Masters of the Pour

Following their passion for working with glass, the couple behind Glasstorm balance working on their own artistic projects with an increasing range of commercial and whisky related glassware

Article by Richard Goslan, courtesy of the July 2017 Issue of the SWMS’s Unfiltered magazine, Photography by Alison White Photography

When Nicky Burns and Brodie Nairn met as students at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen in the early 1990s, they found a shared passion for working with glass – and a determination to learn the craft from the best studios in the world.

That mission led to 10 years of an itinerant lifestyle, living in Europe and the US to benefit from working with glass-making masters in various international studios. For Brodie, it was the true apprenticeship following their years of education. “I fell in love with Nicky and with working in glass in the same year, and after we graduated from Aberdeen our pursuit of knowledge took us to the International Glass Centre at Brierly Hill in Birmingham,” he says. “It specialised in old-fashioned apprenticeships and provided a great foundation for us because we came from more of an art background, and this was more about learning the craft.”

From Brierly Hill, Nicky was fortunate enough to gain a place as assistant to one of the world’s top glass artists, Toots Zynsky, in her studio in the Netherlands. Brodie headed to Germany to develop his technical skills. “Our years in college gave us a foundation, but when you go out and work for someone else there is the opportunity to craft your skills by not only working with your hands but also by watching with your eyes,” says Brodie. “You never stop learning and that’s one of the things that’s similar to the craftsmanship of whisky making and the skills involved in that. We’ve learnt from the masters, and then tried to apply what we’ve learnt in our own work. Now we’ve come full circle and we’re passing those skills onto our own team.”

Their own team is part of Glasstorm, the studio Nicky and Brodie set up together in Tain, Ross-shire – a short stroll from Glenmorangie distillery. The business has now grown to the point that there are six full-time staff, and occasionally the need to bring in other specialists when required. “We set up Glasstorm in 2005, for Nicky and myself to pursue our own craft and fine art work,” says Brodie. “It was a leap into the unknown, but we felt we’d gained enough experience on our travels working with the best glass artists in the world and we were ready.”

Now the studio’s work has developed to be divided between the couple’s personal art, a production range and commercial side – including a growing portfolio of whisky-related products. “Our own work now takes about 20 per cent of our time,” says Nicky. “I also take a lot of pride in our range of tableware and guestware, and now we’re doing much more commercial work. I enjoy working on each in its own way, they’re each so different.”

The requests from different whisky clients for special bottlings has also helped to develop Nicky and Brodie’s skills, and use of technology. “These specialist projects have been a large part of our journey and have pushed our skills to the limits,” says Brodie. “We started by working on a hand-crafted bottle for William Grant’s 50-year-old Glenfiddich, which was something of a baptism of fire for us but we came out with a bottle that we felt very proud of.”

“What we can do now is vastly different from when we started, as technology and tooling has moved on, as well as our understanding of the material. It’s one of the things I love most about working with glass – getting a new idea and then thinking: ‘Can I make that?’”

That’s where the years of training and a solid apprenticeship come into play, according to Nicky. “You have to learn how to make the glass in the first place,” she says. “First, it’s about mastering those skills, and then it’s about applying the creativity. That goes through everything we do, thinking about the practicality, the weight, the size. Hand-crafted bottles still have to hold the spirit and be functional as well as beautiful.”

The work creating bottles for the whisky industry has also led Brodie to reflect on the synergies between the distiller’s craft and his own journey with Nicky from art student to master glass blower. “The very nature of making whisky is about passing down the necessary skills from generation to generation,” he says. “You can’t do it in 24 hours, and you can’t do it online. You only have to wander around a distillery and hear about how long people have been working there, or how every distillery has developed its own methods that give it something extra. I always think that’s a bit like us and our own little secrets that we’ve picked up along the way, at Murano or in Switzerland. That’s all part of our unique skillset and gives us some different tools in our bag compared with other studios.”  riddle_stop 2

 

Enquiries: Glasstorm, 2 Chapel Street, Tain, Scotland IV19 1EL / 01862 893189 /  www.glasstorm.com

SMWS: To join: www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership 

SWMS Kaleidescope Bar (open to non-members), 9A Devonshire Square, London EC2M 4YN / www.smws.com/about/venues/kaleidoscope-london

Send this to a friend