How brewers and distillers are raising the bar

The colourful display of bottles behind a counter is always a sight to lift the spirits

Wine & Food

14 Jun 2017

There’s always one consolation as you stand at a busy bar waiting in vain to get served — you’ve got something nice to look at. The bar itself, that is. Alcohol is packaged with more skill, wit, love and flair than just about any other product, meaning that even in a bog-standard boozer the row of bottles is a thing of beauty. In a smart, stylishly lit bar, the display can be mesmerising. Apart from the curves and corners of the bottles themselves, along with the images and lettering adorning their labels, there’s the effect of the light coming through the liquid inside. Rioja-red here, whisky-bronze there, some dazzling clarity from the gin in between — a treat for your eyes as well as your tastebuds. In fact bars are so beautiful that I’m starting to worry they’ll attract the attention of the health fascists. For as long as people have been selling alcohol they’ve designed their products to stand out from the competition. The very first trademark issued in Britain was for the red triangle on Bass Pale Ale. The first trademark law came into effect on 1 January 1876, so a Bass employee slept outside the registrar’s office on New Year’s Eve to make sure he was at the head of the queue. Guinness trademarked its harp the same year: it faces to the right, meaning that the one on Irish passports has to face to the left.

But this was just legal protection for something companies had been doing anyway. The boar’s head you’ll find on the lid of every bottle of Gordon’s gin dates from the brand’s launch in 1769. It’s a nod to the legend in which a member of the Gordon clan saved King Malcolm III of Scotland from a wild boar while out hunting. The pleasing green tinge Gordon’s gives to any bar is supplemented by Tanqueray, whose own bottle shape was inspired in 1948 by that of a cocktail shaker. Haig Club whisky on the other hand, comes in a cobalt blue bottle as a tribute to the nosing glasses used by blenders: these are blue to stop them seeing what’s inside, making them rely on their noses.

While we’re on whisky: Johnnie Walker sloped his name upwards on his bottles so the lettering could be bigger (the exact angle is 24 degrees, in case you’re measuring), and made his bottles square so he could pack more in a crate. A century and a half later both features survive, while Johnnie Walker Black Label has a fan club that used to include Christopher Hitchens, who called it ‘the best blended Scotch in the history of the world — the breakfast of champions’. The black label you see on bottles of Jack Daniel’s, by the way, is in mourning for Mr Daniel himself. And should your venue provide Tabasco for its bar snacks, rejoice in the symmetry: the fiery sauce is matured in barrels previously used to age Jack Daniel’s.

If you’re feeling flush, order Jay Z’s favourite champagne Armand de Brignac – its label is made of polished pewter, as is the famous ‘Ace of Spades’ logo. Or if you want something harder examine the line drawing on that bottle of Stolichnaya vodka. It’s the Moskva Hotel, whose two wings were built to different designs because its architect submitted both as possibilities to Stalin, half the frontage in one style and half in the other. Not noticing that he was expected to choose between them, the Soviet leader simply applied his signature to the drawing, after which no one had the courage to point out his mistake.

History lessons are there all over a bar. That bat on the Bacardi bottle? The company’s first distillery had fruit bats — traditionally associated with good luck — in its rafters. The feather that forms the apostrophe on newer bottles of Cockburn’s port? The family’s coat of arms features a cockerel. The Courvoisier bottle, with its broad base and thin neck, is a reference to Napoleon’s Joséphine and her love of corsets (though some say it’s an inverted brandy glass). The horn in the Stella Artois logo refers to the original Den Hoorn brewery. And as with all the best designs, changes are constantly being made. Beefeater Gin has just added the London Eye to its Yeoman Warder image, while a few years ago Ballantine whisky came with a battery-powered label showing a graphic equaliser — it responded to whatever music the bar was playing.

All in all, the level of bartistry is so high that it surely won’t be long before the killjoys come knocking. They did it with cigarette packaging, so booze is the logical next step. A British Medical Association paper on the banning of attractive packaging for alcohol? Wouldn’t put it past them. I’d predict a call for all bottles to be displayed in brown paper bags, aping the park bench wino of lore, but that would imply a level of irony that the ’elf Nazis simply don’t possess.

So let’s get our retaliation in first. Let’s campaign for the great British bar and its vista of loveliness to be preserved. Maybe there could be some form of listing, as with buildings. Maybe we could get Jeremy Clarke to chain himself to the beer pumps, fending off Department of Health inspectors with the broken neck of a tequila bottle he’s just drained. Whatever — a plan of action is needed. If we snooze, they’ll come for our booze.


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