In 2007, Pouya “Paul” Hashemi figured that tasting competitions would be a great way to introduce his newly imported exotic spirits—absinthe and organic tequila—to the American consumer. But he quickly discovered that well-connected industry insiders—major importers, distributors and even the brands themselves—controlled traditional spirits-tasting competitions, right down to the judges. “There was an inherent bias against the smaller brands,” says the 35-year-old Newport Beach serial entrepreneur. “I thought it would be better to have your average Joe, your regular spirits fan, judge these tastings. This would reset the focus on quality in order to showcase brands that have earned their spotlight with the merit of their spirits.”
So two years later, Hashemi launched the Spirits International Prestige (SIP) Awards, which is marketed as the first spirits-tasting competition to feature consumers as judges. He considers this people-first approach foundational for the success of SIP (as well as spinTouch, his other, interactive technology company).
The inaugural SIP Awards attracted a modest 77 entries (compared to nearly 1,000 at the larger competitions), representing mostly smaller brands. Since then, Hashemi’s democratized competition has grown in big gulps. In May, the SIP Awards will enter its 10th year with more than 150 citizen judges blind tasting 700-plus spirits from brands across a variety of industries at a closed-to-the-public event in Newport Beach. “Honest and unbiased feedback for consumers is hard to come by,” says Hashemi, who enjoys whiskey on the rocks. “We’re not only letting spirits brands get in front of an audience with zero industry entanglements, but we also receive feedback straight from their taste buds.”