Quick — picture a classic Western film. A grizzled cowpoke bellies up to the bar, shaking the dust from his spurs. “Whiskey,” he growls. An equally grizzled bartender nods and wordlessly slides a bottle across the bar, slamming down a single shot glass next to it.
What does that bottle look like? Maybe it’s clear with a simple yellow label à la “Tombstone,” or maybe it’s a tall, brown glass cylinder and a nondescript label like the ones in countless John Wayne movies. You might even catch a seemingly old-school Basil Hayden’s label while streaming HBO’s long-dead series “Deadwood.”
While there’s a lot of movie magic to be admired in these tales of the Old West, we’re here to tell you that the historical accuracy of its whiskey bottles isn’t necessarily one of them. Whiskey bottle design is a result of careful historical research for some, calculated marketing choices for others. (Basil Hayden’s? Wasn’t established until 1992.) The distinctive square shape of a Jack Daniel’s bottle is over a hundred years old, but the whiskey itself is older. The squat and bulbous Bib & Tucker bottle looks ancient with its molded letters right on the bottle, but first appeared in 2014. Why our booze bottles look the way they do also has to do with technological advances in glassblowing, and even with the U.S. government’s repeated attempts to regulate how we serve and consume alcohol.
Saddle up for a history lesson about American whiskey bottles, barrels, and bonding.
When it comes to marketing and design, American whiskey brands often play on images of hardy pioneers and rugged saloons, right down to the make and shape of their bottles. But bottle design hasn’t always been part of American whiskey production. Up until the turn of the 20th century, consumers usually bought their whiskey straight out of the barrel from their local saloon keeper or grocer. Higher-class bars might have had a cut-glass decanter inscribed with the whiskey’s name on it to pour out for customers. To transport whiskey home, patrons had their own personal flasks, with styles ranging from the utilitarian to the gilded and elaborately decorated. The Masonic Brotherhood had its own series of flasks for members, and Revolutionary War souvenir flasks became increasingly popular, especially at the centennial anniversary.
Distillers could finally take advantage of unique bottle shapes and custom embossing to make their product stand out on the saloon, grocer, or apothecary shelf.
As whiskey historian Michael Veach writes in his blog, Bourbon Veach, 19th-century distillers soon wised up to the advertising possibilities, especially at grocers. Advances in printing technology made large-scale advertisements featuring beautiful women and hardy men soon popped up behind the grocer’s counter, extolling the medical and social benefits of specific brands of whiskey. Veach explains that E.H. Taylor, Jr. was one of the first whiskey distributors to recognize that by making his barrel stand out, he might rack up more sales. Taylor added bronze hoops and elaborately embossed tops to his barrels in the 1870s, and others soon followed suit.
Then came the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, and everything changed. The legislation strictly regulated how whiskey was sold — and it was much needed. By the turn of the century, disingenuous saloon keepers were regularly tinkering with the contents of their whiskey barrels, stretching profits by adding water, caramel coloring, and even more dangerous additives like methyl alcohol and formaldehyde. To protect consumers and producers, the Bottled in Bond Act allowed distillers to use a label to verify that their spirit was produced by a single distillation during a single season, aged in a U.S.-bonded warehouse for at least four years, and bottled at 100 proof.
Advances in glassblowing during the late-19th century also allowed for a wider variety of bottle shapes and sizes, too. Nearly all commercially produced glass bottles were still hand-blown before nationwide Prohibition began in 1920, according to the Society for Historical Archaeology. But industry innovations in mold-blown glass really started to take hold in the 1880s and 1890s, as more and more distillers saw the opportunities to distinguish their whiskey from the competition beyond label design. Distillers could finally take advantage of unique bottle shapes and custom embossing to make their products stand out on the saloon, grocer, or apothecary shelf. Take Jack Daniel’s: In the 1860s, Daniel first sold his Tennessee whiskey in earthenware jugs with cork stoppers. The distillery began using a distinctive square bottle in 1895 — unlike most other whiskeys of the day, which were typically produced in long-necked, cylindrical bottles.
Today’s whiskey bottles run the gamut in shape and design, from those long cylinders housing Booker’s and High West to the no-nonsense “dandy flask” shape employed by Bulleit and Fireball to the elegant “coffin flask” style of Angel’s Envy. Other brands purposely conjure a mid-19th-century era with their storytelling: Bib & Tucker Small Batch Bourbon employs prominently embossed bottles and old-timey scratchboard advertising evocative of the 1870s and earlier. Even the bourbon’s name harkens back to the Old West — wearing your “best bib and tucker” once meant donning your best Sunday clothes.
Theo Rutherford, director of wine and spirits education for Deutsch Family Wine and Spirits and Bib & Tucker, says that the team wanted to bring apothecary bottles to mind with its bottle design and focus on quality without being too precious. The heavy embossing on all Bib & Tucker bottles, as well as the squat, short-necked format (now known as the “union oval flask” shape to historians) were popular design elements from the 1860s through the 1890s.
When designing the vessels for their Double Char Bourbon, Rutherford says the team was influenced by the “brash and bold attitude” of that same time period.
“We didn’t want it to be something that was gimmicky,” says Rutherford of the “rough and tumble” bottles. “But we wanted it to feel like every time you picked it up, there was something substantial there.”
From a historical perspective, the weighty vessel would certainly look right at home in Deadwood, S.D., in 1877, right there alongside barrels, decanters, and maybe a long bottle or two — and no Basil Hayden’s in sight.
The article Why Whiskey Bottles in Western Movies Look Faker Than You Think appeared first on VinePair.