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It’s a lot of samples… go slow and enjoy each of them

So you’re wondering what to get for tasting samples to complete this Level 2 Award in Spirits. The recommended minimum number of tasting samples for your WSET Level 2 Award in Spirits total 29 different products. Check out page 16 of the Specification. Considering these individual spirits can really add up in price, it’s good to understand what samples are representative for the spirit category.

different bottles for tasting samples
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP

If you are looking to purchase each bottle, you will have a lot of bottles that you may not ever dip into again. Many establishments offer the option of ‘flights’ for different spirits. Have a look what is behind the bar. Ask your bartender if you can just do 1/2 ounce pours of a variety of different spirits. A well stocked bar, and friendly bartender, will be more than happy to accommodate you. Remember, don’t get messy. You still need to put together your tasting notes and this is a learning exercise first.

This list might change from time to time with availability of each spirit. Consider it as a guide. You can pick and choose according to your preference!

Fruit Spirits

These are spirits made from fruit, if it wasn’t obvious from the heading. Sometimes these spirits are aged, sometimes they go straight in a bottle and are ready for immediate enjoyment. Aging mellows out a spirit and allows complexity to develop over time.

Cognacs

Cognacs are grape based spirits. By sampling three different styles (referring to VS, VSOP and XO) from the same producer you can assess the difference between each.

Your cost effective option is Courvoisier. Hennessy is the next on your list of more ‘cost efficient’ spirits. Before you commit to an entire bottle though, consider going out and sitting at a bar or restaurant. Order an ounce and try it. If Cognac isn’t your thing, you aren’t out a big stack of money. Bring a notebook along and you can make your tasting notes while sitting at the bar.

Other Fruit Spirit Tasting Samples

Cognac is a ‘fruit spirit’, but there are others of interest. Armagnac and Calvados come to mind. Pisco and Grappa are also interesting fruit spirits as well.

Armagnac is an expensive spirit for us here in BC, and there aren’t many options available. If you are a fan of cognac, then look at getting a bottle of armagnac too. Considering the cost of a bottle though, have a look for single ounce options at a bar or restaurant.

A 375ml bottle of Calvados can be purchased at some BC Liquor Stores. Have a look online for local availability. Apples or pears should be very recognizable in this spirit.

Pisco and Grappa can also be purchased at your local liquor store. Capel is typical of a standard pisco. Grappa di Moscato is also a great expression of grappa. Again, look to ordering these individually… sip and enjoy.

Vodka Suggestions

You’ve likely had vodka before. Have you ever sipped on it by itself, warm, with no ice? We’ve got plenty of options available for tasting.

Smirnoff Red Label is a classic offering. This is a neutral vodka, made from corn. It should be simple and clean on the palate. It is also cheap and comes in a variety of sizes. You could just go with a 50ml sample size, or commit to a bigger bottle. The vodka will get used eventually. A more premium version of a corn-based vodka is Tito’s. Tito’s is also available in small sample sizes.

Characterful Vodkas

Luksusova comes in a 375ml bottle. This vodka is made from potatoes. Some people say the texture is creamy. An earthy smell from the raw materials. Sip and explore. A premium version is Chopin, which also comes with a more premium price tag.

Finlandia only comes in bigger bottles. This vodka is made from barley and is really enjoyable on it’s own. Sticking with grains, Sobieski is made from rye and has a hint of rye spiciness on the back end.

Really there are lots of options for vodka. Get yourself a standard neutral vodka… and a more premium vodka made from a different raw material.

Options for your Whiskies

This is a much wider category. Lots of different whiskies to taste and explore. As you work through this module, note the different raw materials used and the different production methods.

American Whiskies

Your Tennessee whiskies are limited to Jack Daniels or George Dickel. Jack Daniels is the more commonly found of the two, and is something you should know. JD can be found in a variety of sizes, all the way down to a 50ml sample.

Bourbons are widely available here in BC. Even more so in the US… but we’re north of the border. On the low end… Evan Williams is a fine bourbon for it’s price. You can explore higher price point bourbons in smaller sizes as well. One of my most recent tastings was the Wild Turkey 101, which I really enjoyed. Bulleit is very heavy on the oak. Old Forester is a classic representation of what classic bourbon is. Maker’s Mark does some small 50ml samples, so if you want to start simple… that might be the way to go. Of course, you could head out to a restaurant and try a few of these different bourbons at the bar before buying your own.

For rye whiskies, you’re looking for American Rye Whiskies. These whiskies have a minimum of 51% Rye in their mash bill. Sazerac, Rittenhouse, and Bulleit all make rye whiskies that we can get here in BC. Drop by one of the BCL Signature stores and spend some time looking at the labels on these bottles. After you read over the section on American Whiskies, you can better understand what is referred to on the label.

Scotch Whiskies

You now know from reviewing the online material that Scotch has some rules behind it. Labelling terms are very specific and tell you a lot about what is in the bottle. We have both Blended Scotch Whiskies and Single Malt Whiskies.

Single Malts to try

Single malt whiskies are hard to find in smaller bottles. This is where I want to suggest checking out Fet’s Whisky Kitchen over on Commercial Drive. They do flights of whiskies… so you can get into a few different single malts all side by side. Make your tasting notes while enjoying a heated patio.

If you’re buying bottle though, it’s good to get something that you like. Glenlivet and Glenfiddich do a 375ml bottle. If you’re into smokiness, then Talisker does just that. Macallan is aged in port/sherry casks and has more fruit notes on the nose and palate. Have a look at the descriptions and flavour profiles even outlined on Distiller. Researching spirits can become a lifelong obsession. I know I am still learning all the time.

Blended Scotch Whiskies

These whiskies are blended for consistency, and are usually cheaper than the Single Malts. That doesn’t mean these are bad, there are some fantastic blended whiskies. What you like will be different from what someone else does. Each producer comes up with their own ‘brand flavour’ so not all blended scotches are the same.

Dewar’s White Label is one of my go to whiskies for sipping on solo, or in a cocktail. Ballantine’s also is a classic blend, as is Grant’s. There are many inexpensive options to choose from and it’s a matter of doing the research on each to know what you want to have in your liquor cabinet.

Other Whiskies to try as Tasting Samples

Irish whiskey was never intended to be chased with pickle juice. This is a great whiskey to sip on and enjoy. The Irish have a lighter style of whiskey. In Vancouver Jameson seems to be the standard offering everywhere, but also consider Bushmills. You can look at more premium bottles as well, such as Writer’s Tears or Proper Twelve.

Being as we are in Canada, try some great Canadian Whiskies. By law, your Canadian Whiskies must have a rye flavour profile. Try Canadian Club or Crown Royal in their small sample bottles. Alberta Premium is a fine well spirit made from 100% Rye. Lot 40 is a fantastic, easy sipping Canadian whisky. Forty Creek is also a great whisky, which sells for a few dollars more than your well spirits. Try a few different Canadian whiskies!

Japanese whiskies are expensive. These whiskies have been developed using many of the production practices used in Scotland. If you have a few extra dollars to spend, do your research and try a couple. Japanese whiskies might be best explored in a flight to make the most of your hard earned dollars.

Rums to explore

I can’t say enough good things about rum. It’s inexpensive and so varied. Different parts of the world make their rum differently. Everything from raw materials, fermentation, distillation and aging can change so much from nation to nation.

The standard ‘Cuban’ style of white rum is typically Bacardi. Originally from Cuba, then relocated to Puerto Rico to continue sales to the US. Being as we are in Canada and not subject to the embargo rules, we can get some excellent rums from Cuba. Havana Club does a 3 year old white rum, which many bars and restaurants here in Vancouver offer as a well spirit.

A ‘characterful’ style of white rum would typically be categorized as a Rhum from either Guadeloupe or Martinique. These are rhums made directly from the sugarcane and have a very grassy set of notes in in the final rhum agricole. These spirits are hard to come by here in town, so a suitable alternative is Cachaca. Cachaca is a spirit from Brazil, and is also made directly from sugar cane. This ‘brazilian rum’ is pot distilled, which results in a lot of intense flavouring from the raw materials in the bottled product.

Inexpensive and Highly Coloured

The ‘inexpensive’ and highly coloured dark rum is best represented by Gosling’s Black Seal rum. Here you will find a rum that has a lot of aroma, but a flavour profile that disappears pretty quick. Gosling’s is the best recommendation for this category.

An aged Spanish style rum could be from Flor de Cana 12 (Nicaragua), Ron Perla del Norte Anejo (Cuba), Ron Zacapa 23 (Guatemala). You are looking for a rum with some significant age to it. When a spirit sits in those barrels for a really long time, the spirit begins to develop notes of ‘rancio’. These are sometimes described as ‘meaty, shoe polish, leather’ aromas. Some people even detect mushroom… it’s ‘oldness’ that you’re looking for. I picked up a bottle of Matusalem 15 Solera recently. Lots of excellent ‘rancio’ notes in that bottle. I am not picking up these bottles as just tasting samples. I do the research and really seek out different rums to try.

An aged English style of rum is Appleton (Jamaica) or Mount Gay (Barbados). These are coming from English speaking islands and are a slightly different style of rum. The distinctive over ripe fruit notes of english style rums come from the fermentation process.

Agave Based Spirits

Agave prices have been rising steadily the last few years. Expect to pay a little more for both tequila and mezcal for the next while as well. There are some very expensive tequilas, and some cheap ones. Let’s only do ‘good’ tequilas.

Your tequila needs to be 100% blue agave. No cheaper mixtos, only the real thing. You’ll need to get a blanco tequila. This may be called ‘silver’ or ‘plata’ depending on the brand. El Jimador is my go to for a great tasting blanco tequila. We also have easy access to El Jimador’s reposado. The reposado has at least 2 months of aging on it, and can be purchased in a 375ml bottle. Cazadores is also a suitable low end 100% agave tequila, but El Jimador is my favourite.

For a mezcal, expect to pay a bit more for tasting samples. The ‘small batch’ nature of mezcal production means there are limited supplies. With low inventory, we pay more. The espadin agave tends to grow wild and is hand harvested. Mezcal is a true ‘artisanal’ spirit. Fandango is one of the cheapest we can get here in BC, and is really tasty! If you are hesitant to buy a bottle, try a sampler at a bar or restaurant.

Flavoured Spirits and Vermouth

I know, at this point you’re asking… ‘Where’s the Gin?’ Flavoured spirits is a fairly wide category and groups gin in with many other spirits. Ultimately, gin is a flavoured neutral spirit.

There are Many Different Gins

Your classic London Dry Gin can be most any gin you find in the well. Beefeater, Gordons, Tanqueray all work just fine. If you want to go with Bombay Sapphire… do it. Your London Dry Gin should be juniper forward with notes of citrus and other spices. You can find all of these options in 375ml bottles, or just order a shot to sip on while you are out. Don’t forget to take your notes.

The ‘modern style of gin’ is something that you might find from a local craft distillery. In the liquor stores you’ll find a pile of different gins from companies that have been around for less than 20 years. If you want colour changing purple, Empress Gin. Long Table does a few different gins. Hendrick’s is one of the bigger names on the global scene with a cucumber-rose petal gin. Gin has a very wide definition, which is why we also see a number of variations on the market. Try a few different gins as tasting samples and you will see not all are the same.

Not Everyone Likes Liquorice

Aniseed imparts a liquorice flavour. Many countries in around the Mediterranean have their own aniseed flavoured spirits. Ouzo from Greece, and Sambuca from Italy. Pernod and Ricard both come from France. Be sure to add a bit of water and watch for ‘louching’. As the water is added the alcohol concentration is lowered. The oils from the anise come out of solution because of that lower ABV, and turn the spirit milky in appearance. If you’re looking at Absinthe as an option, note that there is no sugar in this flavoured spirit. Absinthe is usually served with a sugar cube to add some sweetness.

Bitter Flavours are Popular Too

If you’re looking for a ‘bitter’ to try, you can look at amaros. Campari, Aperol, Amaro Montenegro, Fernet Branca… all considered bitters. Each has their own recipe, but are intended to add a bitter element to a cocktail for added depth and complexity. With each of these, you aren’t typically ordering them solo. A small taste is all you need. Campari is a classic though and is very versatile. If you enjoy Negronis, you need a bottle of Campari.

Vermouth is Sweet or Dry

Vermouths are very inexpensive. A bottle of sweet or dry vermouth can be purchased for less than 20 bucks. The sweet (red) is likely to be consumed a bit quicker than the dry (white), but I am finding new uses for dry vermouth regularly. These are wine based, then infused with different herbs, roots, and spices.

Liqueur Tasting Samples to try

Liqueurs range from very simple, to very complex. It all comes down to what is being used as a base for the liqueur. The specification calls for comparison of both a simple and complex liqueur with a common ingredient. The best example of this is putting Triple Sec next to Grand Marnier. Both are orange in flavour, but one is very simple… and the second has cognac as the base. The goal of comparing specifically these two liqueurs is to demonstrate the role of a more complex base in the final flavour profile. Treat yourself and get a small bottle of Grand Marnier. Triple Sec is not something typically enjoyed on it’s own, but you could sit at the bar and ask for a half ounce of each. Try them out. Make your notes on your tasting samples.

Update your Workbook with Tasting Notes

Don’t rush through your tasting samples. The online course is designed so you can work through the modules much slower. Make it a point each week to try some new tasting samples. Get out and sit at the bar. Talk to the bartender. Buy yourself a couple bottles of the products you enjoyed. You need time to really learn all there is to know about spirits, so consider this to be just the beginning.

Good luck with the tastings!

Chris

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