Do you need formal qualifications like WSET to learn about and appreciate spirits like whisky or Cognac? Lauren Eads talks to various industry professionals to find out whether studying spirits is worth the time or the expense.
Some people, I’ve heard, love exams. The thrill of achieving an academic qualification can be quite addictive, driven by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I like exams better when there’s tasting involved, which is perhaps why I gravitated towards the world of wine and spirits. I certainly experienced moments of complete despair when studying for my WSET Diploma in wine and spirits, but also moments of triumph. Completing the course was deeply rewarding, but it’s not the only way to gain knowledge. There are plenty of spirits experts without a lick of training who could taste anyone under the table. But the study of spirits can be thoroughly enjoyable too. Courses vary from casual and fun to intense and formal. Some are accredited by official exam bodies, some are completely unregulated. But are they worth it? Especially when there are many other ways to gain information?
Kristiane Sherry, former editor at Master of Malt and now head of brand at Fine+Rare, has WSET Levels 1-3 in Spirits, and Level 2 in Wine under her belt. She’s also completed the WSET’s Spirits Educator training course. “I remember a wise person once telling me that you don’t know what you don’t know, and that’s completely true. Of course I also learned lots of technical information, how to taste, how drinks are made and defined, but the most valuable take-away really has been confidence in my own knowledge.” Tasting in a group setting can also be motivating, allowing you to learn from others and pick up on flavors you might have missed. “Tasting flights alongside people with years of experience is such a luxury, and it’s probably where I’ve learned how to taste and sharpen my palate,” adds Sherry. The flip side of that is being led. “Someone will say I’m tasting pineapple, and then everyone else will taste pineapple, and you find they’ve all been led by one person,” adds Richard Legg, in-house training manager at Atom Brands (Master of Malt parent company). He teaches the WSET Level 1, 2 and 3 spirits courses, which are regarded as among the industry’s most broad-ranging.
Aren’t formal courses just for professionals?
“No, but you have to really want to know your stuff”, says Legg. Most require a lot of dedication and study and aren’t necessarily ‘fun’, but a serious exploration of spirits production, regulations and assessment. “You have some incredible experts who have never done a course in their life, but you can have glaring gaps in your knowledge and not even realise,” says Legg. “People can be very good at whisky, but ask about Cognac and they’re completely lost. Formal courses are great at giving a good overview.It also really helps for objectivity.”
What’s the downside? The WSET’s Level 1, 2 and 3 in spirits currently cost £210 (one day), £450 (two days) and £875 (6 days) respectively for in-classroom teaching and tasting, with cheaper online options offered at Levels 1 and 2. The Institute of Brewing and Distilling offers a General Certificate in Distilling for around £500, while Heriot-Watt University’s MsC in Brewing and Distilling costs £9,000 for a year’s full-time study. Alternatively there are courses like the Edinburgh Academy of Whisky, which range from £100 to £1,000, and the Council of Whiskey Masters (£300 to £4,000). These courses tend to be targeted at one category, such as Scotch or gin, which might be preferable to courses that are broader in scope or deeply technical. Others are aimed specifically at consumers, or brand led, which can be great fun but a little more biased. The variation in content and delivery is vast and expectations don’t always match reality. “There’s a lot of reviews on courses and lots of testimonials from people,” says Legg. “Try and find out about the course structure and whether it’s at the right level, because if you don’t enjoy the content it will be wasted on you.”
Can you become an expert without splashing the cash?
Yes, with enough passion, determination and tasting you can bone up on your Bourbon, whisky or rye without spending a fortune. Ruben Luyten is the author of WhiskyNotes.be (and SherryNotes.com). He’s known for his independent reviews, but has no formal training. “I firmly believe that with the right attitude and a good dose of nerdy passion, you can (quickly) get on the level of the average brand ambassador,” he says. “When it comes to tasting / nosing I don’t even think it can be taught, only refined / aligned. It requires a certain talent, in the same way someone with no aesthetic feeling will ever become a true artist, even after taking professional lessons.”
Instead, Lutyen suggests, open your mind to more flavour experiences, logging your perceptions to widen your tasting abilities. When he started writing tasting notes, he would frequently compare his notes to others online. “I specifically bought those spirits that had just been reviewed on certain websites,” he explains. “I was intrigued by some of the descriptors, so I wanted to experience them myself. Doing this regularly seemed to create links in my mind between flavours and language. You’ll learn to detect certain aromas and describe them in the best way. In addition, I’m constantly trying fruits, candy, pastries that I’ve never had, especially when on holiday. Widening and training your nose and palate is a constant adventure and enriches the way I experience spirits.”
Hit the books and drink the booze
Similarly, Felipe Schrieberg is a whisky writer and spirits competition judge who was named the 2022 Icons of Whisky Communicator of the Year and the 2021 Alan Lodge Young International Drinks Writer of the Year. He’s built his career without formal qualifications, only recently taking the WSET’s Level 2 spirits course. Having access to clear information and industry figures to guide your learning is “incredibly useful”, he says, but by no means necessary. Schrieberg’s top tip is to “hit the books and drink the booze”, which is my kind of advice. “There are so many great resources, both in book and Internet form, that provide so much excellent information, and it is certainly important to try and taste as much as possible.”
Some of the best resources online include whisky.com and whiskyadvocate.com, as well as the now silent but excellent scotchwhisky.com. And don’t forget about the Master of Malt blog! Some of Legg’s best blogs include Whisky Science, Tequila Matchmaker, The Floating Rum Shack and Okinawa Awamori, about a little known spirit called Awamori from an archipelago of islands off the south of Japan. Top reference books for whisky include The World Atlas of Whisky by Dave Broom, Malt Whisky: The Complete Guide by Charles McLean and the more recent Everything you need to know about whisky (but were afraid to ask), by Nick Morgan. Luyten’s recommendations include Whisky: The Manual, Malt Whisky: The complete guide, Proof: the science of booze, and Appreciating Whisky. “Learning from books requires some diligence and motivation, but I’m convinced you can get to the same level as most of the spirits courses I’ve seen,” he says.
There’s no wrong way to learn about spirits, just the right way for you. So dive in and get tasting, because that’s really the only way to start.
Header image courtesy of Glencairn.