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Podcast 2.0

Judging Like a Consumer - SIP Awards with Pouya Hashemi

We speak with Pouya Hashemi, owner and founder of the SIP Awards about why consumer attitudes are important.

By: Tiff Christie|July 14,2021

If you drink spirits, you are probably aware that there are a number of competitions designed to judge the liquids you put in your glass.

With an understanding that taste is relatively subjective, these competitions aim to evaluate the nose flavour and appearance of the spirits that we drink.

Judging everything from gin to whiskey, liqueurs to amaro most use expert panels and blind tastings to not only celebrate what is made but also give consumers an idea of how good the bottles on our shelves really are.

But there is one competition that does things a little bit differently. Rather than look at expert opinions, the Sip Awards was started to look at the views and attitudes of consumers.

To find out more we speak with Pouya Hashemi, owner and founder of the Sip Awards about why consumer attitudes are important.

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For more information, go to sipawards.com or connect with awards via their socials @sipawards

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Interviewer:
If you drink spirits, you are probably aware that there are a number of competitions designed to judge the liquids you put in your glass. With an understanding that taste is relatively subjective, these competitions aim to evaluate the nose, flavour and appearance of the spirits that we drink. Judging everything from gin to whiskey, liqueurs to amaro, most use expert panels and blind tastings to not only celebrate what is made but also give consumers an idea of how good the bottles on our shelves really are. But there is one competition that does things a little bit differently. Rather than look at expert opinions the SIP Awards was started to look at the views and attitudes of consumers. To find out more we speak with Pouya Hashemi, owner and founder of the SIP Awards about why consumer attitudes are important.

Thank you for joining us Pouya.

Pouya Hashemi:
Thank you. I'm very eager to have this conversation.

Interviewer:
Now the awards were started back in 2009. What made you think back then that consumer contributions were important?

Pouya Hashemi:
Back then I was distributing and importing tequila and absinthe as a new business and I was always looking at avenues in marketing and how to get my product out there and one of them was a spirit competition but all of them had some sort of industry influence whether it was the magazines or the brands themselves were heavily involved in it and I've always had that hesitation of whether my products would be judged fairly. So that's where the idea of a consumer directed or influenced competition came to mind and it started to kind of dabble and really look into the industry and there was nothing out there like it.

Interviewer:
How difficult was it to set up an award competition from scratch?

Pouya Hashemi:
It was probably more difficult for just starting, just like most businesses you think it's a lot more complicated and difficult than it actually is and it's more of the mindset and to kind of do things one step at a time. So as far as difficulty, I think just like any business it has its own challenges but probably the most challenging part of it was getting the industry’s buy-in, the bigger brands, the smaller, medium sized brands to feel like this was an accredited or some kind of valuable competition that they should be a part of and that took a little bit of time in the first phases.

Interviewer:
Yeah. I imagine at the time it would have been thought to be a little bit of a mad idea. How long did it take to bring the industry around?

Pouya Hashemi:
Absolutely. So, I shared it with number of friends and family and most thought it was probably not a good idea and they kind of steered me away from it, saying that obviously competitions like this where influence from the industry is heavily invested into it, there's a reason for that and the brands that are heavily invested in those types of competitions, they would kind of shy away from something like this or at least most of the industry wouldn't accept it. So it was more of proving their analysis wrong and really just going with a crazy idea and seeing if it will pan out and the first year we did fairly well in hindsight, looking at it, I think we had over 75 brands compete, which doesn't seem like a lot, but that at least gave us some confidence that there were brands out there that was really looking at this type of competition to help their marketing efforts.

Interviewer:
Were they all small, independent brands or were there some heavy hitters that appreciated what you were doing at the time?

Pouya Hashemi:
I think at the time probably about 60% of them were smaller brands but I recall one of the bigger brands, Brown-Forman did enter a good portion of their portfolio into the competition, not everything, not anything that they're entering now, but it was enough to show that even the big guys wanted to at least experiment with something like this and that again kind of allowed us to give us the vote of confidence to continue and what's great is every year we've seen a direct increase in brand contribution and entry going up year over year, which is great.

Interviewer:
I've noticed that a number of, shall we say, ‘expert awards’ are now bringing a consumer choice award into the mix. Do you think that's in reaction to the SIP Awards?

Pouya Hashemi:
Absolutely. Within our first three years, I recall, there was a brand that reached out to us, a big brand, that wanted us to work with them on a consumer kind of marketing ploy to do some sort of an event where it would be their brand against the competition but a consumer twist to it. We had to turn that down just for the fact that we want to hold ourselves as a competition, on even playing field for all brands but that kind of showed that there's always, especially in this industry but most industries, the consumer's opinion is heavily important when making the buying decision and that's why we're seeing companies like even Amazon thrive, right? When you're going on sites like that, your first instinct is to go through their reviews before you make that buying decision and it's no different with spirits. You want to see what your peers are saying about the product in a non-biased way.

Interviewer:
You've been going for about 12 years, what are the biggest changes that you've seen in the industry over that time?

Pouya Hashemi:
In terms of the industry, I think what's great is now we're almost a household name when it comes to spirits. So most spirits that I introduced myself or I meet them at conventions, they're already familiar with the SIP Awards and what it is and what it stands for. I would say a great deal of them understand what we're all about, which is great, that shows that we've already kind of heavily infiltrated the industry and now we're that alternative competition and we're not for every brand out there. So certain brands don't need a competition and certain ones really, really value the consumer element of it or the consumers choice portion of it and they put it into their marketing efforts heavily.
So we'll see more and more brands involved in competitions like ours. We are the largest one in the world, as far as by number of judges and the number of brands that participate year over year and we'll continue to kind of evolve the competition to make it more fair and more accurate as far as a rating system as well as get it out to the industry as effective and make it more of a mainstream name, not just an industry name.

Interviewer:
Do you think that awards like yours actually influence distillers?

Pouya Hashemi:
I think so. Obviously again, it comes back down to the distillers direct business goals and their marketing path but if you do compete in our competition, for example and you do win an award that in itself won't really do much for your brand or your company directly, it's what you do with the award afterwards. It's kind of like winning a gold medal or a silver medal in an Olympic event, if you put that award away in a drawer and lock it up and don't tell anyone about it ever and three years later, no one knows about it, no one knows about it.
What we've seen is the smaller to medium size brands, really get the most benefit out of it due to the amount of publications and press and marketing they do behind it and we've seen incredible results for certain brands that really take honour in this award, whether it's giving them the confidence; the vote of confidence that they're the top in a consumer's choice to continue the path because just like any new business, there's going to be doubts in your business, there's going to be points where you feel like you've hit a wall and if you do well in a competition like ours, it's not just a select few of the industries accepting you or a select few judges but a very vast population of judges that are saying, this is a great product and we want to see more of this type of product.
So it kind of allows them to continue to innovate and go forward with their business. In addition to get them into different accounts, have more accolades to talk about with their marketing efforts. So it gives a good variety of marketing stories and narratives that they can pivot on for their brand.

Interviewer:
Do you think consumers judge spirits differently from the experts?

Pouya Hashemi:
For the most part, in different ways, yes. I think one of the key things that we kind of pride ourselves with these competitions is we don't necessarily coach the judges on what a particular category of products should or shouldn't taste like or smell like. For example, we're not going to go and say an unflavoured vodka should taste this way or should have these aromas and it shouldn't be this, we want a simple result of ‘if you like this vodka rate it high, if you don't, rate it low’ kind of like a grading system in school, now having said that we do coach on how to get the most amount of flavour and to get the different profiles and detect the different notes from each tasting.
So we'll go through and show them how to swirl, how to take in the aromas, how to sniff that out and how to have the product sit on their palette and kind of really take notes to those points and record those results and we don't just take a single score, every product is scored on a taste, aroma and finish and each one kind of gives us a number for the product and then we use our proprietary algorithm and kind of curve the results and get then translated into a medal.

Interviewer:
And how do you choose the consumers that you actually use on the judging panel?

Pouya Hashemi:
So over the years, we've kind of shifted different policies, different ideas of how to get these consumers. Some of the things that we want to make sure, one of the benchmarks of the competition is first and foremost, the one thing we want is we don't want a judge that is affiliated within the industry. So things like a bartender or a mixologist or a restaurant owner that's perfectly fine, however we wouldn't want a brand owner or a distillery sales rep or even a brand investor. We don't want the brands to have any kind of influence or an ambassador to a brand whereas that’s very common for these bigger competitions and they flaunt it.
I see a brand ambassador being invited and participating in a whiskey competition and they are ambassador to a whiskey brand and I see that on Instagram and they're flaunting how they were in this competition now, who knows if they were tasting their own product, but they were definitely tasting the competition and those are the things that going back 13 years ago, was holding me from wanting to participate in these competitions because I wasn't invited but my competition was. So that's something that we strive on making sure that nobody from the brands are competing or are in the judging seats and making those determining marks.

Interviewer:
If bartenders are okay to use as judges, their pallet would be a lot more defined shall we say, than an everyday person, does that not cause problems in itself?

Pouya Hashemi:
No, I don't think so and that's a good point because what's important is we want the full consumer panel being represented. So with that, we understand there's going to be connoisseurs in a way or common drinkers that really drink on almost a daily basis for the fine craft of the spirits, so they know all there is to do about it but they're not affiliated with any particular brand and then we've got the other end of the spectrum of complete novices but they like to drink on certain holidays, certain occasions, on social gathering, which probably is a good portion of our judging panel, the social drinker, if you will. But we want to capture all of that in a sense and really try to get the consumer's opinion and what we do is, we were getting this asked a lot of, "Who's in the judging panel?"
We don't know their names, we don't know what they do, we want to get a better transparency. So we've created a lot more of a transparency between the brands that are participating and the judges. So if you go to our website under the numbers that matter, I think it's under one of the navigation bars, you'll actually see a lot of statistics on these judges, everything from their demographic, their sex, their age group because again that's another great area whether they're younger or they're older so you get to see which generation of judges we're looking at and then also the occupation. A very small percentage, I would say come from the hospitality industry. I would say a good amount. I mean, we've got lawyers, we've got doctors, we've got project managers, you name it, a lot of different types of businesses from technology to transportation.
So it gives you a really good insight of what kind of percentages of occupation these judges are coming from, also when and how they like to drink. So everything from how often they're drinking to what day they prefer to drink, whether it's a morning afternoon, well, maybe not morning, morning to afternoon. We wouldn't want that, so morning to afternoon or are we looking at more of evening drinkers? It gives you statistics on that. What kind of spirits do they enjoy to go through whether it's a particular category also, how do they like their spirits, do they like it neat? Do they like it in a mix? Do they like shots? All sorts of statistics and numbers there to define who our judges are.
And I think that gives a lot of not only credibility to the competition but a lot of feedback to the distilleries, as well as the public, to know who these judges are and where these numbers are coming from. Much more than a lot of other competitions where you just get maybe a bio about a particular judge and one other note I think is very notable to mention, you mentioned how the industry is changing, our first couple of years, even up to, I would say three years ago, all the other competition, if you looked at their judging panels, majority of the judges were in an older age group, I would say probably 70% of them were 50 plus years old or older and then also there was 90%, if not more male to female ratio.
And that in itself didn't capture who's buying these products. There's a big difference between what females like to drink and what males like to drink. You would like to think so, at least. So that all goes into how these awards should be handed out and we've seen over time, especially now with even these competitions, they've greatly changed their judging panels to include more females in their judging panel, more of a younger generation in they're judging panels and we'd like to hope that we had some sort of influence on that because we really pushed on those notes in our, just like our statistics for who these judges are, we also kind of note how we compare to the competition. So they probably saw that and said, yeah that doesn't look like the demographic of your typical person that's buying these products.

Interviewer:
How do you actually find them though? I mean, do you put out a call on social media or in a newspaper or something to say that you're about to do the awards, how do you actually get the consumers to the awards to do the judging?

Pouya Hashemi:
So that's kind of changed year over year but typically we utilise a lot of different avenues for that. We go anywhere from social media posts to enter it and get qualified as a judge through different types of online resources that do event-based campaigns and then we also work with different influencers, as well as restaurants and different bars in different locations from Orange County to San Diego, to LA that have a good amount of clientele that like a particular spirit. So one of the key things is two different judges or different consumers have a preference of spirit and they may have a preference of spirits that they don't like or they hate. We don't want to put a judge that hates gin, for example, at a gin table.
That's going to skew the results because one, they're not a professional and they're not going to enjoy themselves so we're going to probably hear some complaints and three if that's not your client, why would we want the results for that? So one of the intakes we take for each of the judges is understanding of all those statistics that I mentioned, we take those and we actually correspond them with the right judging table. So if they're telling us they like tequila and mezcal, we're going to push more of that towards them in their lineup and if they're telling us they absolutely hate vodka, we're going to make sure that they're not evaluating vodka and that's the same way of, let's say, while we're building up our judging panel, if we're short on, let's say gin tasters or gin lovers there's again, local communities and local bars and lounges that have a clientele list that are absolutely in love with that particular spirit. So we can easily recruit that way as well.

Interviewer:
Now, explain to me exactly how the judging is organised, when you talk about tables have you got people judging different spirits at different tables all at the same time or how's it set out?

Pouya Hashemi:
Yeah. So I guess there was a big change in pivot post-COVID and pre-COVID but prior to COVID, what we used to do is event-based judging and I think we had kind of the more fun ways of judging. We'd like to create an environment where the judges are coming out and they're enjoying the spirits very socially just like they would in a normal setting. So we like to create that atmosphere. They're not locked up in a room and they're tasting it by themselves which isn't a typical way of tasting their spirits so we want to kind of create that environment. So we have small appetisers and we come up on stage and describe how to go through the process of tasting and what the process will be like.
But in a short sense, we're providing the spirits that we're giving to the judges is a small fraction of the overall spirit group. So like if you were in, for example, the blanco tequila, we would probably provide you just the blanco and we want you to not compare a blanco to a repo but it's more about judging a particular category all within that particular category. So we would give them out in specific sections and you're tasting just in that flight of spirits within your own group and then one thing we've done, one of the biggest comments we get is you have a lot of non-professional judges, how are you going to know who's going to take it seriously? Who's got a good palette, who's got a bad palette? Who's just filling out the form just to be there with friends or whatnot?
So those are adequate concerns and how we address that is look at the results and we can actually, before the competition starts, we double up on a couple of spirits. So we might double up, I think on average, about 5% to 8% of the spirits that we're handing out are doubled up. So in your section of spirits that you're going to go through, there's a couple on there, maybe two or three that are duplicates but we don't tell you which ones are duplicates and you won't know which ones are duplicates. So we incentivise again the judges and let them know that, ‘Hey, there are going to be duplicates and if you're one of the few that can spot them by your results, we'll invite you back coming back to next year's event or give out a particular prize.’ Some sort of a small incentive or just bragging rights, right and what that does is we will see, there might be a spirit doubled up and if, obviously you were able to identify the spirit as both of them being at the same score that tells us your palette is really, really defined, whether you're a professional or not, that's the type of person that we want to take really a bigger note on and then what we do with those results we would count those in our algorithm, weight them a little heavier than the other ones that have, let's say scored one as a B, and the other one is a D and it's the same product, right?
So we would reduce their weight on the results and that tells us this person, we're going to isolate their results a little bit more and now that allows us to know exactly who's a good judge and who's not a good judge regardless of their background and be able to discriminate equally and correctly and get really defined accurate results. So this is one of the ways we kind of look and kind of have evolved the competition to make the result as accurate and fair as possible.

Interviewer:
You spoke about pre-lockdown the judging being quite a social thing, how did you deal with lockdown itself? How did things change?

Pouya Hashemi:
Yeah, it was a big change because as you can imagine, our spirits competition is completely events based. We have over 200 judges coming out to a very social event. So we had to really think of a new strategy and right away we started to kind of come up with ideas and the idea we came up with was to come up with an in-home kit for judging because we didn't want to have a missed year. 2020 was planning to be our biggest year just like 2019 was just like 2018 was and we wanted to kind of use that momentum and keep continuing to move forward.
So we created these in-home kits where you would get a kit. You would have 12 little vials of spirits, all identified by numbers, completely blind tasting and then you'd have an instructional sheet in there. You'd have a branded SIP Awards pen, you'd have a distinct NEAT Glass glass in there because again, what's important is we want to make sure we keep the competition fair and equal, we want everyone to use the same type of glass and I'm not sure if you're familiar with NEAT Glass but they engineer a scientifically engineered spirit glass which is designed to kind of get the most out of the taste and aromas of each spirit and we partnered with them, I believe since 2016 and they've been our kind of official glass provider. So what's great is the judges now get to take that home with them and everybody's using the same type of style glass. So it's a very fair competition. We provided video instructions just like when we would go up on stage and instruct on how to go through the process but video instructions on how to go through everything, how to submit your results.
And again, to incentivise the judges again to take it seriously to fully go through the process they also get some value out of it as well. Their value is they would be able to see what spirits they like and dislike in a blind setting, which is very hard to replicate at home. It's hard to go to the grocery store and pick out your spirits and then come home and taste it blind because you already know what you just picked out, so this is an awesome experience. You don't know if you're tasting a $5 bottle of whiskey or a $5,000 bottle of whiskey, right? You have no idea what the price range is, no idea where the product is coming from and you're really just using kind of your senses to detect and see what you enjoy and what you don't.
And when you submit those results, you get your list of responses back and then now you're equipped with this kind of data. It's almost like submitting your DNA results and learning a little bit about yourself. It's a fun little thing to go through and what we saw is a lot of the judges were like, "Oh my God, this is going to be fun. We're locked up. We have family in town, we have friends that really loves spirits." So they would do these little tiny mini SIP Awards events in their homes. They would invite maybe three couples and they would have these experiences because people were already doing that with quarantine. They would come over, they would do a little wine. They would talk about politics or life, but now this gave them a little bit of a depth of an event to do, we saw people having little cocktail events.
We saw companies actually buying kits for their employees and doing Skype happy hours and going through the experience through Skype and going one by one each vial. So it kind of really changed the dynamic for us but it made it really fun for the judges, made it fun for the brands because now they had this very safe way of getting results and still being able to kind of market in a very effective way and talk to their consumer public.

Interviewer:
Are there any lessons from doing that sort of locked down approach that you are going to actually take forward?

Pouya Hashemi:
Yeah, so we just did our 2021 competition and again, we had a record breaking year. We had 1,100 brands compete this year, which is I think at least a 20% increase. We're just seeing acceleration in the acceptance of SIP Awards which is great for the brands and the judges, what we've seen as far as what we want to take away and by the way we did 2021, the same in-home kits even though some of the lockdown guidances were lifted. We feel like that might still be something that we want to hang on to even after COVID, just for the fact that it's a lot more of a scalable process with an event, a one day event, you can only have so many judges and so many hours in the day to go through the product and we're always kind of feeling rushed.
With this the judges can actually do it in the privacy of their home. They can do it on a kind of a event setting with friends and gathering or they can do it as a couple, more intimate and I think that again with us growing so rapidly year over year, this in-home experience will probably be something that we're going to take on.
Now, there are going to be categories and we've seen that, that we don't do the in-home experience, which is like the mixers. So we have categories for mixers, which wouldn't make sense for an in-home kit because of whether they have preservatives or not or they need to be mixed with different products. So for those, we hold little mini events kind of similar to what we did in the past. So we'll probably continue with certain categories in-home experiences and then other ones event-based experiences and kind of mix the process up a little bit.

Interviewer:
Other than that what do you see as the future of the SIP Awards?

Pouya Hashemi:
Yeah. With this type of competition, 13 years ago, if you would have asked anyone, they would have probably said that there isn't much innovation that could be done on something like this and we came in and introduced a lot of new ideas and new processes and new ways of getting judges and what type of judges are valuable. So I come from a technology background and as we're all aware technology shifts and moves almost on a dime year over year. What was hot before isn't the next year. So I'm very comfortable with change and moving and really making an effort to keep the competition kind of alive and evolving and thriving.
So what's to come, that's hard to say just because of the fact that we don't know what the future will hold but I think we want to be in the forefront of change for this industry. And as I mentioned, the in-home kit experience we came out with it first and we saw immediately an adoption from other competitions using that same methodology. So copycats are a good way of flattery or shows that this type of process is a good thing for the industry. So I'm all for different types of innovation and we're not going to stop, I think we're only really just beginning and there's a lot more growth internationally that we're going to see in the next couple of years and a lot more changes we're going to try and look at into the market to making it more valuable for the brands and the judges overall when they hear this, the company in simple words.

Interviewer:
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. If people want more information on the SIP Awards they can, of course go to your website, which is sipawards.com and also connect with you on your socials.

Pouya Hashemi:
Yes, we have Instagram we're very big on, we also have Facebook and Twitter.

Interviewer:
And it's @SIPawards?

Pouya Hashemi:
Yes. On all of the channels.

Interviewer:
All right, look thank you again.

Pouya Hashemi:
Thank you for having me.

 

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