Alice Angus spent five months in Glen Scotia as resident artist in the Campbeltown distillery. What she captured reminded us why we love the whisky-making process so much. 

I’ve been to around 30 or so distilleries across the world doing this job. I’ve found everyone to be an invaluable experience. You can appreciate whisky without going to where it’s made, of course. But the significance of that craft is undoubtedly elevated when you take in the atmosphere of a distillery: the sounds, the smells, the heat… Your understanding and appreciation increase when you see the process, the routines, the rhythms, the details. Your love of the magic of whisky creation is bolstered by the stories, the secrets, the in-jokes, the relationships.

What I’ve encountered is nothing like what Alice Angus experienced last year, however. An Ayrshire native who studied at Glasgow School of Art, Angus is an artist who was invited to take up a residency at Glen Scotia in early 2022. Across five months, she spent weeks drawing in the distillery and around Campbeltown, creating a homage titled ‘Spirit Safe’. It was an incredible all-access opportunity.

A few months later we met at a whisky tasting in Milroy’s of Soho and I was struck by the way she talked about whisky and distilleries. So I asked to interview her to hear what she saw and learned. 

Alice Angus: resident distillery artist

Say hello to Alice Angus!

Alice Angus: resident distillery artist

Angus is a whisky drinker who has always been up for a distillery tour, visiting the likes of Glengoyne and The Macallan before. Glen Scotia was very much not her first rodeo. In fact, The Distiller’s Art project commissioned her to do some art for a cask from Clynelish, so Glen Scotia isn’t even the first distillery she has drawn. 

It was, however, her first residency and something of a dream come true for her. “I’d always wanted to be a resident in a distillery so I could sit there and draw and meet people and hear their stories and look at that amazing combination of engineering and people and knowledge and process and history,” Angus explained. “I pinched myself the whole way up to Glen Scotia. The first and most important thing you do is build relationships and I was nervous about that and about being in the way. But I was told I could go where I like and do what I want. And that if I need anything, just ask”.

A bit like whisky production, her project was one that required time, patience, and experimentation. Angus used pencil, watercolour, and ink to draw from life, observing and recording her surroundings, completing some work on-site and others later in her studio. A typical drawing would entail capturing a certain space or area, say a warehouse, and the people in it. 

Glen Scotia Distillery

Glen Scotia Distillery was Angus’ home for a time

The art in whisky

But there was also fast studies and impressions of a sense of place, from sitting outside to chart the wildlife and climate over hours, or drawing smells and sounds which gave her a sense of colour and pattern. Angus also made art from what she tasted, sampling new make and finished products, and exploring marks to evoke a sense of flavour while she did. Each piece wouldn’t have to be a whole composition, but Angus was keen to express as much of what she was experiencing in order to create a more detailed final picture.

She even took to using hessian from the bung of the barrel used as a brush, or new make as a paint. “It’s a very oily spirit, if you drop it onto paint already there it pushes the pigment away for a nice effect,” Angus says. Although she does not recommend that you taste new make after dipping your brush. Some of the drawings even soaked up the smell of the peaty fermentation.

Showing me a drawing from the mash room, Angus gave an example of her process: “It’s a very complicated space and when I initially arrived I thought I would do much faster brush sketches. But, as I sat there, I took in the sounds and smells, people coming and going, the whole mesh floor vibrating as things happened in other parts of the building… It led me to simplify the drawing in a way that would allow me to sit there and soak it all in across the day”. When you look at the picture, you can feel the heat and steam, smell the cooking barley, and witness the hands-on approach of the mashman.

First Water: a portrait of the mash room

First Water: a portrait of the mash room

Seeing a distillery in a different light

Witnessing the art you can make and what it brings to life from visiting a distillery is a rewarding bit of time well-spent for a whisky fan. So is reminding yourself about the charm distilleries possess, particularly given the pandemic means many may have not been to one for some time. 

Angus is effusive about Glen Scotia, from its unassuming high-street location presenting a contrast from the usual lochs and hills of most Scotch whisky distilleries, to the unique Campbeltown environment around the distillery, where she gained a greater appreciation for how the local ecosystem and climate affects the whisky making process. 

The thing that struck Angus most, however, was the people. Her stories are full of characters and a welcome reminder of the level of care distillery workers show for their craft. “The drawing sparks conversation and was a good way to meet and know people. Compared to photography, sitting for hours working means people are drawn to you and while I’m drawing one aspect, someone at Glen Scotia will recommend a different area with a story, or bring up local lore”. Angus credits Campbelltown-based poet, author, and historian Angus Martin, for example, whose conversations, writing, and stories on our walks inspired much of her work.

Angus compared the running of a distillery to what it’s like making an enormous Christmas dinner. “You’ve got a plan, you know what you’re doing, but you don’t know the moment you’re going to do it because it’s all hands-on. If you’re there on a 12-hour shift, you have to be alert for all of that. At Glen Scotia there’s only the one spirit still and wash still, everything is done by smell and sound and the distiller’s senses”. Angus says her appreciation for the craft of whisky making was already there, it’s why she took the job, but it obviously increases witnessing all of that. 

“The thing that really struck me was learning about the periods when it was not producing and how someone was always checking to make sure the casks are alright. That level of care is something we can take for granted,” Angus explains. “Then you go rummaging in papers in (master distiller) Iain McAlister’s office, and the mashing records of the 80s and 90s are written the same way they are now, all written in the same shorthand, passing down from generation to generation. There’s evidence of hands everywhere, the hammering on the stills, the repair work, the boiler doors. Evidence of people taking care of things. You think you know a cask, but when you draw it you find it doesn’t look right because they’re all made by hand so they’re all individual”. 

The spirit is safe in art

At Milroy’s last December, I got to see first-hand how whisky lovers responded to Angus’ art, which was with great excitement and intrigue. “I was surprised by how many people were moved by my experience in the distillery, I thought all the focus would be on Iain’s tasting, but actually a lot of people wanted to see the drawings and were fascinated by how I came to them. The sketches of taste opened up a whole conversation as then people started to tell me about how they taste whisky, I think it was validating their creative way of thinking”, she explained.

I love Angus’ work on the Spirit Safe. It’s a fitting name, actually, because the spirit of Glen Scotia was in safe hands with her. I don’t know anything about art and have never reviewed it before, so I can only tell you how I feel looking at them. I see a lot of what I’ve known from being in whisky distilleries in Scotland. The drawings are busy with detail, layering scenes, settings, and characters, presenting not just Glen Scotia, but a wider Campbeltown identity.

What Angus has done with Spirit Space is tell a story, one that helps us understand her subject better. There’s always new ways to understand and appreciate a craft like whisky making. A distillery can often look unassuming. They can be wet, rusty loud factories or shiny, Disney-fied visitor centres. But when you’re inside the belly of the beast, all the chemistry, history, engineering, knowledge, folklore, and passion comes out. Angus has captured those intangible experiences.

But the opportunity for you to do the same is waiting to be seized. Book that distillery tour. See the art of a distillery for yourself.