When Bill and I look for a bottle design for our whiskey, we will probably pick a standard bottle that is inexpensive to purchase. New bottles are very expensive to design these days. Designing and making a mold for the bottle can cost thousands of dollars and that is why you rarely see an artisan distillery create a new bottle for their products. Kentucky Peerless did so and although it is an attractive bottle, it really added quite a bit to the cost of their whiskey. I would like to avoid that expense. However, it was not always this way. I thought I would look at historic bottles and their designs in this blog.
In the late 19th century, bottles became inexpensive because of the development of machine blown glass. This made it possible for distillers to bottle their own whiskey and still make a profit. The bottles were fairly standard at first – round or square shaped bottles for quarts and 4/5 quart sizes and flasks for the pint, half pint and quarter pint sizes.
These bottles were still fairly crude with air bubbles in the glass and noticeable seams where the molds came together. As the glass industry improved, bottle quality improved and prices of bottles declined, distillers started designing their own bottles. They often had designs and the brand name or the distiller’s name embossed in the glass. They were often clear glass, but some distillers opted for different colored glass. Amber glass was popular as well as green, blue, and smoky grey glass.
Prohibition saw bottles become very standard in design. There were only six companies selling medicinal whiskey and they all used bottles that were of a similar design. These bottles were mostly pint bottles, but there were some half pint and quart bottles allowed in some states. Since most of these companies were based in Louisville, it made sense that they were all using the same bottles as that allowed for less expense to the companies and if one company needed glass, they could get bottles from another company that might have extra on hand.
After Repeal, distillers started designing their own bottles once again. The Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown has a collection of empty bottles from the 1930s that is impressive. These pint and half pint bottles have art deco designs that are very attractive. None of the bottles in the collection have labels and they may not have all been whiskey bottles, but they have a lot interesting design features that epitomize the 1920s and 30s.
Stitzel-Weller started using what they described as their “drum” bottle for Weller Special Reserve, Original Proof and Very Old Fitzgerald bottles. Yellowstone was using a bottle with their name embossed in the glass. Other companies used amber glass for their bottles. This was often done to hide the color of their young whiskey as they started to rebuild their business after Prohibition and they quit doing so as they produced older whiskey.
In the years following the Second World War, many distilleries started producing holiday bottles for their products. Brown-Forman hired a well-known architect to design their decanters and many of them reflected modern architecture of the 1950s. Ceramic decanters became very popular in the 1960s and 70s as distilleries created hundreds of decanters with different themes.
The 1980s was a time when every distillery had to change their bottles. The metric system forced the industry into new sizes of bottles and the distilleries had to conform their bottles to these sizes. By this time glass bottle designs were becoming expensive, so it is no surprise that many brands from different companies were using the same bottle design to save the expense. Still, some companies did spend the extra money to design bottles for their flagship brands. One of my favorite bottles of the 1980s was the Old Forester bottle designed by Brown-Forman. It was indented on either side to allow for a firm grip by bartenders who might have wet hands when reaching for the bottle.
In the 1990s, when United Distillers designed the Bourbon Heritage Collection, they used existing glass designs. Some of the bottles looked new to the American market because they used glass they owned for Scotch and Canadian whiskies for Weller Centennial Very Special Old Fitzgerald and Old Charter Proprietor’s Reserve. The only new design was for the Dickel brand.
Today, the major distilleries may sometimes change their bottle, but usually only for an expression they want to make look different from their main line brand or the introduction of a new brand. Buffalo Trace did this when they introduced the Buffalo Trace Brand.
In the modern world of whiskey, most bottles are from the standard portfolio of the glass companies. The expense of a new bottle design is too great for most artisan distillers. If you look at the shelves of the whiskey section of your favorite liquor store, the bottle designs often look alike, and this is the reason for that similarity. This is why when Bill and I go to bottle our whiskey, that bottle will look similar to many other brands.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller