Rare: If you thought Bushmill’s scoring unbelievably high at this years USC was confusing, just look at what the supposedly expert judges did to Midleton Very Rare! We graded it as an A+ whiskey, and even if you think that is too high, the USC panel scored it 95 and in the same league as Bushmill’s!
- Powers Gold Label: USC gave it a score of 93, which placed it in the bottom half of this year’s contestants. Given that we gave it a thoroughly average C grade, that is understandable.
- Glenlivet 15 Year Old: The bizarre thing about The Glenlivet is how dismissive so many posters are of this distillery on whiskey forums and blogs. We gave it a respectable B grade, but USC loved it this year, making it a 95-scoring finalist.
- Glenlivet 18 Year Old: We liked the 18 Year Old a little better than the 15 Year Old, giving it a B+. The USC went the other way and by about the same margin, scoring it as a 94.
- Glenmorangie 10 Year Old: We gave Glenmorangie’s starter scotch a grade of B. The USC gave it a 93.
- Grant’s Family Reserve: USC 2012 gave Grant’s entry level label a mere 85, a score that simply left us flabbergasted. We gave it a C.
- Johnnie Walker Black Label: We gave Black Label a C-, a grade that bothers Johnnie Walker fans. If you love Johnnie Walker, be more outraged at the USC. It gave Black Label a score of 93 and made it a finalist in the Blended Scotch category, but then went on to give Blue Label and Gold Label the exact same score.
- Johnnie Walker Red Label: We gave Red Label a D+, which roughly corresponds to the relatively low 86 it earned at USC 2012.
- Johnnie Walker Green Label: This scored 94 at USC, which was enough to earn it a Chairman’s Trophy. That isn’t as big a deal as it sounds, however, because only four blended malt scotches were considered this year. We gave it a B-.