Love at first sight. Can that phrase also be applied to a bottle of whiskey? Bourbon’s popularity has spurred a flood of new bottles to the market and a fierce battle for consumers’ attention. Before someone even tastes a drop of the whiskey, it’s a whiskey’s label and bottle design that is one of the prime influencers when a consumer decides which brand to purchase. What was once a homogeneous front of whiskey label design aesthetics is at the precipice of radical change.
More so than other types of spirits, whiskey labels haven’t strayed too far from the proven path. That path has been cemented mainly by the large whiskey companies who focus their label design on their rich history and whiskey making terminology. These tried-and-true, get-your-hands-dirty characteristics align with the rise of throwback vintage design across all means of marketing. Whiskey exemplifies the fundamentals of throwback design: roughed typography, ornate borders and ribbons, busy text-filled layout, and an overall worn aesthetic. It’s a match made in heaven.
As craft whiskey distilleries and non-distiller producers have grown and multiplied, they have faced the problem of not having the same rich history to pull from. Instead of trying something different, the majority of these companies have imitated the major brands’ label design and terminology. Putting these newer whiskeys on shelves with similar labels, the goal has been for the newer bottles to be taken just as seriously as the old standards, despite not having the history or brand familiarity.
With many craft distilleries coming of age and crossing the five year production mark, they’re developing a growing sense of confidence and pride. After weathering the growing pains that are faced during their early years producing, they’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This new pride for their product is allowing them to start thinking more confidently and pushing them to take chances with their label and bottle design.
“Whiskey label design will definitely continue to evolve. There will always be a want for the ‘traditional approach’ in terms of whiskey label structure, but more and more brands will begin to become more daring,” says Chad Michael, creative director of Chad Michael Studio, a company that specializes in spirit package design and is responsible for the upcoming Jack Daniel’s Red Dog Saloon label. “You see labels now that break all the expectations and rules that have existed for the past hundred years. Labels will become more expressive, more illustrative, and frankly just more weird. But overall, even if the label is jarring and completely unprecedented - you'll be able to tell it's a whiskey.”
One company that has been disrupting industry norms with their label design is Wigle Whiskey, located in Pittsburgh, PA. Founded in 2010, Wigle has been at the forefront of whiskey label design that bucks the industry standard of throwback design. Their labels sport more modern aesthetics such as eye catching colors, big bold clean typography, flat design, and original artwork - a stark contrast to the majority of whiskey labels on the market.
“In many ways, when we developed our labels in 2010/2011, we were reacting to what looked to us like a staid industry. We wanted to signal a new direction in whiskey,” says Meredith Grelli, co-owner of Wigle Whiskey. “When we walked down the whiskey aisle in 2010, we didn't see a single bottle that was developed with us in mind and we thought we might not be alone.”
When Wigle was talking with consumers about what came to mind when someone mentioned “whiskey,” many invariably told them, “an older man sitting on a leather couch smoking a cigar." Wigle decided that the market was due for a perceptional change, one that spoke to broader range of consumers both in age and gender.
One way Wigle went about this was to feature artwork in their labeling. Working with local artists, they allowed them the creative freedom to let their product inspire them in creating art for their labels. This different approach to whiskey labeling was meant to have a two tiered effect. Grelli says Wigle wanted to catch the eye of new consumers, people who may not have felt engaged by whiskey, and also to signal to seasoned whiskey drinkers that there's something different going on with Wigle’s products.
Whiskey producers are also trying to cater to a new generation of whiskey drinkers that they see driving the growth in the market. What style of label will speak to them? Will throwback label design persist? Or will we one day see Pappy Van Winkle replaced by a younger man or abstract art? When the pendulum swings hard one way, it often swings just as hard the other.
“Over the last decade whiskey brands specifically have made an effort to develop more and more products the younger generation would be more inclined to purchase. Prior to this whiskey was seen as an older demographics spirit - your father's spirit of choice after a hard day at the office,” says Michael. “But now whiskey has swept the market and become something the younger audience wants to be educated on. In short - it's become cool again to know your whiskey.”
This rapidly expanding segment of the market is impossible for whiskey makers to ignore. This rush of new blood will dictate if the same marketing tactics will work or not.
“I think too that as millennials are less brand loyal than prior generations of whiskey drinkers, it will require all producers to relentlessly review and reiterate on their labels, packaging, and whiskey,” says Grelli.
Michael agrees that a younger demographic will help drive changes to whiskey marketing. “The tide is turning and I think consumers are looking for the more obscure now - this is definitely the case with the 21-35 year old market.”
As whiskey continues to grow in popularity there is also an expectation that it will capture craft beer drinkers’ interest. This cross pollination of consumers could lead producers and label designers to take design cues from one another.
“We expect some of the beer industry's design to exert a stronger influence on whiskey,” says Grelli. Wigle is already taking a step in this direction. With their Brewers Series, they pair local artists with regional breweries to produce even more “off-kilter” whiskey labels than they already produce for their main brands. This goes hand-in-hand with the nature of these one time releases. As the consumer looks for more unique releases, they’re more willing to embrace the additional creative license the distilleries take with their labeling.
“The 21-30 year old group tends to stray away from the brands their parents drank because they want something they can call their own,” says Michael. “Slow and Low does a terrific job with targeting this demo. They have built a lifestyle brand that consumers identify with and not to mention the package design throws all prior visual constructs of ‘your dad's whiskey’ out the window.”
If whiskey labeling begins to move further in a different direction, humor, self-reflection, and paralanguage may also begin to play a larger roll. Craft distilleries’ hyper focus on proving themselves during their early years, and their over reliance on buzzwords such as “small batch,” or “hand-crafted” in their label design and marketing might also come to an end. This “uncrafted” period, as Michael puts it, might be the driving force for whiskey label design in the next few years.
“First will come a strong wave of brands claiming the opposite of craft. Last year I developed and designed an emerging [parody] bourbon that had been the first of this, Hopes & Dreams Bourbon. It is a product that embraces the fact they source their bourbon and do so in large batches,” says Michael. “Over the past few months Smirnoff launched a similar approach with a campaign slogan 'We could pretend to be handmade - but we don't.' And Compass Box released a limited blended scotch called ‘This is not a luxury whiskey’ which is more of a ironic approach that poses the question ‘What makes a luxury whiskey - luxurious?’"
Hopes & Dreams is a parody bourbon. It started as a joke that was about a guy who went into a bar and got a glass of "Hopes & Dreams" and ordered it "on the rocks." Luke Aker, creator and director of Hopes & Dreams Bourbon originally envisioned it as a rum, but soon decided it was a poor fit since rum already didn’t take itself too seriously.
“Bourbon, on the other hand, carries a sort of prestige to it in both the marketing and the product,” says Aker. “I personally hadn't seen any bourbon brand take a tongue-and-cheek stance on their marketing and felt that my bad joke could be transformed into a parody of whiskies.”
When Aker did research on the whiskey industry for his parody project, it was their over reliance on these marketing buzzwords that stood out the most to him.
“I know that when I first started researching the industry, a lot of those buzzwords meant nothing to me,” says Akers. “As far as if they mean anything to the majority of whiskey drinkers? I honestly don’t know. I think as long as it's good juice whiskey drinkers couldn't care less.”
His play on industrial buzzwords that can be found on the label for Hopes & Dreams include: “Bought not built,” “Old enough,” “Randomly selected casks,” “Machine crafted in large batches,” and “Of trial and failure.”
Going in the opposite direction of the status quo might simply be the natural reaction for companies. Not long ago a product like Hopes & Dreams Bourbon would seem unthinkable in the whiskey world. Now the idea that a company would go down the same route as Hopes & Dreams to market itself doesn’t seem all that farfetched. It might just be a matter of time before we see a product like it.
“It would be great to see more humor in whiskey marketing now and in the future. We might see more of it in a few years as a way to establish newer brands and distilleries with less brand power,” says Aker. “Smart companies follow what sells, and if that means a huge change in direction, then I think they will follow. In changing the direction, it’s possible to get consumers to look at and remember your product.”
It’s unclear if this “uncrafted movement” will take hold and for how long, but change is already here. Even the major whiskey producers are changing the way they promote themselves. Beam Suntory might not completely disregard their classic Jim Beam label design anytime soon, but has begun using different tactics not common in the whiskey industry. Beam hired a celebrity spokesperson for their brand in hopes of catching the eyes of new whiskey drinkers. Beam even tested the waters in 2008 with the release of (ri)1 Rye Whiskey and its unconventional label design. In 2016, Wild Turkey hired Matthew McConaughey as their spokesperson and completely revamped the label design of its iconic 101 whiskeys, and while not completely doing away with throwback aesthetics, is heading in that direction.
There’s a good chance the whiskey shelf will look a whole lot different in a few years than it ever has in history. The traditional whiskey label might soon be an endangered species. A product label has a lot to say, and it's going to say it in more ways than ever before, thanks to craft distilleries and the next generation of whiskey drinkers leading this change.
“With package design, I could pile in more conceptual thinking, detail, typography, illustration, etc. than anything else out there. It allows me the most creative freedom and the opportunity to break expectations on a regular basis,” says Michael. “Spirit [label] design in particular allows this to the fullest extent. The amount of possibility with spirit design is endless and there is still so much that has yet to be done.”