Looking at the growing influence of art on the image of alcohol
Have you ever looked at a liquor bottle and had no idea what was inside, but you just had to have it? There is something about the unique curves and design of a bottle or the artistic design of the label that just speaks to you to “Take me home!” (unless, of course, it is the actual words scrolling across the LED screen of the Medea Vodka bottle). In this case, the bottle will most definitely adorn the front row of your liquor cabinet to personally greet your guests as they arrive.
Wineries, breweries, and distilleries have become quite creative when it comes to the design of the vessel and the packaging of their spirits. This creativity has definitely not gone unnoticed, catching the eye of many. So much, in fact, some folks have felt the purchase was justified by the coolness of the bottle alone, having no idea of what to expect regarding the quality of the contents within; but having complete satisfaction of their highly coveted acquisition.
There are collector societies, such as the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors, who enjoy sharing their collectibles and knowledge of the ins-and-outs related to the history of booze-bottles. Let us not forget the up-and-coming artists of booze-bottle-chandeliers who pin their latest upcycle projects to the never-ending pages of Pinterest (some of which I have saved in my “Craft Ideas” board).
Evidence of the first winery was discovered in Armenia, dating back to c. 4100 BC. Chemical tests on ancient pottery show that beer could have been produced as far back as 7,000 years ago! However, we definitely know the Ancient Greeks imbibed on mead, a drink made of fermented honey. This goes to show the extent of human’s timeless love for alcohol.
We have had a love affair with booze since the beginning of time and the love will not fade anytime soon. Many throughout history have been compelled to share the love beginning with their skills in home brewing and home-made stills to going large-scale in creating their craft for mass distribution.
19th Century beer bottles were embossed and later adorned with basic labels simply for the purpose of ensuring the bottles made their way back to the brewery as the bottling process was quite costly.
Machine-made bottles were just beginning to be produced in the early 20th Century when a well-known, 13-year blip in history called Prohibition occurred in 1920. Prohibition gave life to bootleggers and speakeasies, but stifled the legal distribution of booze.
Six whiskey producers were allowed to continue to sell whiskey in pints from their surplus for medicinal purposes, which had to be prescribed by doctors (Brown-Forman is the only one of the six still in business today). Certain whiskeys were packaged and labeled for medicinal use with written recommendations by well-know chemists of the time touting the effectiveness of their product.
There are many reasons behind the unique marketing tactics for breweries, distilleries, and wineries. Some are to express the uniqueness of the product, while others are out to catch the unsuspecting eye of the future beholder.
One novel idea which didn’t take off back in the 60’s, but would possibly be welcomed today as we are now more open to the idea of being socially responsible, is the Heineken World Bottle (affectionately called WOBO). The WOBO, designed by architect John Habraken, was an emerald green, square beer bottle with recessed sides that supported and nestled into each other.
Freddy Heineken envisioned that this bottle would help provide the people of Curacao with sustainable, affordable housing with the empty bottles. Unfortunately, his vision was a few decades too early.
When it comes to reflecting the uniqueness of the product, two brands come to mind that put their special touches, a signature of sorts, to the bottles themselves. The red hand-dipped wax has been a distinctive seal for Maker’s Mark since it was first bottled by its originator, Bill Samuels Sr. in 1958. This practice was the brainchild of Bill’s wife, Marjorie Samuels (also Maker’s Mark design engineer), to become an identifier as much as the name itself.
To many, this seal conveys the distinctness and special qualities of the product which is also expressed by their trademark tagline “It tastes expensive…and it is.” The company was granted their trademark for the red wax seal in 1985.
Although the ownership has changed hands four times since the creation of Maker’s Mark in 1954, production has been overseen by Bill’s son Bill Samuels Jr. and now the proverbial baton has been handed down to his grandson Rob Samuels as of 2011—a reflection of the desire to keep the integrity of the product intact.
In 2000, Ed Brown took over as CEO of Patron and decided to change the reputation and set the brand apart from the rest of tequila. He wanted to convey the premium quality of their handcrafted tequila and develop a reputation of sophistication. This spawned the handcrafted, one-of-a-kind individually numbered glass bottles which are created by glass artisans.
In addition, the cork of the Patron bottle is natural and comes from a region near Lisbon, Portugal. The outermost layer of cork bark is harvested, processed and cut to become the perfect piece to tie the artisanal process pieces together.
Patron was successful as they have obtained a reputation of quality and sophistication as opposed to other brands which are known for our college-day objective of getting drunk quickly, which we have most definitely left in the past since we are all mature adults now…
There are so many options in all categories of alcohol to choose from, it can be a daunting task to just make a decision of what to buy. In addition to taste, the label is a very important component used to convey the quality, identity, and personality of the brand. Artists have made significant contributions to our favorite libations.
Baron Philippe de Rothschild, a lover of art, took the label presentation one step further by commissioning a different artist to design the label for Chateau Mouton-Rothschild each year since 1945. The impressive list of artists includes such names as Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, and Charles, Prince of Wales.
In 2008, 1800 Tequila launched their “Essential Artist” campaign showcasing the works of nine cutting edge artists on their bottles, which is now known as Series 1. The following year, twelve artists were featured for the Series 2 collection. Each year, additional bottles adorning different artists’ works were released in a total of seven series, released in limited quantities for the purpose of being instant collector’s items.
In addition to the art adorning the trapezoid-shaped bottle, the top is designed for function. Slightly loosen the cap, turn the bottle upside down and you have yourself a shot of tequila!
Historically, there has been a certain element of sophistication when it comes to wine. In fine dining, there are always suggestions for the perfect pairing of wine to complete the experience. Today, the trend seems to be to attract the buyer with a bright, colorful, fun and less traditional wine label; to be esthetically appealing for the initial purchase and let the wine quality and taste be the deciding factor in becoming the favorite in future purchases.
Many wineries have taken Yellow Tail’s lead by using animals to attract buyers with what is known as “critter labels”. Critter labels add a fun and witty element to the wine’s presentation; to convey a sense of humor and create distance from the stuffy, snobby feel of the chateau.
The Casella brothers expected to sell 25,000 cases of Yellow Tail their first year and sold almost ten times as expected. With thousands of wine brands in the US alone, Yellow Tail became the number one wine brand in just five years. This spontaneous and fun imagery has spilled over into the craft brewery arena also.
Let’s not forget the “Old Faithfuls” who stick with a set design and take the “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” approach. This seems to ring true for whiskey, a timeless favorite of many across the world which has a steady following and, in many cases, has had minimal changes to bottles and labels, with some exceptions of course.
Jack Daniels, for example, has remained consistent over the years with the easily recognizable black label for their popular Old No.7 which was first introduced in 1911 (thought to be in honor of Jack’s passing). However, there are small batches distributed in limited quantities which are bottled in more distinguished, collectible vessels, such as the Single Barrel Tennessee Rye Whiskey limited to 8,000 cases.
Many other distilleries and breweries will release special edition bottles from time to time for limited batch release; some are interesting collector’s items while others may just break the bank to obtain.
For example, a 6-liter decanter of Macallan Imperiale “M” whisky sold for over $600k at a Sotheby’s auction in 2014, setting a new world record for the most expensive single-malt whisky sold at auction.
So, whatever marketing tactics are used; whether it is fun, witty, classic labels or artisanal, handmade bottles, the packaging and designs related to booze seem to be as varied as our choices in a mate.
There are many shapes, sizes, and personalities of which only some will catch our eye. Sometimes it's love at first sight and with others, the jury may still be out, but it is what’s inside that truly counts. You won’t really know until you give it a chance.
It’s alright, you can feel free to judge the book by its cover. Art is the eye of the beholder.