Some may not like to admit it, but everyone, at least occasionally, makes a purchase for nothing more than aesthetics and visual appeal. For wine drinkers, it could be that fanciful or artistic bottle label, region or varietal or ratings be damned.
With all consumer products, there are numerous examples of distinctive packaging that brands have established as their markings, and which shoppers, in turn, recognize and seek out. For spirits, consider the red wax seal on a bottle of Maker's Mark, the velvet purple bag draped over a bottle of Crown Royal, the opaque blue of Bruichladdich.
New entrants to the booze market must also look to craft a distinctive bottle persona. Liquor store shelves have never been more crowded, so any edge in individuality helps.
Take the square-shaped Haig Club bottle, a single grain Scotch in Diageo's portfolio that is backed by soccer star David Beckham. The bottle looks more like a cologne than a Scotch and, according to the brand, it was designed to match the House of Haig's history of innovative bottle designs, and their blenders' tradition of using blue tasting glasses.
But in the world of spirits, bottle designs get much more creative. For this piece, the focus isn't on the most expensive ultra premium spirits, with five- and six-figure price tags, and otherworldly crystal encasings and diamond encrusted bottle stoppers which themselves are worth thousands of dollars. Those are offerings where, if a particular consumer has to ask or worry about the price, then he or she probably shouldn't be making the purchase either way.
Rather, the discussion here is centered on other more accessible unique, fancy, or downright crazy bottle designs and packaging. These aesthetics are meant to entice the consumer to make a within reach splurge purchase, or to encourage someone to try something new that he or she likely wouldn't have otherwise, if that pretty bottle hadn't been there to seal the deal.
Take the Highland Park Valhalla Collection, with four premium priced bottles that cost between $200 and $350. Extravagant, sure, but not in the otherworldly ballpark of $20,000 that a bottle of Louis XIII Rare Cask would cost. Bottles from Highland Park's Valhalla lineup come displayed in a large wooden frame, meant to evoke a Viking battle ship, befitting spirits entitled Odin, Thor, Loki and Freya.
"We feel that the visually striking packaging, especially as it relates to the Valhalla series, allowed us to tell the story of our Viking heritage and create opportunity for consideration and trial of the brand overall," says Stephanie Ridgway, national brand ambassador for Highland Park.
"The response from trade and consumers alike was incredibly positive," she continues, and the limited edition offerings quickly sold out. And while she's hesitant to say that the bottle is what sold the booze, noting the quality of the actual spirit, she does, of course, recognize its appeal. They're creating the packaging for a reason, after all. "While I don't believe they would have sold worse if we chose a less visually striking pack, I do feel that the designs we chose did create a greater level of excitement and intrigue for what's inside of the bottle," says Ridgway.
Taking things a step further, how about brands named for their packaging? Take the case of Crystal Head vodka, a bottle dictating a brand name. The folks at Crystal Head take pride in their distillation and filtering processes, their water source, and the quality of the grains they use, but none of those were name-worthy, were they? Their skull-shaped bottle was designed by artist John Alexander and is the brand's calling card.
Their newer Crystal Head Aurora release is packaged in the same skull-shaped bottle, but in a translucent-rainbow color scheme to match its namesake, the aurora borealis. The brand says that no two bottles are exactly alike. As for the vodka itself, the Aurora release utilizes wheat instead of corn as the vodka's base distillate.
Crystal Head isn't even the only skull-shaped bottle in town. Consider KAH Tequila, also known as Day of the Dead Tequila, which comes in opaque yellow, white and black skull-shaped bottles, with Day of the Dead stylized artwork. Then there's the new Outerspace Vodka, in a little-green-spaceman-head bottle design.
Staying with vodka, while Donald Trump is busy running for President these days, a decade ago he launched his now defunct Trump Super Premium Vodka 24K. The bottle itself was decorated with 24 karat gold, in a decanter designed by Milton Glaser. That upped the price tag to $100 per bottle, which, sadly, nobody seemed much interested in buying.
Johnnie Walker has also gone gold before, with the company's Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve Dubai Duty Free exclusive. The opaque gold bottle was unveiled in collaboration with Dubai Duty Free's 30th anniversary in 2013. Elsewhere, the 2015 Hennessy VSOP Privilège Limited Edition featured a bottle designed by British art director Peter Saville, with chromatic, opaque hues on an opaque lacquered surface.
While Trump's vodka used to sparkle and Crystal Head's Aurora is reminiscent of the northern lights, other bottles do their own shining and shimmering as well. Switching from spirits to Champagne, Dom Pérignon Vintage 2006's limited edition bottles, released in 2015, were created by Björk with artist Chris Cunningham, with a glowing green or pink laser lighting effect.
Dom Pérignon also offers an on-premise only luminous bottle with a hidden switch that can be flipped to light its entire label a vibrant neon green. Nothing signals da club that it's time to throw down more than a bucket of glowing Dom in the VIP.
Thus far, most of these unique bottles draw attention thanks to their extravagant bling, sheer oddity, or eye-catching aesthetics. Sparkling, shimmering, lighting up, and glowing. Skulls and Viking ships. However, some distinctive bottles take a step in the opposite direction, drawing inspiration from tradition.
Look at Ñusta, Macchu Pisco's luxury pisco release, modeled after a ceramic vase that founder Melanie Asher discovered at a friend's house. "Its form resembled that of the Incan ceramic pieces found in the graves of royalty," she explains. She then sought out an artisanal ceramist in Peru to make a mold closer in resemblance to huacos, special ceremonial Incan vessels. The bottle took years of experimentation to perfect, coinciding with the time it took Asher to perfect the spirit itself, a mosto verde style pisco which requires 30 pounds of grapes per bottle.
"Because the ceramic material was so delicate and close to a porcelain material, the cooking of the bottles was quite difficult and it took us a couple years to get just right," explains Asher. "But I insisted on not compromising the bottle shape."
The result is handmade ceramic bottle paying homage to ancient history, and certainly a far cry from crystal skulls or gold plated bottles. "Finally we had a bottle design that would match the extraordinary character of the juice inside," says Asher.
Whether you call these gimmicks, smart marketing strategies, or just plain fun, at the end of the day, a consumer who sees these bottles on a store shelf will walk on over, pick them up, and take a look. And that's the whole point, isn't it? So expect to see ever more creative vessels in the future.