My journey towards WSET Diploma, Part 2 – Spirits

Before you start reading, take into account that I took my exam in March 2018 so some of the information about the Spirits exam can be outdated.

Like every WSET Diploma exam, Unit 5 (Spirits) exam was a hard one for me. However, there were two other factors that made this exam extremely difficult for me. Firstly, 3 months before the exam, my dad had a stroke and I had to travel home (from New Zealand to Poland) to help my family. This meant a lot of stress, travel, and no time and mental space for studying. Even after coming back to New Zealand, it was hard to focus on my studies. Secondly, I’ve never liked the spirits. Yes, I know that I am from Poland so stereotypically I should love spirits and know everything about vodka. The fact of the matter is that I drunk some vodka when I was studying but it was always for social reasons, never for the taste of it. As you can imagine learning about something you are not interested in and during the time when your mind is worrying about your family health is a quite hard task. But I didn’t have much choice, I tried my best to pass the exam.

Let’s see what both parts of the exam, theory and tasting were about.

Theory

Spirits theory specification includes brandy (Cognac, Armagnac, Pisco and Brandy de Jerez), calvados and other fruit-based spirits (e.g. Kirsch), whisky (Scottish, Irish, American, Canadian, Japanese), vodka, rum, tequila and mezcal, gin and anise-based drinks. Add to that the details of distillation and overview of the spirits market and information about the main producers. Fortunately, Unit 5 comes with a book prepared by WSET. This book covers about 70-80% of the material that one needs to learn and it makes it similar to studying for WSET Level 3 – learn everything from the book and you should be ok. However, I found some of the concepts explained in the book rather hard to understand. Therefore, I ended up buying 6 additional books (about whisky, vodka, cognac, gin, calvados and rum) which helped me understand the history, production processes, and market forces of the spirit business. The books were:

My initial efforts to learn the theory were not overly successful. It is hard to learn theory if you have not drunk much spirts before. The breakthrough came during the 2 days workshop with Ben Leggett, spirit level, blog author and gin maker. It was amazing to hear Ben talking about various spirits, describing the differences in styles, and helping with tasting skills. This was a fascinating adventure, which ignited my passion for spirits. From this moment, learning about spirits was much easier and I could even say that it became truly enjoyable.

What kind of theory questions one can expect in the exam? Here are some examples:

  • Options in Rum distillation
  • Kirsch
  • Canadian Whisky
  • Pernod Ricard
  • Finishing in spirits production
  • Methods of flavouring gin
  • Districts of Cognac
  • Mash bill
  • Parts of a pot still
  • Genever Gin

Similarly to the fortified wines exam, we have about 10 minutes to write all we know about the given topic. Below is my answer from the feedback test. The question was: “Distillation of Armagnac“.

Most Armagnacs are distilled using special designed column still called alambic Armagnacais, however, pot stills (the same as used in the Cognac region – cooper Charentais pot stills) are allowed and still used by a very small number of producers. Alambic Armagnacais allows for distillation to lower strength, which is typical for Armagnac as it allows to keep a lot of the initial flavours and aromas – Armagnac needs to be distilled between 52 and 72.4% abv, and many producers aimed at the lower end of this range. This column still can be run continuously. It consists of a burner (either wood or gas can be used), a column (with max 17 rectification plates), a wine heater, and a condenser. The distillation starts by putting water through the still to raise the temperature in the still. When the temperature is ok the wine is introduced, it goes, through the condenser, the wine heater to the column, and back to the condenser. No cuts to tails or heads are made. Typically different grape varieties are distilled separately as it gives the producer more flexibility for blending. However, the distillation does not need to be stopped to distill the other varieties, the distiller can just start using the other wine and is able to detect which spirit comes from which grape. The main difficulty in operating the still is to keep the constant temperature at the top plate, this way the character of the spirit leaving the still can also be consistent. This is achieved by controlling the flow of the wine into the still

For this answer, I was awarded 18 points (out of 25) and I got the following comments from the examiner:

A solid response that covers the basics. (although one additional point about Armagnac distillation is to remember that it must be distilled by the end of the March, although this has been extended. Distillation is often done at the estate, sometimes by a travelling mobile distiller) Be as specific and precise as possible.

Good explanation about the use of two stills, and the required distillation strength. What you did particularly well is explain how both of these factors affect the style of the final product. To fully put the difference in context, it might have been helpful to compare the distillation strengths between Cognac and Armagnac

Your explanation of how the still works cover the basics but being more specific (eg not referring to the temperature as ‚ok”, but at an appropriate temperature, and when the distiller is able to start collecting.

Just to clarify- when different grape varieties are being distilled continuously, there will be a barrel or two of spirit that will be a blend of both grapes, although you are correct that the distiller will know when the first variety has flushed through.

Another (albeit more difficult) way of maintaining temperature is to adjust the intensity of the heat. 

This should give you a picture of what is required to answer the question well enough to pass.

What were my questions in the exam? Here they are:

  • Production of London Dry Gin
  • Calvados
  • Cachaça

I must admit that I didn’t have much problem to answer these questions. For each of them, I had enough knowledge to write for more than 10 minutes. Then Cachaça was the hardest one as I knew only the facts mentioned in the coursebook. Overall, I was pretty confident after the exam.

Tasting

As mentioned before, spirits are not my go-to drinks, so my tasting skills had to make a large leap. The specification mentioned a lot of spirits that I had never had a chance to try (e.g. calvados, pisco, genever, Canadian whisky). The workshop with Ben was a great introduction and it allowed me to taste a lot of new spirits and to combine theory with practice.

At home, I made sure I had enough small bottles of various spirits. I asked my wife to go to the nearest shops and buy whatever she could find. This way I could be sure not to be surprised and to keep an open mind (or rather an open palate) when I was practicing my tasting skills.

At the exam, I had to taste

  • Cutty Sark Blended Whisky
  • Glenfiddich 12 yo Single Malt Whisky
  • Herradura Añejo Tequila

This part of the exam is similar to the wine-based units, however, there is a different set of vocabulary to be used – Systematic Approach to Tasting (SAT) for spirits. And if you read some of the examiners’ reports from the previous years, you can easily see that one of the main traps is using the wine-focused SAT. If you do the same mistake you might be losing a lot of points. Apart from the standard descriptions of appearance, nose, and palate, the exam paper may ask for other details, like style within the category, country of origin, assessment of quality, or comment on how the maturation of this spirit has influenced its character.

On the exam, single malt was the easiest to identify, however, I thought it was 10-years old whisky, not 12-years old, close enough for me. I had some troubles with the tequila. Initially, my stressed mind was playing tricks with me and made me think that maybe it was oak matured gin. However, I quickly dropped this idea as oaked gins are rather a rarity and there was not many chances to get one of them in the exam. This allowed my mind to explore other options and finally, it was clear that I had oak-aged tequila in my glass. The hardest spirit to recognise was the blended whisky. Its floral character made me confuse it with cognac. Still, getting 2 spirits right made me really happy.

Results

Remember how I told you that I had not liked spirits and how hard this exam was for me? Imagine my surprise when I saw the following email in my inbox.

As a bonus, I must admit, that this exam allowed me to discover a new world of aromas and flavours. And since this time I have been sipping and tasting spirits much more often.

Are you preparing for a sprit exam? How is it going? Share your thought in the comments 🥃

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