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Spirits Training: The knack and how to get it

Wine training for the on-trade might be erratic, but gaining decent spirits knowledge is an even harder task. Richard Woodard takes a look at the options that are available for those who want to understand the hard stuff


Among the many contrasts between the wine and spirits worlds, training and education is one of the most notable. A wannabe sommelier can take his or her pick from all manner of wine qualifications, from the very basic up to the hallowed suffix of MS or MW.

But for spirits? Erm… To say the choices are limited is an understatement. Mind you, it used to be worse. The Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) has long been the go-to organisation for drinks trade academic training in the UK, but until a decade or so ago, the only function of the ‘Spirits’ bit in the title was to save them from a rather unfortunate acronym.

That changed when former Seagram executive Ian Harris joined as chief executive. Under his leadership, the WSET has introduced two spirits-specific qualifications: a one-day, Level 1 Foundation Certificate in Spirits, as well as a three-day Level 2 Professional Spirits Certificate.

Take it to another level

As the duration suggests, the former is a basic introduction for those entering the drinks trade, while the latter puts some flesh on the bones in terms of production, classification and so on. And they’re popular enough – in the first five months of the current academic year in the UK, about 400 people have enrolled for Level 2, and about 100 for Level 1.

These are fine for first-jobbers or those with a little experience who want to expand their knowledge, but what about those ambitious bartenders eager to get the inside track on gin botanicals, the intricacies of tequila production or how different types of wood influence Speyside malts? These aren’t just nerdy bits of academe, they could be vital nuggets of information to help persuade consumers to trade up and try something new.

The World Masterclass

These days, learning isn’t all about dusty classrooms and even dustier lecturers sending their students into a stupor with their dry musings on the finer points of distillation. Drinks writer Dave Broom (right) has teamed up with hospitality training specialist Lobster Ink to launch The World Masterclass, an online/DVD course initially focusing on whisky.

It’s a bit like an educational computer game: Year One comprises 50 lessons, including a ‘classroom’ session featuring the ever-entertaining Broom, plus 150 video clips of distillers and distilleries and more than 100 tasting clips.

The format means students

can also leave the classroom behind and head to Islay to hear about distillation from Mickey Heads of Ardbeg, or to Speyside to learn about mashing from Andy Cant of Cardhu.

Success in a multiple choice test on each lesson then ‘unlocks’ the next level.

The 100 tasting clips feature major whisky brands and position each clearly in its own ‘flavour board’ and in one of five flavour camps.

Year Two, which launches this spring, will feature in-depth focuses on specific distilleries, Irish whiskey and Scotch blends. But the concept is set to take in other whisky sectors and, indeed, other spirits categories.

‘We have so many ideas for
this platform,’ said Broom.
‘The possibilities with this application are endless.’

Year One of The World Masterclass costs £99, and students can enrol at theworldmasterclass.com.

‘In terms of education, the level of ignorance there has been in the on- and off-trade is vast compared to wine,’ says Will Lowe, a wine and spirit trainer at Bibendum who has devised a popular one-day course called Spirits: Distilled. ‘I feel quite strongly about it – why it should be acceptable is beyond me.’

Why, for instance, isn’t there a detailed spirits diploma course on a level with the WSET’s Level 4 Diploma (which focuses on wine, with spirits accounting for only about 10% of the total credits)? Simple, responds Harris – it isn’t wanted.

‘We would do it if there was demand, but we’re not in a position where we have students clamouring for a higher level spirits qualification – it ain’t there at the moment,’ he says.
In an increasingly sophisticated and complex spirits sector, this seems surprising. ‘Sometimes you just have to put the cart before the horse,’ argues Lowe.

He admits that the first Spirits: Distilled course was ‘a struggle’, with minimal take-up from the trade and Bibendum’s own employees. But positive reviews led to two recent courses, announced simultaneously, being fully booked within 40 minutes – and now Lowe is considering organising a more in-depth, two-day course.

His theory about the dearth of spirits knowledge in the on-trade in general is borne out by the profile of those people attending his course.

‘They’re not the typical West End bartender; instead, they’re people who have maybe been in the hospitality trade for quite some time, but have neglected the spirits part of their education for some reason. The classic sommelier will know a lot about wine, a little about brandy and whisky – and not much about anything else,’ he explains.

Doing the knowledge

Shaker UK is probably the leading light in spirits and bartender training in the UK. The company offers an introductory International Bartenders Course (IBC) and more in-depth Advanced Bartenders Course (ABC – see box). But key account and marketing manager Ellie Leacroft acknowledges that most of those attending are bartenders operating under their own steam, rather than companies eager to educate their own staff.

When it comes to bars themselves, many are still reliant on the brands they sell to provide their staff training as well. At Drake & Morgan, for instance, every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday morning, a particular brand spends half an hour showcasing its products to bar staff.

‘We try to work as closely as possible with the brands,’ says Kane Brooks, the company’s head of drinks. ‘Ultimately they want us to be educated and to know this stuff. People have got to know what they’re selling – they’ve got to be passionate about it.’

Others are slightly wary of this approach, pointing out the obvious fact that brands have one ultimate goal – selling more of their product. ‘Historically, the spirit education we’ve had has been from the brand reps, so it’s been quite biased and too tightly-focused for what we need,’ says Ben Tyrer, learning and development manager at Be At One.

The company now runs monthly spirits knowledge training sessions on particular categories, covering history, production, categorisation and so on. Brands are still invited in, but their input is supplementary to category education.

‘There’s a big difference between brand education and category education,’ agrees Bibendum’s Lowe. ‘If you want to learn about rum, then going and talking to a particular brand ambassador can never give you the full picture. They’re an extension of the sales force and their job is to sell more of their product.’

The change of approach at Be At One has had an impact: while the old, brand-led sessions might have attracted only eight or 10 bartenders, 30-plus are coming along to the new, category-focused sessions.

But it comes at a cost – Be At One spends nine weeks training its new bartenders, and Drake & Morgan is similarly dedicated to instilling a deep product knowledge in its employees. Given the high staff turnover in the on-trade and the current economic fragility, is it worth it?

Money well spent

‘When the downturn hit in 2008/9, our biggest impact was in the on-trade,’ recalls the WSET’s Harris. ‘The training budget was the first budget to have the red pen struck through it.’

But cutting corners isn’t an option if, in the words of Brooks, the key to your success is the passion of the staff. ‘I’d say that 90% of our guys have tasted everything on the back bar,’ he says. ‘They know everything there to some degree. We could just buy stuff and chuck it on the shelf, but we’d rather slowly introduce one product after another, and also introduce it to the staff. The customer wants to know “Why should I have that gin?” I want my guys to be able to give an informed answer to that question.’

‘The reason we’re successful is because we’ve continued to make that investment even when times aren’t so good, and it makes people want to work for us,’ says Be At One’s Tyrer. ‘Anyone looking at spirit training and looking to cut costs is a bit short-sighted.’

What’s out there?

Many suppliers and brand owners offer staff training, but the options for ‘third party’ learning are relatively limited…

WSET, wsetglobal.com

Level 1 Foundation Certificate in Spirits: One-day course aimed at those in their first job selling spirits in retail or the on-trade, offering basic product knowledge, service skills and spirits marketing. Cost: £140.

Level 2 Professional Spirits Certificate: Three-day course, with a variety of day release or evening study options, providing in-depth knowledge of brandy, gin, rum, tequila, vodka, whiskies and liqueurs.

Cost: £355; from £195 for online distance learning.

NB: WSET Level 2 and Level 3 Awards in Wines & Spirits, and WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines & Spirits are all heavily wine-focused, but also cover spirits.

Shaker UK, shaker-uk.com

International Bartenders Course (IBC):
Five-day, 40-hour course for the beginner or developing bartender, focusing on practical skills, with the option to include the WSET Level 1 Award in Spirits for an additional £50. Cost: £599 in Birmingham; £699 in London.

Advanced Bartenders Course (ABC):
Five-day, 40-hour course for bartenders with at least a year’s experience looking to hone their skills and knowledge. Covers practical skills and in-depth product knowledge. Cost: £599 in London.

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – March/April 2012

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