Sandy Hyslop, Director of Blending, and Inventory at Chivas Brothers, Millie Milliken and IWSC 2021 president, Michael Urquhart
Following last night’s Awards Ceremony in Edinburgh, where Millie Milliken was named our 2022 Spirits Communicator of the Year, the IWSC caught up with her to find out a bit more about what this award means to her.
This year more so than ever we had an incredibly strong shortlist for our Spirits Communicator awards, how does it feel to receive this accolade?
In a word: bonkers. Knowing the amount of talent out there, to have even been nominated and shortlisted for this award was a career highlight. When I saw the other shortlisters, people who I’ve followed for years and respect immensely, I was certain I wouldn’t be getting the award – imposter syndrome is a powerful thing. So, to have made it to the finish line and won the award is the biggest achievement of my career to date. It’s made all the long days, early starts, late night writing sessions and sacrificed weekends worth it.
You’ve had quite a topsy-turvy couple of years, what would you say have been the highlights for you over this time?
I most certainly have – losing your job in the middle of a global pandemic at Christmas is incredibly confronting. Saying that, it put me in the position of embarking on freelance life a lot sooner than I think I ever would have had the courage to do had I not been forced to. As a result, I’ve been able to work for and with some incredible people.
A big highlight has been joining the team at The Drinks Trust to launch the Drinks Community – to be able to work for a charity which supports the people I spend my life writing about is very special indeed. Other highlights have been writing about drinks businesses for my favourite consumer publication, Courier; doing a video interview with Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality, on the staffing crisis in hospitality; and hosting both trade and consumer sessions at this year’s Cocktails in the City over its three events – there’s been nothing better than seeing the industry come back to life in the flesh and supporting it in any way I can.
What are your hopes for the future direction of the spirits category in terms of engaging consumers?
Firstly, that brands do the work to make their spirits accessible. I think drinks should be fun and a lot of the work I do is trying to democratise spirits – making them approachable, unintimidating and easy to understand. Of course, a lot of work, skill and knowledge goes into making them, but if consumers don’t understand them then there is something wrong.
And secondly, more transparency. As a journalist I spend so much time dissecting products, making sure what I’m being told is true or trying to find out some basic information. Giving people access to your story without the smoke and mirrors is invaluable – and if you want to maintain some sense of mystery, do it in an exciting way.
Do you have any thoughts on trends within the industry we can expect to start seeing / are starting to appear?
I’ve been keeping my eye on things like clairin and raicilla, spirits that are starting to come through on menus and have the advantage of a growing consumer interest in rum and agave spirits.
I’m also obsessed with tea and there are some people doing some very clever things with high-quality, ethically-sourced teas out there – it’s an often under-communicated drink category but one that has so much to talk about.
I’ve also been pretty excited by a new mini-category emerging, lighter spirits sitting between 10% and 30% abv designed for people looking to drink more measuredly. As long as they don’t compromise on flavour, I think this could be a really innovative (and I actually mean innovative) category.
What advice would you give to anyone who was looking to make the break into the world of spirits communication?
Pick your medium and study it the way you would the spirits themselves. There are so many ways of communicating the world of spirits, from writing to podcasts or social media and each has its own nuances. Sure, the fun bit is the writing or talking or creating the content, but there are also the less fun bits (SEO, media best practice, self-editing etc) which will keep you grounded and really make you good at what you do.
I always think people think I just sit down at my laptop and the words come automatically. So much research, organisation, pinning people down, getting the answers I need – even calling in photos and fact checking – goes on before I even put pen to paper – and when I finally do, external factors can play such a huge role in what comes out on the page. Learn the conditions you work best in and try and replicate them when the content needs to happen.
And like any good communicator, ask lots of questions. What do you want your tone of voice to be? Who are you aiming your content at? How can you communicate in the clearest and most natural way possible? And most importantly, have you told the story you set out to in the first place?
Thank you Millie. Before we let you go and enjoy the celebrations, do you have a favourite cocktail you’d like to share with us?
Yes, for my sins. My favourite cocktail of all time is a Gibson, specifically made with Garden Swift gin and Noilly Prat vermouth, with a bar spoon of pickled onion brine, a silverskin pickled pearl onion and a few drops of olive oil on top. Pop an oyster on the side and that’s my idea of heaven.
Millie Milliken is the 2022 IWSC Spirits Communicator of the Year. On behalf of everyone at the IWSC and our sister publication Club Oenologique, we want to congratulate Millie on this well-deserved award, and we look forward to working with her to share content on the world of spirits in the year ahead.
In the meantime, if you would like to catch up on some features Millie has already shared for Club Oenologique, you can see her articles on the return to retail of the UK’s oldest wine and spirits shop and the radical new wave of low and no drinks.
Thank you to the sponsor of this award, Chivas Brothers.