Friday, May 27, 2016

Final Word on Spirits

It is with excitement and relief that I share that I have passed the Spirits exam I took back in March! This spirits exam was the hardest exam I have taken thus far (as you can see below from my initial observations immediately after the exam). When I got the results via email from our instructor, I almost jumped out of my chair! To not have to retake this exam is a HUGE relief.

Below is a post I was going to put up just after the exam, but time got the best of me and I never got to it. It's a recap of my road to the Spirits exam. Enjoy and stay tuned next week for an update on how my studies are progressing.

Hello readers! Long time no talk. To say that life has been crazy busy is an understatement! As you may know, my Spirits exam (Unit 4) is behind me. I took the exam, which consisted of 3 blind tastings and 3 short answer questions, on March 9. This was a tough one. When I took my last exam (Sparkling Unit 5), I felt very confident that I passed. This time I am on the fence. It was a tough exam for me, and I think I am right on the cusp of passing or not passing. All I can do is wait until the results are released, which is in about 8 weeks.

Leading up to the Spirits exam I did a lot of practical prep: tasting groups, tasting events, distillery tours, etc. Here is a quick snapshot of my path to the Spirits exam.

A cornerstone of WSET study is tasting groups. All exams have a tasting component, and you can’t be expected to pass the tasting portion of the exams if you don’t have the experience in tasting all of the spirits that could be on the exam. I talk to friends about these tastings and they’re dumbfounded that in blind tastings, a rum could be mistaken for a whisky, or that it can be difficult to discern the difference between a Scotch whiskey and a Bourbon. I assure you, it’s tough! When the spirits are not blind, it is a piece of cake. You taste a Bourbon and you’re like “of course this is Bourbon!”. There is no question. But when the spirits are blind, your lack of confidence can get the best of you.

Spirits Tasting Group

When blind tasting spirits, the first place to start is with the base material. All spirits are made with a base material that contains sugar/carbs. This base material is then converted to sugar (if necessary), fermented, and then distilled to produce the end product, a spirit. Common base materials are listed below:


Cognac/Armagnac (grapes), Brandy de Jerez (grapes), Pisco (grapes), Grappa (grapes), Calvados (apple), Poire Williams (pear), Framboise (raspberry), kirsch (cherry)


Whiskey, Whisky, Bourbon, Vodka, Gin, Genever

Sugar Cane/Molasses

Rum, Rhum Agricole, Cachaca


Tequila, Mezcal

Flavored Spirits

Absinthe, Pernod, Pastis, Ouzo, Raki, Bitters


Chartreuse, Sambuca, Curacao, Triple Sec, Cointreau, Grand Marnier, Limoncello, Southern Comfort, Kahlua, Baileys

Another strategy for spirits study is to visit a distillery. In my case, I was able to visit two of them: Greenbar Craft Distillery in Downtown LA and Bendistillery in Bend, Oregon. A good chunk of spirits study is to learn HOW spirits are distilled. What is the process to take a fermented liquid, put that liquid in a still, and distill the liquid until you have the desired flavors, style/quality, and alcohol level. The answer is not a simple one. There are pot stills (for more small-batch artisan spirits) and column stills (used for most commercial spirits), and there are a slew of other choices that are made along the way as well. When you visit a distillery, you physically see a still and can make out all the pieces. It is TREMENDOUSLY helpful to see a still in person, versus viewing diagrams in a book that don’t actually look like real machines.

Pot/Column Still at Bendistillery in Bend, OR

Pot/Column Still at Greenbar Distillery in Downtown LA

Fermentation Tanks at Greenbar Distillery in Downtown LA

Oak Casks at Greenbar Distillery in Downtown LA

Another form of study is to go to spirits tasting events. Our WSET classes take place at the Wine House in West LA. The Wine House is big on educating their customers. They offer all sorts of classes and tasting events at various levels. One of the events I went to was a Royal Dutch Distillers tasting. We had a chance to try a vodka, a gin, a celery gin, a genever, and a Mandarin Napoleon. We first tried the spirits neat, and then each in a cocktail. My favorite part of the tasting was to smell all of the different botanicals that go into the gin. They had small containers of each: angelica, orris, fennel, coriander, cardamom, carob, and celery leaf. Here are 3 of the recipes from that evening.

Old Fashioned

2 oz Genever

¼ oz simple syrup

Dash Angostura bitters

Dash orange bitters

Orange peel (garnish)

Lemon peel (garnish)

Tom Collins

1.5 oz vodka

1 oz mandarin napoleon

¾ oz fresh lemon juice

¼ oz simple syrup

Top with soda

Gin and Tonic

1.5 oz celery gin

3-4 oz tonic

Rosemary sprig (garnish)

Juniper berries (garnish)

Cucumber (garnish)

Next week I will give an update on where my studies stand now that I have passed the Spirits exam.

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