From Master Sommelier to Bourbon Steward, Here's Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Spirits Expert

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You don't have to become a Sommelier to know the in's and out's of adult beverages.

Restaurants and bars from New York to Shanghai rely on professionally trained Sommeliers for their impeccable knowledge of all things wine, but they’re far from the only masters in the field of adult beverages. In fact, a handful of international associations administer intensive certification programs meant to separate hobbyists from experts when it comes to booze. From deep dives into whiskey’s intoxicating waters to nuanced investigations into cutting-edge distillation methods and how to build the perfect cocktail, here are four pathways toward becoming a verified alcohol expert.

Certified, Advanced & Master Sommelier

Arguably the most famous accreditation of the boozy bunch, this tri-tiered international accolade is administered and regulated by the venerable Court of Master Sommeliers. According to the official website, the first successful Master Somm exam was completed in the UK back in 1969 and since then the organization has grown to become “the premier international examining body” for students of wine. Enlistees must pass through a series of in-person or online instruction covering all aspects of winemaking and viticulture plus regional distinctions, tasting methods, and detailed service standards, among many other important lessons.

Four qualifying exams represent the Court’s various achievement levels, starting with the Certified Sommelier Examination meant to be attempted after all preliminary coursework and corresponding testing has been completed; the mid-grade Advanced Sommelier Examination, a three-day event spanning written theory, hands-on tastings, and practical service elements; and the lauded Master Sommelier Diploma Examination, an even lengthier process evaluating theory, tastings, and service at the highest echelon said to be one of hardest tests in the world. To this day, just 172 Americans hold the distinction of Master Somm.

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Master of Wine

The UK-based Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) heads up this self-directed program which provides serious wine scholars access to myriad resources for both advancement within IMW’s own certification proceedings as well as networking opportunities and other career growth initiatives. Application hopefuls must have worked for at least three years in the wine industry, come with glowing recommendations, and hold a bachelor’s or master’s degree in wine or top-level sommelier status in order to register, setting this option far above the fray when it comes to elite qualifications.

Accepted trainees must then complete three stages of study before sitting for the final exam. Level one covers the foundations via a five-day onsite seminar plus four offsite course days and finishes with an extensive blind taste test as well as two theoretical essays. Level two goes a step further, its five days of onsite instruction and four offsite course days culminating in three different blind taste tests “in which wines must be assessed for variety, origin, commercial appeal, winemaking, quality and style” alongside five written essays on “viticulture, vinification, and pre-bottling procedures, the handling of wine, the business of wine, and contemporary issues.” It’s no surprise that the final stage is even more intense, featuring a self-guided, dissertation-style research paper measuring between 6,000 and 10,000 words. Those who successfully finish all three stages can then proudly count themselves among the world’s 418 Masters of Wine.

Tasting from Wine & Spirit Education Trust
Courtesy Wine & Spirit Education Trust

WSET Level 1, 2, 3 & 4 Awards in Wine

With a presence in more than 70 different countries, London’s Wine and Spirit Education Trust has been setting the industry standard for professional instruction in wine since its debut in 1969. The four-level award system takes a more educational approach to guiding aspiring wine-lovers through the beverage’s rich past and current landscape, making it particularly suited for beverage writers, historians, academics, instructors, and even curious consumers as opposed to predominantly catering to hospitality professionals. 

A truly global program, courses are offered in a variety of different languages in partnership with over 900 in-person and online providers around the world. The awards are divided into four different tiers, each with its own evaluation methods, associated fees, and time commitments ranging from six hours of study for level one all the way up to an expected 500 for those pursuing a level four certificate. A closed-book exam acts as the final step at the close of each tier while levels three and four include additional assessment items like blind tastings, short answer written and in-depth subject tests, and a long-form research paper.

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Wine tasting from Society of Wine Educators
Doug Sanford/Courtesy Society of Wine Educators

Certified Specialist Of Wine & Certified Wine Educator 

The American nonprofit Society of Wine Educators has blossomed into one of the world’s best-known wine and spirits educators since its inception in 1977 and the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) designation remains its most popular pursuit. The more consumer-facing Certified Wine Educator (CWE) is the society’s advanced degree, available only to those who already hold the CSW title with no exceptions. The society also offers memberships for in-program discounts and expanded access to career development tools.

The focus here is on the exam—the program is largely self-guided but students who choose to purchase them have access to a bounty of helpful materials like study guides and workbooks, flashcards, practice tests, online and in-person seminars, and more. When they’re ready, aspiring wine pros can sit for their timed one-hour exam online via ProctorU, a live online proctoring service, or onsite at a Pearson VUE testing center. The 100-question multiple choice CSW test evaluates candidates on a diverse number of subjects, from tasting psychology, wine etiquette, and food and wine pairings to viticulture and enology, wine chemistry, regional specifications, and label composition. In addition to an 85-question theoretical exam, CWE hopefuls face two practical tasting exercises measuring both their varietal and appellation  knowledge as well as their ability to detect defects and chemical changes in the field. Successful graduates of both courses are rewarded with a frameable certificate, usage of their acquired postnominal, and a shiny new lapel pin.

Certified Specialist Of Spirits & Certified Spirits Educator 

Much like its CSW program, SWE’s Certified Spirits Specialist program continues to reign among the most sought-after accreditations for bar professionals and armchair experts alike. Both the standard CSS and second-tier Certified Spirits Educator programs mirror the wine track by offering a slew of internet-based instruction alongside membership opportunities. One CSS recipient, hospitality consultant Dana Darley of Louisville, Kentucky’s Jig + Spoon Impact, aptly describes the self-propelled process as “a mixed media path to study.”

“You can go all digital with online materials and webinars, you can get the book and workbook, or go with all of the above depending on what you prefer,” she notes. “The study material is very affordable at $20 to $40 per book or digital deck while the exam is $850 and takes only the amount of time you feel you need to conquer the material.”

In other words, the exam requires no prerequisites––as soon as they’re done reading up on the prescribed literature, students can sit for the one-hour, 100-question test. Achieve a score of 75% or higher and you’ll be granted usage of the CSS postnominal, an official certificate, and your very own CSS lapel pin. After obtaining their CSS, graduates can choose to further their educational journey by vying for the CSE designation. The CSE is also largely self-guided in terms of preparation and culminates in a final exam encompassing written theory, two tasting exercises evaluating a student’s ability to classify, describe, and compare various spirits plus an oral presentation on a spirits-related topic delivered in front of a live audience.

For Darley, attaining the CSS has been a worthwhile investment on several fronts. “Personally, I’ve benefited from just expanding my range of knowledge,” she says. “Professionally, for our consulting company Jig + Spoon, it gives partners or clients peace of mind knowing that our stated knowledge of spirits is proven and tested. With all the misinformation [out there], I believe that’s more important than ever.”

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WSET Level 1, 2 & 3 Awards in Spirits

WSET’s spirits-specific certification program breaks down into three tiers: Level 1, tastings-heavy introductory path catering toward folks just starting out behind the bar; Level 2, an intermediate level that dives further behind-the-scenes by detailing fermentation and distillation processes, serving methods, and style fundamentals; and Level 3, a third and final tier promising a “deep theoretical understanding of the techniques used in spirit production” as well as the ability to share your knowledge with others in an richly informed manner.

“I took my first spirits certification in 2013, since then I've attended classes and written tests both online and in-person in multiple countries,” says Alex Black, bar manager at the forthcoming Lao Wai Cocktail Bar in Vancouver, Canada. Black currently holds the status of Level 3 Spirits Educator in addition to a laundry list of other professional accolades. “In our industry, these certifications and the materials contained within them are generally overseen by the most credible minds we have—it's really the only avenue we have to be educated without a sales pitch and marketing department skewing the information.”

As with its wine distinction, WSET offers courses via a network of third-party course providers stationed all over the world so the classroom is never far from reach. Time commitments range from six hours of guided study up to 84 hours depending on your desired level of attainment and course fees vary between providers. All levels culminate in a comprehensive written exam while Level 3 candidates must also complete a rigorous blind tasting. Successful graduates receive an official WSET certificate and lapel pin as well as permission to use their WSET title and the organization’s certified logo.

Certification in Tequila, Conocedor de Tequila & Tequila Sommelier

The International Tequila Academy backs this expansive agave-fueled certificate program, currently one of the only tequila-specific accreditations on the general market. Three different designations are available, beginning with an entry level Certification course covering tequila essentials like basic categories and classes, denomination distinctions, production methods and serving procedures for $99. One step up lies the Conocedor de Tequila track, an intermediate qualification that dives much deeper into subjects like governmental regulations, distillation and aging, agave farming, filtration and blending, and advanced classification. Conocedor training runs students $249 and level one access is included in the price.

The final tier, Tequila Sommelier, is just as prestigious as it sounds. The course provides an intensive look at the tequila industry at large, differentiating between the style’s 1000+ brands. Tequila Somms are expected to easily identify and evaluate agave spirits based on often subtle changes in regional, production, marketing, and chemical makeups. This standalone course costs $399.

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All coursework and testing can be performed online, making this option especially attractive to tequila-lovers of all backgrounds and locations. Levels one and two culminate in a multiple choice exam while aspiring Sommeliers must pass an oral evaluation to successfully attain their certificate.

Diploma in Gin

The Edinburgh Whisky Academy is behind this sweeping introduction to the UK’s favorite botanical spirit. The self-paced $79 process includes six online modules providing a comprehensive overview of production methods, botanical distinctions, tasting procedures, spirit history, and other essential gin knowledge. Each module culminates in its own brief examination to evaluate progress and retention. Upon completion of the course, students receive an official certificate endorsing their status as “an all-round juniper genius.”

A glass of Glencairn from The Council of Whiskey Masters
Courtesy The Council of Whiskey Masters

Certified Scotch or Bourbon Professional, Certified Whiskey Specialist, Master of Scotch & Master of Whiskey

Headquartered in Los Angeles, the Council of Whiskey Masters (CWM) aims to “offer certifications in the field of whiskey that are equivalent to the well-established credentials in the world of wine.” Divided into four different qualifying levels designed to be taken in succession, the lauded program is overseen by an advisory board that spans an array of esteemed whiskey professionals from prolific writers and historians to consultants, judges, distillers, and other industry giants.

Enterprising whiskey-lovers begin by pursuing the level one title of Certified Scotch Professional or Certified Bourbon Professional before moving on to level two’s internationally-minded Certified Whiskey Specialist. Level three classes prepare students for the penultimate rank of Master of Scotch while the highest tier, the soon-to-launch level four, culminates in the prestigious and all-encompassing Master of Whiskey designation.

Level one candidates receive an overview of their chosen spirit’s history, production, origin, tasting methods, and commercial landscape while level two expands the boozy map to include whiskeys hailing from Japan, Ireland, Canada, and other tastemaking countries around the globe. Level three seekers are fully immersed in the storied world of Scotch, learning the ins and outs of regional traditions, aging processes, and finishing methods. Level four, the last and most intensive tier, covers every aspect of the beloved spirit’s production, consumption, and background from a markedly international perspective. 

All coursework can be completed online via a detailed study guide and written test with the exception of the Master level courses which must be finalized with an onsite exam in either Lexington, Kentucky, or Inverness, Scotland. Not for the faint of heart (or pocketbook), registration fees run from $395 for an entry level course up to $5700 to try your hand at the Master of Scotch certification.

Certified & Executive Bourbon Steward

Dubbed the "Official Bourbon Education Course” by the Kentucky Distillers Association, this Louisville-based certification course is headed by the Stave & Thief Society which got its start in 2014. The program is divided into two primary tracks: the self-guided Certified Bourbon Steward and the hands-on Executive Bourbon Steward.

“The Bourbon Steward has two levels—one is $75 and the other is $500,” explains Darley, an Executive Bourbon Steward. “It’s a fun way to learn about bourbon for the casual drinker that wants to get more involved. The $500 Executive Steward course, on the other hand, is an in-person all-day event where they use more sensory material.”

At each level, training provides students with a crash course in bourbon production and development alongside regional heritage, brand distinctions, tasting procedures, and the tools needed to build a bourbon flight. These elements, along with the program’s standing within the industry, were key in convincing San Diego-based spirits specialist and Certified Bourbon Steward Steven Hirschauer to register. 

“I attended whiskey fests and brand tastings,” he recalls, detailing his road to stewardship. “There were a multitude of unofficial offerings, mostly in the UK, but Stave and Thief was official and I jumped at that.  The history of a spirit, how it was made, why it came about, and the community around it became a way to connect with what I was consuming in a more personal way.”  

The Certified Bourbon Steward path includes a copy of the organization’s study guide plus a code for an online exam. Upon completion, graduates are sent a certificate and pin in the mail. Participants in the Executive course can expect a full day of meals, networking, and one-on-one instruction in addition to the Bourbon Steward handbook, a 36-piece bourbon sensory training kit, and a final exam attesting to their prowess.

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Master of Cognac

Presented by the acclaimed North American Sommelier Association (NASA), this day-long course is helmed by Master Taster Irina Ponomarenko, an official Cognac Educator certified by the French spirit’s governing body, the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC). The hands-on program details Cognac’s history and production as well as food pairing techniques, tasting methods, aging procedures, terrior distinctions, and more. There is no exam requirement and all participants walk away with a Certificate of Attendance endorsed by the North American Sommelier Association in conjunction with the BNIC.

“I attended a Cognac seminar at a spirits fest and had mostly failed at finding any formal offer of education [that wasn’t] invite only,” says Hirschauer, a graduate of the uniquely independent (AKA not associated with any brand) course. “I attended a wine tasting in San Diego by NASA, looked them up, and lucked into the first Cognac class when it was still in official approval stages. Shortly thereafter, I traveled to Cognac as part of a multi-week trip to visit the region—it’s definitely been an interesting journey.”

BarStarts, BarSmarts & BarSmarts Advanced Certification

Aimed primarily at bartenders but also open to enthusiasts, this widely utilized certification program is the brainchild of spirits powerhouse Pernod Ricard USA. Students begin by registering for one of two different $29 training courses: BarStarts, an entry level look at bartending fundamentals like basic production methods, service standards, and cocktail essentials; or BarSmarts, an in-depth journey designed to build upon a student’s prior knowledge base to include intricate distillation processes, tasting procedures, cocktail and spirit history, tips on staff management, and more.

The BarSmarts Advanced Certification, the organization’s highest echelon, involves participation in a one-day, onsite course hosted by Pernod Ricard USA and BAR LLC and intended only for graduates of the BarSmarts program. Bartending competitions, hands-on mixology classes, in-person testing, and expert-led seminars make this a worthwhile (not to mention fun) experience for many committed barkeeps.

For Black, adding a prominent certification like BarSmarts Advanced to his bill of credentials has helped shape his career both behind the pine and in front of it. “I like that I know what I know and that I've got a great foundation to help me extrapolate and understand whatever I'm turning my attention to next,” he says. “Building up my knowledge base gets me invited to be a part of some great discussions, sometimes formally as part of an industry panel, which is always something I enjoy doing when I have the opportunity.”

Pisco Certificate

This newly debuted, self-paced initiative provides an exhaustive online overview of Latin America’s legendary grape distillate via 29 classes spanning eight units plus digital forums for discussion and a host of downloadable resources. 

“I had an interest in Pisco, had followed certain Chilean and Peruvian brands in the past, and had recently been consuming Frisco, a brand made in the central valley of California,” Pisco Certificate-holder Hirschauer says, referencing his first encounter with the program. “I came across the Pisco Certificate class, and asked about attending. The classes are a great extension to Brandy and cocktails.”  

All coursework is overseen by four female pisco experts and covers everything from Pisco-specific vocabulary and tasting notes to regional distinctions, spirit history, harvest and distillation methods, label classifications, food pairings, cocktail recipes, and more. Upon completion of each unit’s corresponding quiz as well as a comprehensive final exam, students receive an official course certificate commemorating their efforts.

Certified Cider Professional

The American Cider Association is the force behind this first ever cider-specific certificate program intended to spread the fermented fruit juice gospel to hospitality pros, distributors, culinary experts, beverage writers and everyday aficionados looking to expand their horizons. Coursework for the self-guided Certified Cider Professional accreditation is done entirely online and consists of six units detailing agricultural procedures and history, production, style and classification, proper storage and serving methods, and food pairings. A 60-question, $75 final exam seals the deal and those scoring 85 percent or higher are awarded certification.

Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone, Advanced Cicerone & Master Cicerone

In its most rudimentary sense, a Cicerone is to beer what a Sommelier is to wine. The program represents the pinnacle of beer expertise, with graduated levels ranging from the introductory Certified Beer Server to the highest-ranking Master Cicerone, a title held by a mere 19 professionals worldwide.

At any level, Cicerone training provides a learned overview of the brewing process, tasting skills, serving norms, beer history, proper handling methods, and ways to detect brewing defects. 

“I had brewed with homebrewers and was aware of beer judging programs but this was more focused on service and working in a brewery,” recalls Hirschauer, who completed his Certified Beer Server qualification back when the Cicerone program only offered two levels of advancement. Hirschauer views the experience as not just benefiting the beer savvy, but as a perfect launchpad into further spirits education. “Everything starts as some sort of mash—beer or wine—before being distilled, so this was the logical first step.” 

Each successive course is meant to build upon the last, immersing students deeper into beer’s sudsy waters coursework detailing storage and service standards, modern and historical styles, common brewing processes as well as multiple variations, food pairing principles, and more. By the time students reach the final tier, they’re expected to have all prior qualifications under their belts, having successfully undergone the Certified Beer Server 60-question multiple choice online test, the four-hour onsite Certified Cicerone evaluation, and the day-long, multifaceted Advanced Cicerone exam before taking on the epic two-day-long Master Cicerone exam administered once a year in Chicago.