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Excellent spirits

The idea of the International Spirits Challenge seemed like a good one, and indeed it was. It also seemed like a relatively simple idea, and that it certainly wasn't.

For the past ten years Wine Magazine has mounted an International Wine Challenge, which now subjects more than 6,000 wines, entered by importers, supermarkets and retail chains, to the scrutiny of the country's finest tasters. These experts' by-no-means-generous allocation of trophies and gold, silver and bronze medals are highly valued by the trade.

What more natural, then, than to mount a similar challenge covering the many hundreds of spirits brands on sale in this country, the most open market in the world, for spirits as for wines? Those of us organising the new challenge felt (and now we know we were right) it would help the British public to appreciate that the finest spirits are as complex, as subtle and as satisfying as their vinous equivalents, that the best brandies, rums and whiskies are not inevitably mere firewater, or more-or-less-neutral bases for long drinks.

Inevitably, between the idea and the awarding of the medals came the hurdles. We knew that finding qualified people to judge rums, or vodkas, or Canadian whisky, would not be as easy as to find people capable of expatiating on a "flight" - wine-speak for a group of wines - of unoaked chardonnays. We also knew that even the best tasters could only cope with a relative handful of spirits (four "flights" of five samples each in a morning). That problem was solved, partly by the wholehearted collaboration of the men responsible for blending the best Scotch whiskies in the world.

Problem number two was the difficulty of finding a common measure of quality between such very different products. That could be tackled - though not entirely solved - by having two juries: a number of specialist panels which, between them, slogged through all the 312 different entries, and a second, super-jury of all-round experts to vet the initial selections. (Unfortunately, the owner of one of Britain's best palates for spirits had just had an operation on his nose, and his surgeon had advised him not to sniff too systematically while it was healing.)

There remained a third, unexpected problem in a number of the categories: the need to define what we really meant by the best. This came to a head in the case of the vodkas. The professional distillers among the judges naturally turned towards the finest of the "neutral" spirits, while the lone Pole, Ian Wisniewski, a brilliant young specialist journalist, naturally defended the more complex spirits made in eastern Europe.

Less predictably, the judges of bourbons had problems deciding how woody a good bourbon should be. Normally, the best bourbons, like other fine whiskies, and brandies, are the result of a magical mix between the raw spirit and some of the elements, notably the vanillins and tannins, in the oak casks in which they are lodged for up to four decades. Age, combined with judicious original selection, did indeed triumph. The trophy for the finest brandy was won by Creation, Martell's new brand of Cognac (available for about pounds 400), in which, certainly, none of the brandies used in the blend was less than 30 years old. Similarly, the finest Scotch in the competition proved to be the 30-year-old Glenfarclas, pounds 64.95, Waverley Vintners, and both runners-up (Glendronach 1973, and The Macallan 25 Year Old Anniversary Malt) had been aged for more than 20 years, a relative eternity for a malt whisky.

In both instances age brought an incomparable, rounded warmth and complexity, simply unattainable by any other means. The same applied to the winner of the only bourbon to be awarded a gold medal, Hancock's Reserve (pounds 42.30, Fortum and Mason). But there's a limit to the amount of wood a spirit can stand, and the second jury did downgrade one bourbon which tasted like distilled wood.

However, the object of the exercise was not to prove that the most expensive spirits are the best, but to tempt the drinking public to try out new spirits which they might otherwise not have appreciated at their true value. Classically this refers to the ten-year-old rum produced by Appleton's, reckoned by many experts to be the finest distillery in the Caribbean, and sold by Safeway under its own label for a mere pounds 9.99. This rich, smooth, vanilly delight won a well deserved gold medal. It was a notable contrast with the white rums which the judges, rightly, felt were deliberately characterless, to mix inconspicuously with Coca-Cola rather than to be savoured as a product on their own.

The Safeway Ten dark rum was one happy surprise, but there were others, notably a couple of deeply appley Calvados from Boulard and Coquerel and, my special favourite, an Irish whiskey called after its native Connemara (pounds 20, Adnams, Lea & Sandeman's), which combined the peatiness of an Islay malt with a freshness all of its own - a discovery that made the whole exercise worthwhile