Bottles, I’ve got a few. I guess that’s only sensible, being a bartender and all, but for the sake of this piece, it’s the bottles themselves I’m interested in.
A spirit manufacturer recently asked me about bottles. They were looking to redesign the bottle shape, and were interested in my opinion as both bartender and consumer. Over the course of this discussion, I realised firstly that the two opinions were very different, and secondly, that I hadn’t really given it much thought before.
As a consumer, first and foremost I want something that catches my eye. As consumers go, I’m pretty well acquainted with drink brands, so I look for something I don’t recognise. Even if I can’t recognise the label, I can spot bottle shapes and colours a mile off. Something I don’t recognise peaks my interest. Once attracted, I want the bottle to give some indication of its contents. Whisky bottles are characteristically traditional, with curved shoulders and a tapering base; gin bottles usually shorter and more compact. Something outside the norm either suggests thought has gone into the packaging and therefore the product, or that style might be winning out over substance; it’s 50:50 without knowing more! As a rough rule of thumb, the taller the bottle, the more ‘premium’ it’s intended to be.
Once I’ve got the bottle in my hands, weight is good. It gives a feeling of quality and makes the ritual of pouring all that more satisfying. Whilst on the quality thing, poorly made bottles with obvious seams are out, but so are over-engineered architectural pieces (I’m particularly looking towards Cognac when I say this) – it’s a fine line. Embossing is good. Etching is good, but not over more than 50% of the bottle’s surface otherwise I think you’re trying to hide something.
To side-track for a moment, all of these characteristics (weight, embossing, acid etching and the like) were originally developed to protect the brands. They’re all expensive, time consuming and fiddly, but helped to tell originals from fakes, and in doing so, protect reputations. This is not such an issue in today’s Western markets, but in China, bottle design has gone to quite extreme levels to protect the contents from forgery. Many Chinese spirits now come with elaborate glass, metal or pottery decorations and locks, some of which must be smashed or cracked with a special key to access the spirit inside. Not only does this make forgery more expensive, it prevents re-filling of the bottle afterwards. Unfortunately, you need safe-cracking qualifications, a mallet and a fine strainer to get the bits out afterwards!
As a bartender, my requirements are somewhat different. I have two places to put my bottle: either on the back bar where all can see, or in my speed rail at waist-height where I can access it quickly and efficiently. The latter has limited dimensions. Your bottle needs to fit, and be roughly the same size as all the others or, no matter how lovely the contents, we’re just not going to use it. The back bar location is the prime spot, and there is a constant battle to fill it. Brands vie for prominence with bigger and better bottles – taking up more than their fair share of space to exclude the competition (again, I’m looking at you, Cognac). The bartender, however, wants variety as well as quality and would prefer three smaller bottles to one huge lump of glass.
One last point from the bartender – opaque bottles are intensely frustrating and good for only one thing – 15 year olds raiding their parents drinks cabinets and hoping not to be noticed (oh, and maybe hiding unpleasant egg liqueurs)!