Labels and Bottles

by The Bon Vivants

Image is everything.  We DO judge a book by its cover.  It is a visual world, and becoming increasingly more so.  So why do most liquor labels suck?  That was harsh, we know, but it is very aggravating that labels and bottle shapes are continually being updated or modernized to fit the “discerning customer” and those updates or “improvements” are, in our opinion, rarely improvements.  Boiled down, big corporate brands have boring labels and small independent operators make bold moves with their labels, some successful, some not so.  We do not mean to be mean.  But, we have noticed how excited we get when a company releases a new product, and it has what we think is an awesome label.  We also have noticed how bummed we get when we do not like the label or bottle choice on a product we like.  Our guess, our hypothesis, is that the labels we like were not decided upon “in committee” with the use of focus groups or by marketing companies.  Rather, they were designed by a talented and passionate designer with an intimate connection to the brand and a deep understanding of the product.

Let’s lead with the ones we like, shall we?  Tempus Fugit has our vote for finest design across the board.  Their products are all top notch.  True… they are all esoteric and their market is with the cocktail “nerdacons” like us, so in theory, if the bottles and labels sucked we would buy them anyway because the juice is so good.  But, they have created labels that are evocative of time and place, and rooted in history.  They tell a story. They are so visually interesting that guests ask what the products are, merely after seeing the unfamiliar label or bottle shape on a backbar.  St. George's recently released gins that at first glance have a simple, subdued quality.  But after you get in there and look, you see some humor and incredible details.  In general, Italy makes great labels.  It is kinda their thing… design.  Obviously we like the Tequila Ocho label.  It’s classy, and in the category of Tequila, it stands out by NOT being ostentatious, having a bottle shaped like a gun or a boob, having a label that has barbed wire, or a “hand blown” pink glass bottle.  The big winner for design is the “Heinz 57” of the bartending world.  That would be St. Germain.  They did have more cash up front than all three of the previous mentions, but that aside, they did it right.  Beautiful bottle, classic, elegant label, full frontal assault advertising with great design, and spare-no-expense paper texture.  Big winner.  They spent money and now are a formidable presence, not just with the “nerdacons,” but also with Marge Tippler in Omaha.  The booze game has great history. 

Every example on our list of “likes” has the thread of historical inspiration in common.  We make no bones about it, we like old sh!t… we like the feeling of quality associated with old sh!t.  Things were made with natural ingredients because that is all there was. Labels had more to them because corporate bean counters had not cut out the quality. Craft label makers were cut out of the equation to save a few cents and printing was outsourced to some sweatshop print house.  Paper was better; bottle quality was better, or at least more interesting.  The brands we like above have a very strong point of view, even the ketchup.  Here are a few of the greats, Maker's Mark, Chartreuse, Benedictine, Absolut, Maraschino, Bruichladdich, Grand Marnier, Haig & Haig Pinch, and Tanqueray.

To preface this next paragraph, we proclaim our profound empathy to our friends who try and navigate the corporate hierarchies while expressing creativity at the same time. We know this is not easy.  We are saddened by the modernization, i.e. plasticization of what we (and many) consider the “heritage” brands.  We are not sure why brands whose labels are not broken are being "fixed."  It is as if the digitization of the world is applying to liquor labels and bottle shapes as well.  The dumbing down of flavor in the bottle is a whole other article to write, as it is sometimes happening along with these label and bottle "updates."  If it were not clear yet, we would love to see bottles released with the labels they had just before or after World War II.  This obviously pertains to brands in existence then, so Skyy Vodka is exempt (by the way, great package, when it hit the market the blue bottle was giving Absolut a run for its money).  All the advertising should speak to the history and legacy of these products and the families that make them, yet the see-through decals and partially frosted bottles keep hitting the market.  What we are asking for is perspective, or a strong point of view.  When the big companies do a limited release of some vintage bottling and it sells very quickly, the obvious assumption is that it has gone because it was somehow rare or special.  We would argue it has gone because the bottle and the label looked better; from a far, the product had a visual voice and told a story more inspired than the see-through decal on the current release. 

What we are not sure of is - how are these decisions ultimately made, and by whom when it comes to the megalithic brands?  We all know about that the most famous recent international update to one of the most profoundly symbolic icons in American history – Jack Daniels.  The Old No. 7 label and bottle change has inspired great debates in circles of our friends, and we have seen with some Googling that this debate rages on everywhere in the world.  Why this need to update an iconoclast?   Maybe the change is good to maintain growth on this Kong of brands.  Maybe they just wanted to do a little remodel because they wanted to.  Maybe we are being too sensitive, and a little change is good. Maybe the nostalgic brand loyalists should not hold onto some remembered notion of what their brand used to be, because it is more important for 23-year-old marketing associates to exchange nerdy high-fives over their office’s ping pong table on casual Friday, confident that their decision to sharpen the edges of a bottle has justified their job.