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Looking for a new educational activity from the comfort of your own home? Take advantage of the increasing number of tools that are becoming available in the liquor space.
If you want to learn more about spirits, there are several platforms that provide comprehensive instruction. Your deep-dive will consist of everything from cocktail basics to bartending essentials, giving you more confidence in your techniques and serving skills.
Whether you're looking for professional development or just want to learn more about the spirits industry, online classes will give you the chance to learn from top-tier instructors, bar mentors, and drinks aficionados. Regardless of your goals, you will likely need to take a variety of exams to earn the certification of your choosing.
The 5 Best Online Spirits Classes of 2020
- BarSmarts: Best Overall
- Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET): Best International
- JERRY: Best Mentorship
- Society of Wine Educators - Certified Specialist of Spirits: Best Prestige
- The Council of Whiskey Certified Specialist Programs: Best for Whiskey Lovers
Best Overall: BarSmarts
BarSmarts is one of the go-to spirits education platforms for bartenders and is designed to provide its students with a comprehensive foundation for any and all gigs. This resource was originally created for Pernod Ricard, but it has since become an industry standard.
For industry members and drinks aficionados, there are two programs to choose from: BarStarts, an introductory course spanning the basics of spirits and liqueurs (and how they’re produced) along with service and bartending essentials, and BarSmarts, a more in-depth training involving tasting methods, spirits production and history, cocktail fundamentals from the 1800s to present day, and management techniques.
A third concept, Staff Certified, allows establishments—whether they're currently open or not—to provide both BarStarts and BarSmarts programs to their staff members and track participants’ progress throughout. These programs consist of videos, a written workbook, and various exams.
Upon registration, you’ll have 60 days to complete the program virtually, which is plenty of time to take the course at your own pace.
Currently, BarSmarts courses are around $29 each.
Best International: Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET)
Since 1969, Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) has become a household acronym for professionals in the industry across 72 countries. With a Wine & Spirit Education Trust accreditation, students have the advantage of a trusted name to back up their knowledge and skill set.
Now, with an amped-up online learning experience, WSET is offering its various wine, spirits, and sake classes through more than 200 providers in multiple languages. Depending on where you're based, you will need to find which third-party teaching and examination centers near you offer instruction.
For spirits, WSET offers three award levels, two of which are available online. Level 1 is a hands-on crash course for beginners and covers primary spirit categories from an all-around sensory perspective, while the more intermediate Level 2 ventures into spirit production methods, along with serving and cocktail fundamentals and technique.
Both levels include a patented tasting approach and a final exam, and the time commitment ranges from six to 26 hours. Graduates receive a certificate of completion and a lapel pin.
Costs vary based on the provider you choose.
Best Mentorship: JERRY
Named for one of the spirits world’s original icons, Jerry Thomas, JERRY acts as a digital bar mentor, giving service professionals a modern and accessible means of learning on their computer, tablet, or phone at their own pace.
With the help of world-renowned industry talent, this program focuses on important subjects like hospitality, beverage, prep, sustainability, responsible service, ethics, management, and more. JERRY's educational offering is a holistic approach broken down into 60-minute courses, featuring reading materials and videos. Plus, each JERRY course features a guided activity to help you apply what you've learned to the workplace.
When you've completed certain certificate requirements, examinations for Levels I, II, and III will be available to you. You'll also be able to show off your knowledge in front of a panel of JERRY professors at JERRY Live! events.
In addition to spirits classes, there's even an Essential Hygiene course open to anyone who wants to learn, with tips on hygiene and how best to manage a venue in difficult times.
JERRY requires a subscription, which costs around $10 per month and provides unlimited access to a library of courses across its core topics.
Best Prestige: Society of Wine Educators - Certified Specialist of Spirits
By joining the Society of Wine Educators (SWE), beverage pros and enthusiasts have access to a large selection of perks, including prep materials for exams like the Certified Specialist of Spirits (CSS).
The one-hour CSS exam consists of 100 multiple-choice questions. There are no prerequisites required to taking it. Achieving a score of 75% or better allows you to use the CSS post-nominal as part of your professional signature. You'll receive a certificate to frame and a CSS lapel pin.
For approximately $135 a year, the Professional level membership is more cost-efficient than one introductory WSET course––a worthy investment, considering the return of the program and the prestige attached to the SWE name. Still, the exam itself comes at an additional cost, as do the study materials. There is no cost for an actual course, however.
While study material costs are the same for members and non-members, members pay about $525 for the CSS exam, whereas non-members pay approximately $825 (those savings alone means the annual membership cost pays for itself.) The retake fee is also cheaper for members than it is for non-members.
As a member of the SWE, you’ll also be privy to its online Wine and Spirits Academies, both of which are free to members at the Professional level (as long as you hold a current exam attendance credit). These platforms provide certificate students with plenty of literature around their chosen subject, plus graded quizzes, exercises, and more.
Best for Whiskey Lovers: The Council of Whiskey Certified Specialist Programs
The Council of Whiskey Masters is dedicated to bringing remote education to whiskey lovers everywhere. Become a certified expert online through the organization’s Certified Scotch, Bourbon, and Whiskey Specialist programs.
There are no prerequisites for the Scotch or Bourbon courses, but a student must pass either the Certified Scotch or Bourbon Specialist exam in order to enroll in the Certified Whiskey Specialist program.
The Scotch and Bourbon Specialist programs (Level I) cover history, production methods, tasting, regions, distilleries, and more. The Whiskey Specialist exam (Level II) spans both subjects while delving into other categories and regions, including North America, Ireland, Japan.
The cost for the Scotch and Bourbon programs is around $395 each, and the Whiskey course is about $495. Note: There are additional fees if you do not pass on your first try.
Starting in 2021, The Council of Whiskey Masters will also offer a Master of Scotch and a Master of Whiskey certification, both of which will require an in-person exam in either Lexington, Kentucky, or Inverness, Scotland.
Completion of the Certified Whiskey Specialist program is required for participation in the Master of Scotch course, and the Master of Scotch certification must be completed in order to enroll in the Master of Whiskey program, which is the highest of the levels.
The exam panels of the two Masters programs will be overseen by Keepers and Masters of the Quaich for the first two years of the program, and as the first 10 Masters of Scotch are named, they will assume these roles and oversee subsequent exams.
If you’re looking to become an accredited whiskey expert at one of the highest levels available, aim for the Masters.
How We Chose the Best Online Spirits Classes
In a world that’s constantly adapting to digital capability, there are plenty of online learning resources, though not all are as widely-known, revered, or accessible as others. The offerings on this list were chosen because they ticked one box or the other (or a combination thereof) in order to cater to all experience levels, budgets, backgrounds, and objectives. We also wanted to target fans of specific spirits, so we included top courses that would appeal to whiskey and wine lovers.