Evolution of Whisky by Design


Whisky is one among those few Historic products that have long since been a means of expression, of freedom, creativity, rebellion, class and social change. But how has whisky maintained its traditional roots and still conquered the spirit world (Pun intended!) of today? The answer is evolution!

Uisge Beatha or the ‘Water Of life’ aka, whisky became a popular spirit when monks started freely distilling it in the Scottish and Irish highlands near the 15th century. From then to now, whisky evolved from a raw, almost undrinkable poison to a refined, diverse and widely sought after spirit crafted to perfection. But how did whisky manage to retain its supremacy? The answer lies in Darwin’s theory of Evolution

Way back in the 19th century Charles Darwin explained how species evolve through the process of ‘natural selection’ and systematically mutate in order to survive and thrive in their given environmental conditions. Over time, small genetic mutations in certain species give them a competitive advantage in the game of life. The weak give way to the stronger and the crude, to the more refined.

It’s been observed that the same theory of evolution can be applied on design and marketing is well. It’s no surprise that evolution in itself is a magnum-opus, ever changing design. So let’s explore how the same concept can be used to explain the evolution of whisky from just a drink  to an experience. How has the ‘Design’ of the whisky ecosystem evolved.

The evolving world of whisky consumers

The quintessential whisky drinkers are changing, and so is their whisky.  Historically depicted as a man’s drink, whisky has now adapted for a wide array of consumers, cultures and concepts, blurring the lines of gender as it seems. Resonating its fluidity and dynamic nature in its approach to consumers too.

Let’s be honest, how else will a faithful Scotsman be ok with a single malt cocktail? Up till a few years ago (And even today by the more radical ones) this would have been blasphemy (Here’s my favourite one). As Darwin said, the challenge is to see how one organism (Read whisky) fairs against its competitors to go on to rule its given environment. There are two factors that help in the case of whisky:

  1. Whisky has, due to its popularity, travelled to every part of the world, influencing and being accepted as a part of their specific cultures.
  2. The evolution of consumers in their diversity of choices has brought the prestige of consuming whisky to all types of personalities.

Let’s explore how this has brought about a drastic change in the design of the whisky Eco-system.

The first thing that changed was communication. Ads went from overtly manly (And patronising) to more diverse, relaxed and values oriented. The unapologetic masculinity and maturity of the drink gave way to a more inviting, recognisable and relatable communication. A driving force for this was brands realising that they needed to reach out to the masses of consumers that had been long since alienated; namely young(er) consumers and women.

JW

Johnnie Walker probably embraced this evolution best with its strong storytelling and attention to the values of the brand rather than who should be drinking it. The ‘Keep walking’ slogan took up a whole new meaning and their marketing became more about amazing content gathered from, and produced for the evolved and interrogative consumers of today. There recent short film Dear Brother showing how aptly Johnnie Walker uses their storytelling capabilities.

The reason why this works is simple and brings me to my second point.

Consumers are more intelligent than you think. After so many years of advertising, expansion of consumerism and seamless spread of information, consumers have learnt how to choose brands that identify with them not because advertisers told them to but because they are consciously selecting what they wanted.

Thus came the rise of inbound marketing. Darwin’s notion of elimination once more in play as leading whisky brands started creating content designed for consumers looking to be educated and engaged. Here’s where mainstream becomes less important and other forms of communication takes precedence.

Enter innovation by design!

At the risk of repeating myself, we all know by now, the importance of design as a framework for evolution. In the world of whisky, design broke out in the most unique way taking the experience of consuming it out of the bottle and into the consumer’s very environment.

This is why they had to up their game:

  1. More players in the market. Traditionally popular Scotch and bourbon now competes with Canadian and Japanese whiskies.
  2. Consumers are diverse, younger and curious and more widespread than ever. Moreover, they are changing and its them that now control the brand
  3. And as a personal assumption (#Fangirl) Whisky is just too complex and precious to come out of a bottle and finish with a gulp.

Hence the focus shifts from mindless communication to invasions in design and experience

Whisky in the bottle – evolution in package design

Innovations in bottle design for the sake of convenience and character have been happening for centuries. There’s no denying the fact that bottle design is imperative to keeping the strong tradition and trademark of each brand alive. The iconic rectangle design for Johnnie Walker was created so that more bottles could be fit into a shipment box in comparison to the traditional round designs. It has never changed since.  There is no denying the fact that brand icons such as these can’t be changed, but does not mean it can’t be created upon.

Enter impressive packaging and limited editions that are as god as art installations.

J&B’s ‘human skin’ tattooed bottle

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Or have a look at what agency, LOVE created for for whisky brand Johnnie Walker As part of their design of a new ‘experience space’ in Shanghai, referencing the Chinese decorative style of blue and white porcelain, depicting their mythology

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And then there is Ballantine’s master piece

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Apart from there collaborated efforts to reach niche markets there also have been upgrades in packaging to meet (and sometimes surprise) the design ethos of the new markets.

In some cases like Tamdhu

Picture6The new Glenmorangie range

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Package design moves away from the traditional, round bottles to a more stylised, crystalline avatar that looked simply beautiful.

That my friends, is whisky breaking out from its traditional shackles, but not necessarily abandon it, to explore a more global design language that everyone understood/appreciated.

So design evolves to the taste of its consumers, hence connecting with them, HENCE. Surviving. Cheers Darwin!

Design, to connect with consumers, evolves with their tastes, thus surviving. Cheers Darwin!

Evolution outside the bottle

The next spree of design and innovation came in the form of creating an experience of drinking whisky. Darwin’s evolution theory when applied to marketing suggests that consumers have evolved to expect brands to earn their interest rather than just sell to them. The whisky industry understands this and as a result they have been able to beautifully mix the mysterious complexities of whisky with well-designed experiences.

The common practice that can explain this change are food and whisky tasting events. Gaining popularity all over the world, such events aim at defusing the perceived intimidation and harshness of whisky (Especially single malts) with food, something everyone understands and relishes. This has given way to numerous gastronomic experimentations around the consumption of the liquid sunshine

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Brands like Singleton have taken Designing experiences to new levels. Similarly, Ballantine’s new Digital tasting room equipped with a digital table and a  Story Room with a 360-degree immersive projections designed to transport guests to parts of Scotland that are key to the brand’s story. Other brands have taken to creating well designed spaces that seamlessly blend the traditional and the new age. A great example (and my personal favourite) is the renovated Auchentoshan Distilary in Glasgow. A circular tasting table, lovely blends of colours, a great museum and charming attendants all contributing towards a great experience.

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The experience in a glass

This part of the whisky ecosystem has been the most evolutionary and integral in terms of design. Choosing your glass is a lot about personal preferences. What fits better in your hands, lets you nose, taste and perfectly compliment your palate. However, that has not stopped the evolution of glass designs from the 16th century Quaich to the 2013 Glencairn glass

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A simple design that lets the drinker enjoy the nose and yes its robust and functional. For more please checkout Brief History of Drinking Vessels

To the newest and beautifully organic design of the Norlan Glass

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This Kickstarter product wants to improve whisky drinking experience by adding internal “fins” within the double-walled structure to create wave-like movements in the liquid when the vessel is swirled, thereby airing it.

This causes the ethanol in the alcohol evaporate, releasing the scents within the alcohol and creating a stronger impression of the flavour while nosing.

And speaking of science and planning to participate in one of the space, check out this whisky glass

And this amazing interactive glass from Suntory that comes with its own special tasting room.

At the end of it all its one thing is clear, whisky is one of  the rare products that has been and will continue to blend traditional values and new age design evolution. As Darwin said – it is not the strongest of species that survive, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.

Slainte evolution!

Vedshree Sanghania

I am loud mouthed, talkative, forever excited dreamer. I enjoy the mountains, the occasional afternoon naps, rattling brain storming sessions, street food and my obsession for all things Scottish.. During other times, I am busy applying Design Thinking to marketing and management practices.

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