Family values

Family values

Joel Harrison talks to two generations about life in the whiskey world

People | 07 Sep 2012 | Issue 106 | By Joel Harrison

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In the same way that a cask is vital in adding colour and flavour to spirit over the years, the stories which surround most distilleries serve the same purpose: to add colour and flavour to the background of the malt.

From the original founder striving to gather his pennies together in a bid to build the place, through to the distillery cat whose ghost lives on in a creaking warehouse, these anecdotes provide a rich tapestry of heritage for the distillery and serve to enhance the mythology around the alchemy of turning water, yeast and barley in to the drink we all love.

One star of the show when it comes to legend and myth is the exciseman. Installed at a distillery to keep detailed records of the taxable products produced, as well as to enforce customs and excise laws, these chaps were key figures for the British government’s bean counters in making sure that nothing was slipping under the radar from filling the nation's coffers.

From 1967, for 34 years, Ian Milne took on the role of one of the most talked about people in the history of Scottish distilling: the exciseman; working at Strathisla, Ardmore, and Strathmill to name a few distilleries that were under his watch. Now retired, his legacy doesn't stop there as his son, Jamie, is the UK brand ambassador for Glenfiddich.

Ian explains how he started his journey into the Scotch industry: "my Grandfather lived next door to Glenugie distillery in Peterhead, which is gone now sadly. I got to know the people at the distillery when visiting my grandparents. Several of us used to play around in the malt barns and swim in the loch which supplied the water, so I got to know the excisemen there and when I left school, it was suggested to me that I join Customs & Excise, which seemed like a good idea.

"Eventually, I was posted to Cameron Bridge distillery where I worked for six and a half years. Back then it was all whisky, mainly for Johnnie Walker. Now there is a lot of gin there.

"After that tenure, I was posted to Speyside where I was appointed to Glentauchers distillery. I was there for about a year and a half on my own until they wanted me to cover Knockdhu as well. If it had been any other distillery, I'd have protested, but Knockdhu was where I really wanted to work, as I'd done relief work there and realised what a happy place it was, so I was very pleased.

"That was in 1980 and in 1984 there was a big crash, when DCL closed so many distilleries and Knockdhu was closed. Apart from funerals, it was the first time I'd seen grown men cry."

When it came to the nuts-and-bolts of the job, Ian explains: "Everything was under lock and key in those days. The distiller couldn't get access to anything without us. If anything went wrong with the plant, we had to be there, which is why we lived on site.

Making sure every drop of liquid is accounted for was part of the job, but Ian explains how the job developed in the late 70s: "In 1979, things changed as the workers were no longer allowed their daily dram, which is when they really started stealing the stuff. I heard of one chap using the body of a pen to remove liquid from a cask.

"There was a lot of stealing that went on. The boys in the distillery would often try to dip the casks and they'd come up with some ingenious ways of getting whisky from barrels."

A smile crosses his face as he explains: "Lots of different vessels were used for removing spirit. Salad cream bottles, 'Camp Coffee' bottles... all sorts. At home I have two or three 'copper dogs' (thin vessels made from copper which can be 'dipped' in to barrels to remove liquid) which I confiscated off people at various distilleries.

"The coopers were the guys who did most of the pilfering! They went into the warehouses on a daily basis to tap the casks, to look for leaks, which gave them a great chance to be in with the spirit. Funny how they kept finding leaky casks!"

Reflecting on what happened to this stolen spirit, Ian says: "It was always for personal use. Well, apart from one guy who was caught selling liquid at Ingliston Market. He got caught!"

But it wasn't just the workers, however: "When I first started, there was one officer at, well, an unnamed distillery! He took me in to the warehouse one day and said 'Now laddie, you watch the door.' He had a brown warehouse coat with pockets sewn in to it and army water bottles in each of the pockets. Not only that, he had a yoke with ropes attached and one gallon polythene containers at either end. Over the whole lot, he put an army storm cape. He'd come out of the warehouse on days where the sun was blazing and he'd be in this overdressed get-up!"

Ian enthuses about the role, showing that the 'pen-pushers' also had a lot of fun: "There was a huge element of fun to the job. We once built a golf driving range at Knockdhu inside the cooperage! We took the bags the yeast came in and sewed them together, hung them on a gable end and you could have full drive at them. We also creating a little pouch for us to try chipping in to. I got down to nine handicap!

"Sadly, the role was phased out under Thatcher. That's when things really changed, but it had to happen. It was a fantastic job, even looking after two distilleries 15 miles apart. I had to be at Knockdhu at 7 am for their morning charge and then over to Glentauchers for a 9 o'clock spirit charge and I was there the rest of the morning and then changed over again."

We once built a golf driving range at Knockdhu inside the cooperage! I got down to nine handicap

The whole experience eventually encouraged Ian's son, Jamie, to forge a career in the Scotch whisky industry.

Jamie explains: "The story of me getting involved with Glenfiddich is really a 22 year journey. My first job as a student was tour guide at Glenfiddich; 1992 to 1994 summer seasons. We were living in Keith at the time and so during the holidays I got a job working at Glenfiddich. It's where I met my wife. She was working as a tour guide there, too. And my best man was a guide that I met on the same day, too. So Glenfiddich has played an important part in my life.

"Eventually, after living in London and Sydney, I ended up back in Scotland and heard Glenfiddich were looking for a UK brand ambassador, so I applied for the job.

"It was an odd one, as when I was growing up in-and-around distilleries, the role of 'ambassador' didn't exist."

Milne Sr agrees, saying: "In the old days, there were no visitors facilities. People would stick their head in the door and, unless it was a friendly manager who wanted to promote his distillery, then you wouldn't really be given any time at all.

"The industry has changed completely; the managers are totally different; they're interested in their job, interested in promoting their brand and it's a delight to see. It should have happened 40 years ago. It's taken a while but it's fantastic to see."

Jamie continues: "The title of 'ambassador' is relatively new. People have done this sort of job before, but with regards to a specific role and specific title, I can't think of anyone having it before Jens Tholstruop who became the first ambassador for Glenfiddich in the late 90s.
“There are now 15 to 20 brand ambassadors around the world, just for Glenfiddich. Then you've got all the other brands, too... all since about 1999."

From the phasing out of the exciseman in the 80s, to the creation of the brand ambassador in the 90s, two generations from the same family have found a role in the whisky industry which suits their personality and skill set. But the thread which ties both father and son together is an underlying passion to promote Scotch whisky. The Gordon family ought to look out: it could be future generations of the Milne clan taking Scotch across the globe.
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