How a Spirits Bottle Becomes Iconic
Some of the world’s most famous spirits brands are known not only for what’s inside their bottles, but for the bottles themselves. Drew Lazor seeks out the stories behind a few of the most recognizable designs, old and new.
And they’re not just spending lavishly on the liquid. Inspired by the striking Tyrolean pincer bottle, the curvaceous, emerald-green vessel is a statement all its own, like a mashup of an heirloom vase and some kind of arcane potion-filled Hogwarts flask. They’re produced by a glassblower in the nearby city of Innsbruck and topped with ornate silver closures, unique to each bottling, built by German artist Otto Jakob.
Such high-end packaging is an exterior reflection of the juice found inside—and a brand’s idea of itself. This notion is not lost on companies that bet big on looks; consider specimens like the square-jawed Jack Daniel’s or the stubby Patrón, recognizable by silhouette alone. Newer brands, eager to cultivate a base, pour similar resources into nailing a look that will stick out on a back bar or liquor store shelf—and claim a space in the minds of customers.
“What do you stand for? What makes you different? Why should anyone give a damn? We’re pretty tough with people, because alcohol is a brutal marketplace,” says Kevin Shaw, founder of the design consultancy Stranger & Stranger, of the process of helping develop a brand’s visual identity. Such competition demands that the design “make an instant emotional attachment to a need,” adds Shaw, “whether that need be ‘cheap and cheerful’ or ‘I really want people to think I’m cool.’”According to Wayne Rose, a veteran Brown-Forman brand director who’s built products like Woodford Reserve from the bricks up, design is steered by “brand position.” The less tangible elements of a spirit’s personality—target audience, expectations based on price, where it sits in its own category—shape the process well before alcohol touches glass. But there is no doubt that bottle design is a leading volley in the ongoing scrap for eyeballs and, ultimately, brand loyalty. Here, we’ve honed in on the backstories and thought processes behind several spirits, iconic and up-and-coming alike, to get a better idea of how aesthetics shape what they do, and vice versa.
Patrón. Prior to 1989, the year John Paul DeJoria and Martin Crowley first introduced their tequila line, American public opinion of tequila was fairly wan. To shift the conversation and stand out, the entrepreneurs aggressively pushed the “premium” angle but also decided to distinguish themselves on shelves. A manufacturer in Guadalajara produced the prototype for the stout, slope-shouldered vessel, wider and shorter than the widespread tall-and-skinny style of the time. Made of recycled glass and accessorized with a plump cork and decorative ribbons, the bottle has grown to become one of the most recognizable among tequila drinkers. The company even sponsors an “Art of Patrón” contest, offering a $10,000 prize to the fan who creates the most inspired piece of original art using an empty bottle.
Jack Daniel’s. Old No. 7’s signature squared-off look came about as a result of the namesake whiskey baron’s persnickety attitude. In 1894, Daniel’s nephew, Lem Motlow, began encouraging his uncle to start bottling his Tennessee whiskey himself. An Illinois-based glass company pitched Daniel on dozens of designs, all of which he summarily rejected. In a desperate last effort, the salesman stuck an odd square prototype onto the table—and that’s when it clicked. “Nobody’s in a square bottle at that time,” says Nelson Eddy, the brand’s official historian. “He said, ‘That’s it—a square bottle for a square shooter.’ Even in Jack’s day, he understood the importance of packaging to carry a message.”
Sagamore Spirit. Relatively new to the exploding rye category, Maryland-based Sagamore mines history for inspiration. The brand, owned by Under Armour founder Kevin Plank, is named after a storied horse-racing farm in Baltimore County that was once owned by Alfred G. Vanderbilt. His famous family’s racing emblem, which appeared on all his thoroughbred’s racing silks, was three diamonds; that insignia appears on the bottle, and it also inspires its convex shape, which pops out like a cut jewel in the front, emphasizing the word “rye.” We wanted that for a purpose,” says Sagamore president Brian Treacy. “When I looked at a lot of other bottles, it almost felt like rye was hidden, small and hard to recognize. With us, the [word] ‘rye’—it’s huge.”
Chambord. The official line goes that this ubiquitous black raspberry liqueur, first introduced in 1982, was inspired by a gift presented to King Louis XIV upon a visit to Château de Chambord in the 17th century. That explains its unmistakable shape, not unlike a gilded vessel for a rare oil or perfume. Add a fancy latticed stopper and a crown insignia, and you’ve got something très Gallic. (It is still produced in the Loire Valley.) Though the design has been tweaked over the years—the neck and cap have been redesigned for grabbing and pouring behind the bar—the core appearance remains the same. “There’s an expectation of what Chambord may be,” says Rose, of Brown-Forman, which owns the brand. “It should come across as premium quality. A playful, unusual package [just wouldn’t] make sense.“
Frangelico. One of the only handheld objects on Earth that can accurately be described as “friar-shaped,” the popularity of Frangelico’s bottle often supersedes the booze itself. The go-to story posits that the priestly container is a nod to “Fra’ Angelico,” an 18th-century holy man said to have lived in the hills of Piedmont, where he distilled a proto version of the spirit. (The liqueur has also been attributed to a painter of the same name; he, too, happened to be a friar, though his heyday was a few centuries earlier.) While Campari Gruppo, which owns Frangelico, prefers to center the conversation around the liquid, the Internet is mildly obsessed with photographing his holiness with other anthropomorphic food items—mainly Mrs. Butterworth (he took a vow, people).
Crown Royal. Like Chambord, the quintessential Canadian whisky has obvious regal connotations. In 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Canada, touring North America by train. The story goes that Seagram owner Samuel Bronfman, seeing an opportunity to make an international splash, stocked the train with his proprietary blend, poured into a fancy cut glass bottle, sealed it with a crown-shaped stopper and slipped it into a fancy purple sack. First sold in the U.S. in 1964, it “was billed as whisky fit for a king, a marketing concept that quickly caught the consumer’s attention,” says Doug Kragel, national educator for Diageo North American Whiskey. Fans have woven the bags into apparel, and they’ve even heard from soldiers who use them to store gear like night-vision goggles.
Bulleit. Tom Bulleit, who launched Bulleit Distilling Company in 1987, drew inspiration from whiskey vessels common among Pennsylvania and Ohio distilleries in the mid-19th century, resulting in a rustic, almost vial-like silhouette that showcases the brand name in raised letters. The labels for the bourbon and rye are purposely stuck to the glass slightly askew, a nod to the fact that liquor labels were likely affixed by hand back in those times. (Bulleit admits it puts a bit more thought into things than this might suggest—designers considered literally hundreds of shades of green for their rye, which launched in 2013, before landing on their final choice.)
The 86 Co. Prior to launching The 86 Co. line in 2012, co-founders Simon Ford, Dushan Zaric and Jason Kosmas bent the ears of fellow bartenders, giving them bottle samples to play with. “There was no real consensus. . .one bottle had a great neck, another a great base,” says Ford, who eventually decided to build a prototype. Combining professional feedback with recommendations from a physiotherapist—offering multiple grips, for example, reduces motor repetition, the primary cause of carpal tunnel syndrome—the partners married innovation with their already design-forward packaging. Features like the easy-open cap, built-in scale and tapered base are engineered to save time and ease stress. “Brands should always consider the ergonomics of the design,” says Ford.