Southerners are known for their bourbon but get little recognition for the other good spirits their distilleries are producing, and the awards for quality tend to come from outside of the South.


Matti Anttila, founder of Charleston’s Grain & Barrel Spirits, wants to change all of that.
“I was asked if I would enter a contest earlier this year. But the contest was in a random state that had little to no relevance to our business or our customers. It got me thinking: Would it be of value to our industry peer group to be judged by experts within the region? I went to a number of my peers, and they all said this is something we need, so The South’s Best was born,” Anttila said.

The South’s Best is the first regional spirits competition for spirit brands produced in the South, which Anttila says he defines as 17 states, from Delaware to Texas, including Washington D.C.
Judges — mostly from Charleston — will do blind tastings the week of Nov. 6 and vote on the top in each of more than 300 categories, including The South’s Best Double Gold, Gold, Silver and Bronze medals for categories including Best of Show and Best of State, along with niche awards like Best Veteran-Owned Spirit, Best Female-Owned Spirit, Best Minority-Owned Spirit and Best Organic Spirit. Double Gold recipients will be judged a second time to determine Best of Show. The judging will be done privately, but Anttila says future years will include inviting the public to watch the judging.

Judges include influencers such as Taneka Reaves and Johnny Caldwell, also known as the Cocktail Bandits; restaurant owners such as Nathan Thurston from Millers All Day; beverage buyers such as Mike van Beyrer of Bottles; bar beverage program managers such as Jim McCourt of Prohibition and Jamie Bolt of Gin Joint; and a non-alcoholic category judge, Emily Heintz of Séchey.

“This has been one of the most fun parts since kicking it off, seeing the variety of spirits produced in this region,” Anttila said. “The initial reaction is the South produces great whiskey, which it does, but we’ve also had rum from Mississippi, gin from Alabama, single malt Scotch from North Carolina and a non-alcoholic spirit from Texas. It’s reflective of the strength of distilling in the region, and it’s so much more than just whiskey.”

Winners of The South’s Best get “bragging rights,” Anttila said, as well as publicity, and he said he’s working on more “physical opportunities for winners to highlight their products in front of key customers.” Winners will be announced the week after Thanksgiving.

In future years, Anttila says he plans to add The South’s Best Beer competition and The South’s Best Wine competition.

“My goal is really to have this be the Academy Awards for Southern beverages,” Anttila said.

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