Meeting brilliant people: Ian Murray

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Meeting brilliant people: Ian Murray

It is a great joy in our industry that we get to work with so many wonderful, talented artists and creatives, across nearly every department in our distillery. Today we introduce you to Ian Murray, the fantastically talented illustrator behind our Grain Stories Heritage Corn Whisky label.

We consider Grain Stories our experimental whisky brand, the playhouse where our Master Distiller can let loose, with our heritage grains always at the heart of each expression. We knew we wanted this label to be unique; it’s a very special whisky distilled from heritage corn lovingly bulked up and grown by our Head of Farming over many years (nature does not make these things quick!) – you can read all about that process here.

As soon as we saw Ian’s portfolio we knew he was our man; his style is bold and powerful, just like our Heritage Corn Whisky, with strange and wonderful characters, curious symbols and vintage patterns and textures. There’s a tension in his work between strong compositions and design elements, and the chaos of his mark making, old bits of paper, textures and patterns.

We were very grateful to him to take the time to answer some of our questions about his process and working with The Oxford Artisan Distillery on this unique project.


No, not really. No one in my family had ever been an artist or a designer or in fact been to a university.

As I was coming to the end of my A-levels I had started to fill out applications to join the army with the aspiration of eventually becoming an officer. I was studying art A-level and overheard one of the other students mention that she’d been for an interview for a foundation course at a local college. I half-heartedly asked what a foundation course was and she told me about it. I felt totally conflicted, one aspect of me yearned for the complete structure that the army would provide, a clear career path, instructions orders and hierarchy. But another part of me, and more chaotic and creative part, found the foundation course amazingly appealing.

Eventually after a few weeks of hard work I managed to get a portfolio together and secured a place on a foundation course. After a few months I had totally forgotten about the army. A year or so later I found myself on an illustration and graphic design course at Kingston University, surrounded by students who came from backgrounds very familiar with art & design, in fact some of their parents owned advertising and design studios. I felt like a fish out of water, not only creatively, but also economically and socially. Back at home for Christmas I told my parents I wouldn’t be returning to university as I didn’t think I had what it took to be successful.

My dad who had been a self-defence instructor and hand-to-hand combat instructor in the army shrugged his shoulders and said that he wished he’d had the opportunity to develop his artistic skills when he was my age; “look at me now. I work in a factory. I’ve always wished that you could’ve had something better in your life than I was able to have.” I returned to college the following term with a new attitude and things seem to turn around after a few weeks, I was really enjoying myself and finally started to feel as though I fitted in.


I always feel more comfortable working to a brief than having complete creative freedom. With the latter, I always feel a little lost to be completely honest, there are so many options that I don’t really know where to start. So even if I’m not working for a client or to a client brief I always put in place my own parameters or create in effect my own brief to work to. Again I think this harps back to my intrinsic need or desire for structure rules and organisation, which informs me even when I want to be creative.

Sometimes it is good fun to just cut loose and make things for the hell of it, and I have learnt over the years that when you are making mistakes this is really when new learning takes place. Experimental work always tends to inform my commercial work further down the line.

What is your starting point when designing an artwork like ours?

My starting point for any project is to gather as much information about the project/ design problem as possible. From simple things like dimensions, deadlines, required colours to more nuanced thing such as the clients favourite images or keywords from the brief…….thankfully the brief I received from you was very thorough and this combined with an email from your Master Distiller helped inform the design.

I would usually start by writing or drawing in a sketchbook all the possible parameters that the project is defined by, setting out the boundaries that I will work within. The puzzle is then to be as creative as possible within these boundaries and to fulfil the brief and hopefully delight the client as well as myself. I guess this aspect of the design process is like the wide part of a funnel into which you pull all of the information and ideas. It can seem quite overwhelming to start with but eventually it’s all filtered down and becomes more streamlined; the choices become easier and the design becomes clearer the further down the ‘funnel’ you go.

There are so many hidden secrets in our Heritage Corn Whisky label – what are your favourites?

I think my favourite hidden secrets in the corn whisky label are the pressure gauge reading at 78 degrees the pressure you use to produce the whisky and the little black rain drops running down the label symbolising the rain that almost ruined the crop.


Wow, far too many to mention probably. The very rich period of design and illustration in the 1950s and 60s is always a source of inspiration to me including designers like Paul Rand, Olle Eksell and Lucienne Day. In fact any form of design from that era; automobiles, furniture, architecture. But I am also drawn to very hard-edged graphic design by Swiss and Dutch graphic designers and typographers such as Josef Muller-Brokmann and Wim Crouwel. But also lots of Fine artists such as Joseph Beuys, Barbra Hepworth, Kurt and Schwitters.


I always feel more inspired or seem to find more inspiration when I’m away from the studio. I find urban and city environments more inspiring than the countryside. Things that other people may find ugly, broken or discarded I find inspirational, ripped posters on a wall, hand-painted warning signs on the side of a garage, bits of graffiti. I guess anything which shows signs of wear and tear or distressed surfaces. Secondhand and junk shops are also places I find very inspirational, I guess in some ways I am deeply sentimental and much prefer secondhand things to new ones. So when I find things such as old books or magazines or aged pieces of wood, I either photograph them or better yet try to bring them back to the studio. Here I suppose the studio operates as a kind of factory in which these things are processed in order that I can make images from them.

I’ll spend quite a bit of time just scanning or photographing items that I’ve found and archiving them way for future use, sometimes this feels like a complete waste of time, as I have no idea how I will actually use the items. But experience tells me that eventually maybe hours, possibly weeks, but sometimes years later these items will come in very useful.

So, I suppose again we are back to this idea of chaos and structure, whilst I’m outside of the studio anything is possible and I randomly stumble across things that may or may not be useful, there is no pressure to make any particular decisions, it’s more of a gut, visceral, instinctual decision. Do I like it? Am I interested in it? If the answer is yes, somehow whether it’s the actual object or a photograph it will end up back in the studio. The studio then becomes the structural part of the equation, the place the objects are processed and catalogue for future use.


Guinness would’ve been my favourite tipple in my younger days. Then I progressed on to lager, or some might see that as a regression perhaps, as I preferred the crisper, cleaner taste. But these days, I have completely given up alcohol as it just doesn’t seem to suit me anymore.

I really wish that I could acquire a taste for whisky, a good single malt with a bit of ice was always my dad‘s favourite drink. He was never a big drinker but perhaps would have a glass of whisky at night or at the weekend when listening to music. I always associate the smell of whisky with my dad, who died a few years ago now, so one of the lovely thing things about working on this project was that when you kindly sent the sample of the whisky as inspiration for the packaging, the smell and the taste of it immediately brought my dad to mind.

Thank you, Ian, for this wonderful insight into your creative mind. You can explore Ian’s work here.

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