AN EDINBURGH-based creative agency which designs visitor experiences for Scotch whisky companies is finding its services are increasingly in demand by distillers much further afield.

Contagious, which was founded by designer Matt Chapman in 2001, has become a go-to consultant for distillers developing brand experiences at their production sites, with the firm having worked at as many 45 distilleries, including Glengoyne, Aberfeldy and Lagavulin, over the last decade.

It has led the firm to branch out beyond Scotch, with its top people now making regular trips across the Atlantic to give lectures at the Moonshine University in Kentucky, a seat of learning for aspiring distillers in the heart of bourbon country.

The Moonshine talks are mostly given by the agency’s creative directors, Jason Dobson and Jason Milne, and came about after Contagious carried out work at the Angels Envy bourbon distiller in Louisville, Kentucky, where it created a new visitor experience and brand home. That in turn has paved the way for projects for other spirits and beer makers in the US, in California, Colorado, New York, Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania.

READ MORE: Scotch distillers raise glass to record year

Mr Chapman said the agency’s involvement with distilleries flowed from other work it has been doing for drinks brands in the last 10 to 15 years.

The firm, whose past credits have included packaging work for Karuizama on what was then the oldest whisky to come out of Japan, is currently engaged by Absolut Elyx Experience in Sweden. And closer to home it has been enlisted by Elgin-based Gordon & MaPhail, Port of Leith Distillery, and Ian Macleod Distillers, for which it is working on a new distillery for Edinburgh Gin on Market Street.

That Contagious has developed its specialism could hardly have come at a more fortuitous time. Tourists from both overseas and around the UK are flocking to Scotland to visit the country’s famous distilleries as never before, so much so that whisky makers are investing millions to make sure their visitor facilities are as memorable and engaging as possible.

New figures from the Scotch Whisky Association show that visits to distilleries increased to more than two million for the first time last year, up 6.1 per cent on 2017. Diageo alone is investing £150 million in upgrading its distillery visitor centres across Scotland, the centre-piece of which will be a new Johnnie Walker experience on Edinburgh’s Princes Street.

Mr Chapman said visitor centres have become a key asset for distillers in their quest to stand apart from rivals in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

READ MORE: Diageo’s Edinburgh whisky tourism centre gets go-ahead

“It is going back to where the roots of a product are,” he added. “It kind of mirrors what consumers are wanting nowadays as well. People want to know everything, the traceability of it - that story telling right back to where they get their raw ingredients, where it is actually made, really connects with consumers and really suits us.”

The degree to which its work helps whisky lovers immersive themselves in brands is all encompassing, from how the story of the distillery is told to how to tempt visitors to buy a bottle at the end of their journey. “We think about everything,” Mr Chapman added. “How you market to them (consumers), how you bring them on board, what their journey is when they walk around the distillery or the brand home, all the storytelling they are going to get [and] what the follow up is.”

It is also ultimately geared towards creating “advocates” for brands, who will tell their friends about their experiences or share them on social media. “They’re almost like a one-man billboard that is out selling your product,” he added,

Mr Chapman, a designer by trade, is originally from Huddersfield, Yorkshire, who came north to study at Duncan Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee in the late 1980s. He moved to London to work after graduating before he returned to Scotland, joining the Tayburn creative agency in Edinburgh where he stayed for several years.

He then had four-year spell as a senior designer in Singapore, which led him to work across Asia, until Scotland lured him back once more in 1999, initially as a sole trader.

READ MORE: Management change looming at owner of Islay whisky distillery

Contagious was born two years later (his co-founder has since moved on) and is now in a rich phase of growth. The business, which has offices in Glasgow and Leith, turned over £2.6 million last year, with revenue expected to climb to £3m in the current year and then up to £4m the year after that.

Revenue is spread evenly across the UK and the rest of the world, notably in the US, The growth is such that Mr Chapman expects to expand the company’s headcount from 30 to 45 staff in the next couple of years.

But he is concerned that Brexit will hamper his ability to attract the staff he needs.

“It worries me greatly,” he said. “Because we work globally - 50% of our business comes from overseas – and some of the UK brands we work with have roots overseas, we have to reflect that with our workforce, really. It is really important that we have a real, multicultural workforce to service these multicultural brands.

“We do have a number of European staff, which has dropped off over the last few years. It does feel like there is a little bit of a stumbling block there, and it is really important for us to keep these channels open where we can, and bring as much talent into the studio as we can. It’s just great for that mix.”

Six Questions:

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

I loved living and working in Singapore and using it as a base to explore other countries throughout the region, especially Indonesia. Spending 48hrs in Tokyo was pretty memorable too, where I helped launch the oldest whisky ever to come out of Japan. I make regular visits to LA where a clients has a beautiful brand home nestled in the Hollywood hills.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

I either wanted to be a designer or a Royal Marine, because I loved all the stories my dad and his brothers told me about the forces. And even though I was accepted into the Marines, my dad persuaded me to go to art college first before making a final decision – I still wonder how my life would have turned out if I hadn’t listened to my dad.

 What was your biggest break in business?

Probably the great fortune to gather such a brilliant senior management team – all of a similar mindset, and all willing to ride the lows and highs of our crazy ambition.

What was your worst moment in business?

In the early years we were hoodwinked by a conman masquerading as an extremely well-connected client. We designed and produced various pieces of work but it was all a clever scam. We were left with huge losses and a damaged reputation.

Who do you most admire and why?

I admire lots of people, but because we’re talking about design, I’ll go for Tibor Kalman. Benetton’s COLORS magazine made me think differently about the world.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis

Loyle Carner: Not Waving, But Drowning