Branding, design, and packaging for innovative, irreverent Nashville sake brewery & taproom

Client: Proper Sake Co. (Nashville, TN, USA)Year: 2022-23Role: Creative Direction, Art Direction, Branding, Design, Typography
Photography by Alex Crawford

Proper Sake Co.

I was introduced to Byron and Bryson (hereafter The Fellers) at Proper Sake Co. as being in need of some new label designs for their evergreen/flagship sakes. We hit it off quite well and quickly realized that there was a larger branding opportunity lurking between the lines. Their previous logotype and labels didn’t convey the same vitality and wit as I got from chatting with them, and the botanical motif was closer to a gin than a sake (sake being, after all, rice wine).

But more than that, it was just too serious. The Proper Sake approach is a very specific mix of respecting traditions while rejecting dogma. During my initial research, I was struck by how much fun they were having on instagram. There was a sensibility at play, of play—and I felt that that was a very significant aspect of what makes them, them and Proper Sake, Proper Sake. Before we go further, I need to make it clear: I’ve tried The Juice, and The Juice is very, very good. This is crucial: confidence in the product is what allows all the playing around. 

So, what would be the right approach? We started off by asking big, top-level questions (Why drink sake? Why drink American sake? What is Nashville sake?, etc.), and some of our key takeaways were:

1. Evangelize: you can drink sake with anything, not just Japanese food. 
2. Educate: Proper’s brews all use the ancient kimoto or yamahai brewing methods for a wilder, livelier, more unique result—similar to skin contact in natural wine. Even “standard” sake can be pretty inscrutable to Westerners, so Proper’s very special, very specific brews merit a little more context.
3. Made in the USA = permission to be weird: we don’t have any real traditions to push against—nor any cultural expectations to uphold. We can scratch our own itch to make sake our way.
4. “Elegant, weird swinger, high-roller 70s”: As The Fellers and I are about the same age, we had many shared cultural references, growing up in the ‘80s in “secondary markets,” hence a lot of our childhood impressions of “fanciness” still lagging in the ‘70s.

So we find ourselves at a nexus of in-betweens: sake, but American (and Music City, at that); ‘70s, but thinking we’re ‘80s; authentic, but unserious; premium, but for everyone, anytime. We landed on Kitsch Luxe (another in-between) as sort of our mantra: the everyday/everyman’s idea of the premium/sublime. Kitsch Luxe is a lot of things, among them The Grand Ole Opry, Graceland, Shōwa-era Ginza, cheap cologne, gameshows, Tokyo sunakku bars, Vegas glitz, “classy” (vs. class), and the longest Cadillac you can imagine.

For the logotype, after extensive exploration, we liked Kabel Black for its chunky, 70s, board-game-meets-muffler-shop-in-the-packaged-snacks-aisle-of-the-supermarket “big galoot” friendliness. On a personal note, the 70’s type mantra of “close but not touching” always felt like cowardice to me, and here the overlaps created an opportunity for gooped-together, rounded corners inspired by the molding process of koji turning rice into sake.

Rice Ring
The Rice Ring emerged as sort of a secondary “doodad” like a wax seal stamp for The Diplomat. The Fellers quickly seized upon the fact that this was a great general shorthand, and we put it in anywhere it made sense.

The label details are carefully considered to address all the key takeaways above. Since each sake starts from a concept (or a concept emerges during the process of each batch), each label has a fanciful name presented as title, with the varietal details clearly specified below. Imagery and color palette reinforce the fanciful naming—think paperback romance or sci-fi novel. Flavor text (term borrowed from Magic: The Gathering, naturally) gives a nonlinear “explanation” of the brew and permission to not take it so seriously. A glossary of maybe-new terms on the side of each label aids decision in a shop and gives you something to read if you’re drinking alone. Dedicated space for (handwritten) batch number and bottling date reinforce that the juice is small batched and bottled by real human beings. Neck/shoulder labels nod to sake bottle convention and make varietal identification easier from above or in a bottle shop’s cooler.

Rice Vice Logo
Rice Vice is Proper’s taproom and vinyl bar. A place to share sake (both Proper’s brews and a selection of expertly-selected others) but also collaborations and pop-ups from local vendors. A hand-built, all-wood interior is warmth on warmth on warmth (camaraderie, the crackle of vinyl, woodgrain) so for branding the bar, a “Come on down!” ’70’s gameshow participatory vibe felt like an apropos extension. Think Studio 54,000 Dollar Pyramid. Since the space is all wood and all natural, something super geometric but with a “grain” of its own felt like an apt contrast. 

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If you’re in the Nashville area, I highly encourage you to swing by and tell ‘em I sent ya (it’s also worth mentioning that Rice Vice was listed by Esquire Magazine as one of the best bars in the nation for 2023). If not, holler at your local bottle shop—Proper Sake is available in several other U.S. States, with more on the way. You can also order bottles directly from their website.