Crafting the Ideal Package for Selling Spirits (with NEENAH Packaging)
How to Make Your Spirits Bottle Design Stand Out
By: Julie Wolfson
Think about your favorite spirits. Can you picture the bottle? Do you first imagine a green Jameson bottle with the cream label and classic burgundy and gold accents? Or do you see the grey goose on Grey Goose? Or maybe your first thought is the wide bottle of Hendrick’s gin in dark glass with their iconic white diamond-shaped label.
Do you want a gin and tonic now?
When it comes to creating the look of a new spirit, the challenge to tell the story of the product can be daunting. Designers need to figure out what label and brand imagery make sense on the bottle and the best way to communicate something compelling about the liquid inside. Then there are the practical aspects of the project. Formulating and executing the idea often leads to designing one or more labels and supervising the printing process. Choosing a stock with the best color, texture, and durability becomes supremely important. No one wants to see the label slide off of a vodka bottle when they pull it out of the freezer. It’s not fun to lift a $100 bottle of whiskey out of the case to find the labels scuffed and torn.
When exploring how to approach a new spirit bottle design, there are a lot of examples to look at to understand the category. The shape of the bottle, graphic design, and configuration of the labels all come into play. The shelves at the liquor store are filled with everything from the overly ornate to the purposefully minimal. There are classic bottles in iconic custom shapes, like the tall Galliano bottle. There are memorable color schemes labels like the red and gold of Kahlua. Some have a crafted look like the original wood-block style images on 123 Organic Tequila bottles that draw inspiration from Mexican history. Others stand out for being different, like Basil Hayden’s paper label looping around the neck of the bottle and belted with a metal band at the “waist.”
An almost infinite number of success stories and some amusing missteps can be found in this category. These three new releases from independent distilleries chronicle some recent standout designs. We talked to these designers to learn the details of their process from idea to completion.
Pomp & Whimsy by Meat & Potatoes with THINK Conservatory
TJ River of Meat & Potatoes worked with Nicola Nice and Nori De La Cruz at THINK Conservatory to both create Pomp & Whimsy and then design the packaging based on their research. This collaboration led to the launch of a new product with an integrated and thoroughly researched plan from inception to design to product launch.
Cooper’s Classic by Pavement
When Mike Hester of Pavement was tasked to design a bottle for Cooperstown Distillery, the goal of the project was to honor their baseball themed branding while updating their look for a Cooper’s Classic American Whiskey release. Hester honed his skills for capturing the essence of culinary products as the head of packaging development at Williams Sonoma. Four years ago he branched out from there and started his San Francisco-based creative studio Pavement. “Our work tends to skew towards the sophisticated,” says Hester, “where things are clean but they are not minimal.”
Martine Honeysuckle Liqueur by Make & Matter
Working with Empresario LLC, Trina Bentley of Make & Matter in Austin Texas was tasked to design the bottle for their new Martine Honeysuckle Liqueur. Bentley had some high marks to hit to get Martine ready to launch. She looked at the shelf space of spirits in that category and saw the iconic St-Germain bottle. She then understood the challenge. “It was a balance of me needing to create a label that felt fancy and could compete live in the space with St-Germain, but also felt grounded in Austin, Texas as well,” says Bentley.
Working with the client: Know the product and goals of the project
Designing for the client and specifically for the product is more important than making sure it fits into the aesthetic of a portfolio.
In the case of Pomp & Whimsy the creative agency designing the bottle was also the founder of the product itself. When THINK Conservatory asked a group of consumers to describe their ideal spirit, several referred to an affinity for neutral based spirits that are versatile and easy to drink. For River, Nice, and De La Cruz, these descriptors were pointing the in the direction of gin. They made it their goal to develop an expressive, highly sensorial spirit with a sophisticated feminine touch.
Developing something new for Cooperstown to complement their ballpark heritage, Hester began with an exploration of the geographic region. He wanted to look beyond their current baseball themed bottle designs. Hester discovered that James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, was born and raised in Cooperstown. Aiming for an upstate New York colonial feel, Hester began to research ways to design something with a heritage retro look.
Together with Empresario, Bentley created a mood board for Martine. “They saw it being a little bit mysterious and having allure,” she says. “A lot of it felt kind of French to me, but we did not want it to look like it came from France.” The design features an oval label and a band wrapping the bottle below. “I like when people do a two label type approach. It feels crafted,” says Bentley. “This mix of fonts feels modern and clean and still kind of classic and tied to a past somehow.”
Finding Inspiration: Find original source material
Time and time again we hear designers advise stepping away from the computer and looking at original source material. Pinterest can be a helpful resource and some design information is available online, but if you design by Googling images, you are missing out on the typography and textures of printed materials. The same holds true for being inspired by art. The texture of an oil painting or the volume of a sculpture cannot fully be seen in an online image. Whenever possible, go to the library, an estate sale, or historic site. Experience the scale of contemporary architecture or the bounty of produce at a local farmer’s market. Take in the sensory aspect of the design process.
With the research for Pomp & Whimsy, “We landed on a lot of apothecary style cues,” explains River. The Pomp & Whimsy labels are all one color printed with the foil accents, taking inspiration from old books they found. “People are really intrigued by the color. It is a strong point of draw for us. There are 18 botanicals in there in total. There are a few botanicals that drive the gold color of it. There are raspberries that bring the pinky blush color.” Once they had developed their ideal spirit the clear bottle and label design were developed to show off the color of the liquid inside.
“The worst thing you can do is look at other packages for inspiration,” says Hester. “Look to art.” Hester wanted to capture the look of Upstate New York and evoke the American revolutionary era. They looked at old books and how they were embellished. They found inspiration in the typography of printed historical documents with the goal of translating these visual ideas into something that looks current on the Cooper’s Classic bottle.
Finding the right paper stock: Look for the texture, color and durability that will look good and last as long as the product
An illustration of a coupe cocktail glass and botanical theme became the center point on the Pomp & Whimsy design, which is featured prominently on ESTATE LABEL® Papers by NEENAH Packaging. “ESTATE LABEL No.8 is like a pair of jeans to us. Your favorite pair of jeans,” says River. “It has just the right amount of texture to it. It has the right amount of tactility.” River and his Meat & Potatoes team chose the white round label and designed a thin black wrap label to have enough presence, but leaving most of the liquid visible. The Pomp & Whimsy labels are all one color printed with the foil accents taking inspiration from old books they found. There is a seal label over the cork. The intent of the design was to bring a little bit of modernity with a deco meets modern look.
Ten years ago, River was working on a spirits project and discovered Neenah labels. The bottling plant was a wet environment. They were learning to ensure durability for home use where bottles can be kept in the freezer or an ice bath. At the time they did not know of many label products in the marketplace, so they were looking at manufacturers of wine labels, knowing that chilled white wine bottles need long lasting labels. Their printer, Labeltronix in Orange County, also made a version that they can strengthen even more for extreme conditions like ice baths.
The stock bottle structure Hester was working with led him to design a spot label for Cooper’s Classic. “We wanted to make it feel like a crest,” explains Hester. So when it came time to choose the paper, Hester knew it was the right time to try out an idea. His idea was to engrave on CLASSIC CREST®, Patriot Blue for this specific project. The process involved converting this paper into label stock. The Patriot Blue paper gave the bottle the rich textured look Hester was going for and avoided the white edges that are visible when colors are printed onto a white stock. He then called in the expertise of Studio on Fire in Minneapolis. “They are the masters of pressure based printing whether it be engraving or letterpress,” said Hester.
For paper, Bentley relied on her experience working in traditional offset printing. For Martine she chose Neenah Classic Crest Solar White Smooth label stock. “I know CLASSIC CREST products inside and out. I have confidence that what is on my screen is what will be produced, and that the paper will perform well. The color will be nice and crisp. The inks will lay down smooth,” explains Bentley. “I have never run into an issue of chipping, or the foil stamp not working right, when I print on CLASSIC CREST.” CLASSIC CREST Solar White played a factor in the final look of Martine. “It wasn’t a bright white, and also did not have too much cream in it,” she says. “The subtle texture was right. It is smooth but if you look closely you can see a tooth, which is important. It has a good feel too. I never want too glossy and slick or too flashy.”
Developing the design: Be thoughtful and specific
River explains that Pomp & Whimsy aims to tell a story of exuberance and fun, inspired by the whimsical and absurd moments in life. “What we strive for in our lives is the balance of these two things,” he says.
Bentley explores some honeysuckle imagery eventually leading the graphic representation of the flower that is on the label under the name. The plan for Martine was to be bottled in a simple amber bottle. “The colors needed to be rich. I like a blue. It feels regal and upscale. The gold foil compliments the amber. Hopefully the label does a good job at pulling people in and getting them to read all of the tidbits we want them to read.” For Martine’s Bentley mentions, “We spent a good deal of time looking at fonts. There is a lot of san serif condensed. The type sets reinforce the circle that goes around.” The name Martine in seraphim boldly appears in the middle for a classic look.
The signature of Martine creator Gary Kellerman can be found on the bottle on the lower label. “With design we are looking for a human element. Something that is organic, handwritten, and brings a personality to it,” says Bentley. “Adding the gesture of a signature does graphically provide that organic hand shape to juxtapose all of the harder lines and breaks it up graphically. There is a person behind this product.”
“You need to communicate the right things, so people will want to pick it up and learn more about the brand.” Says Bentley. “That's what I love about package design. Doing that all in a small amount of real estate.”
Finalize the details: To the letter of the law to follow
Pavement’s focus on culinary products has included several spirits projects, giving them plenty of time to keep up to date on the required elements needed get an alcohol product ready for sale. “Whatever it is—whiskey, vodka or gin—it needs to be very clearly labeled on the front,” Hester says. “The alcohol percentage and the capacity of the bottle have to be listed on the front in at least 8 point type. That information has to be on the lower third of the label. On the back you have to put that government warning. Repeat the alcohol percentage and the capacity. You also have to give the distiller’s statement.” Hester recommends becoming expert in these details. Clients will be happy when the designer brings that knowledge to the project.
When it came to addressing the legal information that needs to be on liquor bottles River explains how he approached including those details on the Pomp & Whimsy bottle. “We embraced it. We wanted to feature it. It is an important part of this brand that it is 30% to help people understand it is very drinkable. The essentials are right there up front that it is a classic gin.”
A glass bottle filled with liquor that needs some carefully thought out typography and graphic design to complete the story. Only then will it be ready to take its place on the shelf or in the hands of a talented bartender serving up a delicious cocktail. Cheers!
Julie is a freelance writer. She spends her time exploring the creative process. From artists, designers, and entrepreneurs, to whisky distillers, coffee roasters, farmers, chefs, and musicians, she focuses on stories of determination, innovation, and ingenuity. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, HOW Magazine, Angeleno, The Henry Ford Museum Magazine, Cool Hunting, The Bold Italic, KCET, AOL Travel, and Gothamist and many other food, design, and lifestyle publications.