Diploma Week 2 - Days 2 and 3
Over the course of these two days, we tasted around 35 spirits under the guidance of Michael Walpole, who had spent 30 years working for Diageo before joining the WSET. These tastings were intense, educational, yet quite frustrating. Intense for the amount of high-alcohol drinks we tasted, educational for the sheer range of drinks we sampled, and frustrating for the contradictory WSET approach to studying and tasting drinks.
very good or outstanding?
On Thursday morning, we began by tasting three vodkas, a forbidding and unpleasant proposition. Surprisingly, I quite liked all three and could appreciate the warming sophistication of the drinks despite their neutral, high alcohol flavours. One in particular everyone in the group seemed to like was the Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka, a Polish vodka flavoured with grass from fields that European bison graze on. It had a light colour to it, and a subtle texture. Many of us thought it was outstanding, as there was very little to fault about it, but Michael said it was merely very good because there are superior vodkas sold in Poland. If there are even better vodkas than this, we thought, then fair enough.
Later on during our brandy session, we tasted Rémy-Martin's XO. This is a very expensive brandy (£120+) from a famous Cognac name, but it's one I've tasted before in a Cognac line-up and found disappointing, especially for the price. Michael waxed lyrical about the drink, declaring it outstanding, and I couldn't help question him. 'I've tasted better XOs than this, so how can I describe it as outstanding?' I asked. 'Because it's outstanding.' 'But you said the vodka this morning was only very good because there were even better vodkas out there, so if I know there are better Cognacs out there how can I call it outstanding?' 'Because it's outstanding.' 'So why wasn't the vodka this morning outstanding?' 'Because there are better vodkas out there.'
It was a conversation which summed up what I've found frustrating about tasting during the Diploma so far. The WSET have created an objective tasting schemata, which their tutors interpret in an inconsistent and personal fashion. I think, for the large part, you've got to stick with our own judgement, using your knowledge and experience.
what we tasted
In short, just about everything apart from Cachaça. Spirits I've never tasted before, spirits I've never wanted to taste before, and spirits I now want to taste again. I won't go into detail about all the spirits, as there were just so many we tasted and I plan to blog about each different spirit up till the exam next month. Although the breadth of the tasting was extensive, I felt we could have tasted more premium spirits as opportunities to taste such drinks are rare. There's also a section in the book on cocktails, but it's not something we need to study; this is a shame, as having tasted all these different spirits I'm interested to discover how they work with other ingredients.
Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka (£20)
Vodka's just something I never drink; the first sniff of the Smirnoff we tasted brought back many bad memories. This Polish vodka really opened my mind to vodka, though. There was a complex elegance to it, with a long, lingering finish. The range of engaging flavours overlapped, creating a rounded texture - marzipan, lemon and lime, grass and hay, chamomile and mint, with spices from the rye. Apparently, this goes very well with fresh apple juice and a suggested cocktail was with lemon, ground almonds or amaretto, and apple juice.
Pusser's Blue Label Navy Rum (£30)
Now here's another drink - dark rum - that not that long ago I wouldn't have gone near, but a brief taste at hangingditch of one last year gave me an idea of the depth and complexity of the drink. This was confirmed by this astonishing spirit, which British sailors used to drink a pint a day of. The flavours were rich, deep, and intense with lots of dried fruits (figs, prunes, and dates), and Christmas cake. The treacle and toffee sweetness came from the raw material, molasses. Its colour comes from ageing in old Bourbon oak barrels, making the spirit toasty and smoky, with cinnamon and cloves spices. Yet in the midst of all this dark complexity were light tropical fruit flavours of banana and melon.
El Dorado Special Reserve 15YO Demerara Rum (£40)
And Pusser's wasn't even the best dark rum we tried. This Guyanan rum has won plenty of awards and has lots of similiar complex flavours, but with an added depth and finish, with a creamy vanilla texture also coming from the oak, as well as chocolate and coffee. I'll be exploring the world of dark rum with some pleasure.
Johnnie Walker Black Label (£25)
Spirits are all about fashion. Blended whiskies like Johnnie Walker are highly sought after in other parts of the world such as Asia; in Britain, they're seen as yesterday's drink - it's the Single Malts that are sought after. I've drunk plenty of Scotch, but never even considered trying Johnnie Walker - now I will. This was simply superb: a complex combination of all the other Scotch whiskies we tried and a prime example of the art of blending.
am I now an expert?
You'd hope so, having tasted so many spirits. However, there's still a lot of work to be done before the exam next month: learning to distinguish between each spirit, recognising the raw material, and remembering the vocabulary. We had a mock blind tasting at the end of the final day; I correctly identified the grappa and tequila, but thought the Bacardi was a vodka. The hardest thing is distiniguishing one mediocre drink from the other - not the kind of revision I really want to be doing...
I didn't drink a drop