Reading about Montana’s emerging microdistillery industry is nice and all, but deciding to spend hard-earned cash on a still-maturing product is another thing entirely. In the name of independent journalism and in the interest of new discoveries, we selected 15 bottles for a blind taste test that would not only grade Montana spirits, but also see how they stacked up against top-selling national brands.
We invited a dozen people to partake in the blind taste test and split them into two teams: vodka and gin. We focused on vodka and gin because those are the two types of spirits with the most in-state variety. We made it blind to avoid any favoritism. And we split our tasters into two teams because we wanted to protect the integrity of their palates (and perhaps their livers).
In addition to tasting either the vodkas or the gins, everyone took part in a wild card round that allowed us to try some of the distilleries’ more creative selections.
Our selection of booze came directly from what’s available—and proudly displayed with “Made in Montana” signage—at Grizzly Liquor. We selected all five Montana vodkas available for purchase (not including the flavored varieties) and all four Montana gins. We also selected two outliers—Smirnoff vodka and Gordon’s gin—just to see how our judges would react.
The wild card selections included distilleries not otherwise represented in the gin or vodka categories, as well as whatever looked the most interesting.
The term “methodology” assumes some level of professionalism and expertise, both of which this event certainly lacked, but we did put some thought into how it was organized.
Two people unaffiliated with the scoring were responsible for numbering clear plastic cups, pouring samples, delivering these samples to the judges and collecting scoring sheets. Before the tasting commenced, we provided each judge with a detailed list of characteristics they should be attuned to when tasting their respective beverage. Local drink aficionado Ryan Newhouse, who has consulted for a start-up distillery and enjoys foraging for his own cocktail ingredients (and who recently released his first book, Montana Beer: A Guide to Breweries in Big Sky Country), helped deliver some pre-tasting instructions, spur conversation among the judges and provide a general air of legitimacy to the event.
Our judges were asked to score each drink on its look, aroma, mouthfeel, finish and overall impression. The vodka had been placed in a freezer for four hours before being poured. The gin was served at room temperature. None of the drinks included mixers, although water was available to everyone and the gin team had the option of adding tonic after an initial tasting. The effervescence of the tonic (or the mix of water) can help release the flavors of the botanicals used in a gin.
The highest possible score a spirit could receive was 50. After tallying the results, we awarded one vodka winner and one gin winner. The wild card entries were not judged against each other, but we did award special jury prizes to the two that scored the highest. In addition to scoring the five categories, we asked judges to scribble down comments about each drink.
Without further ado, here’s how we graded the entries: