For those of you that know me, I clearly spend a significant portion of my free time learning about, tasting and hunting whiskey. So much of my energy is invested in the quest to find that next bourbon, rye or Scotch that will blow my mind, shift my point of view, and further expand my palate. I’m quick to share my thoughts about each and every pour, and I do my best to be objective and focus on the whiskey itself, ignoring marketing, hype, or in some cases whatever the opposite of “hype” is. Anyone??? Does that word have an antonym?
Despite my best efforts to ignore all but the whiskey itself and judge it solely on its merits, I’d be silly to think that I’m not influenced by other factors, such as price, brand backstory, scarcity, reputation and… the most obvious factor that presents itself when you walk into the liquor store and set your eyes upon the whiskey aisle: packaging!
There’s nothing better than a sexy whiskey bottle sitting on my shelf. It brings me great pleasure each and every time I step foot in my whiskey lounge. I’d wager that the average whiskey fanatic tends to view their collection of bottles as trophies, much like an avid book collector admires their personal library, not only seeking out the finest of literature, but also seeking beautifully bound books that elevate the aesthetics of their library. We all want our whiskey trophies to be as beautiful and stylish as can be, and that’s where the package design comes into play.
Unlike books, the packaging of whiskey has more variables and tends to be a more creative process, in my opinion. The shape and style of the bottle alone is enough to attract consumers and help define the brand. A perfect example is Angel’s Envy, with bottles that can be spotted from a mile away and are clearly different than any other bottle on the shelf. Personally, I’m not a big fan of their whiskey or bottle design, but there’s no denying that the design is unique and plays a huge role in the success of the brand.
Aside from the overall shape and style of the bottles, some have colored glass like Laphroaig or Bib & Tucker. Some have raised lettering and embellishments in the glass (Bib & Tucker again). Then there’s the label designs and applications. Some have paper labels, some clear plastic-style labels, while others like Four Roses Single Barrel Limited Edition have painted labels. There’s even variation with the closures. Some have a screw cap, some have a cork, and my favorites are the ones like WhistlePig’s “The Boss Hog” or their 15-year rye, or Blanton’s Single Barrel that have a fun embellishment on the top of the cork. And on top of all these variables, sometimes the bottles themselves come in creative packaging, like the wooden boxes of Booker’s, Knob Creek 2001 or Blood Oath, or the cardboard tubes of Yellowstone and E.H. Taylor, or the beautifully designed Wild Turkey Master’s Keep box.
I’ve think I’ve properly established that I appreciate the art of whiskey packaging, but let’s move on to the whole point of this blog post, and that’s my interview with a very talented Luxury Packaging and Brand Designer, David Cole.
I first discovered David’s contributions to the world of whiskey packaging when he commented on a photo of Yellowstone 93 that I posted on Instagram. In my post I mentioned that “I’m a sucker for a sexy label” and “If I had to pick my favorite graphic design of the year, it’d be Yellowstone!” David (@davidscottcole) commented to let me know that he was glad that I was a fan and that he didn’t know anyone actually cared about that sort of thing. He didn’t come right out and say that he designed the packaging for Yellowstone, but I assumed as much based on his comment. I started going back through his IG posts and checked out his website and quickly realized that he’s responsible for some truly beautiful whiskey packaging. By the way, he is not limited to whiskey packaging by any means, but since I’m writing for a whiskey blog here, I’ll keep my focus on his whiskey packaging.
Once I realized that there was actually a man behind some of my favorite bottle designs, and not some big corporate machine, I was motivated to shed some light on David’s beautiful work. I’m sure he’s used to (and content with) being behind the scenes in this booming and exciting whiskey revolution, but I think he deserves some serious recognition.
Despite his very busy schedule, David was kind enough to indulge me with an interview, for which I am very grateful. It provides us with a glimpse into a part of the industry that most of us take for granted, but the end result of which is admired by whiskey lovers around the world. The next time you admire a sexy bottle, I hope that David Scott Cole will come to mind.
So, with that in mind, let’s start the interview…
Q: What part of the country do you live in?
A: I’m a Pacific Northwest native. Born in Granite Falls, WA. Lived in Seattle for 15 years and just moved to Bellingham, WA three weeks ago. There are even more trees up here than in Seattle and all the outdoor recreation you could ever want is right outside the front door. I love it!
Q: How long have you been designing packaging for?
A: I graduated from Central Washington University in 2001. Thanks to my wife-to-be (at the time), I already had a really fun design gig at a local print shop that did a lot of specialty foods packaging. After moving to Seattle, I took a few detours and side-tracks through the brand and design agency world. I’ve been back on packaging full time since I left agency life and started working for myself in 2012. So… 16 years off-and-on, but really about 6 years of focused, dedicated packaging experience.
Q: Did you go to school for graphic design and/or marketing?
A: My major is actually in geography. It’s a long story. But yes, I did get a minor is studio arts and spend a significant amount of time in both design and marketing/business classes.
Q: Is package design something you knew wanted to do early in your career, or is it something you fell into?
A: I fell into it early in my career (see above), and knew right away that’s what I wanted to do. There weren’t a lot of packaging projects at the agencies I worked for – some, but not as much as I wanted. I knew all that time I wanted to get back into it, which is why I chose packaging as my specialization as soon as I started working for myself.
Q: Earning money from art isn’t always a sure bet. I’m sure there’s a lot of competition out there. Was there ever a time in your career when you were uncertain about the path you were on?
A: Never. As far as I can tell, the whole “feast or famine” thing is a myth. I’ve always had a steady agency job when I wanted one – even through the recession of 2009-ish. And as a freelancer, I’ve had more than enough work to keep me busy, from day one. I’ve never paid a penny for advertising and I’ve never made a sales call in my life. I think choosing a narrow specialization has helped – it automatically reduces the competitive field exponentially. I work very hard and I re-invest time and money into myself and my business at every opportunity. I think it’s just a question of being committed. If you want the work, it’s out there.
Q: What tools do you use? Is everything done in software these days, or do you sometimes paint and draw?
A: I’m in Adobe Illustrator 85% of every day (besides admin work of course: invoicing, writing emails, etc.). I use Photoshop and Cinema 4D extensively as well. Not much else. I don’t do nearly as much drawing as I used to. I usually hire illustrators for that sort of thing. They are better than me at what they do and the results are always worth the extra cost.
Q: When you’re designing distinct packaging such as the Blood Oath Pact 2 wooden box with those sliding inserts to cradle the bottle neck, do work only on the design, or do you also work with manufacturers to determine the feasibility and the cost per unit?
A: I work closely with printers and fabricators to determine cost-effective solutions. A great idea is dead in the water if your client isn’t willing to pay for production, so the cost is always an important part of the equation, right from the start. I can’t afford to waste any time on dead-end ideas. So I get quotes and bids right from the beginning. That way I can focus my effort on ideas that will make it through approvals and into production. Specifying materials and production processes actually takes up a lot of time in itself. I have a mountain of swatch books, samples, etc. And I spend a great deal of time writing bid requests and hunting down new vendors. But I like to have my hands on the details so I have greater control over the end result. What kind of wood are they using? What kind of stain? What inks, papers, foils, printing presses, etc? Printers have no idea what my vision is unless I communicate that very clearly. A poorly-specified print job can absolutely kill an otherwise great design. And all of these details have a direct impact on production cost. So yeah – I’m very involved in that as well. Almost as much as the design itself. It’s a big part of my job. Maybe as much as 40%.
Q: You’re clearly quite skilled at designing beautiful whiskey labels and packaging. Are you a whiskey drinker? If so, are you more of a bourbon and rye fan, or a single malt fan, and what’s your favorite whiskey?
A: I am a whiskey drinker, and I greatly enjoy a broad spectrum of what’s out there: malts, bourbon and rye (and tequila too). There’s so much variety, it all comes down to specific products more than categories. If I list specifics you’ll probably think I’m just pandering to my clients. but here goes: Well, here’s one for you (not a client): One of my go-to favorites in the malt category is McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt. It’s lightly smoky and has a rich, fresh-baked-bread quality that just kills me every time. Woodford Reserve is great. Old Grand Dad Bonded, Weller, Hibiki, Nikka – I really love quite a lot of them. Woodinville Whiskey Company’s American Whiskey is also something I reach for very frequently. Their bourbon and rye are also very good. As are so many others. I love the smoky Islay malts and I like un-peated Scotches as well. I’m growing quite fond of the Luxco offerings (Yellowstone & Blood Oath at the top of the list) and I’ve liked WhistlePig rye since long before I worked for them. Unfair question! There are just too many. Variety is the spice of life, as they say. Aberfeldy is great. Talisker is great. Ledaig is great. Bluebird Distilling’s (Pennsylvania) Four-Grain Bourbon is outstanding. Seven Stills of San Francisco’s Chocasmoke – great. Westland in Seattle has some great stuff. I could go on all day. OK, next question.
Q: What percentage of your spirits-related projects involve bottle design? I’m sure there are cases when a brand is simply looking for a fresh label without changing bottle shape (Russell’s Reserve is a recent industry example that comes to mind), but it must be exciting to work on the entire package, including the bottle.
A: If I had to come up with a percent… maybe 20%. I agree, it’s a lot of fun to take the design deeper than the label – to the glass structure itself. But given the minimum quantities on custom glass manufacturing, it’s a big hurdle for most smaller distilleries. I often have the opportunity to help my clients select a new (stock) bottle from existing designs, which can also be rewarding. There are quite a lot of good options out there. And sometimes the bottle is pre-selected, as you’ve described. That’s fine too. When the schedule is hectic, it can be nice to have some of the decisions made for you. I’m on board for either approach. It’s good to have a mix.
Q: What was your first packaging design that made it to a store shelf? Were you really stoked to see it on the shelf for the first time?
A: First ever? That was a long time ago. 2001, probably. I think it was a salad dressing label or maybe a chocolate box that looked like the Space Needle. Either way, I remember them both and yeah – I was totally stoked. I still love seeing my work out there. I always peek behind the bar when I go to a new watering hole. I always take a quick detour through the liquor aisle if I’m in a new store. Recently, I’ve had a couple of my projects show up in Whisky Advocate – and lots of blogs and Instagram accounts. Mostly nobody is talking about the package design, they are usually talking about the liquid. That’s fine with me. It’s just fun to see them out there, in people hands, being enjoyed.
Q: What’s the label/packaging that you’re most proud of to date?
A: I can’t pick one. Partly I don’t want to say that the work I did for one client is better than any others. But also, I just can’t decide. I’m usually most excited about whatever launched most recently because it’s fresh. Right now that’s George Dickel 17-year Tennessee Whisky. A month from now it will be something else.
Q: Do you also work on cork/stopper designs? If so, do you have a favorite design that stands out?
A: Custom closure designs are a part of most jobs. I think my favorite cork to date is probably the WhistlePig 15-year pewter corks. They are ridiculously heavy and very cool. But I can’t take credit for coming up with that idea, they already had the pewter “flying pig” from a previous release, so this was a natural derivative. I think they pretty much told me what it was going to look like. That’s fine, if you ask me, they nailed it.
Q: Is there a particular brand that you haven’t designed for before, but would love to?
A: I don’t really have my sights on anyone in particular. I’d be honored and happy to work for a great many brands that I know of, whether large-scale or small. Each project is rewarding in its own way. And some of the brands that I admire already look so good I wouldn’t want to touch them. I have no desire to put “my” mark on anyone else’s products. I just want my clients to look their best. If there’s a brand out there and they already look fantastic, then I’m happy for them just the way they are. I guess I’d be happy to get my hands on that McCarthy’s Oregon Single Malt. The product is so good and I can see some room for improvement on the label design – if I had to pick one. It’s a regular in my liquor shelf. It would be fun to have one on my “portfolio” shelf as well. But I’m already very busy, so I’m not going to reach out to them. They are doing their thing and they appear happy so I don’t need to bug them. If it’s meant to be, the universe will bring them to me.
Q: I noticed on your website that you also do product photography. Were your photography skills born of necessity, or did you develop a passion for photography prior to or parallel to your design career?
A: I learned 90% of what I know about photography from Geoffrey Smith. We used to work together at an agency in Seattle. Neither of us was a photographer – officially – but he was damn good at it and I was always attracted to his style and approach. We used to drink together quite a lot after work. He left the agency and started working for bars and restaurants around Seattle, often taking photos of the very cocktails we were drinking to use on his client’s websites. So I was learning while I was drinking. Lucky me. The images were beautiful. I highly recommend checking out his work (www.lookatlao.com). When I finally left the agency myself, I started taking photos for my own portfolio, using what I had learned at from Geoffrey at the bar. Eventually, my clients started requesting my photos, so I started offering that as a billable item. It just kind of happened.
Q: Are there any contemporaries in the design world that you admire and draw inspiration from?
A: Off the top of my head: Stranger & Stranger, Chad Michael Studio, CF Napa, Hired Guns. I know there are others.
Q: Do you have a personal collection of the products that you’ve designed, or are you content with admiring them on store shelves?
A: I have a rather huge collection of bottles that I have designed. It’s a strange combination of liquor cabinet & trophy case. I keep them if I’m proud of the design or if the liquid is especially rare or delicious. I’m lucky to have quite a few that meet all of those criteria. I’m saving some of them for the long-term and others are drained and replaced regularly.
Q: What do you do for fun? Any hobbies?
A: We have a 10-month old baby girl. I don’t know if that counts as a “hobby” but she keeps me pretty busy – and happily so. Mountain biking is my primary life obsession, outside of family and work. Since moving to Bellingham, I ride about 3 times a week now. That’s on par or better than my old pre-baby glory days! Life is good.
Q: Is there anything fun you can share with us, like early versions of a design that didn’t make the cut? Anything to give us outsiders a glimpse into your world would be great! 🙂
A: Yeah, for sure, but for every published project there are 5-20 dead ends that never saw light of day. I wouldn’t know where to begin. I try to put interesting stuff on my blog – behind the scenes, sketches and process images among other things. Maybe check that out. Or – by all means – if you have something particular in mind, let me know and I can tell you if there are any interesting stories or rejects, etc. Quite often I have to keep a lid on that kind of stuff until after the official product launch. But by then, I forget about all the interesting side-stories because there’s another wave of hot deadlines to meet.
Thanks again to David for taking the time to participate in this interview. I highly suggest that you check out his Instagram account (@davidscottcole) and his web site (http://www.davidcolecreative.com/) to learn more about his work.