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The rise of custom glass and Gin’s race towards sexier packaging. Part One

Isle of Harris Gin Isle of Harris Distillery
Mermaid Gin Bottle
Warner's London Dry Gin
Tarquin's Treth
Downton Distillery EXPLORERS GIN
Haymans_ Bottle LineUp 300718
The Lakes Gin
Whitley neill gin square 2020
Written by Gin Foundry

If you ever get the chance to browse through a well-stocked spirits retailer and have even half an eye for detail, two things will jump out at you: The first is that almost all decent Scotch seems to come in a gift box nowadays. The second is that the Gin category eclipses all others when it comes to diversity of looks, from custom bottle shapes and crimped glass to added decorations and insanely neon liquid.

We’re often heard talking about just how sexy some of the gins that pass by our desk are -even going so far as to unleash entire paragraphs celebrating the beauty of them in each review. Looks sell a product, there’s no doubt about it, but we thought it was high time to look a little less closely at each individual bottle, instead zooming out lens right out to explore the matter in its entirety. Why has the Gin world become so obsessed with custom glass? And will the trend continue?

In this two-part insight article, we’ll look into everything that’s shaped the trend, starting with how we got here…

The Rise of Bespoke

In the complex mosaic of factors that contributed to the rise of bespoke bottles being prevalent in the category, three elements loom larger than the rest.

The first is obvious: a need for better shelf presence due to the increased number of brands contending for the same share of the market. Gin hasn’t just grown, it’s exploded, and whilst thousands (yes, thousands) of new offerings have emerged, the space available on the back bar at your local pub remains the same.  Yes, there are more Gin drinkers, but the amount of producers has risen in line, so there’s a great deal of competition. Consumers simply don’t have time to understand the intricacies of every Gin, so their first move is always going to be to judge a book by its cover.

Nolan Kane, Business Development Manager at Allied Glass (the bottle manufacturers behind some of the UK’s leading distillers) points to this as a key factor: “In both on and off trade the consumer has more choice than ever. A distinctive, well thought out package gives brands a fighting chance in a very competitive market. All of the key gin brands that have grown and continue to go from strength to strength are all in their own bottles.”

The second factor that has contributed to the surge is somewhat under-estimated – the influence and volume shift from bars and restaurants to shops and retailers. Only a fool would claim that Gin’s renaissance wasn’t hugely interweaved with the return of cocktail culture, classic serves and the rise of the bar trade. Gin was the bartender’s darling for almost a decade and this helped rehabilitate the spirit for a new generation. In our opinion, it’s genuinely hard to lay enough credit on the bar community for creating the spirit’s rise.

Never-the-less, their penchant for the spirit didn’t dramatically alter the bottles themselves, even if they were the ones making the contents cool again. The shifts to both the huge double digit overall sales increases in the category and the rise of better-looking bottles weren’t driven by the bar trade – they occurred when retailers focused in on Gin and began reporting insane sales growth of +40% and then +50% year on year. In essence, once home drinkers got into gin, the race to improve packing was on too.

Aesthetics, tactility, weight and storytelling all have renewed importance when a bottle has to stand on its own and convince someone to buy it. From around 2015 onwards that standard Oslo bottle just couldn’t cut it anymore and the race to create bespoke glass products raged.

In the supermarket/off license/online retail environment there’s no bartender to rely on for information, nor anyone creating a reason to try it by mixing it into a must-have serve. Shelf appeal is all that counts – a Gin now has to call to a drinker from across the supermarket and convince them – once in hand – that it couldn’t be put back.

It shifts the importance of design upwards – it is almost always the look and feel of the bottle that makes the first sale now, rather than the taste.

The third major factor is Gin’s new-found year-round appeal. Gin rehabilitated itself from your Granny’s cupboard to the garden, becoming a bona fide summer spirit, served in great big, ice-filled goblets. This really helped it cement its status as an acceptably cool spirit, eventually leading it to make its way to other seasons – namely the one in which we throw money around like we’re in a music video: Christmas.

Aesthetics always matter in the retail environment, but at Christmas that skyrockets. The season calls for highly giftable, desirable things. Beautiful things, luxury things, better-than-the-everyday things. Straight up, fade-into-the-background Gin just doesn’t cut it as a gift, but the same liquid poured into a beautiful bottle changes everything. Christmas and custom glass bottles go hand in hand.

There are of course other factors that have contributed greatly to the rise in bespoke glass, and they aren’t just Gin exclusives. Premiumisation has been a trend across all spirits, although Gin is the only one to have embraced custom bottles so wholeheartedly.

The past decade has also seen a shift in the importance of social media, both as a sales facilitator and a status lifter. Simply put, we live in a more visual, face value world, so in order to thrive in the Twitter and Insta age, a Gin has to look stunning. It works, too – we don’t know anyone in the Gin industry who didn’t catch sight of the new Mermaid Gin bottle on Instagram and feel their heart skip a beat. We clamoured for it, with little thought of the liquid inside (which is great, by the way, but that’s besides the point…).

In short, there are many, many factors that have created a category that’s brimming with bottle diversity, but chief of them all is a need to stand out.

Craft Comes Into its Own.

A huge turning point in the rise of bespoke Gin bottles was the Craft Distilling sector reaching maturity and being able to actually afford custom glass (both the set up costs and the minimum order quantity). The numbers required are not huge, but they are only reasonable to justify for those comfortably selling in excess of 50,000 units a year. Naturally, it took a while for brands to get over that annual production threshold.

The need for brands to tell a story above and beyond “we are small, we are local, we are craft” is important for those looking to expand their horizons. Those twee messages get you to a certain point, but to expand beyond your hometown you need a bottle that tells a national (or even a global) story. You need a brand.

Once craft distilleries reach a certain size, those who understand the need to have a strong identity look towards their bottles as a way of furthering the reach of their brand messaging. They either bring it in-line to better convey a consistent narrative, or they evolve it into something new. For many, projecting a brand identity or repackaging their product to better present their newly understood brand positioning happens incrementally and isn’t always a big overhaul.

That was certainly the case for 6 O’Clock Gin director Michael Kain: “We’ve never been scared of tweaking the bottle to make it better, including putting our name on the collar, introducing a wider spout for an easier pour and adding in a glass stopper. These details all reflect a desire to improve the presentation so that it accurately reflects the great gin.”

Bottles aren’t just a container for liquid, they are an extension of an identity and a distiller’s attitude toward their craft. As we mentioned above, they’re also often the first point of interaction a consumer has with the brand as a whole, so they need to convey a clear message.

If all that sounds like cynical marketing talk and you want to still believe bottles are mere flasks and undeserving of any embellishment, even on a basic level one must surely acknowledge that looks matter. It’s really difficult to take a producer’s claims that theirs is a world class gin if it’s plonked in a bottle that looks like nothing more than an afterthought.

This means that it can be very expensive to launch a Gin, now, because launching with a basic bottle comes across as naivety, rather than a lack of funds. Kain agrees: “Over the last year we have also seen more brands launch in their own bottle at the start of their brand life (such as River Test Distillery and Wessex Gin), emphasising how key this can be to launching and maintaining brand presence.”

Spend Some to Make Some.

When a brand moves into a custom bottle, it is often due to a renewal, refinancing or recommitment to future operations. It seems that often with that new drive (and often new cash injection) a step up is required to deliver on the increased expectations.

A story we hear time and again is that a good rebrand can dramatically increase the amount of sales as well as open up new opportunities. It’s something Michael Kain states unequivocally happened for 6 O’Clock: “When we moved from a clear bottle to our Bristol blue glass bottle sales doubled. Shape, colour and decoration are all factors. Discerning consumers value the whole package – liquid, story and packaging”.

Allied Glass’ Nolan Kane agrees too “One of the first that saw a vast increase in sales and credibility was Manchester Gin a few years back. Recently the Lakes Distillery has seen an immediate increase in sales from their bottle upgrade, which looks to continue as their new look bottle has raised their profile”.

We don’t need to give you insider stats for you to believe us when we state that the same is true for many who underwent similar dramatic transformation following their own reinvestment programmes. Whitley Neil moving from that pedestrian offering all those years ago into a black bottle with impact, Tarquin’s into their coastal look, and Warner’s into a round bottle – all have similar marked improvements. More recently, take the glory that is Isle of Wight Distillery’s Mermaid Gin. The transformation (and addition of pink it must also be noted) has catapulted the brand into a rate of sale that will make it the one of the top ten percentile of craft producers by mid 2021.

When done well, brands don’t just emerge a little better for it, they become an entirely different class of proposition, where existing sales rates increase and new opportunities start to approach them (as opposed to leaving all the work up to the distilleries to create new leads). Isle of Harris Gin is one such example – theirs is amongst the best selling gins in the country, yet they refuse to sell through any other means than their own cellar door. Theirs is a package so sexy that people go miles out of their way to grab a bottle.

In part two we look at the advances made in glass technology, the pitfalls there are for the brand owners who order huge volumes of customised units and what the future holds. You can read Part Two here.