The art of whisky: a chat with George Thomson from the Distiller's Art

We spoke to George Thomson - CEO and Whisky Curator at The Distiller's Art - about how the project came to be as well as the processes behind it.

The mastery of one's craft can easily be considered an art form, and the creation of whisky is no different. But what happens when you combine the visceral experience of whisky with another form of art, in this case, a painting of a distillery in which the drink was born? We spoke with George Thompson, the CEO and Whisky Curator for The Distiller's Art, to find out how such a project came to be and the process behind each collection.

Tell us a bit about yourself

My whole career virtually has been in the booze business in one form or another. During that career, I guess I came across many different aspects of the drinks business, be it beers, wine, spirits, the lot, essentially covered everything at some point in time. For the last couple of years, we've been putting together this project called The Distiller's Art, and that really came about because we were doing some work with some colleagues in the trades, shipping products out to China. And from that came the idea that we are going to other people asking them to do things for us to produce whiskey to ship to China. Why don't we produce it ourselves, and sell it in other markets? That's where the idea kind of began.

What sets The Distiller’s Art apart from other independent bottlers?

We came to the conclusion that we needed something, to differentiate us from the other independent bottlers. We kicked that idea around until we came up with the idea of creating a painting of either the locale of a distillery or the distillery itself, something that would coincide with the visceral sentiments that that particular product might produce and try and create an artistic interpretation of how that might appeal to a consumer. So, we started commissioning artists, by early 2020 and we did our first bottling in March of 2020.

How do whisky making and art connect together?

Well, I guess, our connection with the spirit of art, particularly is to connect the spirit – whisky - which we believe is produced in an artisanal way to another art form. We believe whisky-making is an art form, there's no question about it, there's a lot of chemistry involved in it and a lot of engineering. There are some truly fantastic malt whiskies out there and we wanted to demonstrate the art of distilling and join it to the painter's art. They are different in the sense that the art is visual. and the whisky obviously, is visceral, because it's consumed. But to be able to operate on those two levels is an interesting stimulus for the consumer. There are plenty of people who like scotch, no question about that, but to be able to provide some artistic benefit along there as well, same time is probably something they'd like to do.

They're obviously very different forms of art. But when you can bind them together that really makes something special

I think that's the idea. I don't think we were unique in introducing art and whiskey together, because I think a lot of people have done that, but to have hand-signed prints, you know, produced by the original artist, in very limited numbers, I don't think anybody's done that before. We think, as a concept, it’s certainly demonstrated that it's collectable, for sure.

When you're creating these projects, you obviously need to find an artist that fits the bill. What’s the selection process behind commissioning an artist for these projects?

In actual fact, we were very fortunate that Nichol Wheatley was our first chosen artist as Nichol is our artistic director in the business. Nichol was formerly a lecturer at Glasgow School of Art for 17 years or so. During that time, Nichol has built up a network of people and working artists, his network is enormous. But choosing the right artist, I think is something that we certainly depend on him to do.

The range of paintings that we've got now, just in the first half dozen or so, are absolutely fabulous, but very different. Nichol’s style is quite different to Alice Angus’ or some of the other guys that are out there. And each is chosen on the basis of, what do we want to see, and which distillery are we choosing. You have a different style from each artist which reflects the character of the area or the distillery.

You are the whiskey curator for The Distiller's Art. What are the key elements that you think are important when it comes to curating whiskey?

Well, I think finding whiskies that will interest consumers is really what this is about. And a lot of people you know, there are millions and millions of whisky consumers and some consume at a very high level. So you know, we've tried to choose whiskies that are not outrageously expensive. It’s just a question of looking at the market and talking to distillers and sometimes to brokers and seeing what's out there and going into the market and buying that stock.

I was very fortunate as a teenager in my early and into my early 20s working with a guy called Alan Bailey and Alan was really well regarded in the trade. I used to go into work every morning at half-past nine we would start with a whiskey sample. Not tasting them but nosing them, Alan actually never drank a single drop in his entire life. He drank a bit of wine, but no whiskey at all. He just nosed it and he taught me how to do that and how to appreciate that.

What it has given me is certainly the knowledge to know which molds and mops are good. I want to know how they've matured and what kind of wood they have been sitting in and, if we bought a 10-year-old or a 12-year-old that we want to finish off, we might do that in a Sherry cask or a burgundy cask to finish it off. Just to create exactly what we want by way of flavour and taste.

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