Coffee Convo With KOVAL Distillery

It’s no secret we are big fans of the KOVAL brand. Our friends at Cushing have completed projects for their team and their striking labels were always the talk of the production floor. As we brainstormed who reach out to for the next Coffee Convo, we hoped they would consider participating.

So, we geeked out when their awesome communications associate, Abby Boler, was open to the idea. There have not been that many times I was excited to forward an email to co-workers! This was like getting the Beatles to shed light on their recording sessions. Wait its 2021 … Maybe I should reference Taylor Swift or BTS. 

Refining their brand didn’t happen overnight and it continues to evolve with each bottle. We are excited to share the latest ‘coffee convo’ featuring Owner & President of KOVAL DistillerySonat Birnecker-Hart. Now would the time to brew a cup of your favorite joe and read on.

KOVAL has a very strong & beautiful bottle graphic design aesthetic. When you begin the design of a new label/line, what insight do you give your graphic designer to get started? Is it a very clear vision, or more of a vibe/abstract direction and the designer takes it from there? 

There are some design projects that will need to address certain issues – efficiency in the bottling process, express a particular price point, or evoke a feeling, etc. – so this is what needs to be fleshed out before starting.  

Since I trust my designer completely, I discuss what we hope to achieve with a new design and allow for a good bit of creative freedom to get there. 

You mentioned in the article, an unsuccessful go with your first label design firm. Sometimes the best lessons are learned when you see what you *don’t* like in design. What would you say was the biggest take away from that? 

I think that our biggest takeaway was that we had come to the point where we knew the importance of having a good design and we wanted more than ever to achieve it for our products. Sometimes you have to make mistakes along the way so that you get pushed toward a better result in the end. 

How did your sister/Dando Project’s design and creative process differ from the first firm? 

Well, they too tried to get an idea for what we were hoping to achieve, but I think that their creative scope was just a lot broader than the first firm. 

Their designs are informed by years of international fashion industry experience, which opened up a lot of creative paths that were more unconventional, and in our view, extremely creative.

You mentioned Lion’s Pride was the original brand name. What is the story behind the name KOVAL?  

KOVAL was always the company name and brand name — Lion’s Pride was the name we gave to our whiskey line. But we were known to the public as KOVAL and were not yet big enough to promote a brand extension, so we decided to bring it all back under the KOVAL name.  

However, Lion’s Pride actually remains the name for our white label projects for other brands. The name KOVAL means “blacksmith” in numerous Eastern European languages, but the word in Yiddish also refers to someone who, like a blacksmith, forges something new or “forge ahead”. My great-grandfather earned KOVAL as his nickname when, at the age of 17, he surprised his family and emigrated from Vienna to Chicago in the early 1900s. Coincidentally, the surname of Robert’s grandfather (at whose side Robert learned the art of distilling) is Schmid – German for “smith.” We chose the name KOVAL to honor both men – and we felt that in leaving our careers to start the first whiskey company in Chicago since the mid-1800s was our attempt to forge ahead.

How do you feel your overall Koval brand has evolved over the years?

Wow, it feels like every day we evolve a little bit more in some way or another. I think that in general, we have gone from a small Chicago artisan spirits company to being distributed nationally and internationally in 55 export markets. That in itself is a real evolution. 

We also went from one business framework when we started to a completely different one, because we got the laws changed to make it possible to have a store on site, do tours, and tastings, and because of that, we will soon be opening a bar.  We went from having dealt with design challenges in the beginning to now having won a number of international design awards, and our gin bottles appearing in an Italian design museum. We are always trying to improve and have an amazing team that keeps us competitive, focused, and through a lot of collaboration, keeps things fresh. What hasn’t changed at all is that we are having a lot of fun, and maintain a deep respect for the work, and what it takes to do it well.

How do you carry your design aesthetic from your bottle labels to throughout your retail space, events, etc. Does it start with the label design and expands outward from there or are there other factors?

We have an overall idea of what KOVAL is and we try to have that drive our design decisions. There will always be an international element to it, given all of the years I lived abroad and considering Robert is from Austria. However, I also grew up in a family of artists, so design, art, and all things beautiful really play an important role in our lives every day.  

Last question, how do you take your coffee?

I drank black tea with milk until I was 40, and then I completely switched to coffee. I usually drink lattes, often with oat milk. 

We are always looking to interview brands, designers and creatives with interesting perspectives on brand and identity. We’d love to hear from you!