This Artist Crafts Drunk History With Letter, Liquor, & Lots of Research
MIKE O'DONNELL / EDITOR
WNW Member Matthew Wyne's latest ongoing project Letters and Liquor is the epitome of a labor of love. "Three years ago I read an article on how to make a Manhattan, decided to surprise my wife with some date-night mixology, and became obsessed with cocktails. She liked the drink, but even more than that, I could tell that she liked the stories I was able to tell her about the components of the drink." From there, the deep-dive research began and continues. Each drink in the encyclopedic series contains a full history, a detailed explanation of the ingredients, a recipe, and finally the creative considerations behind the custom lettering Matthew used to render the drink’s name.
In our interview below, Matthew tells us how talking about liquor has brought him out of his shell, what cocktails he turns to the most, and how research is a fundamental and driving force in his creative process. "When I research something and begin to learn the details of what came before, I start seeing ways I can build off of that material to create something new that, hopefully, gives others the same excitement." To support Matthew on this front, share this project with your friends and followers and, just as importantly, learn how to make these drinks for your friends and tell their stories.
The depths to which Matthew goes with this ongoing endeavor is nothing short of staggering. After you read the interview and get a sampler of the project below, we strongly encourage you to head to Letters and Liquor. You'll learn more than just fun trivia; you'll get a glimpse into a unique historical perspective that highlights not just human history's alcoholic dependency but also its ingenuity, resourcefulness, and spirit.
Tell us a little bit about your creative background. Who is Matthew Wyne and how did he get here?
Studied design at the Creative Circus. Got a job as an art director at Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Got fired. Got a job as a designer at Venables Bell & Partners. Got fired. Started freelancing with a lot of help from WNW Member Ivan Cash, who emailed his clients on my behalf and got me on Working Not Working. Finally got the guts to study type design at the Cooper Union because my then-fiancé-now-wife believed in me, and that was where I started to find my niche. Once I combined lettering and cocktails, my career path became much more clear.
What were some of the challenges in launching your career as a designer and lettering artist?
After getting fired twice, I realized I might never find a mentor who could help me figure out how to build a career, so I tried to become my own Creative Director: identify my strengths, build on them, put out work that helps me attract more work in that style. In the beginning, a fair amount of that work was unpaid or discount-priced. There was a period when I worked so much (and slept so little) that I started having panic attacks. There was a period when I spent nights and weekends reading books on business, learning how to structure projects and contracts. There was a period when I spent a lot of time designing far beyond the scope of a project because I wanted to make the work great. I put in an extraordinary number of hours, I educated myself constantly, and I built relationships with people because I cared about them and what they were doing. Slowly, that has helped me put together the foundation of a private design practice.
How would you describe your creative style? Do you recognize a signature style that links most of your projects, or do you try to excuse yourself and approach each project as its own entity?
Visually, I think I have executed work in a range of styles. I am much more particular about the style in which a prospective client wants to work. If you care about craft, culture, and getting the details right, I want to work with you. I love diving into new ways of creating things visually, as long as there’s a clear rigor to the way they’re constructed.
You’re currently in the depths of a project called Letters & Liquor. What was the inspiration behind it? Is it the perfect blend of your two greatest passions?
Three years ago I read an article on how to make a Manhattan, decided to surprise my wife with some date-night mixology, and became obsessed with cocktails. She liked the drink, but even more than that, I could tell that she liked the stories I was able to tell her about the components of the drink. I did some quick internet searching before she got home, learned the difference between rye and bourbon, where bitters come from and what vermouth actually is, and the conversation did as much to set the tone of the night as the drinks did. My greatest passions are connecting with people and creating. This project lets me do both.
You seem more than qualified to tend bar. Is that on your resume or are you just an after-hours aficionado?
I am not a bartender. I have a lot of respect for bartenders. The job they do is, in my experience, underappreciated. Standing all day, working for tips, juggling an enormous list of things in your head, managing the stress of a room full of people wanting your attention, some of whom might become unpleasant or abusive, is a demanding job. I have worked hard to develop my skill in composing drinks and I love talking to people about cocktails, but the gigs I do are small, private events with a limited menu and a focus on storytelling.
Each drink in this series contains a full history, a detailed explanation of the ingredients, a recipe, and finally the creative considerations behind the custom lettering you used to renders the drink’s name. Did you always intend for Letters & Liquor to be this extensive?
I’ve had to scale back from my original vision because it would have taken me so much time to produce. It’s a race every week to finish each post and I often feel the panic of being behind, but the creative part of me doesn’t think about time constraints; it just leaps ahead as fast as it can and I try like hell to keep up without sacrificing the rest of my life. This blog is a 52-week project. I already have a pretty clear idea of the next iteration.
What are the classic cocktails that you return to the most?
I love this question, because when I’m trying to create a new drink, I start with patterns in classic drinks. A Negroni is equal parts base spirit (gin) amaro (Campari) and fortified wine (sweet vermouth). If you substitute rye whiskey for gin and dry vermouth for sweet, you get one of my favorites, the Old Pal. I’ve tweaked that formula by combining, for example, peaty scotch, Cardamaro, and Oloroso sherry to get a rich, nutty drink that’s perfectly customized to my palette. These formulae abound in mixology: the Martini/Manhattan, the Daiquiri/Margarita, the Sazerac/Old Fashioned. A lot of the “custom” drinks you see on menus are based on old patterns. The real challenge as a drink maker is in discovering new models that can be remixed like this.
How do preliminary explorations and deep-dive research fit into your design process?
I don’t feel comfortable starting a project until I’ve done the research. Design is always done within a cultural context, and it’s very important to me to understand the subtle nuances of the culture with which I’m communicating. I think this is where my love for design and my love for cocktails really intersects. My motivation with both is to let people know that I’ve taken the time to really understand them.
When you feel a little creatively burnt out, do you often turn to research to get the juices flowing again?
If I’m having trouble getting started on something, research always helps. As soon as my mind has that input to chew on it’s going to start digesting, and pretty soon, if you’ll pardon the expression, I start shitting out new ideas. The excitement of trying to bring something new to life is what gets me out of feeling stuck.
What advice can you offer to creatives on utilizing the power of research to heighten their output?
This is a tricky question because I’m guessing what works for me might not work for others. However, for the sake of argument, let’s use hip hop as a metaphor. While rappers, like designers, are expected to be original, quotes and references are a part of both cultures. In the words of Jay Z, “I say a Big verse I’m only bigging up my brother.” That cross pollination is one of the things I love most about hip hop. I still remember the moment* I realized that the vocal sample from Kanye’s “Good Morning” was Elton John from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” I got fired up. That kind of excitement is what gets my creative mind working. When I research something, and begin to learn the details of what came before, I start seeing ways I can build off of that material to create something new that, hopefully, gives others the same excitement.
*My friend Cooper Smith (WNW) was pulling his truck out of the Creative Circus parking lot and I chased him down on foot. How supreme, Coop?
What moment or project in your career so far has made you the proudest?
When the “Looking For” mural* got featured on the Atlantic. I hand-lettered personal messages from a woman seeking a boyfriend on an 8’ x 20’ wall. That project was a race against time, so getting it finished without taggers destroying it (which later happened) was a relief; then seeing it shared on such a prestigious and storied platform gave me a lot of pride.
Do you thrive off of being part of a creative community or are you more in your element as a lone wolf?
I need a fair amount of alone time every day to feel centered and focused. But, I love the creative dynamic of working with someone who is really passionate, intelligent, and open. My favorite projects have been the ones where my client is my creative partner and I feel really lucky that I’ve had so many of those.
Who are some of your biggest creative idols and influences?
I hope to get to Malcolm Gladwell’s level one day. His podcast, Revisionist history, uses his skill as an investigator and his platform as a writer to make powerful arguments for social justice. Before I was a designer, I thought I was going to be a musician. I couldn’t handle touring so I changed direction, but when we got pregnant I started writing music again. I hope I can record something for our daughter that stands up next to “Morning Phase” by Beck or “Tamer Animals” by Other Lives.
What do you do when Not Working?
I sing with my daughter. I dance with my daughter. I (try to) do yoga so my back doesn’t hurt so much from sitting at a laptop. And I have long, intense, passionate conversations with my wife.
Who are some WNW Members whose work you admire and why?
Ivan Cash inspires me with his belief in his creative vision. His ability to create projects that connect people mystifies me. Jessica Hische, in addition to being an incredibly talented lettering artist, is also incredibly generous in sharing what she has learned with other designers. I have her book, “In Progress,” and I’ve spent a lot of time reading the essays on her site trying to figure out one aspect or another of being an independent designer. Indhira Rojas just launched Anxy, a magazine focused on personal narratives around mental health. I think these stories are so important, and the caliber of writing and design in the first issue blew me away. The common denominator here is a high level of craft combined with work that genuinely serves people.
Anything else you’d like to add?
My Dad, Monty Wyne, is a copywriter. He worked for JWT for 27 years. Each time he got transferred, we moved. Freelancing wasn’t really a thing you could do back then. I feel really grateful for the freedom I have to be an independent designer and it comes, in large part, from people and platforms like Working Not Working. Remembering that helps me keep things in perspective when freelance gets a little sticky.