Whisky & Culture

Drawing in the drinks

Art and commerce can be a potent cocktail and one of which distillers are becoming increasingly aware . Annie Davies looks at the success of designer bottles and labels
By Anne Davies
Atendril of smoke, a suggestion of peat, the delicate whisper of vanilla, or even, as in one celebrated case, a lick of Liquorice Allsort: blending whisky, composing the seemingly limitless number of tastes and fragrances into a magnificent drink, is akin to creating a masterpiece.As Seagram’s founder Samuel Bronfmann declared, “Distilling is a science and belnding is an art.” And now it seems, some whisky companies are looking to put art on the outside of their bottles as well as inside, by commissioning contemporary artists to design labels or in some cases redesigning the bottles themselves. At a time when the whisky companies are keen to court a younger, less traditional market, it is seen as a way to move away from the old kilt and cut glass image. It has certainly worked for The Macallan. Although the company proudly describes itself as a traditionalist distiller, its approach to advertising and label design is definitely 21st century.And it has a very strict philosphy and criteria when selecting their artists. “Their (the artists’) approach to their art mirrors The Macallan’s belief that you should have the confidence to do what you believe is right in your chosen pursuit of excellence, regardless of what others are doing around you,” says David Cox, Macallan’s global marketing controller. Except for when it came to selecting the artist, Peter Blake. He happened to be a friend of the previous chairman of The Macallan, the Hollywood script writer, Allan Schiach.The Macallan is no stranger to the world of art, having commissioned several high profile artists over recent years to enhance the company’s image. Artist Ralph Steadman, whose book Still Life With Bottle: Whisky According to Ralph Steadman (see Whisky Magazine Issue 6), took an irreverent look at the whisky industry and the people in it, helped The Macallan celebrate Private Eye magazine’s 35th birthday by designing a special label. Then in 1986 Peter Blake, the artist best known for creating The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper album cover, and the best selling ‘60s poster, Babe Rainbow, was asked to come up with a Roaring Twenties label for The Macallan 60 years old bottling. If Blake could cram such a lot of things and people onto the Sgt Pepper cover, Macallan thought, then imagine the amount of 1920s nostalgia he could squeeze on to one of its labels.The Roaring Twenties bottles proved a roaring success. According to The Guinness Book of Records, a single bottle of this particular Macallan was auctioned for £5,500 – a world record price for a bottle of spirit at that time.That record stood firm until 1993, when an anonymous auction bid for another bottle of The Macallan came in at £15,000, or roughly £600 a nip. So what’s made this particular bottle so collectable? Well, apart from the quality of the drink inside it, the limited edition label was designed exclusively by the celebrated Italian artist Valerio Adami.When The Macallan went in search of an artist to design the new label, it knew what it wanted, a striking mix of the old and new, something forward looking and eye-catching, but something that would also convey the traditional strength of The Macallan. And since The Macallan’s biggest export market was Italy, a design with a touch of La Dolce Vita was vital too.
Step forward, Valerio Adami. Hardly traditional, his label design was unlikely to feature any kilts, bagpipes or heather. With pieces called “Latrines a Time Square” and “L’Ora del Sandwice” decorating his CV, Adami is known to comment wryly on sex, eroticism and art in his work.So how would his visual comment on the whisky look? Well, it turned out to be the image of a naked woman admiring her own reflection in a bottle of, guess what? The Macallan 60 years old.Like The Macallan, Speyside distiller J & G Grant also went for that winning blend of the old and new when it came to celebrating the millennium. With only 600 existing bottles of the Glenfarclas 40 Years Old Single Highland Malt, it, too, commissioned exclusively designed labels, in this case from three contemporary Scottish artists.The aim was to put a modern spin on traditional values. Artists Stephen Shankland, Charles Hynes and Bruce Thomson were asked to design labels based around three of Scotland’s most beloved writers: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Each writer is represented by two works: Robert Burns by ‘Tam O’Shanter’ and the lesser known ‘The Jolly Beggars’, Sir Walter Scott by Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, and Robert Louis Stevenson by Treasure Island and Kidnapped. The result was a total of 30 full colour limited edition, numbered illustrations.Why did J & G Grant choose these particular artists and writers? The idea came from Roddy Phillips of the Aberdeen-based advertising agency Mearns and Gill whose aim was to market whisky and the image of Scotland in a more contemporary way. “It started with the fact that the 40 Years Old was a classic, so classic Scottish literature and poetry naturally sprang to mind,” said Roddy. “Initially we thought about very contemporary art work, but in the end we were guided by the text. It’s a way of selling Scotland without resorting to tartan and Scottie dogs.”In addition the bottles had to be collectable. With each work illustrated on five labels there are all sorts of collecting possibilities. Burns aficionados can collect the ‘Tam O’Shanter’ or ‘The Jolly Beggars’ labels, or both. Scott fans can go for Ivanhoe.The three Aberdeenshire-based artists given the task of creating these new images had three distinctive styles. Stephen Shankland is mainly a portrait painter. Charles Hynes, a book illustrator, and Bruce Thomson an etcher and printmaker.Since Bruce had already done some illustrations of ‘Tam O’Shanter’, he opted for the two Burns works. Charles Hynes concentrated on Stevenson, and Stephen Shankland on Scott. In fact if you look at Shankland’s Ivanhoe, you are looking at a portrait of the artist himself. Sir John Grant, the managing director, is very happy with the success the pictures have achieved, declaring: “Having nurtured this magnificent malt for so long, we are delighted that at the beginning of the third millennium it will also be seen as an ambassador for classic Scottish literature and contemporary Scottish art.”So we’ve gone from the stereotypical Scotsman grinning from posters back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the striking female nude on The Macallan label in less than 100 years. But what does this say about the changing face of whisky?Though most whisky-related art has retained its emphasis on quality, age and country of origin over the decades, it has reflected social trends and world events. When the army was posted abroad to protect the British Empire, for instance, those distant lands turned up in the advertisements too. And in works like the 1911 poster for Four Crown by William Fry it marks such major turning points in whisky history as the introduction of the water siphon, later to evolve into the ubiquitous soda siphon.Many of the images were brought in to break into new markets: soldiers to appeal to the military when the boys were overseas, horse-racing to appeal to the sportsman. That need to penetrate new markets is still there and more change may be in the wind. Now that we’ve entered the third millennium many companies see the future of whisky as lying with the younger market. That may come as shock news to those who thought of whisky as something drunkby whiskered gentlemen of a certain age. But the fact is, that although the image of the whisky drinker in the UK remains firmly rooted in the traditions of the past, with most whisky drinkers being over 35, it is a very different story overseas.Germany, for example, is in the grip of a whisky boom, with 20 and 30-somethings packing out fashionable whisky bars. It has also been the same story in places like Spain, Italy and Brazil. It is this growing popularity among the young, and the decline of the market at the upper end, that has prompted some whisky makers to re-think their marketing policies. The use of contemporary artists to design labels is just part of a move towards creating a different image for the drink.But does slapping art on bottles really boost sales? Or can it frighten off the more conservative buyer? “Contemporary design whether on labels, posters or packaging, will only work if there is some sort of rationale behind it,” says Jill Preston, marketing director for Seagram. “Art for art’s sake does not work.” She cites one example of successful modern design as the bottle for Chivas Brothers 1801, a contemporary idea that is still attractive to the more traditional drinker. Once again it’s a new design with its roots in the past. Yet it was conceived by accident. Back in the early 19th century a faulty bottle came back from the glassworks. The fault meant that the bottle could spin. Customers loved it and christened it the Revolve. The new version, with no label, and simply the word revolve embossed in the dark smoky glass around the base, has proved a winner. The simple modern design is reminiscent of an old ship’s decanter, and the gold embossed V signals quality. It pleases the younger drinker without frightening off the older. For other companies in search of younger customers, the changes go beyond the design of the bottle. Following a drop of almost six per cent in worldwide sales, Johnnie Walker has launched a revolutionary new series of television advertisements. Out go kilts, sporrans, stags and thistles. In come lifestyle advertisements featuring firemen and tightrope walkers among other things. According to a company spokesman, it is the result of research showing consumers were tired of roaring fires, cut glass and heather.What will ads featuring the star of the film Reservoir Dogs, Harvey Keitel, surrealist painter Salvador Dali and the thoughts of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard actually do? The folks at Johnnie Walker hope that people will look at whisky in a different way and associate it with their lifestyle. An insider at Diageo, the makers of Johnnie Walker, admitted whisky is being made to seem funkier to attract younger people. Is this the end then, for the Johnnie Walker character, which has been striding across whisky bottles around the world since 1820? No, it isn’t. He is still there, just in a more streamlined version. Maybe he’s been working out.