WSET Spirits Takeaways (17 of Them)

29695080_10216502409022264_3538113843362412752_nMy WSET Diploma Spirits exam is officially in the books.  Five exams down, ONE to go!! But, my remaining unit is the BIG one — Still Wines of the World.  It’s a fifteen-week course, culminating in a six hour exam.  I’m not even going to think about that right now.  Right now, I’m on a break!  It feels weird not to be studying several hours a day.  I’m not sure what to do with myself.  I should probably clean out my Tupperware cabinet.  Well, technically my cabinet is an assortment of mismatched Rubbermaid and Glassware.  Does anyone actually own Tupperware anymore?

While it’s still relatively fresh in my mind, I wanted to share a few spirits takeaways (in no particular order whatsoever):

  1. The difference between fermentation and distillation is this — fermentation creates alcohol, distillation concentrates it.
  2. You learn a lot when you spend a few months doing (mostly) nothing but tasting spirits.  I learned what I like (bourbon) and what I definitely don’t like (grappa).
  3. There’s a huge difference between tasting and drinking.  Tasting is business, drinking is pleasure.  I’m a morning person, so I did most of my tastings first thing in the morning.  My poop-emoji spit cup was very popular on social media.


  4. Tasting spirits is very different than tasting wine.  Pay attention, so the next time you find yourself at a spirits tasting, you don’t look like a greenhorn.
    • Don’t swirl the spirit around in your glass (that’ll release the alcohol vapors and mask the fruit/grain notes).
    • Don’t stick your nose into a glass of spirits and inhale deeply.  Well, you can do that, but you’ll anesthetize your nose, which is a fancy way of saying you won’t be able to smell much of anything for a while.  Also, it burns.  Instead, gradually bring the glass close to your nose, and take small, quick inhales.  Then add some water and repeat the process, and see if anything changes.  Chances are, it will.
  5. I spent an absurd amount of money buying all kinds of spirits so I could “study”.  I even took 32 bottles to the beach with me on vacation so I could “study”.  I’m on a first name basis with everyone at my local ABC store (here in Virginia, we can’t buy spirits at the grocery store).  But, on the plus side, I now have one of the best liquor cabinets on the east coast.


  6. So what’s in my liquor cabinet?  Well, after giving away everything I don’t like (brandies, vodkas, cachaça, and other assorted weirdos) to my brother . . . bourbon.  Lots and lots of bourbon.  Also tequila, gin, and Irish whiskey.
  7. The top selling spirits in the world are things you’ve probably never heard of.  This kind of blew my mind, so I’m sharing with you — here are the top ten spirits worldwide (data from Millionaire’s Club 2017):
    • Jinro, a brand of Soju, which is a Korean spirit traditionally distilled from rice. The South Koreans drink more spirits than anyone else in the world.  Twice as much as the Russians.
    • Officer’s Choice, a brand of Indian whisky.  The Indians drink more whisky than anyone else in the world (sorry, Kentucky and Tennessee).
    • Chum Chrum (another Soju).
    • Emperador (a Philippine brandy).  The top market for brandy in the world is the Philippines.
    • Smirnoff.  Incidentally, Smirnoff is the best selling vodka in the world, and although it started in Russia, it hasn’t been made there for over a century.
    • McDowell’s No. 1, another Indian whisky.
    • Ginebra San Miguel, a Philippine gin.  Also the name of a Philippine basketball team.
    • Imperial Blue, another Indian whisky.
    • Royal Stag, yet another Indian whisky.
    • Johnnie Walker, the world’s best selling Scotch.
  8. Whiskey can be spelled with an “e” or without.  Whiskey = 🇺🇲️ and 🇮🇪️.    Whisky = 🇨🇦️ and 🇯🇵️ and 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿.  Supposedly, in the 19th century, Irish distillers adopted the extra “e” as a way to distinguish their whiskies from Scotch.  Americans, we just like vowels.  Well, except for Makers Mark.  Makers Mark is “whisky”.  They dropped the “e” as an homage to the Scottish heritage of their master distiller.
  9. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon.  Bourbon is the best whiskey.  Go ahead, fight me.
  10. That said, the biggest surprise of the course for me was how much I like Irish Whiskey.  Jameson and Redbreast are getting primo real estate in my liquor cabinet.
  11. Second biggest surprise?  How much I completely hate Grappa.  Grappa is an Italian brandy made out of pomace, which is literally wine leftovers — the skins, seeds and stems that remain after fermentation.  It’s my kryptonite.  But, I’m 99% positive Grappa was one of the three blind-spirits on our exam.  When you hate something as much as I hate Grappa, you can’t mis-identify it.  So, thanks for that, Grappa.

    Mmmm. Pommace.
  12. I adore tequila, but I can’t stand mezcal.  Mezcal is tequila’s smoky-flavored, super-trendy cousin.  But, I don’t like anything smoke-flavored.  Not even smoked turkey.  Btw, tequila and mezcal should be worm-free.  If you’ve got a bottle with a worm floating around at the bottom of it, you’ve got an el-cheapo bottle aimed solely at getting gringos to eat a worm.
  13. Wow, do I not like Scotch whisky.  Again, it’s the smoke thing.  Some (not all) Scotch is peated, which gives it a smoky, iodine, seaweed quality.  Peat is a spongy layer of carbonized and decaying vegetation that’s used as a fuel source during the kilning of barley in Scotland.  The smoke from the burning peat adheres to the barley and gives it that distinct flavor.  I just do not understand how people can love something that tastes like a smoky Band-Aid.


  14. I feel like I’m supposed to love Cognac.  And believe me, I’ve tried.  And tried.  But I don’t like it.  I don’t hate it, but I’m never going to crave it.  Bring me the bourbon!
  15. Vodka.  What’s the point?  It’s supposed to taste like nothing.  And it does.  There was a Russian woman in my class who summed it up perfectly:  “I’m Russian, and I do not get the point of vodka.”
  16. I make an exception for Żubrówka Bison Grass Vodka.  Żubrówka is a Polish vodka flavored with bison grass.  I know, I know.  Bison what?!?  This is proof that you can make vodka out of just about anything.  It tastes like vanilla, almonds and cinnamon.


  17. Fernet Branca.  This stuff should come with a Mr. Yuk 7e4c5360ef1b653d007da4a2c93fe6d1.png warning sticker.  Fernet Branca is a digestif bitter herbal liquor from Italy (and the second most popular herbal liquor in the world, behind Jaegermeister).  The 27 herbs-and-spices-recipe is a Coca-Cola/KFC level secret.  It’s is blackish-green in color, and tastes like mint-flavored motor oil.

Now . . . I really should go tackle that Tupperware cabinet.  Salud!



  1. I was so happy when I got a grappa in my final spirits exam! I hated it then and so I knew exactly what it was…but now? I quite enjoy it! And now, just make sure you can write and write well for 3 solid hours! I had a major divet in my finger after it! You’ve got this Kirsten! No doubt you will pass with flying colours! Salute!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m not sure I will ever get to a Team Grappa point, but it’s nice to know someone did!! I’m going to start my Unit 3 prep once my kids go back to college/high school later this summer . . . Salud!


  2. I can’t decide if I’m relieved or not that I won’t have to tackle a Spirits Unit in my Diploma pursuit (since they’re changing up the program). After reading your post, I’m admittedly a bit disappointed that I won’t be doing it – it sounds like you had a lot of fun and learned a ton! Enjoy your break! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I saw that WSET revised the program so spirits will no longer be a part of Diploma. I’m kind of disappointed for you . . . I really did learn SO much. I’m glad I had the chance to do the unit. Cheers!!


  3. Congratulations, and welcome back. Thought you had been done in by a bottle of Grappa! I found out the hard way about the taste of scotch from the island of Islay. Every Christmas I treat myself to a different brand rather than one of the ‘Glens”. I chose a bottle from Laphroaig, labeled “quarter cask”. Now I know why, the other 3/4 of the cask was filled with peat. I knew I was in trouble as soon as I pulled the cork. Happy to report that since then I have discovered many delightful single malts, and stayed off the Isle. A book that I am currently reading, Tasting Whiskey, by Lew Bryson has helped me better appreciate the history, people and science in the making of the “nectar of the gods”. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Japanese whisky tends to follow the Scotch formula, so they aren’t my favorites. That said, I do appreciate their purity and elegance. We tasted the Yamasaki 12-year single malt in class, and I was pleasantly surprised. Cheers!


    1. Haha! If anything were to do me in, for sure it would be Grappa!! Yeah, Islay is known for the peated monsters . . . if I ever acquire a taste for Scotch it won’t be from there! Thanks for the book recommendation. I love a good read. Cheers!!


  4. hahahaha reminds me of my 3 months on spirits. However, don’t write off all grappa. I know I know. The usual stuff is some of the worst possible liquid that humans ingest. However, there are good floral and quite nice examples. A few. Artisinal. Not usually available, easily. Talk to an Italian distributor, they’ll know it.
    Also, vodka is not about taste. It’s about how little it hurts the next morning after you’ve drunk 2 litres. If you still know that Russian lady, please explain this to her.
    The things I took away from my spirits sessions:
    * how to finally appreciate scotch
    * anything that needs to be aniseed flavoured should be destroyed
    * cognac is a drink for those without taste buds, armagnac is the better cousin
    * tequila is amazing
    * all bourbon tastes the same (to me!, I’m more of a savoury palate though)
    * gin, in all it’s forms, is just pine cleaner
    * it’s insane how much spirit is drunk that no-one outside of India/ China/ Korea knows anything about

    Practice writing for Unit 3 – after a morning of tasting. And never take the short answer option if you can avoid it…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is great!! Agree . . . Armagnac is better than Cognac. But I’m the one who likes the anise flavored stuff, especially Ouzo! If you stranded me on a desert island, I’d take Bourbon and Gin!! 😂 Cheers!!


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