WSET on tackling the lack of non-branded spirits education

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In August 2019, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) will be launching the new first-of-its-kind WSET Level 3 Award in Spirits.

Candidates who have completed the WSET Level 2 Award in Spirits will be able to progress to the new qualification, which is designed to complement the global growth in spirits and the industry’s demand for advanced, brand neutral knowledge.

Nick King, WSET spirits educator and product development manager for spirits and sake, delves into the current issues with the lack of non-branded advanced spirits education available.

I have visited Cognac a number of times. Each time I came away knowing more about the spirit. However, each time I was left with the distinct feeling that there really was a lot more to know. For example, I knew that double pot still distillation in Cognac was very different from the same approach used in Scotland but why were these differences important?

Incredibly, there are to date no thorough explanations of this. Ironically, it wasn’t until I talked to distillers who had worked under the legendary distiller Hubert Germain-Robain that I really got to grips with how production choices are used in the Cognac tradition to shape both style and quality.

This gap in knowledge between practitioners and science versus those who work in predominantly customer facing roles, as well as consumers, is found throughout the spirits industry. The consequence is that spirits are at the same time both familiar and distant. If you walk down a supermarket aisle you will see many products that are heavily branded and promoted. However, beyond the veneer what is known about how these products are made and how they differ from their competitors? The answer is, all too often, rather little.

There are those who might say the spirits industry is successful and has the kind of brand recognition those in the wine industry would die for. Why would anyone need or want to know about the finer details of production that are to be covered in the new WSET Level 3 Award in Spirits?

First, there are many people who have a burning interest in these topics and it is only right that they have access to clear and accurate information. There will always be gaps, many spirit companies develop techniques and technology that they have every right to keep private. Nevertheless, there is a great deal that is known which can and should be shared.

Second, there are those in a position of responsibility who can really benefit from a deeper understanding of the broader spirit categories. On the one hand, this will support clearer and better-informed communication about brands. Transparency helps brands gain credibility amongst spirit professionals. Conversely, better informed professionals will be able to be more thoughtful when presented with snippets of production information from brands. If the information seems irrelevant then this might suggest an issue with transparency and the brand should be challenged.

Ultimately these changes can serve to benefit consumers. Branding and promotion are fun and are essential to the spirits industry, but consumers also deserve to be in position where they can make more informed decisions about what They buy and why. Education is the route to achieving this.

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