Pick up some smaller bottles
When doing the online WSET Level 1 in Spirits, you will need to do a “spirits tasting”. What this means is you will need to source some spirit samples to taste and evaluate for appearance, nose and palate. For Level 1 Spirits, WSET recommends a minimum of 10 samples for your spirits tasting. The program specification has been updated for 2021 and lists on page 13 the following spirits for you to explore and evaluate. Here we have
- VSOP Cognac
- Peated Single Malt Whisky
- Unpeated Single Malt Whisky
- Straight Bourbon
- Molasses-based Rums (TWO different rums)
- Blanco Tequila 100% agave
- London Dry Gin (a second gin optional)
For most of these samples, there is a small 50ml sample available in many liquor outlets. If you wanted to commit to a 375ml bottle, many options are also available. Do your research as to what is available in your area and source out some samples for your spirits tasting.
Section 4 Spirits tasting
You have been introduced to how to taste those spirits. There really needs to be consistency in your approach to evaluating spirits, this includes standardized language to describe the sample. Section 4 is the first point in the WSET Level 1 Award in Spirits course where tasting technique is touched on.
Colour, nose and palate are the key parameters to note when evaluating a spirit. WSET has defined a Systematic Approach to Tasting Spirits, which is what you want to use for your first spirit samples of Vodka and Cognac.
When looking for a sample of vodka to taste, most any of your typical bar brands will suffice. There isn’t the need to get an expensive bottle here. The point of picking a vodka is that it should be clear and neutral in flavour and aroma characteristics. Smirnoff is one of the best selling vodkas in the world, and is something I will use in my in-person classes for samples. Of course if you want to go with Grey Goose… you could do that as well.
This is a spirit made from fruit wine (grapes), then aged in oak. Cognac has some very specific means of production and the French have instituted laws around what distillers need to abide by. You’ll find this out as you work through the online exercises. For Level 1 Spirits, the focus will be on learning that flavours and aromas come from both the raw materials used to make the spirit as well as the aging process.
VS Cognacs have just been removed from the WSET Level 1 Spirits tasting recommendations. This is the ‘youngest style’ of cognac. You’ll note immediately colour, which wasn’t present in the Vodka sample and the key thing to note is that colour doesn’t really tell you much. Colour can be added to a spirit to ensure consistency in appearance from lot to lot. VS Cognacs may be more prominent in oaky flavours, and may be ‘rougher’ in texture since the youngest cognac in the blend may only have 2 years of aging.
I like to use Courvoisier VS as an example of a Very Special Cognac. Hennessy Very Special would also be a suitable alternative. If you can find some 50ml tasting samples of these… congratulations. If you can’t then you could also visit a nearby restaurant, pub or bar and order an ounce to sip on and make your observations. Yes, you pay more per ounce at an establishment but if cognac isn’t your thing then you aren’t stuck with a pricey mickey.
VSOP or an XO Cognac
Get a sample of VSOP Cognac. I find it’s difficult to find smaller bottles of a VSOP or XO Cognac. These are typically much more expensive bottles as well. If you are looking for a sample to evaluate, then visit a local establishment and order an ounce. You might even be able to order a half ounce. When we are doing our in-person WSET Level 1 Spirits classes, we will pour a half ounce for evaluation. Students are encouraged during class to also spit these samples out, since they are in class. You have the option of enjoying the full sample though on your own time. Make the most of it and order a VS and a VSOP from the same distiller to compare the two samples side by side.
A VSOP, or Very Superior Old Pale, should be a smoother cognac than the VS due to additional aging required for the style. You should also note a bit more complexity and possibly a longer finish with the VSOP. If you opt for an XO, the differences should be that much more pronounced. The XO’s are blends of cognac that have at least 10 years of oak aging, which should have both complexity and smoothness not found in the VS. Check to see what is available at your local liquor outlet for cognacs in a VS, VSOP and XO… and decide for yourself. I would recommend heading out to an establishment to enjoy these spirits though, mainly for the experience.
Section 5 Whiskies
You will have learned that brandies, including cognac, are fruit-based spirits. Whiskies are typically grain based and come in a number of different styles. All whiskies are also aged in oak for added smoothness, but also to extract some flavours from the wood. Vanilla and spice are common flavours found from oak aging. For Level 1, you will only be required to taste a blended scotch and a straight bourbon. Considering we are in Canada and have some easy access to excellent and inexpensive Canadian whiskies you should take advantage of that. Irish whiskies are also interesting to taste in comparison.
Blended Scotch Whiskies
Blended Scotch Whiskies were part of the WSET Level 1 Spirits previous specification. There are a number of different blended Scotch whiskies we can find on the shelves. They definitely do not taste the same, so finding a bottle that is truly representative of the spirit does take a bit of time. I have gone through many different bottles to assess this and am happy recommending a couple inexpensive options for you.
Dewar’s White Label and Ballantine’s are both excellent examples of a blended Scotch to sample. If you are more into Johnnie Walker Red or Black… also perfectly acceptable. I do have a bottle of the Johnnie Walker Blue in my cabinet at home that is slowly being savoured. Scotch whiskies are known for having some ‘smokey’ flavours that come from using peat as the fuel for drying the malt. Not all blended Scotch whiskies have peaty smokiness which is why I suggest the brands above for your spirits tasting.
Single Malt Whiskies
For 2021, WSET has replaced the blended scotch whisky as a recommended tasting sample with two Single Malt Whiskies. You will learn through your online modules that the term ‘Single’ refers to the whisky coming from a single distillery. ‘Malt’ refers to the whisky in the bottle as being made exclusively from malted barley. You’ll need to source both a peated and an unpeated Single Malt Whisky for your tastings.
For a peated whisky, I like to go with something prominently peated… and for this it is the Laphroaig. The peated single malt whisky should be very clear in peatiness. For the unpeated single malt, I like Glenmorangie. Your unpeated won’t have any of the overpowering smokiness to it and will be easier to pick up more of the fruity or cereal flavour and aroma notes.
Bourbons by law need to be made from at least 51% corn, and must be aged in new oak barrels. Considering these spirits are distilled in column stills to lower ABV’s than vodkas, they can be ‘rough’. A good sample bourbon should have some strong oak notes from the aging, plus the corn-related flavours and aromas expected from the spirit.
You can regularly find small 50ml bottles attached to bigger bottles as a marketing effort. A quick search of the BC Liquor Stores website shows Maker’s Mark available for less than 5 dollars. Bourbon is an acquired taste. If you already have a bottle at home, use that for your tastings. If you want to pull up a seat at your local bar, restaurant or pub and order a something to sip on… that also works. I don’t have a single recommendation for a bourbon because I too am still exploring each bottle. I currently have two bottles of Knob Creek and another bottle of Weller at home. For the Intro to Whiskies class I teach, I like to use Old Forester.
Section 6 & 7 Spirits Tasting
For the in-person classes, we do the spirits tasting of rum and tequila side by side. This is mainly because we are compressed for time in those classes. You can enjoy each of these spirits on their own and make your tasting notes accordingly.
Rum is amazing. I know many people who have only had rum mixed with coke, or in a cocktail. This spirit coming from the Caribbean is made using sugar cane juice. We know sugar is produced from sugar cane juice, but the waste product from that sugar production is molasses. Most rum is made using molasses, because there are still a lot of fermentable sugars in the molasses.
We have rum typically divided up into three main styles. Those styles are white, gold, and dark. White rums are lighter in flavour and aroma and typically come from column stills. The golden rums are blends of both column and pot still rums to create a rum with additional flavours and aromas. The dark rums use more of those pot-distilled rums to make more of a full-bodied rum.
White rums are column distilled to around 90% ABV. By distilling to a lower ABV than vodka, we get a spirit that retains some of those flavour and aroma compounds from both the raw materials (sugar cane or molasses). In WSET Level 2 Spirits more time is spent on rum styles and the islands they come from.
For brands of white rum we are a bit limited. Bacardi is one of the best selling rums out there, and does retain a bit of ‘grassiness’ and unripe banana in the bottled spirit. Captain Morgan doesn’t seem to have any of that grassiness and to me has strong ‘marshmallow’ flavours. Pick yourself up a bottle, or a sample, and enjoy. Make sure this is a true white rum though. I use Bacardi White for the in person classes.
Oak Aged Rum
Aged rums are typically your golden or dark rums. This is where you have to be a bit more selective though. Through WSET you will come to know that colour is regularly added to spirits for consistency in appearance. We know aging can extract colour from the oak, but some producers will add excess amounts of colour to make that dark rum almost black.
When selecting an aged rum for this tasting, we want to find a spirit that demonstrates the vanilla and spice extracted during oak aging. We also want to pick a rum that has some of those flavour and aroma compounds from the fermentation process. Jamaican rums are known to have more ‘esters’ retained in their rums, which appear as over ripe fruits on your palate. Think of bananas that are near black, or really soft mangos. I like to use Appleton Estate for the classes. Bacardi Gold does not demonstrate those additional flavours.
Many people are scared of tequila. This is a fantastic spirit, when you get a good one! I like to say that most people have not had a bad experience with tequila, but an experience with bad tequila. That bad tequila usually gets consumed as a shot, and the nasty flavours remaining are quickly chased away with a beer or another cocktail. This is not how tequila should be enjoyed.
Blue Agave prices have really increased in the last few years. As a result, we pay almost 20% more for tequila these days than we did just 3 years ago. If you are hesitant to commit to a bottle, then head out to a reputable Mexican restaurant and try some of the tequilas they have on offer… at only an ounce at a time. Some places will do tequila flights as well!
You’re looking for a 100% Blue Agave tequila to sample. The bottle will clearly say 100% Agave and is sometimes embossed in the glass of the bottle! This also needs to be a blanco tequila, which has less than 2 months of aging. The spirit should demonstrate vegetal notes which are from the agave. For the in-person classes I use El Jimador Silver or Cazadores Blanco tequila. Have a look at the colour (or lack of colour) and savour the aroma and flavour.
Please stay away from Gold tequilas such as Jose Cuervo, Sauza, or Olmeca for this exercise. These tequilas are not 100% blue agave. These are ‘mixto’ tequilas and will use a combination of sugars from both agave and corn or sugar cane. Colour is added to adjust the appearance.
Section 8 Tasting Notes – Flavoured Spirits
Flavoured spirits are grouped together in this section. I know there are a lot of gin lovers out there that get disappointed that there isn’t a dedicated gin section, but ultimately gin is a juniper-flavoured neutral spirit. Similar methods for making gin can also be used for making liqueurs or other flavoured spirits, like absinthe or akvavit.
London Dry Gin
There are plenty of gins to choose from for this tasting. I would recommend sticking with some of the more established brands for this exercise. Try Gordon’s, Bombay Sapphire, Tanqueray… or Beefeater. Different producers use different numbers of botanicals. London Dry gins need to be flavoured through redistillation though. Key things to point out are the clarity of the spirit, plus the juniper and citrus flavours.
Some gins are not flavoured through redistillation though, which means that by law, they can’t be labelled as London Dry Gins. Hendricks falls in this category because the cucumber and rose extracts used to flavour the spirit are added by compounding.
Another update to the recommended tasting samples this year is the addition of vermouth. Vermouth is an aromatized wine. For samples, it’s easy to pick up a 500ml bottle for about 10 dollars. Vermouth is not typically enjoyed on its own, but more in cocktails.
WSET has recently removed the requirement for liqueurs for recommended tasting samples. There are so many different liqueurs out there. Each WSET Level 1 Spirits class I do, it seems I have a different liqueur for this tasting. Neutral spirits can be artificially flavoured to make Creme de Banane or Sour Apple Liqueur. Rum can flavoured with coffee to create our Coffee Flavoured Liqueurs. Whiskies can be used for Fireball or Southern Comfort. Cognac is used as the base spirit for Grand Marnier!
You can still add a few of these to your tastings in addition to the required samples outlined at the top of this page. You can usually find inexpensive 50ml sample bottles for a few liqueurs, so you don’t have to commit to a whole bottle. The key points to note when doing your tasting are the following.
- the colour
- the prominent aroma
- the simplicity in flavour/aroma
Update your Workbook with your Spirits Tasting Notes
Don’t rush through your spirits tasting. 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!