Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET): What’s it like to be certified in Spirits?
Several years ago, the film SOMM came out and it made a huge impression on me. While I never thought about being certified in wine, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn more about spirits. I took the Wine and Spirit Education Trust Spirits Level 2 exam at Trail Distilling in Oregon City. My Level 2 class was the first time WSET held a course at a working distillery and I had a great time “making” whiskey with my class- more on that later.
The Minty is 10 years old. I started the blog documenting my food adventures and eventually my cocktails and spirits adventures. I was lucky- when I started writing about food, the craft cocktail movement had just started. I was one of those who drank “sours” (Midori and Amaretto being most notable) in college, enjoyed tawny port and knew just enough about wine. With craft cocktails, I would soon love whiskey and pisco sours.
Over the years I learned about spirits mostly from what I called Booze Travel (going to various Cocktail Week around the US), local tastings and lectures here in Los Angeles and reading a ton of articles and books. I have been to so many distilleries including some in Chile and Armenia.
I connected with Rob McCaughey from WSET back in 2018 when I attended a Bar Institute popup in LA. He encouraged me to sign up for a course and mentioned I didn’t need to take Level 1. At this point it had been several years since I had taken pre-Prohibition style bartending classes for 6 weeks so I was fairly confident of my palate and knowledge.
Also, it was very fortuitous that Rob co-taught my Level 2 course.
I arrived to Portland and got familiar with Oregon City very quickly. Level 2 meant two days of intense study and the third day would be exam day. We had about 12 folks in the class which was a mix of local distillers, the Portland Women Who Whiskey chapter president and some enthusiasts.
I do recommend taking the Level 1 if you are not working in the industry or a spirits journalist. Level 2 presumes you have some basic knowledge as we flew past concepts such as distillation. Mostly we concentrated on tasting individual spirits and writing notes.
In the movie SOMM, I was fascinated by tasting notes. In my normal, every day life, I do not give tasting notes. I don’t do it for the blog and I rarely do it in person. I much prefer giving recommendations for specific spirits / brands or drinks based on what I know of your likes and dislikes. I have friends who always trust me to order them the perfect drink because I know if they like spicy drinks or sweet drinks or maybe a beer will do.
But I was committed to the practice and I will go through the systematic approach to tasting spirits in the WSET manner when I encounter new (to me) spirits/brands. Just the other week I attended a tasting with handouts very much like the one shown above. The presenter is a WSET Level 3 in Wine and Spirits.
First, it’s about the appearance then nose and then palate. You draw your conclusions after that. Having judged over 100 spirits one day, doing this for a few each day felt like I had all the time in the world to expand on first impressions.
Over the two days we tasted vodka, gin, rum, whiskey/whisky, brandy and mezcal. My main takeaway from this is always taste everything in the same manner. I prefer my tasting glass to be yes, glass. Tasting from plastic sucks. Also, plastic cups are bad for the environment anyway. I bought a mini Glencairn style glass from Trail Distilling and I bring it with me to tastings now (when I don’t bring a full set of regular Glencairns).
WSET advises also adding water before tasting the spirit. I have now become one of those high proof heads so I would taste it neat and then I added some water. I felt this enhanced my experience. Others might just say I’m a professional drinker.
I should make copies of the tasting page and bring it to every tasting. It really is helpful to systematically taste all spirits the same way. I talked to bartenders and distributors after taking my Level 2 and some people mention it’s great to say you’re certified. Distributors are always interested in knowledgeable people. It helps when applying for jobs and negotiating salaries.
Earlier I mentioned I made whiskey with my class. On our last day, exam day, we gathered in the distillery to taste the various cuts coming off the still. We collectively decided where the heads, heart and tails cuts were of the distillate. It was actually amazing we were in agreement. The heart was then barreled.
If you live in the Portland area, I highly recommend taking a WSET course at Trail Distilling or just visiting them and tasting through their spirits. I loved their gins and whiskey.
I’ll see this barrel again, I’m sure.
After a few weeks, I was notified I passed with 98% which means I missed one question of the 50 question test. Each question is worth 2 points. WSET doesn’t tell you which questions you missed so I’ll never know what I need to immediately drink more of to master! I’m a professional booze nerd now. Every time I wear my WSET pin, I get knowing looks from somms. It’s quite fun! I’m looking into taking my Spirits Level 3 which WSET introduced last year. Level 3 means the exam covers tasting notes. I’ll definitely have to commit to tasting spirits systematically then.
Wine and Spirit Education Trust
Register for WSET Classes here
21553 S Hwy 213, Oregon City, OR 97045 — (503) 479-0003
© 2020 The Minty
Well done! A good read. I did a SWE conference in Portland a few years ago, nice city! Got my distillation training on the job at Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey in Denver, CO. It certainly is fun!
I would love to take distillation training!