February 9, 2016


Talk about a change of pace! A few weeks ago we began the Spirits section of the WSET Diploma. Most people are surprised to learn that spirits is part of my Somm certification, however the program is called the Wine & Spirits Education Trust! The focus is definitely wine, as five of the six units relate to wine, but we do have one unit on spirits.

A spirit is an alcoholic beverage that has undergone the process of distillation to increase the level of alcohol. This is in contrast to wine which is fermented to a much lower alcohol. Distillation does not take place with wine. Below are the key groups of spirits we are responsible for on the exam:

Fruit-Based Spirits



Brandy de Jerez



Other: Calvados, Poire Williams, Framboise, Kirsch

Grain-Based Spirits

Scotch Whisky

Irish Whiskey


Canadian and Japanese Whiskey


Gin and Genever

Sugar Cane Based Spirits

Unaged Rum

Aged Rum

Rhum Agricole


Agave-Based Spirits

Unaged Tequila

Aged Tequila

Mixto Tequila


Other Spirits




It is quite the list...and to be honest, I'm not much of a spirits gal. I love learning about spirits (the production is quite fascinating) and I love the nose on different spirits, yet the taste is just too much for me. Even if I dilute the spirit with water, I still get the burning, harsh sensation in my mouth. I have learned to use a bit more water than is recommended in order to makeup for my "sensitive" palate.

The Spirits exam is on March 9 and will consist of a blind tasting of 3 spirits and 3 short answer questions. We have 65 minutes to complete both portions of the exam.

Studying for the spirits exam is not much different than studying for the other tasting/essay exams. In regards to the short answer pieces, I have read the textbook as well as a couple supplemental texts on whiskey and rum. I've created flash cards for key ideas/topics such as the process of making a spirits, key facts about each spirit category, the main beverage groups, etc. As I get closer to the exam, I'll probably convert my notes to big flip chart diagrams and bullet points.

In regards to tasting we are in the process of forming our tasting groups. We are going to have a Wine House employee put together about 6 spirits to taste blind. We'll do the tasting under exam conditions (3 spirits in 30 minutes) and then stop and discuss our answers together. Also, one of our classmates worked with a beverage director friend of his and invited us to his restaurant. The gentleman will put together a flight of 4 spirits blind for us for $40. I plan on doing that as we get closer to the exam to get another exam-like tasting under my belt.

Our two lecture classes have been wonderful. Robert Schibelli has lead the lectures in his fun, yet informative manner. You can listen to this guy talk for hours...and we do. He's got a no-nonsense way of getting the information across that is very effective, in my opinion.

Over the last 5 years, this unit has had an average 62% passing rate, which is the second lowest passing rate out of the 6 units. The first, of course, being the monster of Unit 3 (Still Wines of the World). What is unique to Unit 3 is that the tasting and theory piece are assessed and scored separately. The tasting portion has had an average 72% pass rate over the last 5 years and the theory portion has had a paltry 47% pass rate over the last 5 years

Let's just say that I have my work cut out for me in the next 5 weeks of Spirits study. Cheers!

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you are looking to Drink Better and Up Your Wine Game, check out my latest virtual wine tasting offerings, including both public and private wine tasting events. For virtual events, my tastings feature a small-format wine tasting set sent to each attendee for a shared tasting experience. What can you expect from a Virtual Vino event? Fun, approachable, interactive, and unpretentious wine education as we share smiles and wine!
Brianne Cohen is a certified sommelier based out of Los Angeles, California.
She has been producing events and weddings for over 10 years in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and also offers her services as a wine educator, writer, and consultant to inspire people of all ages.

Brianne completed the entire curriculum with the Wine & Spirits Education Trust and traveled to London in order to receive her Diploma certificate, which is one of the most coveted and difficult wine certifications. Most recently Brianne judged at the International Wine & Spirits Competition and the International Wine Challenge in London.
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