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Judging Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational BBQ

This past weekend, we headed down to Lynchburg, Tennessee to judge the 25th Annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational BBQ, and what a spectacular occasion it was. Judges and more than 25,000 people gathered to watch competitive barbecue’s finest cooks compete for the title of Grand Champion. But before we were able to sit down, savor and decide who should win the ultimate title, we had to go to class.

Every judge needs to be officially certified by the Kansas City Barbeque Society before participating in a competition. Our three hour class on Friday taught us everything we needed to know about the categories and cuts of meat we would be tasting, rules and regulations regarding presentation and form and what to look for in terms of taste, touch and sight when sitting at the judges’ table. After going through a practice run of KCBS’ four required contest categories – chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder/butt and beef brisket – we took the Certified BBQ Judge’s Oath to seal the deal and become official. Now we can volunteer to judge the organization’s many competitions throughout the year.

After class, we headed to Bethel House, situated next to the distillery, for a Jack Daniel’s cocktail reception, tasting with master distiller Jeff Arnett and dinner cooked by Lisa Donovan, the incredibly talented pastry chef of Husk Nashville and founder of Buttermilk Road Sunday Supper. As the 7th Master Distiller, Jeff Arnett led us in a tasting of the Jack Daniel’s family of brands. We sampled the pre-aged product, both before and after charcoal mellowing, a process where the whiskey drips through 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal, making it smooth. The process also distinguishes Jack Daniel’s as a Tennessee Whiskey in addition to a bourbon. We went on to taste Old No. 7, Gentleman Jack, Single Barrel, Tennessee Honey and their newest addition to the family, Sinatra Select. Frank Sinatra was a huge fan of Jack Daniels; in fact, he stood on stage at a show, toasted to the audience and declared it the “nectar of the gods.” To honor his legacy and love for Jack as we approach what would be his 100th birthday in 2015, Sinatra Select features a rich amber color, pleasant smokiness and incredibly smooth vanilla finish.

Lisa Donovan’s meal following the tasting was epic. It was difficult enough not to fill up on the cast iron biscuits and yeast rolls until snacks of Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheddar gougers came to the table. Pulled pork with spicy molasses BBQ sauce and kohlrabi slaw, Benton’s bacon with pickled peach and pimento cheese with spicy chow chow all made for delicious bites. The benne cracker panzanella salad with beets, greens and local honey vinaigrette and smothered okra with Anson Mills cheese grits that followed were equally as mouthwatering. And the main course can only be described as a religious experience. Wedge Oak Farms hot chicken was one of the best dishes we’ve ever had, complemented by housemade pickles and Miss Mary Bobo’s incredible Jack Daniel’s apples. Dessert didn’t miss a beat when a Tennessee apple hand pie with pralines and cream arrived at the table. After dinner, the festivities ensued with a party on Barbecue Hill, a Jack Daniel’s Invitational tradition that brings together judges, competitors and guests with live music and booze before the big day.

When competition time arrived Saturday, our tastebuds were recovered and ready. Before our judges’ meeting, we took a lap around the Winner’s Circle, filled with competitors of a separately judged competition featuring champions of years past. Then it was time to fulfill our official duties. We judged seven different categories including Jack Daniel’s Sauce, Cook’s Choice, Chicken, Pork Ribs, Pork Shoulder/Butt, Beef Brisket and Dessert from both the United States and 16 international teams. The judging process lasted about four hours as we tasted around 50 samples from competitors. To say we were full and happy was an understatement.

Who took home the title of Grand Champion and a prize of $10,000? Cool Smoke from Richmond, VA, a five-year veteran of The Jack, received the top honor. A Boy & His BBQ from Grimes, IA took home $2,500 as Reserve Grand Champion. From the Winner’s Circle competition, Pig Skin BBQ from Rockwell, IA (last year’s Grand Champion) finished first with $2,500. In addition to these highest honors, first place prizes were awarded in seven categories:

Pork Ribs – Southern Krunk BBQ Society, Hot Springs, AR
Pork Shoulder/Butts – QUAU, Brimfield, IL
Beef Brisket – A Boy & His BBQ, Grimes, IA
Chicken – Little Pig Town, Owasso, OK
Dessert – Killer B’s BBQ, Evans, GA
Cook’s Choice – Prairie Smoke & Spice BBQ, Pilot Butte, Saskatchewan, Canada
Jack Daniel’s Sauce – Polish BBQ Kings, Poland

As you can tell from what we’ve said above, the food and drink was outstanding throughout the entire weekend. But what was even more extraordinary was the company of the incredible people we met from all around the globe, gathered to celebrate this milestone occasion and a universal love for excellence in BBQ. We can’t wait to go back next year!

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