Meet the illustrator behind That Boutique-y Whisky Company's label designs

Meet the illustrator behind That Boutique-y Whisky Company's label designs

Illustrator Emily Chappell has been designing That Boutique-y Whisky Company’s labels since it began – as the company enjoys a celebratory year, we profile the woman who gave it its visual identity

Interview | 28 Apr 2023 | Issue 190 | By Millie Milliken

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Have you ever heard of the Gnasher Club? Me neither. But illustrator Emily Chappell was a member when she was a child. Her love of comic books (such as The Beano and Dennis the Menace) is something she only recently remembered, she tells me: “We got a furry little badge which obviously stuck to everything at school.”

In isolation, it’s a charming recollection; in the context of whisky, specifically that of That Boutique-y Whisky Company, it brings the world that Chappell, Ben Ellefson, and the team at parent company Atom Brands have created into even sharper focus.

Chappell has been hand-designing That Boutique-y Whisky Company labels since it began, estimating more than 200 individual designs in total. The whisky bottler, which celebrated its 10th anniversary on 12 September 2022, bottles a vast array of limited-edition whiskies from renowned distilleries across Scotland, Japan, the USA, Sweden and beyond, alongside blending its own bottlings of grain and malt whiskies. And while the brand is known for handling some very special liquids, it is also as well known for the non-conformist, witty, graphic novel-style labels that adorn every single bottle – which are the work of the very talented Chappell.

A selection of bottlings from That Boutique-y Whisky Company


When she started working for Boutique-y, the world of whisky labels was not a particularly exciting one. “I think at the time, wine and beer were quite experimental as they were choosing to work with artists and illustrators,” she recalls. “As a whisky company, though, it was a bold move on their part to do this. There were very staid graphics being used at the time, very masculine colour palettes and brands weren’t being too playful – it was just very traditional and that was accepted.”

That was until the independent bottler enlisted Chappell to bring its vision for a whisky company to life. “I think because I wasn’t too involved in the industry it gave me a wide-eyed approach to it,” she says of her attitude toward those first few designs. “There is definitely a freshness to it… I didn’t realise how it was going to go.”

A decade on and Chappell’s hand-drawn, digitally coloured labels have included scenes depicting the people, places and stories behind some of the world’s favourite whisky brands, peppered with inside jokes for whisky geeks, clever takes on distillery quirks, and some downright silly scenes just for the sake of it. Among the many recognisable stills, secret distillery depictions and flavour-based imagery, there’s also been a velociraptor fighting a shark (Aultmore 20 Years Old), the Olympics held in space (Glendullan 7 Years Old), and an ode to the song ‘My Lovely Horse’ from sitcom Father Ted (Irish Single Malt #1). Even Chappell’s love for British TV character Alan Partridge, the comedic media personality portrayed by Steve Coogan, has been immortalised on a bottle of Tobermory 21. As you may have now realised, her approach to designing whisky labels is anything but textbook.

A label for a 21-year-old single malt Scotch whisky from Tobermory bottled by TBWC


Glasgow-based Chappell’s love for the visual arts, specifically illustration, evolved from comic books into studying for her GMVQ in Manchester where she discovered the worlds of art history, graphic design, ceramics and illustration: “It was a fantastic time and it opened my eyes to working in the creative industries.” A tutor pushed her to go on to the Glasgow School of Art and on graduation she entered the cultural sector, doing administration, taking on a few small poster jobs and building up her portfolio (Pinocchio and Aladdin posters for Glasgow’s Tron Theatre ring a bell).

It was a meeting with a friend who had just started working for Boutique-y that began Chappell’s unforeseen but now decade-long tenure, with a Port Ellen as her first trial. “She knew I was an illustrator looking to get some good, juicy commissions, so she put me in touch with them… I think it was a Port Ellen which was one of the first ones they gave me to see if I could get to grips with it, but they were still exploring as well,” she says of the very, very early days.

It wasn’t until year six or seven, she says, that the labels really cemented the world that Chappell and the team had created with their bottles: “It is the Boutique-y world where this huge number of labels represent an alternate, parallel world of whisky.”

This TBWC bottling, a blend of Scotch and Japanese malt and grain whiskies, was illustrated with a dragon and a lion


Chappell says her designs ordinarily start with a “rough doodle” informed by the brief. “There are usually a lot of things to include: stills drawn correctly, somebody’s likeness, what not to include, or if it’s a secret distillery not giving too many hints away,” she explains. The format she has to work in is also unconventional: “The skill is getting a strong complete story on that scale of label, which is really quite small and quite a traditional portrait shape, so you have to think visually about what I’ve been briefed quite verbally on – I enjoy that. Then I show them what’s possible within that framework.”

Some are more thematic than others, with ranges based on a theme such as music or Australian whiskies, meaning Chappell can think about how they will work as a collection from the start of her creative process. Others require meeting the human focus of the labels in person to capture their likeness or delving more into the flavours of the whiskies for inspiration. “The flavour is a really lovely thing to play on,” she admits, citing one bottle of blended grain in particular. “It was a ship made of all these flavour profiles, like a big mast made up of coconuts, the ocean was vanilla pods and these birds in the sky were made out of bananas. It’s bonkers but that is what we do well.”

Of course, some of her out-of-the-box ideas don’t always make it. One she remembers well was for a bottle of Tomatin, for which a tin of tomatoes was her brief. “I don’t think the distillery liked it… There were a few batches made I think, but poor Tommy Tomato never got his origin story.” He was, however, included in the follow-up labels and there’s an ‘RIP Tommy Tomato’ gravestone lingering somewhere. Rather than naming favourites, Chappell instead references the designs she thinks are most striking: a Scotch and Japanese whisky blend depicted with a Japanese dragon and a rampant lion, another with a volcano erupting, maps, raucous gig crowds, or others with plants and botanicals which mirror her love for her allotment.

The 50-year-old "Blend 01 blended grain Scotch whisky, illustrated to convey its tropical flavour profile


There are also, of course, parallels to be drawn between the making of whisky and the world of art, but Chappell sees storytelling as the closest of them all, not only in its role of telling the distillery stories but also bringing more people into the category as a whole. “The storytelling element you can’t deny is what links [art] to whisky… You can story tell through illustration more so than typography or photography and the way [whisky] is going now it is more playful, too – people should enjoy it rather than be daunted by it. I think illustration can bring people in who wouldn’t normally consider whisky.”

It’s a pioneering approach that has undoubtedly opened the door to other whisky companies to be more fun in their approach to packaging. Chappell sees it as healthy competition, but also believes that there is more to what Boutique-y is doing: “A belief in that kind of playfulness and humour and the want to keep building that world I was talking about.”

From an artist’s point of view, working on the project for 10 years and counting has also been professionally enriching. “It has been a really good thing to have done in helping my own work as well,” she explains. “You really need good draughtsmanship, you need to be able to draw things accurately, so having that regular level of professionalism and tight deadlines has been great… When you’re fresh out of art school you have this idea of pure work, and then you have your professional work and people think about them as two separate things, but I beg to differ… There is a definite playfulness and exuberance about the style of drawing I’ve used and over the years that’s built up a confidence.”

The label from a 45-year-old blended grain Scotch whisky bottling from TBWC


While we often talk about the advances and changes in making whisky, the evolution of making art is just as present for Chappell with the likes of AI (artificial intelligence) being a source of big discussions in her industry right now. It is, she says, a balancing act: “You kind of have to have your feet in both ponds – to be aware of what’s out there but also staying true to knowing what you’re good at.” Just like whisky can change over time, so has Chappell’s work. Advancements in the art world have had an impact on her work with Boutique-y, with her designs being very ‘hand-drawn’ and loose at the start, but her feeling a need to tighten things up a little as the years have gone by. But people, she says, will always want the human touch.

Back in 2012, it would have been difficult for anyone – least of all Chappell – to envision the integral part she would go on to play at Boutique-y. “Obviously nobody can predict what will happen in the future, but it has been a good thing for me to have done. The really humorous labels really light it all up for me – when I’m giggling away when I’m drawing something and I know it will make someone else smile. I’m not bored yet.”
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