Friday, July 1, 2011

In Praise of Liquor Label Fussiness

The makers of Jack Daniel’s, the number one whiskey in the world, recent rolled out a new bottle image and simplified label, thus messing with what is arguably the most recognizable look in the liquor world. The new vessel is still boxy, but a more sharp-shouldered and smoother around the neck. The label, meanwhile, loses about half its text, including the words "Old Time" and "Quality."

I'm sure the market department could expertly argue that all that verbiage was a vestige of the past, and had no further practical purpose. And they'd be right. But value can not always be quantified. The ineffable and the extraneous can actually be that thing that quietly and inexplicably lends your product character, and you shed it at your peril. 

Me, I have always adored the copious amount of information that is crammed onto the labels of the liquor world's more historical elixirs. The are reminders of the bygone days when the look of a bottle of booze wasn't that much different from the vials of prescription medicine you'd obtain at the local apothecary. (This makes perfect sense, since the histories of booze and health-giving tonics have often crossed paths.) What's more, some of the more mysterious markings on a bottle are reminders of the liquor in question's long past, while also lending the liquor a certain mystique. What does "Old No. 7" mean? Nobody at Jack Daniel's knows. Yet they leave it on the label. Because it's a good marketing tool, yes, but also (presumedly) because it is part of Jack's legacy. 

Some of my favorite bottles on the shelf are those with the most crowded labels: George Dickel, Fernet Branca, Angostura Bitters, Bombay Gin (not the Sapphire), Pimm's No. 1.  They are works of graphic art that double as curious historical documents. 

Many old brands have been revamping their looks in recent years in an effort to make themselves newly sexy to the cocktail maker and the cocktail drinker. To my eyes, the revamps are always in the direction of sleekness, simplicity and a slick vulgarity. They go from bottle to branding device, and everything ends up looking like either a new-generation Scotch bottle or an elephantine perfume container.

The decision to change the Jack bottle was, of course, market-driven. "Given the worldwide economic situation and the increasingly competitive environment for premium spirits brands, we recognize the importance of having Jack Daniel's continue to stand out in the marketplace," said Jack Daniel's Managing Director John Hayes in a statement.

It already stood out. 

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