New Riff: The Story of Our Name & Logo
By Jay Erisman
The New Riff logo has been with us from the beginning. It has proven a durable, inspiring,
flexible, original design and, while we liked it from its creation, it has really grown on all of us at
New Riff, as we see our fans and consumers interact with it and continually find new things
inside the logo. When it comes to logos, it doesn’t get much better than that. But the logo
followed, of course, from the name.
“The Party Source Distillery” Gets a Real Name
First, we had to find the name, and that was its own adventure. Naming a business within an
iconic, deeply historic industry like Kentucky Bourbon is a tremendous challenge. At the outset,
the project was known internally to our architects, equipment suppliers and contractors as “The
Party Source Distillery,” but of course that could never be the name. We needed a name that
was original; not too long; not “Old Something or Other,” not “Old Ken Lewis Distillery;” and
something that would clear trademark objections. Our first attempt—it was “Nth Degree
Distilling,” indicating that we would “go to the nth degree” in making great whiskey—did not
survive the latter process, as someone else in the whiskey sphere was using a similar name and
sent us a cease-and-desist letter.
We forged ahead, noting the success of names that were metaphorical in nature, rather than
merely descriptive of the whiskey process/history/owner/locale. A great example of a terrific,
and modern, whiskey name is Maker’s Mark. Founded in 1953, Maker’s was the first major
Bourbon brand introduced post-war and post-Prohibition. For maybe the first time in Bourbon
history, a whiskey brand was not named after the founder, not named after the farm or water
source, not named “Old Whoever.” Maker’s—named after the “maker’s mark” on the bottom
of the pewter ware collected by Margie Samuels, the wife of founder Bill Samuels—was
aspirational, and metaphorical, a powerful combination. And it rolled off the tongue, a quick
one-two punch of alliteration. How could we come up with something like that?
And then one day, Ken Lewis walked into our naming meeting, joining me and Hannah Lowen.
He dropped his latest brainstorm: “what if we think of the distiller as a musician?” As Ken went
on to explain: here’s the distiller, he’s making his juice, he knows the traditions and the classics
of Kentucky but, like an improvisational musician (it should be noted here that Ken is an old
Deadhead, and arguably no rock band was more improvisational than the Grateful Dead), he
plays it a little different every time, he adds a melody, he plays a little riff, it’s a new riff from
the last time they played it—
And boom, there it was, hanging in the air before us. New Riff. A new riff on Kentucky Bourbon.
Just like that, we had the metaphor we were looking for. Like the riffs that inspired us (several
of us at New Riff are musicians; I play guitar myself), it has mojo 1 . It has rhythm, that one-two
punch: new/riff, boom-boom, punch-punch. And, far from being Old, it’s New! Yet, the tagline
that we developed around it—a new riff on an old tradition—contains within it a mention of the
past, the history of Bourbon. It allows us to look far ahead into new whiskeys, while also
reaching back in time for inspiration. Our name grants us freedom to be new and innovative,
and old fashioned all at once.
The Logo That Keeps on Giving
With our shiny new name in hand, we then set about the visuals of the brand. Full credit here
goes to our design agency: BLDG, in Covington, Ky. Founded in 2012 by Jay Becker and the late,
great, Mike Amann, BLDG is one of the many branding agencies that serve the considerable
consumer goods industries of Greater Cincinnati—and they’re a darned good one! BLDG helped
us formulate these early visual branding concepts for New Riff Distilling (as well as the brewery
we tucked at the back of The Party Source, which became Ei8ht Ball Brewing).
BLDG had to translate a musically inspired metaphorical name into a visual theme, a tough task
that far transcends such simple choices as font and color. Other themes included our urban
location, which at the time was uncommon in the Kentucky Bourbon industry. In a nod to the
music that inspired our name, the New Riff logo they came up with was meant to evoke a sine
wave, the visual representation of an audio signal. But from the outset, BLDG cunningly baked
additional concepts inside the logo. Take a look at it below:
Do you see the N? Good! It stands, obviously, for new, but also connotes our location in
Newport. Now, do you see the lowercase r as well? For riff? The swoop of the logo also suggests
the flowing river that has defined our greater hometown since 1788.
But above and beyond this multiplicity of visual themes, we know it’s really a great logo when
other people down the years continue to find new “Easter eggs” inside it. One music fan
(perhaps a fellow guitarist?) told me he sees a vibrating guitar string, which of course I loved.
And maybe the best of all came from (giving credit where it’s due) Bruce Corwin of the
Lexington-based Bourbon Brotherhood. On a pandemic-era Zoom call tasting with the
Brotherhood, I was telling the story of the logo, when Bruce chimed in: “Jay, I see…um, I see an
A-F 2 .” And I looked, and there it was! I can’t unsee it now: New Riff Distilling is… BOURBON A-F!
We concede that “Bourbon A-F” is not really “on brand” for New Riff, or perhaps not our first
desired perception by whiskey consumers. But it sure is fun to see our friends and fans find new
meanings in our durable, long-lasting, multi-faceted brand. In the end, we found a good name
and an endlessly inspiring logo, and they ought to last us for generations.
1. In musical terms, I compare the name to the great blues-rock explosion of the 1960s, as artists like Jimi Hendrix
and Eric Clapton first absorbed the lessons of the blues, learned the tradition till they had it down cold, they paid
their dues and only then went about changing rock music history with albums such as Electric Ladyland and the
improvisatory structure of The Cream. New Riff is not punk rock, the brash musicians who sought to upend the old
rock ‘n roll order in the 1970s. We’re not here to throw out or replace traditional Bourbon; we embrace the old
traditions, we learned them, but we want to take Kentucky sour mash whiskey into new realms.
2. In case you don’t know what A-F, or AF, means, here’s the Cambridge Dictionary entry.
3. For the reader’s edification, pasted here are the raw notes from my personal New Riff journal at the time,
recording my thoughts and reaction to Ken’s brainstorm. (At the time, I had a close relationship through The Party
Source with Tequila brand Casa Noble, which included among its investors rock guitar hero Carlos Santana):
By now the distillery is in full-on construction mode. Most of the tanks are set, girders are going
up, and it looks like a real building.
Our proposed name of Nth Degree Distilling was shot down by trademark and use issues, so a
new name has been created, Ken’s idea:
New Riff Distilling
Now, as I write some tasting notes (more on “notes” in a moment) on a G&M Glen Grant, I’m
struck again by how the New Riff name can take on musical connotations. Ken first explained the
name as “New Riff…we consider the distiller as musician”, and obviously the word “riff” plays
into that, as well as the notion that this is our riff on the classic Bourbon recipe. There are also
neat associations with “notes” (as in tasting notes, as well as the notes of flavors in the whiskey,
“vanilla note in the aroma”; we can say “at New Riff, our Bourbon has/hits [tasty/high] notes”)
and, even more interesting, “tones.” I’ve been describing things in drinks as “tones” for years
without noticing the parallel between tones in whiskey and tones in music. For a musician,
guitarists especially, tone is everything. Tone is how I relate to my instrument, how I hear it, what
I’m sometimes most concerned with; sometimes I can’t tell where the musical notation and
melody and chord structure ends and the tone begins; sometimes the tone is all there is. Tone is
also exceptionally personal, especially again for a guitarist, whose fingers are literally touching
and creating the tone.
So now it occurs to me: do we speak of Bourbon as having tones? And is there in fact a very close
parallel between the senses of taste (really, the sense of smell) and hearing music. I don’t mean
the sense of hearing, I mean what happens when we hear music, in all its emotional import. Is it
possible the two most emotional connected and transporting human sensory moments are
smelling things and listening to music?
Also I suggest a concert series for New Riff Distilling, held on the roof deck with the garage doors
open. (Casa Noble and Carlos Santana, come on in.)