Andrew Milne, Events Co-ordinator – The Whisky Exchange

We get the low down on this year’s Whisky Show

The man who makes it happen
The man who makes it happen

Looking forward to hearing what a day in the life of Andrew Milne, Events Co-ordinator for The Whisky Exchange is like, and seeing if I can find out any secrets about this year’s TWE show (@TWEWhiskyShow).   This is the man who helps makes the Whisky Show the greatest whisky festival in the UK.

Tell us a little about your background Andrew?

I’ve been in the drinks industry since I started working, I started in an off licence at University, I started helping in the shop, and little by little I was given more responsibility, then the owners had a baby, and suddenly I was left in charge.  I became involved in wine, became the buyer for wine, spirits and although small it was a lot of pressure but also a fantastic opportunity to learn more.     I stayed in the shop for four or five months after leaving University and then the owners sold up, I moved to London and started working for Laithwaites in the wine shop next to The Whisky Exchange (@WhiskyExchange) shop.

I started working in the shop, but I had a real passion for talking to people about the products, and then I ended up hosting all the events, and this then led me to gain experience in events.  I worked for them for a couple of years.  I then worked for a company who sponsored the England Cricket Team, and we ran wine bars at every cricket ground for two years, until the end of 2013, at that point somebody told TWE that I would be available and they got in touch with me and the rest as they say is history.   It’s been a great move and reunited my passion in spirits.  I still love wine, but tend to do this more with friends now.

How did you come to work in events, is this a career you had always wanted?

I didn’t plan this career at all, in fact I studied music, and wanted to be a session musician to start with, but nearer the end of the degree there were very little jobs for musicians and there were more opportunities to work in the drinks industry.

Which came first?  The love of whisky and then a whisky job or a whisky job and then a love of whisky?

In a professional sense wine came first, but all my family are Scottish, I’ve been going there every year for as long as I can remember.  I think my first distillery visit was to GlenDronach when I was about five or six, and I remember being carried about the distillery.

When I was drinking with my parents we only really drank Speyside whiskies such as Balvenie and Glenfarclas, (which I really enjoyed, but wanted to try more), once I could go off to whisky bars myself I discovered Islay whiskies and fell in love with them, they were so different to the lighter Speyside profile and such intense flavours.   Ever since that day Lagavulin has always been a go to whisky.

How long have you been working with TWE?

I’ve been with them for just under two years, I joined just after The Whisky Show 2013, and I worked with the Brewery events for a while, so I’ve been involved with TWE festivals in one way or another for a while now.

What is an average day like?

There isn’t really such a thing, usually I’m juggling about 50 things at the same time.  I have a massive ”to do” list in front of me at all times.  I tick things off each day but then I add things on.  I talk to a lot of brands, find out what’s happening with them, talking about new ideas or looking at new experiences we can hold with them.

We have various bits and pieces with new whiskies, and lots of consultancy with new umbrella companies we have formed, it’s been really busy.  To a certain degree there’s a lot of onsite work with these companies and we often bounce the ideas off each other.  It is a high pressure, high stress job but I’m good with stress, I thrive off it and like things fast paced whilst still keeping calm.

Is it scary that your to do list is infinite?

It can be, but everything has an end date, and with so many regular events I have a lot of my year planned out by the start of it, although some things are added on as the weeks progress, a lot of the main events are planned at the same time every year, I know that I need to work on them, and when they are dealt with.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Relying on everyone else.  You need to worry about if everything is going to go to plan and everyone holds their part of the bargain, luckily everyone tends to know what they’re doing and when they need to do it.

If I didn’t worry about it though I wouldn’t be doing my job properly.  In this industry people can change roles very quickly, so it’s a bit challenging knowing who does what.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

The people, the one main reason I love doing events is because you engage with all of the customers, and speak to lots of different people.  I love that the customers email me, maybe asking questions about hotels, or events or different places they could visit whilst in the area, sometimes it turns into a two week conversation.

These people then take the time to seek me out and thank me and say how much they enjoy an event or how they loved my suggestions and it made their trip special.  Over the years the Whisky Show has grown and grown, it’s becoming well known internationally and people come to the show from all parts of the world and that’s amazing.

You organise all the TWE Events, which is your favourite? 

It’s probably the Whisky Show, it’s what I spend the most amount of time on each year, to spend so much time working towards something and then to see it come off is fantastic.  There may be a few minor hitches which you discover within the first couple of hours and then you sort them out and then it’s calm and plain sailing.

I’m there for the whole festival and make sure everything is running on time, making sure everyone has what they need, helping to take care of the exhibitors as well as the customers.  If there are any problems then I can sort them out as I go along.

How easy is it to achieve a work/life balance?

It’s seasonal, so there are plenty of times that I do get to work the 9-5 Monday to Friday.  However the weekend before the Whisky Show we go off to Paris for work for three days, and then come back and move straight into the Whisky Show.

There’s a new venue for The Whisky Show this year, how difficult was it to find a venue that met the criteria?

It was quite a challenge, we had suspicions that Vinopolis was closing but we had no idea of the actual close date, as it was though we had already found a new venue by the 2014 show, we knew that we needed a bigger space.

There aren’t that many buildings in London with history that are also large enough to accommodate us.  It’s a really cool space venue and fits us really well and the team there are really good working with us and helping us tweak any issues that have come up, as they have run events at this venue for a while.

Are you nervous about the change of venue?  

I’m not, at the beginning of the year I was trying to think of everything that may be different, or may be a challenge, but we’re pretty hopeful that all the scares and the surprises have been picked up on and been addressed.

Will the new venue have much of an impact on the show?

I think so, with the way it’s laid out, its friendlier, everything is laid out on one floor.  Vinopolis had a great charm with lots of different corners and alcoves, but it had a challenge whereby it was easier to miss something.  With the new venue being a big square it’s easy to find your favourites and not feel overwhelmed.

More space has allowed us to let the exhibitors have a bigger stand and that there is still plenty of room for everyone to enjoy it.  With about 1000 consumers a day, space is important to us.

What one piece of advice would you give somebody who’s coming to the Whisky Show for the first time?

Most importantly drink lots of water and eat plenty.  It’s good to plan ahead, but retain some flexibility.  The floor plan will be released in advance, so it’s easy to plan things you would really like to see, but be open to new experiences, you may find things you’ve never seen before and wanted to give it a try.

How do you decide which Masterclasses to run?

We work on this each year and we discuss it with the team.  Different brands come to us and tell us their thoughts and what they might like to do, and we see what we think.  If they are interesting and new concepts then we are on board.

When it comes to the premium Masterclasses we try very hard to make sure that these are as new and interesting as possible.  If we have done it before then we won’t run a masterclass in that way again.  We try to make sure that we offer money can’t buy experiences or whisky that you maybe can’t get anymore and it can make you fall in love with the brand.

There is an extra exclusive tasting this year with a Karuizawa tasting costing £6,000, tell us more?

This really is a special one, after the earthquakes happened in Nepal, we all decided that we wanted to do something to help, and support them, there are a few people in our building that have family over there, and we thought we should be doing something and we tried to think what we should do.  I said why don’t we hold a masterclass where everything goes to charity.

I didn’t expect it to grow into this but the more we talked about this the more the idea grew, we wanted to raise a serious amount of money but still provide something that is still good value for money and is an amazing opportunity.  It’s a chance to purchase something so rare and still raise money for a great cause.  It’s a balloted event with 45 spaces, a couple of the bottles will be going to auction as well, in order to raise as much money as possible.

Once the money is raised we have five different charities picked, they are all relatively small charities and we’ve picked them because we like what they are doing and they are covering a full range of different help, and across the country as well.   We should raise £270,000 from ticket sales alone and then the two bottles at auctions.

Which Masterclasses will you be taking in?

I don’t usually have time to go to the classes, there will be one of two that I’d like to go and say hi to people.  The Three Legends Class will be such a fun class, I’d love to catch five minutes or so there.   There will be a few more classes coming out, we are doing a new class with Arran, with some new releases and new bottlings.

Arran can sometimes be underestimated they are a fantastic brand and make some great whiskies, and they don’t always shout about just how great they are.  We release events as we go along and as soon as we know all the details then we let the public know.  There are still a few more to come.

How many people do you expect to attend?

1,000 people each day, so it can get pretty busy.

How many Distilleries/bottlers etc will be there?

I think this year we have 95 and there’s a couple more to still add on, as we are waiting on all the details being confirmed.

How do the Dream Dram Tokens work?

Everyone gets one Dream Dram token and this allows people try any one dram worth from £500 – £1,000.  You can buy additional tokens at £10 which allow you to buy whiskies up to a value of £3,000+.

We don’t have all the dream drams in yet, but last year’s most expensive whisky was the Glenfarclas Coronation which was a 59yo at £7,000 a bottle.   One year Bowmore brought something really special with them, (either a white or black) and it was sold out in under two hours.

Any exclusive news you can tell us about the event, maybe a secret or two?

We have La Fromagerie coming with some beautiful cheeses and they know lots about whisky pairing.  There will be a confectionist making whisky sweets, and hopefully a chocolate producer.  Also I have friend who is a master carver who lives in Spain and he is coming over with a selection of wonderful meats from his family company.  There may be a surprise or two, but most of the big news has been released.

If you were stuck on a desert island and only had one bottle of whisky, what would it be?

This is a difficult question, I’ve gone back and forth, and had a 1964 Springbank bottled by SMWS, it’s one of the most memorable whiskies I’ve ever had. It was rich, full bodied, well sherried and just kept going on and on.

What’s your favourite Whisky Show Memory?

My favourite because it was so bizarre and crazy, two years ago Simply Whisky did a masterclass with us, I spoke to them the night before and they asked if a “wall was going to stay there or could they knock it down”.   It was such a strange request and needless to say the wall did stay put, but the show they produced was amazing, it was so much fun and they are great at injecting the humour and take away the stuffiness that can be there sometimes.

Any Cocktails being made on the day?

Fentimans will be making some whisky cocktails, pretty simple serves but producing some great drinks that you are can recreate without any fuss, and Mixology will be doing some fun things with dry ice and whisky mist.

Tell us something people would be surprised to know about you?

Most people are really shocked to hear that I’ve been playing instruments since I was five, I play the drums and Bass guitar and the Double Bass and the Cello, and I’ve sang in Canterbury Cathedral more than once and when people learn my degree is in music this surprises quite a few people.  I do miss it and miss the feeling of being on stage but it’s a difficult industry to work in.  I used to play canoe polo, in swimming pools there would be five aside and we were national champions in under 16’s and under 18’s.

Thanks Andy, it was great to talk to you, I look forward to seeing you at some point at The Whisky Show and catching up over a dram!  I’m also very sorry I doubted you, Canoe Polo really is a “thing”.  See you at the Show.

Kirsty Clarke (@kirstyclarke29)

Everybody needs a Whisky Corner in their life.

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