2019 will mark the start of several new WSET Spirits programs. The renowned education company has created a suite of Spirits only courses focused on today’s drinks business and the trends shaping it. With three Levels (1-3) in Spirits there is a course for everyone. Grape Experience will host a Level 2 Spirits course in San Francisco February 2-3 and you can find out more at https://www.grapeexperience.com/events/spirits-level-2-san-francisco/?doing_wp_cron=1542590186.1309440135955810546875
The interview below with WSET USA’s Spirits Development Manager, Rob McCaughy brings to life how these classes were shaped.
Q&A with Rob McCaughy, WSET USA Business Development Manager – Spirits & Sake
With more than 20 years experience working in the hospitality and beverage industries throughout Europe, Asia and the USA, Rob McCaughy has a wealth of knowledge of the drinks business. In his current role, he is responsible for the continued growth of WSET’s spirits and sake qualifications within the USA. Here we catch up with him for an in-depth look at the WSET’s new Level 3 Spirits course, slated to roll out in 2019.
How does this new course fit into spirits trends today?
Beverage professionals have had access to great objective education in the wine and beer sectors for some time but the spirits segment of the industry has traditionally been dominated by brand-led initiatives. The spirits sector has been on an upward trajectory for many years now and more and more beverage professionals are looking for impartial spirits education to deepen and broaden their knowledge and understanding.
We currently have a spirits module in our Diploma qualification and beyond that our levels 1 & 2 Spirits certifications provide a great entry point. However, there is a gap in the market for an in-depth spirits focused program and we feel that the Level 3 Spirits qualification will fill that void. The spirits module of the Diploma will be removed from August 2019 to coincide with the launch of this course – which we hope will provide the missing link for those who have completed Level 2 Spirits and are looking to progress further.
What spirits are covered?
The content will be split into two sections: depth and breadth.
Section 1/Depth: Students will need to be able to describe in detail the key characteristics of the core global spirits categories as well as understand decisions made at every stage of production, the impact those decisions will have and explain why a spirit has a certain style and quality. In the examination these spirits will be assessed using both multiple choice and short answer questions.
The spirits covered in this section are: Bourbon, Rye Whiskey (US), Tennessee Whiskey, Scotch, Cognac, Armagnac, Caribbean Rum, Tequila, Mezcal, Vodka and Gin.
This is not an attempt by WSET to say these spirits are somehow superior to others. In order to dive deep into the ‘why’ of spirits production we needed to select a small number of spirits in order to make the course manageable. They also needed to be globally accessible and we feel that the selection above achieves this.
Section 2/Breadth: These are the spirits students will only need to know about – the key facts and styles to be assessed using multiple choice. For some, a number of these spirits are personally or professionally important.
The spirits covered are: Irish Whiskey, Canadian Whisky, Japanese Whisky, other whiskies, Grappa, Pisco (Chile and Peru), Brandy de Jerez, South African brandy, European fruit spirits, Sotol, other agave spirits, Cachaça, other rums, Baijiu, Shōchū, Soju, flavored vodka, Genever, spiced rum, flavored whiskey, aquavit, aniseed spirits, liqueurs, bitters and aromatized wines.
What are the differences between the different levels?
All of our qualifications are tiered to develop key competencies in students. Level 1 courses are designed to provide a foundation of knowledge and facts. At Level 2, the student begins to expand upon those foundations and begins to develop a broader understanding and the ability to compare and contrast as well as describe key processes and procedures. For both of these levels a multiple-choice assessment is sufficient to ensure that the key learning outcomes have been met. Once a student reaches Level 3 we begin to develop some of those key critical thinking skills to be able to not only understand and explain the ‘how’ but also the ‘why’. This is difficult if not impossible to assess through multiple-choice testing so short answer theory questions are required to show that these skills have been acquired.
What sort of trade is WSET Spirits geared towards: retailers, bartenders, enthusiasts?
There is a course for everyone, whether an enthusiast just looking for a framework to underpin their enjoyment, someone just starting their journey in the spirits business, or an industry veteran. By focusing on developing core competencies and skills in the student rather than solely concentrating on product knowledge and rote learning, our courses are designed to give students not only a level of understanding but also the confidence to make qualitative assessments.
If you’re a distiller, is this a course you should take?
With the proliferation of craft distilleries emerging in recent years there has never been a greater need for courses that will not only provide an understanding of the benchmark expressions within a category but also the tasting skills necessary to make qualitative assessments. We have had a great response from the distilling community and I certainly see our Level 3 course has been a valuable tool for any serious distiller. Most professionals tend to live in a particular bubble or lane, focusing on one particular category. By providing an understanding of processes involved across all categories our Level 3 course provides opportunities for distillers to tweak and hone their best practices as well as to innovate.
Does it cover cocktails? Is it more production or service based?
One of our learning outcomes for Level 2 is an understanding of how spirits are best served and cocktail applications as well as the key considerations when making a balanced cocktail.
At Level 3 we are really focusing on four key competencies:
1) Develop detailed knowledge of the spirits of the world
2) Provide accurate descriptions of complex processes
3) Ability to explain why certain processes are required and how they affect a spirit’s style and quality
4) Ability to reasonably and confidently assess the quality level of a spirit
Sauvignon Blanc is one of the most popular white wine varietals, especially since New Zealand producers started exporting their crisp fruit driven styles in the late 1980s. American Sauvignon Blancs are often labeled “Fume Blanc.” This branding was started by Robert Mondavi, who in a reference to the Smoky Pouilly-Fume Sauvignon of the Loire, added oak to his wines. These days, however, the name “Fume Blanc” can be used as a label for any Sauvignon Blanc wine – whether it sees oak or not.
I would guess that most people who love Sauvignon Blanc prefer the crisp, pure fruit driven style. Oak often can get in the way of the delicate aromas. Concours Mondial de Sauvignon decided to explore how, if at all to use oak in this varietal wine and their findings make for interesting reading: http://cmsauvignon.com/en/are-sauvignon-aromas-incompatible-with-oak/
This article is great reading for anyone interested in the science of winemaking. WSET Level 3 and Diploma students in particular should take a look as well.
In my wine tasting journeys I have found that most oaked Sauvignon suffers from too heavy a hand. There are some incredible Dagueneau wines that see a touch of oak from Pouilly-Fume. Grgich Hills Estate Fume Blanc from Napa – of course along with Mondavi Fume Blanc – show the American style of oaked Sauvignon at its best and are worth sampling.
Grape Experience sake expert Marina Giordano’s passion for the Japanese beverage has led her to travel extensively in Japan, studying production in multiple regions with officials of the National Brewery Council. She is a WSET Certified Sake Educator and has earned the Advanced Sake Professional title with the Sake Education Council. She now shares her knowledge for those looking to broaden their understanding of this fascinating (and growing) category.
What first led you to explore Sake?
I was studying wine (the WSET Level 2) when a friend introduced me to sake. I fell in love – I had to learn everything I could about it. I was infatuated with the subtle aromas and flavors. The complexity intrigued me, how could sake taste this way? It’s not even a fruit! I started looking for classes that night.
What has been the highlights of your sake career?
Most of it has been traveling: traveling to Japan to study more about sake and traveling to teach classes and introduce people to sake who had never tasted it before. Maybe even more exciting is seeing the interest in sake grow around the USA. More people are drinking it, asking for it, and sake is appearing on more menus. It still has a long way to go, but it is exciting to see it becoming more popular!
What led you to become a WSET certified sake educator?
The love of teaching. I enjoying helping people to understand something new, whether it is a professional who will take that knowledge to their workplace, or an enthusiast who wants to learn more about sake. It’s great to have students come out of class with a new appreciation (an even a love) for sake.
How does the WSET program compare with other sake programs you have taken?
I think the WSET Sake program is the most comprehensive sake program available. It is created and presented in a clear yet detailed manner. It makes a complicated subject easy to understand. The program is structured so that your knowledge builds as you go into the specifics of production – going in depth about ingredients, production methods, and styles. There are many misconceptions about what sake is. With information from this class, students will get a better understanding of what sake is and how it is produced.
Who is the WSET Sake geared towards?
Both professionals and consumers. Level 1 is great for sales staff who may have sake in their store, bar, or portfolio, or consumers who want more knowledge about what they are drinking and to know what to buy. Level 3 is more in depth in all aspects of sake, but enthusiasts love the course. It is also great for professionals who would like to get a better understanding of sake.
What would you say to someone who is thinking about WSET Sake but wonders if they really need or will use it?
For someone in the industry, these classes will build your confidence and comfort level with sake. It’s a growing segment and any knowledge can be helpful. Consumers will come out with a better understanding of sake, to help them easily select sake off the shelf or list, or they may even discover sake styles they didn’t know existed!
I hear from many people with interest in Grape Experience WSET courses who are unsure where to start or if they want to make the commitment. Those who do take the plunge always feel great about it. If you are thinking you would like to explore WSET Wine, Sake or Spirits education there is no time better than now!
How to Decide Where to Begin:
WSET courses are broken out by “Levels,” and these terms can be confusing. Each level has a specific end goal or learning outcome regardless if it is for Wine, Sake or Spirits. For Wine and Spirits most people have enough knowledge already to skip right to Level 2. Sake is lesser known and Level 1 may make the most sense.
Level 1: Define and Understand
Level 1 focuses on true beginner knowledge. We answer questions such as:
- What is wine or sake?
- What basic styles does it come in – dry, sweet, sparkling, red, white and rosé?
- What is the best way to serve it – temperature, glassware, food pairings
I often say for the wine courses that if you know that Chardonnay is a white grape that makes white wine that should be served chilled, and that Cabernet Sauvignon is usually a red wine, then it might make more sense to start at Level 2.
For Sake, however, Level 1 can be an easy way to start exploring a beverage category that is growing each day. We offer Level 1 Sake a few times each year with the next courses starting this winter https://www.grapeexperience.com/sake-class/
Level 2: Identify and Describe
Level 2 is where most WSET wine and spirit candidates start. Courses under Level 2 are also fine as beginner classes but they go into more depth then Level 1. The goal here is for a student to be able to look at any major wine or spirit bottle and describe what is expected inside without having to taste it – that doesn’t mean that we don’t taste in Level 2 classes – we absolutely do and a great component of Level 2 is to build strong foundational tasting skills.
Students who take Level 2 often tell me that their confidence has skyrocketed when it comes to choosing or talking about wines and spirits. I think Level 2 provides a smoother, perhaps less risky entry into the WSET system of courses, even for people with already strong wine knowledge. Our next set of Level 2 courses starts this February: https://www.grapeexperience.com/beginner-wine-courses/
Level 3: Explain
Level 3 is significantly more challenging than Level 2 and demands more study and participation time from the participant. Still, the depth of knowledge and tasting ability that comes from a Level 3 course is totally worth the effort. Level 3 courses do not have prerequisites.
The basic goal of Level 3 courses is for the participant to be able to explain the reasons why a wine or sake looks, tastes, and costs the way/amount it does. This Level deeply delves into natural and human forces that impact production and quality. Tasting plays an equal role to the theory here and students will certainly learn to blindly identify through sight, smell and taste how a wine or sake is made and its ultimate quality Level.
Level 4 Diploma: Analyze
Currently WSET only offers a Level 4 course in Wine and Spirits. This is a two-year program that requires participants first pass the Level 3 Wine course. The goal here is to learn to analyze the natural and human production factors, market trends and new technologies/approaches that are shaping today’s wine and spirit markets.
Participants build skills through first-hand, as well as book investigation into the major global wine and spirits production centers and companies. The course is incredibly challenging but well worth it!
So, there is no time like the present! Check out all of the WSET courses we offer and take the plunge!