Sitting on your table — along with all the good food — are mythical beasts, wild animals and goddesses. It’s a party. Except these guests aren’t in-the-flesh fantastical creatures, just pictures of them. They are label art on the bottles of cheer you have chosen to serve your guests.

Most people would call them labels but if you’re artist Richard Hatter and in the business of graphic design, then it’s functional art. He tells a story with pictures and it’s about the contents.

Hatter is one of the two owners of Hired Guns Creative, the Nanaimo, British Columbia, graphic design agency responsible for the aforementioned beasts. The other owner is Leif Miltenberger who holds down the business end. They aren’t really hired guns; they’re much more specialized than that. Together they make their clients happy, who in turn make us, the customers, that way.

Hired Guns is an agency specializing in designing labels for wine, beer and spirits. It’s an enviable niche with like-minded clientele, people who want the outside to be as individual as the contents. And if you’re an artisan drink maker, you are definitely an individual. Hatter says his work is edgy — and it is — so it’s no surprise that Hired Guns and their clients align. They both push boundaries.

Take Noteworthy Gin from The Dubh Glas Distillery out of Oliver, BC. Everything about it is noteworthy. Hatter and Miltenberger say as much when tasting with owner Grant Stevely — a tough part of the job. Noteworthy became the name and a noteworthy label followed. Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture and grain, rests gracefully on an old scythe. The entire label is in glorious shades of orange with white typography and black accents. The gin itself has notes of orange in its botanical blend, which make it good for drinking with a twist of citrus peel and soda water. Ceres begs to stay with you and why not? She’s a babe, so bright and so unlike other gin labels.   

The harmony between the product and the label shows up again in Driftwood Brewery’s Fat Tug IPA. There’s a tug boat riding some crazy West Coast waves. You know it’s wild yet the boat remains upright. That ride is exactly the intensity you get from the beer.

Both those labels were designed for local clients in 2014. Driftwood continues to trust Hired Guns to push the interesting factor. One of the Victoria brewery’s more recent labels is Raised by Wolves, an IPA made with the wild yeast strain, Saccharomyces Trois. Because of the Ekuanot hops used, there’s a hint of mango, guava and melon on the palate. The wolves run around the whole bottle in tropical colors but you know they’re fierce — the closest you want to get to them is opening the bottle, where you’ll find the beer equivalent.

Hired Guns has won several coveted Dieline packaging design awards and been featured in Time magazine with some big players. And they’ve been discovered by larger brewers, like Alberta’s Big Rock. But all that makes them more gutsy. Hatter says he continues to develop his style. He’snot drawing safe, dull pictures that satisfy corporate heads, but make him — and us — yawn. He’s drawing intense animals and elaborate curlicues that replicate the bottle’s contents. Hired Guns will continue to grow, like the independent producers already mentioned and other clients like Trail Distilling in Oregon City or Thinking Tree Spirits in Eugene, Oregon. And when they do, you’ll be able to say you had an early Hired Gun.

Photos by Sean Fenzl/Hired Guns Creative