Before my fascination with whisky began, navigating through a duty-free zone or an off-licence felt like an intergalactic warzone.
I had my fair share of encounters with aggressive sale tactics; I lacked knowledge about each distillery, let alone their individual releases. I regularly felt overwhelmed by the sheer tsunami of options available to me. Nevertheless, I asked my uninitiated self: what was the rationale I used to purchase a Glenmorangie over a Glenfiddich, a Hibiki over a Nikka, or a WhistlePig over a Four Roses?
Even though whisky packaging is mostly overlooked by discerning customers who have their bearings around a whisky counter, it plays an integral role. Packaging presents an unambiguous brand image and provides a sense of heritage to the public. In all honesty, even the most judicious of customers have their work cut out for them, as one can only otherwise judge the quality of the liquid through the lenses of a limited number of critic reviews and one’s own past experiences.
As a result, a make-or-break factor that motivates a person to purchase the next “sneaker whisky” could come down to how well the distillery presents its brand message to their consumers through packaging. A 2019 study by Scyphus Ltd. concluded that “product packaging is a vital part of market and advertising” and that over 73% of participants cited a significant reliance on packaging designs to make a purchase decision.
Additionally, the study noted that packaging is emphasized in the food & beverage industry, as consumers are not usually provided with a “trial service” of the product prior to a purchase decision. Furthermore, the importance of packaging has only become more prevalent over time; as both interest and sales in the whisky industry has seen a sharp rise, with a CAGR of 4.7% per annum (Report Linker, 2020).
In this article I will be discussing the history of whisky packaging and the methods modern whisky brands are using to stand out in the vast expanse of the modern whisky world.
What makes great packaging?
A good place to start our discussion is to define what attributes makes a whisky packaging “great” to begin with. Qualitatively speaking, key components of any product’s appearance that successfully resonate with consumers can be broken down into six main sections:
Clarity and Simplicity
Good packaging needs to send a clear and strong brand message, which resonates with consumers, without ambiguity in its meaning.
Good packaging needs to communicate honestly to consumers about the contents within each product to induce loyalty and trust between the brand and the consumer. Companies that resort to deceptive and/or false-leading messaging will not achieve long-term consumer retention time and could be liable to legal action.
Good packaging needs to provide consumers with confidence that the product being purchased stands for the values, production process and quality that the brand represents. For a packaging to be authentic, its outer appearance needs to feel genuine and ‘transparent’; with no insertion of mixed/contradicting messages that could dilute the trust between the product and the consumer.
Does the packaging attract the attention of prospective consumers when placed in store shelves (or online stores) to compete with other industry brands? Packaging should be eye-catching and unique, which leaves consumers with the desire to purchase or further educate themselves about the brand.
Good packaging should provide an effective visual connection between the brand’s DNA and product that is traceable to consumers. This could be achieved by designing each product in a unique template that fits with the brand’s overall product range to allow for easy introduction of a line extension or a sub-brand.
Good packaging should be ergonomically friendly towards consumers, providing them with a good-looking product without sacrificing its functionality. A package comprised of environmentally friendly materials could also be considered practical, as its benefits can be felt externally even if the consumer does not derive any additional utility from the product.
In layman’s terms, there is no “secret sauce” in the creation of successful product designs. It has got to have that drama, yet it cannot be too complicated. It has got to be clean, yet it cannot be boring. All these factors must be evaluated for a brand to differentiate itself in a vast sleuth of products pouring into the market. To show the changes in whisky packaging over time, these five factors can act as a basic checklist to mark attributes that were either implemented or absent through the ages.
A long time ago in a distillery far, far away: Attack of the Clones II
The production of whisky is deeply steeped in Scottish tradition, being referenced as far back as the early 1500’s. As a result, long-established whisky makers tend to craft their brand on a sense of heritage to assure their customers of the product’s quality and consistency towards the niche consumer base.
To adhere to said consistency and tradition, long-running distilleries tend to have uniform packaging designs on their products to distinguish themselves from their competitors. Yet they retain a shared national identity through an overall vintage look, which was indicative of Scotch whisky brands at the time.
There are plenty of iconic examples that evidently support this observation, such as Glenmorangie and Glenfiddich, where we see their distinct template bottle designs being ‘cloned’ onto all their main line products, a trend that persists to this day. These brands distil whiskies which are highly distinct in both style and flavour from each other. However, due to the conformity of their packaging styles during this era, most consumers felt more comfortable just sticking with their local distiller for their daily whisky fix, with little to no desire for further exploration.
Furthermore, whisky ranges prior to the 1990’s were very limited, often with only a handful of limited editions and special releases outside of their typical 12 to 21-year-old core lineup. Due to the lack of modern social media and transport, distilleries needed to rely heavily on the goodwill of their customer base and consistency in their products to expand market reach without jeopardising their brand image through risky cask experimentations.
The culmination of this era of packaging sees a play-safe attitude being implemented, with most distilleries piggybacking their reputation on the heritage that is the Scottish whisky industry. Even though many unique expressions were still being made, brand uniformity and difficulty in communication and transportation hindered the spread of whisky distilleries, which resulted in packaging that ticks all the right boxes but lacks that traction beam to draw people (or spaceships) in.
The Rebellion: The Independent Bottlers strike back! V
Let us be honest here: independent bottlers used to be seen as nothing more than a mule that distilleries used to shift their stock during economic strife, providing the consumers with their ‘flavour of the month’ cask strength expressions for a fraction of the cost of an official release.
However, due to the meteoric ascent in popularity of scotch whisky during the last decade, demand has massively outstripped supply, resulting in more distilleries being engaged in some questionable actions to maintain a stacked official release calendar such as non-cask strength or age statement bottlings.
Additionally, the rise in demand consequently resulted in a booming collector’s market, which tends to put a premium on a whisky’s appearance and/or exclusivity over its substance. In response to this growing consumer base, established players started to add artificial colouring and chill filter into their new releases, to aid product consistency and mass market appeal.
Since indie bottlers did not have massive amounts of capital and clout to engage in these industry practices with their small batch releases, their popularity slowly grew into a cult following by critics and whisky enthusiasts for taking whisky back to its traditional “roots,” given the absence of industrywide practices that may “taint” the liquid from its natural state.
As growing demand for whisky pushes prices of official releases upwards, this results in more consumers becoming exposed to independent bottler brands, which in turn facilitates their rise to stardom. Furthermore, since independent bottlings are usually bottled at cask strength, there is a much smaller quantity to each release due to the lack of dilution therefore, whenever a release from an independent bottler receives high praise by top critics, this tends to raise demand for collectors and drinkers alike, boosting secondary prices far beyond their retail price range.
On the other hand, since each independent bottling release has a different origins and heritage, they rely on the shared identity that is usually created under the brand’s creator to achieve extensibility in their packaging styles. For example, Whisky Sponge is an independent bottling brand that was created by Angus MacRaild, who acts as editor emeritus for the satirical whisky blog that goes by the same name. The whisky community associates Angus with his witty humour and being a respectable whisky critic from the renowned whiskyfun.com. As a result, his bottling series has become extremely popular due to industry-wide name recognition and the strength in its eye-catching packaging. Even though most of Angus’s bottlings have their origins from different distilleries, his bottle labels and back blurbs contain illustrations and write ups that felt like they were taken straight from his whisky blog.
We see the utilization of this new-age style of packaging in other indie bottlers as well, such as Thompson Bros with their stylized cartoon-like labels and Compass box’s Astrological, with mesmerising box art. This new packaging style is not as rigid and uniformed when relative to their traditional counterparts and instead, focuses on the brand creator’s credentials and contribution to the industry over the distiller to assess liquid quality.
The New Republic: The rise of Micro-distilleries IX
These days, whenever I periodically scroll down my social media feed, news promoting a new distillery opening pops up every so often. Even though this most likely has to do with my internet preferences, pushing Google’s algorithm to target whisky-related ads based on my search history, it still occurred to me that there has been a larger level of capital being invested into new distilleries overall when compared to the previous decade.
With initiatives to resurrect industry giants such as Diageo’s Rosebank and Brora, to the formation of micro-distilleries such as Daftmill and Dornoch, new distilleries have become all the rage as more people try to ride the hype train surrounding modern whisky.
The creation of brand heritage is a difficult task for new distilleries because – unlike their big wig counterparts – new distilleries do not have 200+ years of history behind them. They also cannot afford tens of millions of pounds in advertisement to spread their message. As a result, new distilleries have designed their packaging to represent the terroir and the whisky making process rather than the age of the distillery.
For example, we see new distilleries such as Adephi’s Ardnamurchan coating their limited release bottlings in ash/moine (slate grey) to mark the volcanic past of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. Other examples include the very recent Lindores Abbey distillery, whose logo nods to the age-old Bear Burning ceremony that commemorates the relationship between the Earl of Warwick and the first abbot of Lindores Abbey, the “spiritual home” of Scotch whisky.
In terms of labelling structure, micro distilleries have gone back and embraced template designs over the eye-catching uniqueness of independent bottlers. This marketing decision could have been made to strengthen the clarity and connection between the bottling and the distillery to prospective consumers, as the brand is still in its infancy and is still extending its core catalogue with every new release.
However, unlike their established counterparts, these templates favour modern designs over vintage looks, using block font and hyper simplistic geometry to provide comprehensive and bold labels into each bottling. An example of this would be modern Bruichladdich’s line-up, consisting of block font and minimalist formatting. This visual appearance evokes the importance of terroir and experimentation, mirroring master distiller Jim McEwan’s ethos in whisky making.
Moreover, there has also been an embrace of packaging gimmicks that are usually in line with the whisky maker’s value proposition. Coming back to the example of Ardnamurchan: they have implemented a QR code and a tag on the each of their bottlings, which enables buyers to authenticate and track down the full supply chain of each release via the usage of blockchain technology.
Furthermore, Ardnamurchan have also designed their packaging exclusively from recycled and/or biodegradable materials, which is in line with the distillery’s message to promote sustainable development. These ‘gimmicks’ play a large role in shaping the USP (unique selling proposition) of modern distilleries and allows for new consumers to interlink their personal beliefs with the brand makers through their packaging, resulting in resonance and positive response from consumers without the innate loyalty engendered by an established brand through its heritage.
All this research about whisky packaging reminds me a lot about the “napkin principle,” and how it is used prolifically in the whisky marketing world. To outline this philosophical approach, imagine sitting on a fancy dinner table with nine other guests, where the shape of the table is circular, and ten napkins are placed clockwise from each guest, including you, so that they could be picked up from either side. The question that is given is this: which direction would you pick your napkin from, left or right?
The solution to this principle reveals that the direction that everyone else will pick their napkins depends solely on an initial leader who decides to pick up his or her napkin first, dictating others to follow suit in the same direction as the “correct” way to do things.
To add context to this principle: even though whisky packaging has evolved and distinctly changed over time, the overall industrywide trend for each era remains the same. Distillers and bottlers just copy proven tactics that were initially innovative in nature from those risk takers who “took the napkin first.”
This revelation is not aimed to slander any practices done by specific whisky makers or bottlers; instead, this was just an underlying observation that I made throughout the researching of this topic that felt important to conclude on.
Good whisky, like fine art, is indeed worth the wait. In an ever-hastening era of high tech and breaking news, it would be sobering to remind Scotch makers not to drown their heritage in the bustling noise. Instead, they should bide their time to deliver a product which is distinctly presentable and also highly drinkable for all to enjoy.
A small but honourable mention…
What is with the Star Wars theme? As a big fan of all things Star Wars and whisky, this article comes as a late tribute to one of those great content creators who successfully created a legacy during his lifetime and indirectly inspired me and many others to pick up the pen to create content for the community that we all love.
I initially came across his Instagram page a few years back and was in awe at the level of polish on some of the photos. As a person that is terribly bad at photography (my girlfriend still does all my whisky snaps for me), I do become slightly envious when I come across internet people who seemingly can find perfect angles and manage lighting so seamlessly.
For those reasons, I stuck around to watch his works whenever they popped in my feed from time to time and even decided to try my hand at photography again. Even though photos were only shared privately amongst a few of my friends, I had a great time trying to replicate his content for a time, even though I knew I lacked the talent to do so. It is because I am a dreadful photographer that I can appreciate a good photograph, which is why I am dedicating this post to you:
To the late Brett Ferencz (aka Scotch Trooper), even though I never met you, may your legacy continue to live on to be a force for good in the global community for eons to come. May the force be with you Brett, always.
In light of the unfortunate events of recent months, I have donated to the Cancer Research Institution in the hopes that this will contribute to their future research initiatives to find a cure for cancer worldwide. If you are interested in donating yourself, please click this link to access the website’s donation page.
During the writing of this article, I had the pleasure to join the Independent Spirit of Bath’s Ardnamurchan tasting, where I was able to taste some of the more hard-to-get releases from the distillery.
Since the tasting, I have had the opportunity to buy several Ardnamurchan bottlings and felt like it was only right to crack open some of these and share my thoughts with the community.
Since many of the examples in my “new distilleries” section of this article was in reference to Ardnamurchan, it felt apt that I made my own horizontal and reviewed some of the more highly anticipated releases from this Argyll distillery. As a wise man once said to me: “You can’t drink art, but you can drink whisky,” so with that let’s get cracking!
Ardnamurchan AD/04:21 Paul Launois Release – Review
2,576 Bottles; 57.6% ABV; £68
Color: Sunshine yellow.
On the nose: An elegant nose, with initial aromas of fresh strawberries and green apples, which pairs well with notes of treacle and a touch of beeswax. Oxidation reveals hints of cereal, and vanilla cream with traces of ripe banana and honeydew.
In the mouth: A mouthful of strawberry sponge cakes and whipped cream enter the fold, with loads of sugary goodness to cover up most of the initial astringency. The midpalate adds additional complexity, with orange peel, grilled pineapple and peanut butter rounding out an already stacked cast of characters. The finish is medium in length, with lingering notes of vanilla cream and bitter oak, adding additional longevity to this release.
This was a highly anticipated release from Ardnamurchan, and may have become a symbol to some in the community for all that is wrong about the current state of the whisky secondary market. Disregarding politics, however: this is an example of a good whisky that can be readily drank as a daily dram for the resident sweet tooth in the house. There is not much in terms of balance to speak of here, just a sensory overload of sweetness that feels a little bit too hot in some places. Overall, I felt that the unique Champagne cask finish did not really contribute much to the overall palate of the whisky and instead, what we got was a good ex-bourbon profile with additional sweetness and cream being a minor adage to an already good expression. Overall, solid stuff.
Ardnamurchan AD/04.21:03 Batch 3 – Review
17,502 Bottles; 46.8% ABV; £49
On the nose: Welcoming notes of vanilla cream and gentle maritime peat, with hints of dried fruits and nutmeg lingering in the background. Oxidation reveals, beeswax and citrus peel with malty notes of cereal and bread giving structure to the whisky.
In the mouth: Flavours of vanilla cream, dried fruit cake and peat hit the initial palate, with the peat becoming more prominent as time passes without ever being overpowering. The mid palate reveals whiffs of honey, and cinnamon, with more waxy characteristics adding much-needed depth to the mouthfeel. The finish is medium in length, with hints of cold smoke and oolong tea adding a bit of tannic bitterness at the end.
This expression, while young, has shown a great deal of balance between its peat and non-peat characteristics; using peat to enhance the existing flavour profile of the whisky instead of making it the star of the show. Even though the flavours in this release are yet to integrate seamlessly to each other, with time, I can see this style being extremely promising on the market once it is polished to a greater degree. Again, solid stuff.
Ardnamurchan 2015 AD Maclean & Bruce – Review
1,333 Bottles; 59.3% ABV; £85
Color: Roasted chestnut.
On the nose: A bold interlude of almond cream and nutmeg, with hints of maraschino cherries and dark chocolate commanding a large presence in the glass. Further oxidation reveals additional notes of dried fruits and citrus peels, with trace amounts of balsamic vinegar, and savoury notes such as aged Parma ham.
In the mouth: A mouth filling burst of citrus oils and sour plums covers the palate, accompanied by layers of velvety chocolate cream and hazelnuts. The midpalate contains whiffs of tobacco leaf and salinity, which balances the initial sharp flavours of the whisky without adding additional complexity to its flavour profile. The finish is long in length, with lingering flavours of tobacco smoke, tannic oak and orange peel that lasts long after the last drop.
Overall, this is a very well put together sherried whisky for such a young spirit. The strong presence of sherry flavours in this expression shows an active cask was likely used for the maturation period of this whisky, which demonstrates a great deal of care on Adelphi’s end towards their cask selection process. However, even though there is no doubt that this is indeed a mighty fine dram, it does not provide any additional complexity or depth that would warrant an additional point on a ten-point scale. Overall, a great benchmark for any younger sherried whiskies.
Ardnamurchan AD/05:21 The AD/Venture Release – Review
348 Bottles, 55.1% ABV, £77
Color: Copper wiring.
On the nose: A large dose of malty goodness and creamy vanilla toffee, with eucalyptus, menthol and other herbaceous elements swirling in the glass. With oxidation the nose becomes increasingly dry, with cherry, kumquats, and savoury notes of honey-roasted ham.
In the mouth: A very well put together combination of creamy goodness and vegetal notes, reminiscent of eating some well-made creamy vegetable soup. The astringency here is non-existent, which I find to be most bizarre, since single cask bottlings tend have flavours which are less well integrated when compared to their small batch counterparts. The sweetness on the midpalate comes from exotic fruits such as grilled mango and coconut oil with gentle flavours of freshly cut galangal (a less pungent form of ginger) and lemon grass leading way to nutmeg and chestnuts. The finish is medium in length, with lingering notes of black peppercorn and menthol in the back end of the mouth.
As I alluded to previously on the palate, the flavour in this single cask is the most integrated of the line-up, with me needing to pour another dram immediately after just to capture as many unique notes as possible that this highly unique dram has to offer. However, even though this is an extremely well-made concoction, I realized this flavour profile may become too funky for some to bear. It is distinctly Ardnamurchan juice, but it is not an entry-level flavour profile of the distillery. Overall, I would say that if you are a fan of that lowland style sherry funk, this is an experience you should try at least once.
In total, a very eventful line-up tasting some good quality liquid from the Ardnamurchan distillery. If I had to pick and choose my favourite out of the bunch it most likely would be the Maclean & Bruce edition, as I really am a real sucker for those heavy sherried notes.
The AD/Venture single cask came in as a close second, with its seamless integration of unique flavors being the most surprising thing that came out of the evening. Overall, these whiskies show a consistency in both their quality and Adelphi’s commitment to sustainability throughout their entire supply chain. With the implementation of Blockchain technology, traditional whisky-making practices, and a highly simplistic packaging style, Ardnamurchan sets a high bar for future distilleries to follow in its footsteps.
Maclean and Bruce photo courtesy of same. Tatti’s photocollages have too many sources to list. Star Wars-related images are used as Parody and thereby fall under Fair Use. Please note that whisky and other alcoholic beverages should only be consumed by those of legal drinking age in their respective countries.