IWSC Interview: Nate Gana

IWSC news

Mon 5 Feb 2024

By Lucy Shaw

Ahead of the Worldwide Whiskey Awards, we caught up with Vancouver-based whiskey communicator and regular IWSC judge Nate Gana to find out why the awards will be jointly held in London and Kentucky this year, and get the lowdown on the trends that will be shaking up the booming Worldwide Whiskey category this year.

The IWSC is taking its Worldwide Whiskey & RTD Awards on the road this year to Kentucky – why is the competition going Stateside in September?

We have such a huge whiskey culture in North America, and a complex and evolved whiskey industry, so why not showcase that to the world? It was my idea to take the judging Stateside this year to coincide with the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, which we are partnering with, and make it easier for US-based whiskey producers to enter the competition. Holding the awards in Kentucky will save producers the UK shipping costs, and is also a chance to pool together a fantastic group of judges from across the US, including writers, distillers and master blenders, alongside a panel of incredibly well-respected names from the UK.

With Richard Paterson OBE, Dr Emma Walker and Dawn Davies MW in the judging line-up, the competition looks set to be a very high calibre this year…

This is what sets the IWSC apart – the calibre of its judges. The international judges heading to Kentucky this year have such a strong understanding of the Whiskey category - their expertise and knowledge will be invaluable. The idea of the IWSC Judging in Kentucky was to bring over the top whiskey specialists from the UK to invigorate the competition and make it one of the biggest and best in America – these are true legends of the game, and their unique perspectives coupled with the expertise of our US judges makes the proposition very strong.

What aspects of North American whiskey are you hoping the competition will showcase?

Right now the American whiskey game is at an all-time high when it comes to quality, and a lot of producers will be putting their best foot forward with the expressions they enter. The competition will showcase how far American whiskey has come in such a short space of time. We’re expecting the bulk of submissions to be cask-finished American whiskies, which Scotland and Ireland have been doing for generations but it’s a relatively new concept in America. Most US distilleries make cask-finished whiskies now and the quality is stellar.

The Kentucky competition will also judge RTD and mixers, can you tell me a bit about that?

The RTDs will span all spirits, not just whiskey. It’s a huge and growing category in North America taking in everything from drinks giants to tiny start-ups, so we want to reflect that diversity in the IWSC Kentucky judging. We will have a dedicated RTD judging panel overseen by the IWSC’s Judging Committee Member Shannon Tebay. In addition, producers entering the Whiskey Awards can also enter the Mixer Awards, sponsored by Franklin & Sons, where the judges will crown the world's best spirits and mixer pairings, selecting the best whiskey highball and whiskey and ginger ale blend.

What sets the IWSC’s Worldwide Whiskey & RTD Awards apart from its competitors and why would you encourage US whiskey producers to enter?

The quality of the judges is unmatched. The IWSC has always put emphasis on having the best judges in their field in the world, which sets it apart from other spirits competitions where they hand out double golds like candy, making them essentially meaningless. If you get a gold medal from the IWSC it’s extremely deserved and you’re putting out pure quality from your distillery, rather than it being a participation award. This is true for any medal, not just gold. The reason why I respect the IWSC so much is that they don't award medals easily – producers really have to earn it, but if they do earn an IWSC medal, be it gold, silver or bronze, it is an industry-recognised seal of approval.

Last year’s IWSC Worldwide Whiskey Awards saw entries from 30 countries – why is worldwide whiskey on fire right now?

We’re starting to see amazing distilleries emerge everywhere from England to Tasmania that are being taken seriously on the world stage. What makes it exciting is that each country is making distinct whiskey expressions influenced by their unique climate and production methods, and is bringing something new to the world of whiskey. German and Polish oak are growing in popularity, which is allowing for incredible flavour variants in whiskey to come to the fore.

What are the latest trends in Bourbon and American whiskey right now?

Experimenting with different cask finishes – from Port and Sherry to French and Brazilian oak – is the big trend in American whiskey at the moment. Cask finishes that you would regularly see in Scotland have finally become the norm in the US, which is an exciting trend as it’s allowing master distillers to be more creative with their blends, and enabling American whiskey to move away from the standard formula of new American oak maturation. The trend is leading to increased competition for barrels – Japanese Mizunara oak is an extremely popular choice for cask finishes in American whiskey right now.

What gives American whiskey the edge over other world whiskies?

The US outshines other world whiskies when it comes to the quality of its cask strength offerings, as the majority of American whiskey is cask strength by nature. What America does very well is making high-quality, high-proof whiskey at an affordable price compared to the rest of the world. A lot of whiskey lovers are choosing American expressions for that reason, as they don’t compromise on flavour or quality and they offer a pure and undiluted expression of the liquid. They also wear their high alcohol levels with ease.

Where are the next big world whiskey frontiers do you think?

With Pernod Ricard’s investment in The Chuan Distillery in China’s Sichuan Province, all eyes will be on China this year when it comes to whiskey. The drinks giant is betting big on Chinese whiskey, which is a wise move as there’s a huge opportunity to appeal to local consumers with quality liquid. Mexico is also one to watch for whiskey – it’s home to the highest quality corn in the world, and the corn whiskies currently coming out of Mexico are amazing. Canada is also performing strongly right now from a single malt perspective through the likes of Shelter Point Distillery on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, which is producing some of the highest quality single malt I’ve ever come across.

Whiskey is due to overtake vodka sales in the US this year as more world whiskies become available – does this put local producers under threat?

I don't think the rise of world whiskey in the US will negatively impact local producers as Americans love to support their local economy, so I can’t see Bourbon ever being knocked off the top spot in the US. I see the rise of world whiskey as a positive trend that will inspire innovation among the more established producers. Seeing the quality of the whiskies coming out from around the world will spark healthy competition and will inspire producers to expand their horizons when it comes to maturation and different cask finishes.

Find out more and enter the IWSC North American Whiskey and RTD Judging in Kentucky here.