Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

WSET: King of the spirits

Published:  05 July, 2019

Andrew Catchpole catches up with new WSET Level 3 Spirits Award creator Nick King

Dropping into a seat at a cool Bermondsey café opposite the Wine & Spirit Education Trust’s (WSET) London HQ, Nick King plonks a fat dossier on the table with an air of modest satisfaction. And no surprise. This is the course book for the shiny new WSET Level 3 Spirits Award and it represents two-and-a-half years of solid graft, and double that time spent on painstaking planning, with King its author.

“It’s a big moment – we’ve been working on the whole spirits revamp for five years, been working on this specifically for two-and-a-half years,” says King. “It’s not just like writing a book. We have to provide all the classroom support, teacher and student support, so there’s a lot that goes around it. To do this job you have to have an insatiable curiosity. And you can’t be a stick in the mud.”

For both King and the WSET – where he holds the title of product development manager, spirits and sake – the launch of this qualification (with courses in New York and London in August and October respectively) is more than an added bolt-on to the WSET’s existing plethora of wine, spirit and sake qualifications.

Complementing and building upon the Level 1 and 2 Spirits Awards, it represents a major shift that has seen spirits removed from the Diploma (the top, now fully wine-focused, Level 4 Award) and given their own platform, potentially boosting the reach and standing of this already hugely influential global educational drinks body.

The rationale to focus on spirits as a standalone at this level, rather than mixing them up with wine as has been the case since the WSET launched 50 years ago, is designed to reflect what King half-jokingly describes as a drinks world where “wine is wilfully obscure, while spirits are much more brand led”.

“We’ve always had spirits in wine courses. A few years ago, we sat down and decided that spirits were not doing much, [but] there’s always been a demand for Level 3 and we were finding it hard to fit spirits into wine – they were getting short changed,” explains King.

“There’s a lot of crossover between wine and spirits, but also very wine-focused people and very spirits-focused people, and the people who are genuinely passionate about both is quite a small sub-set.

“So, we came to a conclusion. If we were going to do Level 3, we had to revamp Levels 1 and 2, so we structured it so that everything led through.”

Making a decision

King explains that the WSET and its chief executive, Ian Harris, came to a decision that spirits would come out of the diploma, but that could only happen if a Level 3 was created for spirits, so that it didn’t look like the Trust was “running away” from the category.

“Everything is now untangled, so this year we will have a Level 1, 2 and 3 Spirits and a Level 1, 2, 3 and 4 (Diploma) Wine, and a Level 1 and 3 Sake (a slight anomaly – we may have Level 2 sake one day),” says King.

The teaching of spirits differs quite significantly too, he adds, with the various spirits categories being very brand led, and a lot of spirit drinkers tending to be very specialist about a category – perhaps passionate about rum, or into Scotch.

However, this means that the WSET can work quite closely with brands and the big brand owners – with the proviso of a very clear understanding that such companies are not to plug their own products to the exclusion of the broader category – to support education on a given type of spirit.

It’s also hoped, with the general boom in craft spirits and cocktails, that this new level will further grow what has become a very successful British drinks trade export by expanding the Trust’s already considerable global reach. A further roll-out of the course is likely in Hong Kong in December, and online courses available for time-short on-trade staff are being introduced for 2020.

“There is a lot of nascent knowledge out there in the spirits community and this is a way of stitching it together in a much more coherent fashion, providing context and a broader range of knowledge,” says King.

“There is a real desire to learn and know and there is a real passion about what they are selling – and long may that continue.”