Art of distilling

Art of distilling

Ian Gray travels the world painting distilleries – and he's truly left his mark on the world of whisky. Dominic Roskrow reports

People | 23 Jul 2010 | Issue 89 | By Dominic Roskrow

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Not many of us get to live our dream – but Ian Gray is. The Scotsman’s passions are his homeland, painting, and whisky and the distilleries which produce it.

Finding a career which combine his love of whisky with his love of art didn’t happen overnight for Ian. Born in Hamilton, he had started painting as a child but wasn’t immediately aware he had a real talent for it. And as a child he wrote to whisky companies asking for whisky labels which he collected. But of course it wasn’t until much later that he developed a taste for good Scotch whisky.

“Actually my first taste of whisky was cotton wool soaked in a blend and placed rather carefully on a molar that had seen too many gob stoppers,” he says. “That was back in 1971 and it was Vat 69. My first malt came much later, a Springbank 10 in 1988 when I was 22 and that was me converted.”

Strangely the time when Ian discovered an interest in malt coincided with the time when he started painting seriously – and Germany proved to be a catalyst for both.

“I fell in love with a German fraulein in 1988 and was not happy about paying British Poll Tax so I left Scotland,” he recalls. “I managed to secure refugee status in Germany and was granted free entry in to the university at Bochum to study German and art. I still have not thanked the British Conservative Government and Margaret Thatcher for this wonderful gift.”

Soon after he was commissioned by the Dusseldorf parliament to create an abstract painting for the German centre in Singapore.

The whisky distillery angle stemmed from some painting he did for his family.

“In 1990 I moved in to a studio in Dusseldorf. I used to frame pictures for other artists to help pay the bills but in 1994 more whisky connoisseurs became interested in my work. My passion for Scotland whisky took over.”

Since then Ian has toured the world, taking photographs of the distilleries and painting them at a later date. He travels in a Volkswagon Camper van, enjoying life on the road. If you’ve ever met him you’ll know he is charming and vivacious, a man clearly at ease with himself and his environs.

“I love to travel and I get to do that with my art work,” he says. “It’s like taking Scotland with you wherever you go. Mainly I work from photographs but I always have my sketch pad, pencils and paints with me, and many a time a sketch at the side of the road has been swopped for a bottle of whisky from a distillery employee, or for a fresh lobster.”

Ian is in big demand these days. He’s currently working with National Trust Scotland with a view to exhibiting in Edinburgh later in the year.

And there’s also a family holiday to Islay to fit in.Sounds like a busman’s holiday, but he doesn’t see it that way. He offered his family a European holiday this year but they insisted on Islay, he says. Perfect for Ian. The two most important aspects of his life are the people he meets on his travels and his chance to travel back to his homeland. With Islay, he says, he can do both.

“Returning back to Scotland is always a fantastic experience,” he says. “Regardless of whether it’s summer or winter, there is inspiration everywhere. Islay always pulls me back like a magnet and one of my favourite haunts is the Old Kiln Café at Ardbeg where ‘The Storm Is Coming’ hangs.”

A man living the dream?

“My passion for Scotland and whisky has taken me around the world,” he says. “Not only do I get to taste some unusual, rare and wonderful drams, my travels take me through some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe. It is living the dream.”


Name: Ian Gray
Age: 43
Home: Dusseldorf, Germany, and a green VW camper Currently drinking: Springbank Ian’s Artisan Dram, 12 Years Old 57.1%
Favourite whiskies: Impossible to say – like choosing your favourite colour from a rainbow
Favourite distilleries: Open ones, where the staff welcome you and make you feel at home
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