Whisky geek by nature
Self-professed whisky geek Andy Bell turned his teenage obsession with whisky into a career with Isle of Arran Distillery, when he joined in 2014 aged just 26. He talks to Laura Smith about his role as Export Sales Manager, his favourite whisky bar and playing in the distillery’s band.
Did you always want to work in the whisky industry?
To be honest, no. I didn’t even know I liked whisky until I was 19 when a friend introduced me to a Macallan 10 year old. Before then it was a drink I couldn’t even get my nose near because the smell put me off. But that dram sent me on a path of curiosity.
How did that curiosity lead you to Isle of Arran Distillery?
I went to a night course in Glasgow run by John Lamond called The Whisky Trail and learned everything you could possibly want to know about whisky. Then it quickly became an obsession. When it got to the point when I wanted to do my own tastings I decided to email distilleries to see if the needed any help with tastings on the weekends. I wasn’t actually looking for a job, I was running my own audio visual company in Glasgow. I was invited by Isle of Arran Distillery for a talk and before I knew it I had a job. I didn’t really know what I was going into but knew I had to take it because whisky had become a big part of my life.
Tell us about your job.
It’s so varied. Arran’s a really small team so everybody has to muck in. I look after sales with our worldwide distributors in northern and eastern Europe. I’ll look at what single casks we’re going to bottle for our markets and think about what promotions we’re going to run and how to adapt them for different countries. Writing tasting notes for our core expressions usually falls to me because I’m the biggest whisky geek in the office. A lot of my job involves scooting about my different markets and introducing our products to new and existing buyers and drinkers.
Is it a challenge to get younger people interested in whisky?
The biggest thing I always hear from young people is: I’d love to like whisky but I just don’t like the taste or smell. That’s the biggest stumbling block for young people. It is undoubtedly a challenging drink for a lot of people’s paletes because it’s a big flavour. Then again, it’s not that much of a shocker to see young people passionate about whisky in a role with a distillery. I think there’s a shift in younger people doing sales and working as brand ambassadors. I think that’s a really good thing because there’s still an archaic view of whisky; that it’s an old man’s thing. Once you’ve won the confidence of that audience, they realise it doesn’t have to be an old person’s drink.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I love rock climbing. It’s really addictive and is a great mental and physical challenge which takes the mind away from the pressures of the day! I have also played the guitar since I was 12 and I still play regularly to stay sane and practice for the annual Arran Malt & Music Festival. Distillery Manager James MacTaggart and myself assemble a band called “James MacTaggart and the Staves” and play rock covers in the evening.
What advice would you give to people wanting try whisky, but don’t have a clue where to start?
Try six at once! Not only by the end of them you’ll feel a bit happier about life but it’s a really good idea to have a row of whiskies and expose yourself to lots of different flavours at once. When I started out drinking whisky I noticed the biggest contrasts when I tasted a line up. It helps you tune into your own preferences and open yourself up to a world of flavours. (And by six at once, Andy of course means six small nips of whisky served on a tasting flight tray not whole measures – being able to remember your whisky comparisons the next day is also important!)
What should novice whisky drinkers keep in mind?
Don’t be scared to be wrong. It’s like being scared to express an opinion about art – it can be quite intimidating because you think someone might shoot you down but no opinion is wrong. Discussion is really key to everyone’s development in drinking whisky. You’ve got to share your experiences, whether it’s a distillery visit or the dram you’re drinking there and then. So try lots and talk about them basically.
What Isle of Arran whisky would you recommend starting out on?
The best Arran whisky for a novice, or someone who hasn’t tried an Arran Malt before, is our 10 year old. This is our best selling whisky worldwide for a reason! In order to understand Arran as a whisky in general, you have to understand the 10 year old. If you do that, I believe you’ll get much more out of all of our other expressions.
Where’s your favourite place to enjoy a wee dram?
I can’t see past my beloved hometown. There are lots of excellent whisky bars in Glasgow but the best one is The Pot Still on Hope Street. I have been to many whisky bars in many countries and this one is still the best. It doesn’t matter who serves you or when, they do so with real whisky knowledge and passion. I’ve seen the bar five deep on a Saturday night and staff can still be seen taking the time to pull down four bottles and explain the differences to patrons before they buy. Their selection is obsessive and meticulously compiled. I could stay in there all day. Not something I’ve ever done though… honest!