After a career as a three-time Olympic swimmer in her native Singapore, Nicolette Teo pivoted to a career in wine and spirits. This career included a stint as the Managing Director of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (SFWSC) from 2015 to 2018 before she co-Founded the LA Spirits Awards in 2019.
BW: What lessons from your time as an Olympian have you applied to running spirits competitions?
NT: Having been an Olympic athlete has afforded me many amazing opportunities in life and has taught me important life skills that have come in handy in my post-athletic career. I do believe that my experience as an Olympian provided me with important time-management skills and a strong work ethic. Those are two that immediately come to mind.
A spirits competition is a giant, complicated machine that has countless moving parts that all have to work in unison. Small problems or errors that might occur at one stage of the process can become larger problems later. It’s critical that systems are in place to ensure no errors. In addition to the enormous number of bottles that need to be registered, sorted, poured, and judged with no room for error, there are a lot of people involved who must not only know their roles but must work well together. To manage these things well requires many skills I gained from my time on the Olympic team: planning, discipline, patience, organizational and team-building skills — they all come in handy.
BW: Why do you feel diversity is so important in spirits competitions and how are you implementing that with the L.A. Spirits Competition?
NT: The spirits industry has traditionally been the dominion of men, mostly white, and mostly older. The majority of spirits competitions reflect that, too: Most if not all are owned and/or operated by older white men, and in turn they’ve usually hired a lot of their compatriots to judge with them. But this is in no way an accurate reflection of the contemporary spirits industry or of the folks who buy and consume spirits.
The modern spirits industry has been undergoing a bit of a Renaissance for years now. There’s been an explosion in the number of small brands created by young, passionate distillers of all genders, all races, all backgrounds, and experiences. On the consumer side, there’s an entirely new, equally diverse generation of drinkers who are discovering new and traditional products that excite them. The marketing side of the industry knows this and is always inventing ways to bring their products to the attention of the next generation of customers. But the spirits competition industry, which plays an important role in bringing products to the attention of consumers and even to experts, has been slow to catch up, still judged by the old guard and by old-guard standards and tastes.
We conceived L.A. Spirits Awards to be a reflection of the modern spirits environment. It’s not that we have anything against old white men—my business partner jokes that he is an old white man—but we think a professional team of judges that together reflect the society at large gives a fresh perspective and a more modern understanding of spirits producers and consumers. (And we have some amazing, really impressive judges!)
BW: What is the most exciting category you are seeing in global whiskey right now?
NT: Personally, I am most excited by the innovation and premiumization of blended whiskeys! “Blended” used to be a dirty word where American whiskey was involved because U.S. whiskey brands typically leaned heavily on neutral grain spirits in their blends. However, this has changed. The category is evolving and has become much more sophisticated, with more and more brands releasing premium blended whiskeys that showcase their finesse in blending.
I look forward to seeing more premium blended whiskeys entering L.A. Spirits Awards!
BW: What advice do you have for women who want to judge spirits competitions?
NT: Taste everything and taste often. There is no secret to developing your tasting skills except to practice. I’ve also found sharing and comparing tasting notes with colleagues extremely helpful (and humbling)! They’ll likely mention an attribute of a spirit that you might never have thought of and it will suddenly click into place. These are some of my favorite moments, learning to put words to what you’re tasting.
Also, don’t discriminate against a certain category of spirits simply because it’s deemed as low brow or something you don’t personally enjoy. There is always a time, place, and person for each spirits category. Spirits competitions are not about personal preference, but rather about whether a product is a good representation of its given category. You may not personally love, for example, cream liqueurs, but there is a market for it and to be a good spirits judge one needs to be able to discern if the product is medal-worthy or not by measuring it against the industry standards for it.
Also, remember to spit, cleanse your palate, and pace yourself! Judging a spirits competition is a marathon, not a sprint and it is important to ensure that you are giving each spirit entry its due attention.
Lastly, and this should absolutely go without saying: Speak up and be heard. Your voice, your knowledge, your expertise, is as valid as anyone else’s and equally important.
BW: Tell me about your perfect whiskey weekend in Los Angeles.
NT: I like starting my weekends off with a classic L.A. hike! One of my favorites is in the Santa Monica Mountains from Mishe Mokwa Trail to Sandstone Peak and Tri-Peaks, which offers spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and Santa Monica Bay!
After the hike, I head home to recuperate before meeting friends for drinks at Far Bar in Little Tokyo. I’ve been having a love affair with Japanese whisky lately and Far Bar has one of the most comprehensive selections of Japanese and Pacific Rim whiskies. In addition to whisky from these emerging markets, Far Bar also features a long list of bourbons, ryes, and Scotches, plus other, more-familiar whiskeys from around the U.S. There is always a whisk(e)y for everyone! Additionally, Far Bar has a sweet courtyard in the back with picnic tables and string lights overhead, which allows me to enjoy the year-round perfect L.A. weather while keeping it COVID-safe! Keeping to my theme of Japan, dinner would be sushi at Sushi Gen, follow by post-dinner drinks at Wolf and Crane, another great craft cocktail bar in the Little Tokyo scene.