A drink with… Ian Harris, WSET

9th January, 2017 by admin

The CEO of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust tells The Spirits Business about his organisation’s mission to educate beverage students around the globe.


Ian Harris, CEO of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET)

*This interview was first published in the September 2016 issue of The Spirits Business magazine

What does a day in the life of a WSET CEO look like?

I’ve been here just over 14 years as chief executive. I love my job. The business has grown seven-fold since I’ve been here and I still like to be pretty hands on: I go to most of the major trade shows – Asia once a year, America twice a year, Europe, especially ProWein once a year. We’ve got a team of over 100 people at WSET, and that’s just the people based on the office. We’ve now got an office in Hong Kong that will be handling the exams process for Asia Pacific. It’s been open about six months. That’s in addition to the 678 providers around the world delivering our courses, the third-party providers in 73 countries. So every day is a varied one.

You became WSET CEO in 2002. How has the spirits industry changed since then?

A huge amount, [especially] the spirits side of the WSET. I came in having worked for Seagram – 90% of the business was spirits. Before joining as CEO I used to teach the spirits content on the diploma course. When I came in with my spirits background, I really pushed us to launch what was called the Professional Certificate in Spirits at the time. That’s now been renamed as the Level 2 Award in Spirits. And we are currently working on developing Level 3 in Spirits.

To answer your question, there’s far, far more consumer interest in spirits. There’s far greater demand for knowledge among consumers and this is replicated by the knowledge we need in the trade. And most of the spirits companies, be they big or small, are very good at putting brand education in front of bartenders. We’ve found that our qualifications add on to what education is going on at bar level.

The WSET has enjoyed another strong year. What’s the secret to growing the trust?

Opening up new markets. The UK is still
our number one market. We’ve got a very strong base here. When I took over, three- quarters of our students – and we had just over 10,000 – were based in the UK and only a quarter were from international markets. We now have 72,000 in a 12-month period and three-quarters are in international markets.

So the UK, in terms of student numbers, has more than doubled but international markets have grown 14-fold – particularly China but also other emerging markets. As emerging market consumers become more interested in wines and spirits from other countries, there is naturally a need for education. We need to be there as it’s happening, not three years later. So we don’t drive the market but we grow at the same rate as the market.

Your background was focused on spirits and you held a number of roles at Seagram. What first attracted you to the industry?

Well I joined the wine industry to start with; I studied French at university with the intention of becoming a teacher. I lived just south of Bordeaux on my year abroad, teaching English to French children. And because I was in the area I met a lot of people involved in the wine business – parents of the students I was teaching. I had this seminal moment when I wrote a postcard to my mother saying ‘The wine trade seems like a good idea’. I thought teaching was fine, but then I came back to the UK and decided I wanted to get into the wine business.

A friend I played cricket with gave me the details of a company. I wrote one letter, had one interview and I got the job. I worked for that company for 10 years, and then I joined Seagram in 1987 and that’s where my interest in spirits grew. I suppose my big break was when Seagram acquired Martell – they needed someone with sales experience, marketing experience and someone French- speaking, and I ticked those boxes.

What would you say to encourage bartenders to enrol on a WSET course?

I would say that a little knowledge goes a long way. Just doing the Level 1 Award in Spirits, the knowledge that you get even from one day’s training will pay off many-fold in your work. And you’ll be able to talk to people with a broad base of knowledge about all the spirits categories; you’ll be able to help inform their choice.

And finally… what’s your drink of choice?

It depends – there is nothing better after a tiring day than sitting with a G&T. A pint of good English bitter does it for me from time to time, but one of the most satisfying spirits I’ve ever had was after driving from Aberdeen airport to Keith where Chivas Brothers is. I drove through a blizzard, got to the destination an hour late, and the woman who ran the company house said: “It’s okay, you’ll probably like a hot bath, and we’ll put dinner back.” So I sat in a hot, steamy bath with a Longmorn. That’s probably the nicest alcoholic drink I’ve ever had.

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