Sexy, expensive, intriguing: how bottle design can make or break a drinks brand

In an increasingly competitive spirits market, eye-catching packaging can be the difference between success or failure

gin bottle design
After the Mermaid Gin bottle was redesigned, sales spiked by 170 per cent Credit: Isle Of Wight Distillery

While many gin and whisky drinkers might talk passionately about botanicals, terroir and oak-barrel ageing, there's another reason why many more of us are choosing a particular spirit over another: the bottle just looks really good on the shelf. 

The "ginaissance" of the last decade has not only seen a boom in the number of spirits on the market, it has also seen brands producing ever-more eye-catching packaging in order to stand out from their rivals. 

Using a fancy bottle to sell your spirit is nothing new. In the mid 1980s, Bombay Sapphire gin was an instant success, in no small part thanks to its covetable flat-sided blue bottle. But since then, bottle design has come on in leaps and bounds.

In November, The Spirits Business held its annual Design & Packaging Masters awards, which celebrated stunning designs from, among others, Knut Hansen Dry Gin (an old-fashioned ceramic bottle with a drawing of a moustachioed sailor), No.3 London Dry Gin's hexagonal bottle with striking embossed key, and Port of Leith's Lind & Lime Gin which the judges praised for its tactile, "perfume-like" bottle.

Knut Hansen gin comes in an old-fashioned ceramic bottle

The latter is not the only bottle that looks more like something you'd find at a department store fragrance counter than in the supermarket booze aisle. Indeed, when David Beckham launched Haig Club whisky in 2014, in a striking square blue bottle, the branding clearly took its design cues from the aftershave industry (some unkind souls suggested it tasted a bit like eau de cologne too), and dozens of other spirits brands have followed suit.

Haig Club's design was supported by a huge publicity campaign, something that many smaller drinks brands can't afford – for them, the bottle design therefore takes on even greater importance.

“It’s a hugely competitive category, so having a strong bottle design can help brands stand out on the back bar or the supermarket shelf,” says Ian McCulloch, co-founder of Silent Pool Gin. “It’s especially important for smaller independent brands who don’t have the luxury of large marketing budgets.” 

One of the people who’ve led the charge in transforming the humble spirit bottle into a major branding exercise is Kevin Shaw, founder of packaging design agency Stranger & Stranger. With 25 years of design experience, he and his team have created some of the most iconic bottlings out there, from Kraken Rum to Isle Of Harris gin. 

Isle Of Harris gin's bottle is designed to reflect the waves of the island where its distillery is located Credit: Isle Of Harris Distillery

“Stock bottles don’t really say anything specific,” he explains. “If you smash a Coke bottle you can pick up almost any part of it and tell it’s a Coke bottle. That’s what we all, designers and clients alike, strive for.”

So what goes into a beautiful bottle? “We’re looking for stories, ideally unique, about the people or the product that we can translate into glass bottle shapes and label communication,” Shaw says. “We have to analyse competitive products and brands and make our design look sexier, more expensive and more interesting. Something you’d be happy to take around to dinner. Once the idea is approved there’s between 6 or 12 months of bottle and label production before the bottle actually makes it onto a shelf.”

While Shaw admits that the cost of creating a bespoke bottle both in the glass work itself and the shipping can add up, the rewards for brands can be enormous. 

“The redesign was a calculated risk,” says Ginnie Taylor, sales and marketing manager of the Isle Of Wight Distillery which redesigned its Mermaid Gin bottle six months ago. “Of course, there was a large expense that did eat into the bottom line, but this risk was taken after extensive research – and it paid off more than we could have even anticipated.” 

David Beckham with Haig Club's distinctive square bottle

In fact, sales of Mermaid Gin have seen a 170pc increase since the brand revealed its new bottle. Not only that, but the bottle recently won the top award at the 2019 International Wine And Spirit Competition’s design awards. 

The industry body have been awarded prizes based on packaging for the past five years, but 2019 marked the first full-blown design award, judged by both drinks industry experts and designers. But what makes a design winner?

“Pure and simply it really comes down to originality, tactility, functionality and ultimately beauty,” explains Neil Ridley, IWSC Design Awards expert. “This year’s winners demonstrated the perfect balance between each of these attributes. They made the judging panel want to pick them up and interact with them, plus gave a distinct halo to the experience when pouring the liquid.” 

Still, different spirits have different needs. At the ultra-premium, luxury end of the market where gifting is key, designers can really show their stuff, but it’s equally important to consider the bartender pouring drinks, thinks Portobello Road Gin’s head distiller Jake Burger, whose brand is currently in the process of switching to a bespoke bottle after nine years of using off-the-shelf. 

Portobello Road Gin has been using a simple off-the-shelf bottle for nine years Credit: Portobello Road Gin

“We have personalised it a bit and made some subtle changes, but we were careful that the bottle still ticked all the ergonomic boxes that our original one did,” Burger explains. “It needed to have a nice long neck so bartenders can hold it properly, an aperture that can take a bartenders pour spout without leaking, that it’s not too wide for the well or speed rail where bartenders keep their bottles, and it has no sharp corners on the bottle’s shoulders which can easily get chipped in a busy bar environment.

“There are some very unusable bottle shapes used by some very successful products, products that are popular in bars, and the bartender in me is irritated by that. It's lazy design.”

But while the focus on beautiful bottles might generate sales in the short term, some distillers are warning their fellows not to let a nice bottle let them become complacent.

“Customers now have more choice, and they’re far better informed and knowledgeable about gin than ever before, so a style over substance approach is not a sustainable long-term strategy for any business,” says McCulloch. “A nice bottle can attract someone to a brand in the first instance, but if they don’t like the liquid contained within it they’re not going to purchase again.”