All the Knights of the Round Table say yo!!

Knight

At last our turn! Big welcome to all the Knights, it’s great to have you here! Muchos slàintas to Jason for being such a geek and making all this happen and the rest of you for being such an entertaining wee crowd for nearly a year now.

So here is the question we asked you last month:

This month we would like to ask you about something which is not often discussed by geeks like us – packaging! We all know how important it is for whiky brands to have that extra pull factor on the shelf. But are you personally suckers for a pretty bottle or could you not care less? Are you all for traditional or do you like to see modern designs creeping into this conservative industry? And finally, since it’s awards season, let us know what was in your opinion the sexiest and the ugliest packaging of 2010!

First in to voice his opinion was Mike Connery from Whisky Party. He went on a rant about all the crystal decanter malarky we see so often these days – who pays for all this? – he asked us. Good idea to read his post here if you haven’t seen it yet, although Whisky Party’s actual response to the question is below.

Happy reading! (pour yourself a big dram, there is lots and lots)

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Mike Fisher @ Whisky PartyPeat Monster Reserve Magnum bottle

While the impact of pleasant packaging has been diminshed as I’ve become more familiar with the liquid inside each bottle, lots of these do go on our shelves for display and I appreciate it if they can enhance the decor. It’s also nice that there’s a variety of shapes and styles. I favor variations on the classic aesthetic (eg, Ardbeg), but Mike C. has pointed out that contemporary approaches to traditional themes, such as the Compass Box range or Highland Park’s St. Magnus bottlings, are refreshing takes on whisky’s heritage.

As for the added cost of pricey packaging, we think that innovation (see Compass Box, above) is more impressive than ostentation. And in terms of undesirable packaging, 2010 has brought us more of Arran’s bland design (Machrie Moor notwithstanding), and Bruichladdich’s bizzarre approach (that includes Octomore, which looks more like a mid-level vodka tarted up to be pimped out at over-priced nightclubs).

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Chris Bunting @ Nonjatta

As usual, I will harp on the Japanese theme, as that seems to be my role in whisky life. Weird and wonderful packaging is absolutely mainstream in Japanese whisky. Two of the most celebrated Japanese blended whiskies, Hibiki (the one featured in the Sofia Coppola film “Lost in Translation”) and Kakubin, are completely identified with their odd bottle shapes. A Kakubin in a standard whisky bottle would be absolutely unthinkable (in fact, the name actually refers to the turtle shell bottle shape.) It seems odd packaging can become iconic if you leave it long enough to mature. Both Kakubin and Hibiki are Suntory brands but even the relatively traditionalist Nikka also dabbles in this sort of thing (although this concept design never seems to have got of the ground: http://nonjatta.blogspot.com/2007/11/blog-post.html).

Nikka

But the odd packaging thing goes much further than that. At Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery, they have displays of the odd shaped bottles they have put out over the years on their executive meeting room floor. Some of these commemorate major events, Olympics and suchlike, and there are annual bottlings for each Chinese year. This year is the year of the rabbit, so there are rabbit shaped bottles being sold all over the country. And then, at the other end of the spectrum, we have the complete disregard of packaging embodied in Japan’s enthusiasm for the canned whisky drinks I mentioned last month’s forum and the huge multi-gallon plastic bottles sold all over the country. I am going to do “life time achievement awards” not 2010 awards, because the most interesting packaging story about last year were the cans, which I have already talked about. Worst ever packaging: whisky in plastic bottles. Best ever: The classic Hanshin Tigers expression: http://nonjatta.blogspot.com/2007/10/hanshin-tigers-whisky.html .

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Joshua Hatton @ The Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society

The other day I was going grocery shopping (doing the normal up-and-down and back-and-forth in the aisles while trying to stick to the shopping list can always prove difficult.  Grocery stores really know how to place product and do so to ensure I spend way more than I had planned for. Evil geniuses) and while I was half way up the aisle that had boxed macaroni and cheese I noticed one box in particular.  Without naming names, I can tell you this was a product that I bought regularly but the packaging was new.

In big, bolded letters sitting atop a large get-your-attention red star were the words “All new packaging, same great taste!

WTF?!  Why do we have to pay more for updated packaging without the company somehow making my eating experience somehow… moreish?

Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong but, with regards to whisky, product realignments (read: new packaging and marketing direction) tend to take place after something has happened to the fluid itself (E.G. new slightly different tasting stocks for the 10yo product, a switch from age statements to vintages, the change from chill filtration to non-chill filtration, etc…).

One just needs to think of the new Balblair vintages line (which I find to be exciting and their modified hand grenade type bottles to be cute) or perhaps the updated Aberlour bottles or the new style/design of the Arran Machrie Moor bottle to understand that some sort of a message, beyond the marketing, is being relayed to us and, as of late, there seems to be a correlation of updated contents in the bottle to the actual bottle itself.

If this assumption is correct then new packaging is a very exciting prospect to me!

Obviously what’s most important is that the contents of the bottle (the whisky itself) is somehow improved.  But the messaging of this change/improvement needs to be communicated and I would one of the best places to communicate this message is at the point of sale – the bottle in the store!

For the category of ugliest packaging for 2010, let’s take the example of the new Bunnahabhain 12yo, shall we?
The old 40%ABV, chill-filtered version (which was known to be a bit of a yawn) was recently reborn as a very exciting 46.3%ABV expression without chill-filtration – it’s really a fantastic new dram!  As I understand it, the rest of the line will follow the lead of the 12yo.  So, we now get a great new whisky – yay, we win!  But wait… what’s wrong here?  Oh yeah, other than a few added lines of copy on the bottle and box, there was no new packaging for the Bunnahabhain 12yo.  Revision – there was an update to the Bunnahabhain 12yo bottle: the color of the bottle went from green in color to brown and now there’s dual labeling.  Perhaps it’s me but the changes made just did not seem to be enough to relay the message; seeing as I missed it until this update to my answer…

From a marketing aspect, not having clearly noticable new packaging was a bit of a FAIL on the part of Bunnahabhain.  To not make the packaging different enough from the old style bottle/whisky and really press the point that they’ve improved/changed their whisky just doesn’t make sense – it was a miss for sure.  It’s the opposite of the packaging I mentioned above.  Actually, it may be worse.  The opposite to the above would be: “All new whisky, same old packaging!“  But what’s really being said here (to the general consumer, not to whisky geeks like us) is: “Not much has changed here folks.  Pick up your bosses gift bottle or, just move on…

For the category of sexiest packaging in 2010, let’s look at two whiskies:

Arran 15yr Anniversary Malt. By G-d, this bottle is pure sexy!

Besides being a killer dram, Arran proved that you can take a so-so shaped bottle (there is nothing remarkable about the shape, it’s just… nice) and with the right graphics and complimentary fonts you can make the bottle seem… majestic.  And that this is!  The box is great too.  I like the little knockout square on the side that says “push here”.  It has an Alice in Wonderland feel to it.  Pushing on the square makes you feel as if you’re about to go on a great adventure!

The Port Charlotte.
The simple, modern and sans serif font accentuates the rounded friendliness of the Bruichladdich body.  The different color fonts make it easy to read and the pictures of the dudes on the cans gives the whisky a very personal, “I can relate to these people” experience.

Sorry, to get a bit geeky here… did I mention I was in sales and marketing (albeit NOT for a spirits company)?

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Keith Wood @ Whisky Emporium

Ahhh, another question about marketing and packaging, can I guess now how many times “Ardbeg” will be mentioned? Oops, there I’ve done it already.

Am I a sucker for pretty packaging? No, I say no I tell you!

I do appreciate good packaging, but does that make me buy a specific whisky? Well, my purchases are more dependent upon which drams I would like to add to my tasting notes, so the deciding factor is usually “have I tried it before or is it from a distillery or brand which I haven’t yet tried?”

But as we’re on the subject, more of labelling and naming, but that is part of packaging isn’t it? I do have an intense dislike, nay hatred, of how ‘dumbed down’ Britain has become. On the odd occasion that I see a British TV programme which is supposed to be informative, perhaps like the news, the presenters seem to insist on speaking down to everyone as though they are 6 years old. But that isn’t whisky packaging is it? Although the same attitude is creeping through our beloved industry. I fear it started with a trio called JMR, who thankfully I don’t hear of any more. But sadly I now see bottles on shelves with names like Ferrari Screech (did SMWS ever pay those royalties to one of the world’s finest auto manufacturers?), Bonfire Embers or something along the lines of John Wayne’s saddle sores!

Look, I don’t need stupid ‘dumbed down’ descriptors on whisky labels, give me info like which distillery, the age, the cask type if single cask, bottling dates, batch numbers …… and not descriptions of sore bums, truncheons and other paraphernalia as these will defintely cause me to avoid spending my hard-earned!

Sexy packaging?

Ardbeg Girls with a wheelbarrow

(photo: Oliver Klimek @ www.dramming.com)

Now those two Ardbeg girls pushing a wheelbarrow of peat with a bottle of Ardbeg around the recent Munich whisky fair may qualify … dram, there I’ve mentioned Ardbeg again and again………

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Mark Connelly @ WhiskyWhiskyWhisky

Orangerie bottleMy gut reaction to this question is that it doesn’t matter what it looks like as long as it tastes right. While that might be the case in most situations I suppose the more attractive packaging may sway the decision subconsciously in certain situations. More important, though, are the details: what strength, which distillery, how old (sometimes) and the price are all factors for me way before the packaging would come into play, if at all. Get the liquid right and the rest will follow. But of course, we’re visual creatures and aesthetics will be important to some degree wether we think it or not.

I would happily see less of all the fancy tubes, cartons and boxes, though. There’s only so many uses I can find for them so the majority are chucked unceremoniously in the recycling bin where possible. The ones I really don’t understand are the expensive bottlings with hand-crafted silver bits and bobs (many from Dalmore and Macallan, HP 40yo etc). Seriously, are they actually meant to be drunk or just gather dust in a bank vault somewhere? What use is the bottle with all the jewellery once the whisky has been consumed? What a waste of time. The best packaging is where it’s just a bottle with a label. They really don’t need anything else. I personally love bottles which some details embossed in the actual glass. That has a classy look and these make great candleholders when the label is scrubbed off! I would love to see more interesting developments in glass (which is obviously all recyclable), actually: different bottle shapes – I really love the Compass Box bottles – , maybe even working with different coloured glass. Who knows what weird and wonderful things some design agencies could come up with in this field. As long as it’s not cube bottles. That’s been done and looked terrible. Also golf-ball shaped ones. Sigh.

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Peter Lemon @ The Casks

Big Peat

Yeah, I’m a sucker for good packaging. I don’t think that alone would keep me from buying or not buying a bottle, but if a whisky’s got great labeling/packaging, I’m going to enjoy the purchase just that much more than if it was wrapped up in tired, plain, or silly packaging. I wouldn’t, however, examine too closely my whisky packaging aesthetic, lest you see how full of holes it is. I tend to like clean and contemporary (whatever that means) design, but at the same time like to see a bit of tradition, some Highland gravitas if you will, on a bottle. I don’t like a lot of gold foil, flowery script, watercolors of distilleries or heathered glens, Falstaffian gents playing bagpipes, etc. Not that this comes as any kind of revelation, but I think Ardbeg has done a great job over the last several years, mixing tradition with a bit of humor and slick, new design. Bruichladdich can be really hit or miss with me. I love the Black Art and Organinc packaging but really don’t care for the cricket bat/cheesey vodka bottle look of the Octomores. Of course, I always appreciate Balvenie’s simple, classic, elegant design as well.

As for the best of 2010, there were a few whiskies that I saw that had some noteworthy packaging: Highland Park’s opulent 50yo, Ardbeg’s Rollercoaster was pretty decent, Balblair’s 1991 was interesting if not a little busy, Glenfiddich’s Snow Phoenix was kind of cool, but also kind of Blair Witch Project looking at a glance. So, yeah, several interesting ones but nothing I’d consider Best-Of. I love the apothecary style of Portland’s House Spirits whiskey and white dogs, but for

me, I think my favorite packaging that I saw all year was that of Nikka’s Whisky from the Barrel. Pure, pristine Japanese simplicity. I love the square bottle, love the screw cap, love the uber-simple, almost off-hand label, and love the neutral, austere box. This is a great looking, straightforward design for a great whisky.

Nikka

My least favorite? That’s easy, Big Peat. It’s a decent whisky but man oh man, I can’t stand that silly label. It’s way overpriced here in the states, there’s just no way I’m going to shell out $100 for a whisky with labeling and a dumb name that looks more like an over-blended, ham-fisted, California fruit bomb red wine you’d buy at Trader Joe’s for $5.

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Matt & Karen @ Whisky For Everyone

Compass Box Double SingleWe think that everyone is secretly a sucker for a good piece of packaging or advertising – after all, it is these that stick in the mind as being successful campaigns (either that or the horrendously bad ones!). There is plenty of bland ‘old school’ packaging around in the whisky world and our view is that it is time that the industry caught up and came in to the 21st century. The time for tartan or water-coloured Scottish scenes is surely gone! Modern graphic packaging undoubtedly stands out from the crowd on shop shelves and it will be these that consumers, especially the growing number of new whisky beginners/drinkers, will be drawn to. Once knowledge increases then we have all learnt to look passed the packaging and focus on the liquid inside – strong brands have realised this. With so many whiskies shouting for your attention and competing against other premium spirits, then bold, modern and distinctive ‘brand building’ packaging has to be the way to go.

Our award for the sexiest (if there is such a thing!) packaging of 2010 has to go to our friends at Compass Box. Our choice was unanimous. The modern and highly stylised labels, packaging and supporting material helps to strengthen Compass Box’s position as a leading artisan/boutique whisky producer. Their whiskies are pretty good too and continue to win prizes by the cartload. Two particularly good examples from last year were the bold wood cut style design of the latest batch of Flaming Heart and the delicate, almost Art Deco design of the Double Single. Both look and feel modern and fresh, but also have reference to traditional styles of packaging – the packaging reflects and compliments the quality of the whisky on offer. This is a difficult thing to achieve and can go wrong if not executed correctly.

With regards to the ‘ugliest’ packaging, we were also unanimous in our choice of Big Peat. The whisky is good (although it varies depending on which batch you have, with the current Batch 13 looking painfully pale and anaemic) and it has won a number of awards. But what were Douglas Laing thinking of with its packaging? Something funny/quirky, maybe? The chap on the front (let’s call him big Pete … get it? huh huh?) looks like a cross between a drunk, someone who has had his brains blown out and a homage to Oddbins ‘Fat Bastard’ Chardonnay style wine labeling campaigns of the late 1980s. A graphic designer friend of ours described it as a ‘disaster’, a ‘packaging faux pas’ and a ‘classic way to easily devalue a brand’. Strong words? Not really, as Matt hears the same comments almost daily from customers in the shop where he works.

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Gal Granov @ Whisky Israel

Well, I think that i will be lying to myself if I were to say that I don’t care about the bottle shape at all, but i think it’s only a secondary issue. When i buy a whisky i usually think about the quality of the liquid, and not how fancy my bar will look like, But, if i were to see two equally good bottling, and one of them would catch my eye, i can see myself picking that up.

one thing i am really against is all those fancy packaging that cost a fortune and make whisky more expensive. All those “burial casks”, Wooden packages that weight a fortune (and make on-line shipping more expensive for me), and of course Pimped up bottles, created by designers, just for the sake of appearances. This is really do not like.

As for classic vs. Modern designs, I am equally into both. Take the Highland Park Earl/Saint Magnus bottles which are stunning (old fashioned, with some glass blemishes, and bubbles) , Retro, i know, but hey they look wonderful. I am less happy about their wooden stand, which i would prefer they dropped, and use a regular cardboard box. The other opposite is of course the SmokeHead packaging. young, black, with big fonts, and so stylish. I just love it. So as you can see, it depends on the quality of the design. if it’s good, and well thought of, it does the trick for me.

Ok. Now awards time:

Ugliest packaging:

1st place :Cristian Lacroix’s design. Man, this looks like some premium vodkas (another trend i really do not like). It’s Pimped way over. Give me a break!
Runner up : Highland Park 50 yo – I love the simple HP bottles, and the lovely Magnus “retro” ones, but this one? it’s designed to be standing on the shelves of Russian oligarchs, which can afford the 10,000 GBP price tag. really not my style.

chivas-christian-lacroix-and-highland-park-50

Best packaging:

1.Smokehead 18 – what a sexy black bottle it is, and inside – amazing nectar. I love it.

2.HP Saint / Earl Magnus – simple, Retro, with that retro look

3.Maker’s 46. good whisky with amazing bottle design with the trademark red wax. Classic

smokehead-18-and-makers-46

Let’s hope for lovely designs this year too.

Slainte!

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Jason Johnstone-Yellin @ Guid Scotch Drink

Great question, guys!  I think we make a mistake when we ignore (or, at least, pretend to ignore) the packaging that surrounds our precious uisge beatha, so I’m pleased to see it be the focus of a Round Table.

Let’s get the caveat out of the way first: if you’re selling crap whisky it doesn’t matter what you’re packaging it in.  I will not purchase an eye-catching bottle if the contents ought to be poured down the sink, rather than down my neck.  Let’s not fool ourselves into believing that the contents don’t matter; they absolutely do.  However, the combination of a delicious whisky with a pretty box or bottle (that doesn’t send the price sky-high — I’m looking at you Saint Magnus) can be a thing of great majesty.

Over the last year three companies have impressed me with their designs: Arran Distillers, Compass Box, and Dry Fly (Spokane, Washington).  These three companies have an eye on quality whisky and fine design.  Whether it’s the Arran 15th Anniversary orange box with silver wings, the incredibly sexy Machrie Moor, anything from Compass Box but especially Flaming Heart and Spice Tree, or the minimalistic Dry Fly Wheat Whiskey in the dumpy bottle I’m happy to show off the boxes/bottles and share the fine spirit contained therein.  And if any of them contained less than top quality spirit I wouldn’t have them on my shelf.

dry-fly-wheat-whiskey

It’s hard to remember who left me cold with their designs but if the whisky was great then the packaging was the least of my worries.  Bad whisky and bad packaging would have lead to me expunging them from my memory!

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Ruben Luyten @ Whisky Notes

As a (web)designer, of course I’m sensitive to beautiful bottles. Let me suggest four examples and describe what I like about them.

Bruichladdich has always been cutting-edge when it comes to bottle design. They are the only distillery / bottler I know which uses all possible techniques to make their bottles stand out: typography, colour, illustrations, alternative bottle shapes, printing effects (embossing, shiny coatings…), accessories like metal name tags, etc.  Even though they’re not all great, at least they’re experimenting and constantly re-inventing themselves. This is a clever way to stimulate collectors of course.

The Whisky Agency (Germany) has a similar, modern style and chooses a different theme for each of their series (flowers, still lives, anatomy drawings…). It should be noted that they use standard bottles and digital print labels without special effects. The common counterargument for alternative packaging (it makes the whisky more expensive) is not valid here – they prove it’s perfectly possible to have uncommon bottles with no extra cost.

anCnoc uses a kind of understated minimalism for their bottles, with a lot of whitespace and usually one contrasting colour. While the tubes are probably increasing the cost a bit, I really appreciate their effort to stand out in a modern way, especially since the whisky industry tends to rely heavily on traditional values with conservative historic designs. Kudos for their comprehensive way of working: bottles, website, communication… all very consistent.

The Glenrothes was probably the first distillery to realize the power of design. My previous examples are fairly recent, but let’s not forget the original grenade-like bottle of Glenrothes, with small handwritten labels, was presented 16 years ago, in a time when no other distillery dared to stand out too much. The Glenrothes bottle is a true classic, even after 16 years it doesn’t look outdated.

design_bottles

I would like to add that I don’t like excesses in either direction. Ardbeg Double Barrel, Glenfiddich 50yo, Mortlach 70yo, Dalmore Sirius / Candela… no thanks. At the other part of the spectrum, there are a handful of distillers with plenty of room for improvement: Bladnoch and Ben Nevis are the first ones that spring to mind, but even big ones like Springbank or Laphroaig are a bit uninspired in my opinion.

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Neil & Joel @ Caskstrength

“We’re a huge fan of different bottle shapes and did a post about this a few months back. We remarked that “Ardbeg, with its slightly bulbous shoulders and rounded neck, makes us think of some of the more fuller-figured ladies depicted in Botticelli’s masterpieces. If we’re feeling particularly playful, a bottle of Dalwhinnie makes us think of the combined works of Beryl Cook. A Lagavulin bottle seems to have a more statuesque presence, perhaps resembling Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ or Myron’s iconic Greek sculpture ‘Discobolos’.  At the other extreme, Joel always thinks of John Cleese, every time he sees a Fettercairn bottle.”

There does also seem to be a worrying trend towards re-designing bottles so they look sleek on a back-bar. The worst incident of this in recent times has been the Highland Park bottles. Once a lovely round bottle, they changed to a flat version which I can only assume gives them more “space” on a shelf. Sadly, it just isn’t as nice as the old style design.

When it comes to boxes, the king has to be the recent clear plastic boxes from Compass Box. Utterly lovely. Always the biggest loser is the Chav whisky itself, The Bells Decanter….”

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Lucas @ Edinburgh Whisky Blog

Point 1. There is no bad publicity.

A quick look at all the tags I’ve attached to this post (see below) reveals a short list of brands which, between them, make a tiny percentage of all whisky available around the world. Yet you repeatedly mentioned them. Most of you wrote about Compass Box as an example of great design effort. Most of you also wrote about Highland Park – some of you liked it and some didn’t. Big Peat got a couple of negative mentions. Crystal decanters are slowly growing to be some kind of a public enemy. But you know what? The real losers are the brands we did not mention, those that didn’t even cross our minds. Tails of extensive portfolios, unwanted children of Pernod and Diageo, malts for blending, struggling independents… When it comes to premium spirit packaging, in my opinion there is no bigger sin than to make it boring. I know that the Big Peat guy looks like a shit-kicker. But at least it will appeal to people who go for the shit-kicker kind of look, nothing wrong with that. New Fettercairn is phallic and pretentious – yuppies will love it. But who does the blue Tormore tube appeal to? Or the new Tomatin line? God have mercy.

Point 2. Bottle is more important than its content.

Want to bet? Packaging, from the business point of view, is more important than the juice. I know that a few niche whisky brands managed to build a success story on liquid alone but they were only able to do so because the industry was so strong, with packaging driven brands making distilling worthwhile. A classic example is Johnnie Walker, the best selling whisky in the world. How exactly does Diageo shift gazillions of cases of Red Label every year? Unique shape of the bottle and the iconic label stuck to it at a trademarked angle. Trust me, it’s not the flavour.

I’m afraid similar rules apply to malts. Just think about how much single malt is bought by the actual consumer and how much is bought as presents for various occasions? Strong shelf presence is one of the most powerful tools of the trade and as much as some of us would like for all the bottles to look the same, with unified labels packed with geeky information and rid of any marketing blether, this is not going to happen. Ever. More and more effort will go into prettying whisky up, elaborate will become outrageous and cheap will be getting increasingly expensive-looking.

Point 3. But still less is more.

Having said all that, I must admit that personally I love a clean design with a bite to it. Compass Box or some of the recent Arran expressions are obvious examples but a shelf full of Flora & Fauna gives me a right hard-on too (although clearly no bite there). A more mainstreem (read: readily available) example would be anCnoc. And in this spirit my Best New Packaging Of The Year Super Duper Gold Star Award Thing goes to Arran Machrie Moor. It’s fucking lovely! And the the Worst New Packaging Effort Black Smelly Star Of Death is awarded to the new Tomatin range for boring the living daylight out of me.

Arran Machrie Moor and Tomatin

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