For those who don’t know, the People’s Choice Drinks Awards is a drinks industry award launched in 2017. Producers, importers and retailers are requested to submit their products for any category which they feel their product fits, for example “The Classic G&T” or the “Spice up Your Life Rum”.

Spirit enthusiasts and qualified industry members are invited to blind judge Round 1, whittling down the entrants for each category – hence why the awards are called the people’s choice drink awards.

The second and final round is judged by the serious professionals – journalists, buyers and spirit experts all with years of experience – who select the winners and runners up for each category.

This year, I was a Round 1 judge, aka “one of the people”. Sitting on a panel of 10, we were asked to judge the “Mindful Drinking”, “The Contemporary G&T”, “Easy Weekday Rum”, and “Treat Yourself Whisky” categories. As an experienced Spirits taster, I was given the privilege of being the table host, encouraging discussion around each of the products and making sure we kept up our tasting momentum.

We used a points-based scoring system, marking the drinks out of 40. The marks were for colour and smell, balance/taste, quality, whether or not you would buy this yourself, and it fit the category.

Easing us in gently, we started with the NOLO “Mindful Drinking” category, judging eight 0% and 0.5% drinks.

The NOLO (no and low alcohol) market has grown rapidly over the last few years with more and more of the older generation also choosing to drink less due to various reasons, so it was exciting to have the opportunity to taste eight very different products. Where previously the only NOLO options were questionable alcohol-free wine or beer, these products show how far the market has come.

Since this was a blind judging, I am unable to tell you what we tasted, but I can give you a quick synopsis of some highs and lows, and perhaps one of them may end up being a winner!

Highs: My favourite on the day was a colourless “spirit”, perfect for warming you with its fiery ginger heat on a cold winter’s day. Unfortunately when diluted it lost nearly all of its flavour, even when just using water. This is common when it comes to NOLO drinks.

 

People’s Choice Drinks Awards

Another yummy option was a cloudy amber number which tasted like smoky apple cider, with that sharp drying taste so often missed in alcohol-free drinks. Although perhaps not something you could drink a lot of, warm it up with some honey, cinnamon and some other spices, and you would have a fabulous mulled cider alternative.

Lows: There were a number of options that tasted extremely vegetal, but the most disappointing one in my opinion was a drink that looked brown and cloudy (not very appealing), smelled slightly better with pineapple and biscuits coming through, but then numbed your mouth when you drank it. Not great.

The “I don’t know”s: Imagine a murky deep red drink, then imagine it smells exactly like a Bloody (or Virgin) Mary, then imagine it tastes like super sweet raisins. It was a rollercoaster of a ride and one which left you wishing you had just bought a spicy tomato juice instead.

People’s Choice Drinks Awards

Stepping up the ante, we moved onto “The Contemporary G&T” category – specifically “Gin with a Modern Twist also appropriate for Summer Drinking”. The perfect drink to judge on a freezing, but sunny, November day!

As we all know, there are HUNDREDS of different gins out there, and we all like and dislike different ones (hence why the gin market has managed to grow to this size), so it’s interesting to look back at my scoring card and see that my scores either hovered around 18/19 or the high 20s (out of 40).

Highs: At the top end of my scorecard sits a gin which was smooth, long, and slightly salty.

Lows: At the bottom end sits a gin which was dry and bitter, and long and lingering.

The “I don’t know”s: After a healthy panel discussion we decided that this was a really hard category to judge. The description was “Premium Whiskies/Whiskeys for celebrations, treats and gifts”. But the problem is that, if you are a premium whisky drinker, then you know exactly the sort of whisky you like and exactly the sort you don’t like. So unless you are buying for yourself or buying for a friend whose taste you know, we recommend not buying a premium whisky! My favourite was the honey, apricot whisky which the whisky enthusiasts on the table suggested was probably corn or rye based (good to know for next time), but everyone else on the table, whether they liked whisky or not, had completely different views on which their favourite was.

The third category had us in debate mode. “Easy Weekday Rum” – right. “For summer drinking, and BBQs on the beach” – ermmmm. Is that a rum that you want to enjoy with your flame-grilled meat or is that sipping piña coladas as the sun goes down? Luckily, we were presented with both options, tasting four amber and three white rums. For those not familiar with rum, the majority of the amber hue comes from ageing them in barrels.

Highs: All three of the white rums went down very well with me – they were all filled with tropical fruit flavours – one was pineapple, the next coconut, and the final one was coconut cream. My favourite was the middle one which would go down extremely well in a proper Cuban piña colada (if anyone is heading to Cuba soon, do visit La Loma just outside Viñales – they present you with a freshly made piña colada mix in a glass and a bottle of rum on the side, so you can mix it to your preference. We spent a very enjoyable afternoon there.)

The first and the last aged rums were also extremely delicious – the first smelled and tasted like beautifully barbecued tropical fruits, with caramel and smokey hints, the second was full of wood smoke, and in my opinion would pair amazingly with a properly cooked steak with a dark crust and succulent centre.

Lows: There were two rums at the bottom of my list – one which tasted eerily like a cheap tequila, the other that was far far too sweet. Both were aged.

The “I don’t know”s: There were none that I was on the fence on in this category. Scores over 30 for my highs and under 20 for my lows says it all.

Our final category (tasted after a Double Dutch palette cleanser) was “Treat Yourself Whisky”. As a non-whisky drinker I found this one slightly harder to judge – I certainly enjoyed one of them, but the others not so much.

Highs: A dark amber liquid that was smooth; full of honey, apricots, and a hint of chilli.

Lows: Our final whisky – it smelled of alcohol and tasted like alcohol. We were shocked when we were told the price.

People’s Choice Drinks Awards

After 2.5 hours our judging job was done, having tasted 27 different drinks in all. I got to meet some really interesting and passionate people, try new drinks (as far as I can tell I hadn’t had any of them before), and learn a little something too. Now we just have to wait and see who the Round 2 professionals select as winners!

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