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MFA Graduate Research Project


18A Bourbon is a prohibition-themed bourbon branding focusing on stories, fictional but with twists of truth, of how alcohol was illegally distributed during prohibition. With each bottle purchased, a secret code is revealed under the wax seal that can then be submitted online to redeem access to exclusive speakeasy events. Here is the 18A Bourbon story:

During prohibition, businesses that secretly sold bourbon marked their alley doors 18A, short for the 18th Amendment. Being able to spot these secret locations was only the first hurdle. You could purchase bourbon only if you knew the secret way how to. 18A bourbon relives the stories and recipes from prohibition.

Idea Origin

My graduate research paper was a study of alcohol packaging and label design. With the alcohol industry increasingly becoming one of the largest and most crowded product markets getting noticed on the shelf for brands is becoming increasingly difficult. In my research, I concluded that to be successful in terms of design brands must reach a target drinker, stay true to their brand, pay homage to tradition, storytell, and be innovative. The key is being visually attractive and creating a customer experience.

For my graduate research design project, I knew I wanted to do a branding project focusing on label/packaging design. I chose to do bourbon because, at the time of my project pitch, I happened to be in Kentucky filming a video on the bourbon boom. While I was touring all the distilleries, talking to tour guides and master distillers I found that the most interesting bourbons had amazing backstories. The problem was, unless you tour the distilleries or do the research the stories are unknown just by looking at the bottle.

Prohibition Stories

On my drive back to Ohio, I thought about the experiences I observed at distilleries and each unique story some of the bourbons had. I based the entire premise of my research on prohibition and the ways people made and distributed liquor. I found that there is such a deep history within this time period. I found several secretive ways liquor was sold and distributed illegally. Stories about whiskey torpedos, fake funerals, and Izzy and Moe disguising to bust up speakeasies really drove me to develop my own stories. Although the stories of The Wake and Doctor's Orders are based on true stories, The Secret Wheat was made up as a tribute to my wife's grandfather who was a baker. I still have many stories in the bank that I would love to develop further!

Design Direction

As far as the design went, I knew I wanted to make this something handmade and authentic, just as it would have been made during prohibition. While touring distilleries, right after filling a bourbon, they use a stencil to roll ink right onto the barrel head with their logo or batch number. As I remembered this I decided to linocut two typefaces I designed for the project. I hand-rolled several variations of each letter and placed every single letter within my designs, rather than creating the font in Photoshop...yes I am crazy. However, I wanted this to be authentic and every word visually different.

For the logo design, if you notice the first B in bourbon, is not aligned with the rest of the word. This was originally a mistake by moving the letters but not selecting the B. After doing this accident, I remembered a quote by painter Bob Ross, "We don’t make mistakes, we have happy accidents." This being a happy accident, I actually kept it because I liked how it looked, but also because it added character like a misprint that may actually occur.

Each bottle I also hand-dipped each in wax and stamped it with the 18A logo. This was the way to conceal the secret code from any form of theft before purchasing. 

Storefront Speakeasy Doors

I originally planned on designing a storefront/distillery display. While looking at ideas, one was common, they were similar in nature. I thought about speakeasy doors and the idea of creating a peek-through that would create interest to open the door. 

I then built three sets of door displays consuming two months of no garage space at our house. I wanted these displays to have the story and information right when you opened the door so you could know the backstory of each bottle. Knowing that I had to have a gallery show as part of the MFA grad project, I thought the doors right when you walked in would be a great test to see if people would be intrigued and open them...and they were!

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