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

Lakes Gin bottle
Cuckoo Gin
Folklore Gin
Downton Distillery, Explorer's Gin, Downton Gin
Twisted Nose
Written by Gin Foundry

Following on from part one, where we discussed the rise of custom glass bottles in the Gin industry, we’re looking at what brand’s experience when they move to a custom mould and what the future holds for packaging in the Gin in general…

More than glass blowing

‘Going custom’ isn’t just about shapes, nor about simply embossing and debossing anymore. Over the last four or five years, glass manufacturing has pushed itself to be in a position to create some spectacular bottles. Decoration (what’s applied to the glass) has also rapidly evolved through both printing and spraying onto bottles.

Colour tinting the glass so that off-the-peg shapes are made available in different, unique colours is quite common practice. Gradiating a colour onto the glass and baking it in is now possible, almost fooling the eye into thinking the glass itself must be gradually different in colour. Look at brindle’s Cuckoo Gin and the way that fools the eye, or how Mermaid Gin achieves a dual tone to mimic the sea. Equally look at the way that Isle of Harris Gin applies colour to the base that tricks the viewer into thinking the whole bottle is tinted blue.

Now it’s possible to print layers of colour directly onto glass, including metallics and in a 360-degree manner – a feat that was not just incredibly expensive to do on a flat facia a decade ago, but only the preserve of a couple of glass decorators. Have a look at Folklore Gin to see just how much detail is now possible.

These methods of adding a personal touch have not only diversified what is being done but have also reduced the barrier to entry. Advanced decoration might make the price per bottle go up, but not having to deal with tens of thousands of pounds worth of mould making set up costs, or the 20k+ unit minimum glass order per batch, has resulted in smaller players being able to enter the arena. While it’s merely clever decoration and semi-bespoke, the result is that they have what we drinkers perceive as a completely custom offering.

The likes of Downton Distillery’s Explorer’s Gin is a product that has done just that – a highly giftable, beautiful package, made from an off the peg glass and decorated in numbers of less than ten thousand. It’s expensive to do and the unit cost is high, but the impact is so far beyond the sum of its parts that it allows it to out-compete others on shelf.

Of course – it will be those who can combine both bespoke mould and imaginative decoration who will benefit most and be hailed as the ones leading innovation. Warner’s and William Chase are some great examples of two established gin distillers who have managed exactly this.

A Crack in the Glass?

Be it the trends spurring it on, the reduced barrier to participate or the sheer competitiveness of the market, what’s clear is that heavily customised and completely bespoke bottles have played an important role in shaping the brands succeeding in the category, as well as the overall look of the Gin shelf today.

The results for those who got it right are clear to see, and have played a large part in establishing the better-known craft offerings today. As the 6 O’clock Director puts it: “We found that having provenance and an amazing gin was not appealing enough in a noisy marketplace.”

A big question for new producers and those looking towards custom bottles is whether or not it will continue to have the same impact it had on those pioneer brands. We’re not so sure it will. The attitude is different now and when it comes to gin, it is expected that producers have an offering that looks the par. It’s not ‘if’ you will use custom glass anymore, it’s how creative, stand-out and stunning your creative packaging is going to be.

Converting an average package into a great one isn’t getting ahead anymore; it’s merely staying level with the competition. Twisted Nose for example looks far better in its new skin, but arguably it’s years too late for that alone to be a game changer for it as a brand. As for the newbies, the entry level to compete is much higher, so a great package merely earns it the right to be on shelf, but no longer has the ability to leapfrog a competitor as it once did.

Reduced potential gains aside, one of the interesting and far darker areas that will start to play out is one many producers don’t see until it is too late. The pressure of minimum order quantities placed on cashflow balancing is extreme and can ring the death bells for those who haven’t changed their way of thinking about where value lies or even running a distillery’s operations. Put simply: it requires a different brand building attitude and more evolved business practices.

This is at its most brutal and self-compounding with medium sized but declining brands. It’s impossible for them to move back to a boring, off the peg solution without essentially declaring their total state of demise as a brand, but tighter cashflows due to reducing incomes and uncertain future forecasting become excruciating when dealing with lead times and the possibility of dwindling sales.

Short-term’ism simply can’t exist for those having to deal with custom glass minimum order quantities, and we’ve heard many struggle with the change in mentality which is required to make a success of it, especially when they are confronted with a negative spiral that prompts them to fall back on old business methodologies and the reactive solutions that helped them rise up in the first place.

Ongoing business management aside, that shift in mentality is also an issue for those who have misjudged their custom bottle design and are growing faster than expected, too. Allied Glass’ Nolan Cane points this out and suggests that “Sometimes basing your design on short term aspirations can create problems as your brand grows. Underestimating the impact of a well-designed bottle and the ability to scale that product can create headaches in the future. There are many examples of brands in the market that have a bottle with features that don’t allow them to run down a filling line which makes it harder to scale a product”.

Crystal-balling the Future of Glass Bottles…

It seems that the future of custom glass in the gin category will be an interesting one to watch evolve. The bottles act like a prism, hiding a spectrum of areas that make it a surprisingly colourful world of intricate details that must be mastered to ensure success.

One thing is for certain, the innovation in the category will ensure that Gin will not stand still, and even when this boom does come to an end, when it comes to packaging the bar has been raised permanently. It will not go back to the dark days of dull bottles. Those who survive this era will be those who matched world class liquid coherently with world class storytelling done through clever, tactile and eye-catching designs.

Combine this with new advances in technology, better ways to be environmentally sustainable and a renewed emphasis on up-cycling and you can expect this area to come into much sharper focus in the years to come. That’s not just for gin either, as the next spirit wanting to don the Emperor’s clothes will have to live up to the precedent the category has set for a new generation of spirit drinkers.

Consumers now associate Craft with incredibly complex, beautiful and complete propositions. No matter which spirit takes the reigns from Gin, the biggest, best and most successful offering will be the one whose bottle makes your jaw drop to the floor.