Close

Interview: David Cole of David Cole Creative, Bourbon Packaging Designer

Posted on by Eric Burke

Woodinville Whiskey Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Photo courtesy David Cole, www.davidcolecreative.com.

About two weeks ago I got a notice from a reader regarding an upcoming bourbon event. It turns out that he is also the designer of the label and packaging of this upcoming release. As I am also a designer who loves whiskey, I felt that there were some fun questions here to be answered. What follows is our conversation. 

So tell me a little about yourself, are you a bourbon drinker? What's your go-to pour?

Go-to pour? Quick answer, without over-thinking it would be Knob Creek, 9-year bourbon. That's my "every-day" favorite. But there sure are a lot of other options if you're in one mood or another. I got into whiskey via Old Overholt Rye! From there I acquired a taste for Maker's Mark Bourbon and Bulleit and it's been a bonanza of new experiences since then. I greatly enjoy Woodinville Whiskey's Microbarrel Bourbon and Rye. The bourbon is surprisingly mature for it's young age. I'm also enjoying the proliferation of Scotch-style, American single-malt whiskeys that are showing up. I guess it's hard to pick a favorite right now, when every week brings a new product to try - especially here in the Northwest. I can't even keep up with all the new releases. Eastland is doing some interesting things. So is Clear Creek. And I still have plenty of classics to get to know as well. I guess I can't afford to latch on to anything at the moment. There's so much yet to learn.

Like me, you are a designer. Unlike me, you design for bourbon bottles. How'd you get started with that specialty?

I started out in package design over 12 years ago right out of art school. My wife-to-be and I were both designers at a small agency in a small town for about two years. Then we moved to Seattle and got caught up in the "big city" design agency rat race for as long as we could stand it. That was profoundly educational but the work wasn't particularly rewarding for me. So in 2012 I decided to go it alone. I left the agency I was working for and went solo. My wife (www.nikkicolecreative.com) had already blazed that path, 4 years prior. I guess I was slow to figure it out. Anyway, my passion for packaging had been unsatisfied for some eight years or so. So I just decided that's what I was going to do. I guess I can't say that my passion for whiskey had been unsatisfied, but the two had yet to converge and that's what I was really wanting to make happen. So I posted some related work on my website and within months I was getting unsolicited calls and emails from local wineries and distillers. It's been snowballing since then and it's only just beginning! Just yesterday I got an email from a distiller in Ukraine. We're already talking details and it looks like it's going to be a fun project: A whole product line of hand-made fruit brandies. I can't wait to get started on designs.

What are some of the unique challenges in designing whisky bottles and packaging?

Compared to a great many other food and drink products, packaging for the spirits category is equally challenging, or maybe slightly less so. A great many food and drink products have to contend with refrigeration, moisture and other mechanical considerations related to packing, shipping and storage. Wine and spirits are thankfully free from these particular hurdles. It's just nuts and bolts stuff, but it has a pretty major impact on the materials and print processes that will be appropriate for the finished package. With spirits in particular, the door remains open to many processes that help achieve a premium look and feel in the package. Also, makers of whiskey and spirits are charging a lot more for their products than makers of jellies, chocolates, coffee and many of the other food producers I work with. Expectations are higher when it comes to selection of high quality materials such as natural cork, glass and premium label papers, etc. I prefer to design for premium, hand-made and/or natural products, so it's a perfect fit.

I know that the labels need to be submitted for approval, does this affect all portions of the design? or just the label portion itself?

The TTB is only concerned with certain pieces of information. In most cases that information appears on the primary label (or screen printed equivalent of a label), so I believe that's where their interest ends. I suppose they also regulate some other, non-label factors such as net contents. Only certain sizes are legal to sell in the United states: 200ml, 375ml and 500ml, if I remember correctly.

You have a bourbon that is launching soon that you designed. Tell us about that project, how did it come about

Woodinville Whiskey Company is a dream client for me. They contacted me out of the blue just over a year ago. They were exactly the client I was hoping for: A Northwest distiller with a lot of hand-crafted appeal and pride in their products. From day one, we got along famously. We're on the same page every time we meet to discuss projects, in terms of the vision for what we want to accomplish and what will be right for their brand. It's a great relationship. After I'd worked on some other projects for them, they asked me to help with this straight bourbon. I was excited to help. A young distilleries first straight whiskey is a big deal. It's a rite of passage and I'm honored to be a part of it.

Anything else you'd like to share? Where can we see more of your work?

I have a lot of irons in the fire right now! I'm currently doing work on other exciting (and top-secret) projects for Woodinville Whiskey Co. Some of that will be public in the coming weeks and some of it will be another year or so - some really cool stuff. I'm also branding and designing bottles/labels for a new, startup distiller in Eastern Washington. They will have product on the shelves this spring and I'm very excited about the direction it's heading. Unfortunately, it's also not public yet, but I'll let you know. In addition to that, I'm currently in discussions with two vodka makers and three wineries! 

I'll be appearing at an American Distilling Institute event in a few weeks, Hosted by Heritage Distilling, in Gig Harbor Washington. I was graciously invited to share some packaging design knowledge with the distillers who will be in attendance, so I'm hoping a new relationship or two comes out of that. And in related news, I have a great long-term relationship with Seattle's Canon: Whiskey & Bitters Emporium. I've done some labels for them (bitters and aged cocktails), menu designs, and a 100-page cocktail book (now in its second edition), among some other odds and ends. Oh, and I recently had an Italian glass maker pickup one of my original 750ml bottle designs as a stock offering in their catalogue for next year! I even got to name it! I get to see the prototype next week. Very excited. There's a lot going on! I just wish more of it was public, but you can be sure I'll be updating my website (http://www.davidcolecreative.com) and tweeting (@Davidscole) about new developments as soon as they are ready to share.

I'm having a lot of fun, doing what I love and I feel very fortunate to work with the amazing clients I have - and I'm excited about who I might meet next. It's always an adventure.

David, thanks for sharing all this with us. I find this sort of behind-the-scenes fascinating and I hope everyone else does too!