People

Drinking whisky can be contagious

The creative brains behind award-winning design work
By Gavin Smith
We live in an age where consumers have never had so much knowledge and so much choice, whether planning to buy a car, a holiday, or a bottle of whisky.

So as a distiller or bottler, what do you do to make your brands and your overall brand experience stand out from the crowd?

Additionally, how do you combine visual appeal with a compelling back story, placing an emphasis on the genuine provenance many consumers now crave?

Enter Contagious, the Leith-based creative consultancy founded in 2001 by Matt Chapman, who graduated from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee and worked for agencies in London, Singapore and Edinburgh, before taking the plunge to branch out on his own.

“We’ve gone from a shared office and a vintage Mac to studios in Edinburgh and Glasgow and a staff of 40 incredibly talented people producing award-winning creative work,” he says.

According to Chapman, Contagious is “expert in the design and delivery of brand experiences for global drinks brands,” and among its clients it names Absolut Vodka and Chivas Regal.

In Scotland, the agency has worked with more than 40 distilleries, and recently has been responsible for developing the visual identity of Ardnahoe on Islay.

Contagious is based in a modern building in Edinburgh’s historic Port of Leith, but its offices overlook the Victorian Bonnington Bond, now repurposed for residential and office use, but formerly the hub of J&B’s vast warehousing operations.

Leith was once Scotland’s leading whisky blending and bonding hub, home to many of the industry’s great names such as J&B, Vat 69, and Highland Queen, and this connection endures through one of Contagious’ current projects.

The company has partnered with the youthful Port of Leith Distillery, which plans to build Scotland’s first vertical distillery close to where The Royal Yacht Britannia is berthed. As Matt explains, “Ian Stirling and Paddy Fletcher, the founders, are childhood friends, both from Edinburgh.

When they decided to open a distillery in their home town of Edinburgh, they tapped into Ian’s wine industry contacts, to discuss the procurement of sherry casks for ageing the whisky. On the funding journey toward building the distillery, they decided to begin trading with the release of a sherry, so contacted Contagious to discuss brand and packaging for this.

Ian says, “As a start-up business we didn’t have a big budget and we did have design expertise within our team. So, we were able to give Contagious very specific and detailed briefs. They were almost like the engineers who put everything together for us and enhanced it along the way.

“We started with them designing a logo for us and then they did the label for our sherry. The label was successful in telling the story of Leith and also our story, and we managed to make it very cost-effective.

This was the oldest Scotch whisky in the world and the release almost immediately entirely sold out


When it came to launching our Lind and Lime Gin, they designed the bespoke bottle and label system. They also produced a map for us relating the trading history of Leith, which we use a great deal.”

Matt adds, “This is a somewhat unusual and sizeable investment for such a young company, but the benefits to how the product, and the brand, is perceived as credible and exciting is already gaining recognition.”

While Port of Leith is in the early stages of its commercial evolution, at the other end of the experience scale is Elgin distiller and bottler Gordon & MacPhail, established in 1895.

Matt notes that Contagious has had an ongoing working relationship with Gordon & MacPhail since 2014, explaining, “The first project we worked on together was the Mortlach 75 Years Old by Gordon & MacPhail, which is part of their Generations range.

“For this first project, we designed and managed all packaging and the launch at The Royal Opera House, London. At the time, this was the oldest Scotch whisky in the world and the release almost immediately entirely sold out.

“From this point, we were invited to strategically review the entire Gordon & MacPhail portfolio, and we recommended that the brand should be pulled more to the forefront for increased consumer awareness of it and to acknowledge the status of Gordon & MacPhail in the industry.

"The first outcome of this work is a more streamlined portfolio and redesigned packaging.”

The opportunity to become involved with Gordon & MacPhail in the first place came about due to a recommendation based on Contagious’ role in the release of the world’s oldest Japanese whisky, Karuizawa 1960, marketed by Japanese specialists Number One Drinks in 2013.

“As this was the oldest Japanese whiskey in the world, our approach to design was to treat this in a highly authentic manner,” says Matt. “This Japanese whisky was based on the Scottish method, so we decided to represent the relationship of the finest of both Scottish and Japanese craft in the design.”

Accordingly, bespoke handmade paper from Japan was used for labels, and Matt adds, “We worked with a famous Japanese calligrapher, for part of the labels, and a Scottish craft letterpress expert for the other part. Every bottle had an individual name, and each one was named after an antique Japanese netsuke (a small carved ornament, especially of ivory or wood, worn as part of Japanese traditional dress) sourced by us, tied to the neck of each bottle.

“Each box is hand crafted in ash and wenge to represent the story of the cask, with the darker wood on the inside referencing the charring of the cask. We hot branded into the head of the actual cask then cut that up to create the box branding.

"It opens like a Japanese puzzle box, with no mechanical fixings in any of the packaging, not even the shipping box.”
Marcin Miller, co-founder of Number One Drinks, adds, “Rather than numbering the bottles, to name each of the 41 after the individual antique netsuke which hung around the neck of the bottle was a wonderful touch. The idea for the box to be like a puzzle also came from Contagious.

“The value that Contagious brought to the project resulted in a sublime pack which won World’s Best Whisky Design and, for me, is still hard to beat. It has become a benchmark design in the world of whisky.”

Contagious has also been active in the US scene of late, undertaking projects in Colorado and Texas, as well as in the Kentucky state capital of Louisville. There they were tasked with creating a brand home at the new Angel’s Envy distillery during 2016.

Angel’s Envy is owned by Bacardi Limited, and the distillery’s brand home manager, Dee Ford says, “Contagious stood out as a choice for Angel’s Envy because they were recognised as global experts in the creation of brand experiences for the alcohol beverage industry and they had a track record for excellent work completed at other Bacardi brand homes (including Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery) for the creation of great distillery environments.”

Angels’ Envy Bourbon was created by the late distiller Lincoln Henderson, who also developed Woodford Reserve, and emphasising his legacy for visitors to the new distillery was an important part of the project.

Dee says that the proposal presented by Contagious embraced the entire customer experience, “From the narrative progression of the tour, the spirit of Lincoln Henderson and his family, through to a celebration of the unique way that Angel’s Envy is produced by finishing or double maturation in different barrel finishes resulting in unique taste profiles.
“Contagious also proposed weaving great vignettes of the Angel’s Envy story into our working distillery by utilising hand-painted graphics at each stage of the Bourbon-making process, and suggested we leverage the heritage of our former building operation, an elevator factory through the use of salvage materials.”

Back on its ‘home’ side of the Atlantic, Contagious has been in demand by the fast-expanding Irish whiskey sector. As well as operating with a number of start-up ventures, including Pearse Lyons in Dublin.

Most significantly, perhaps, Contagious has worked extensively with Pernod Ricard-owned Irish Distillers. Matt explains, “Working closely with the client, across a span of approximately three years, we created the concept of the Irish Whiskey Academy (principally for trade education) and built the experience from scratch.

“Together, we identified within Midleton Distillery in County Cork, a disused miller’s cottage as location, and worked with architects, the client, build and fit-out teams to bring the concept to reality.

"We defined every aspect of the Academy: what would happen in the space, floorplans and layouts, tools and activities, bars and furniture. Right down to the bespoke wallpapers.”

As the number of global distilleries are set to continue to grow in the next few years, and the dark art of successful branding becomes ever more highly prized, it seems that the Contagious team in the old blending heartland of Leith looks set to be kept busy for the foreseeable future.