The Spirit of Geek: WSET, Week 2

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Jan 18, 2017

Meh. That’s my one word review of the first week of spirits for our WSET Diploma. We covered a couple of areas, some interesting to me, some not so much. The morning was theory and tasting technique, as well as a practice test tasting on sparkling wines. (I was right on two of the three, but other people had the same incorrect answer for the second wine as I did.) The theory topic – basically, distillation – was interesting to me. I spent quite a bit of time in the run-up to the class doing the background reading (as we are supposed to) and probably way too much time looking up distillation arcana, as the topic brought back memories of my undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. Yes, once upon a time, I knew not just how a distillation column worked, but (at least roughly) how to design one. I looked up what those diagrams used in distillation column design were called. They are McCabe-Thiele diagrams, to save the rest of you a few sleepless nights.

The theory section didn’t actually go into that much detail. I suppose for WSET purposes, you don’t really need much, just a basic idea of how distillation works. We did get a bit of other stuff – filtration, and what-not, but most of that was held back for the individual spirits. For example, we covered the addition of botanicals to gin when we did gin in the afternoon, not in the morning session. At any rate, I’ve come to realise – at least in the context of WSET coursework – I rather prefer the technical stuff to the rather normative tasting stuff.

Tasting technique was more interesting. It’s quite a bit different than for wine. The same basic stuff applies – appearance, nose, palate, evaluation. The details change, however. You don’t worry about alcohol levels, but rather if the alcohol is soft, smooth, warming or harsh. The aroma / palate descriptors change a bit, as do those for appearance. Perhaps the biggest difference is that you assess the nose twice: once neat, and once with the addition of water, which opens up the nose, and in some spirits, may cause louching (the creation of a milky emulsion).

In the afternoon, we ran through vodka (three samples) and gin (five). Here were the two biggest reasons the day only gets a meh from me. (Apart from a lack of sufficient geekiness in the morning.)  One: I really don’t care for gin. Out of the five, there was only one I could see myself drinking, if I had to. That was the Plymouth Gin. The vodkas were fine, and it was interesting to see the difference between a rye-based and potato-based vodka. Potato-based vodkas are a bit creamier – like alcoholic mash, as my friend described it. But gin? I don’t get it. It isn’t an active dislike, for the most part. Just a, well, meh. If I want juniper (the predominant botanical in gin), I’ll add juniper berries to whatever sauce I’m making to go with venison, thank you very much.

The other reason for the day not getting a better review: the headache. Despite not swirling the glass to release more aromas (spirits are volatile enough to start with), just the amount of alcohol we were sniffing very quickly gave me a headache. After about the first gin – or maybe even sooner – I had such a headache that, honestly, I sort of tuned out. I took notes and tried to do what we were supposed to, but it was in a sort of sensorial haze.

I do have a few other thoughts inspired by the second class of the second semester of the diploma. I’m going to save those for another post. Despite the fact that I categorise this week’s class as ‘meh,’ I don’t want to come across as too negative. I am finding the course very educational, both in the ways WSET intended, and perhaps even more so, in other ways as well. That, ultimately, for me, is the point. I’d remind readers that while I do hope to end up with a new qualification in the wine world at the end of this all, pursuing the WSET Diploma is still part of the larger Anthroenology project. For me, that’s really the more important part.

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