Whether we like it or not, marketing works. Wine sellers might recommend a customer, let’s say, a bottle of Glengoyne Scotch whisky based in part on its beautiful bright orange box—the perception being that a box, tube, or other piece of secondary packaging elevates the whiskey, especially when gifting. But that notion is beginning to change, as brands confront the environmental cost of standing out on the shelf by redesigning, or even dropping, their secondary pack.
“I think we need to retrain the brain a little bit,” says Douglas Taylor, the CEO for Bruichladdich Distillery. Bruichladdich is a certified B Corp and, in furthering its environmental efforts, will be dropping the aluminum tin for its Port Charlotte and Bruichladdich labels. “We’re more reluctant to give things up than we like [to admit] because we think they add value to our lives, but the reality is, when you start to break it down, they don’t.”
Taylor jokes that some Bruichladdich drinkers have asked where they’re supposed to keep their dog treats and loose change now. Mostly, he sees a modern drinker who understands that it’s a small sacrifice to make for a greater good. In 2021, the distillery launched its One Tin Lighter campaign—customers at the distillery and on its online shop could opt out of receiving a tin. Taylor says that roughly half chose to keep the tin. “I think perception has changed,” he says, but notes that above a certain price point, the single malt consumer still associates secondary packaging with traditional notions of luxury. “It’s a mindset shift that inevitably needs to happen.”
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Bruichladdich and Port Charlotte expressions tend to retail below $100, and the distillery plans to keep the tin for its higher-end Octomore line for now. The creation, transportation, and eventual discarding of secondary packaging is known to be harmful to the environment, and yet when consumers spend more, they want more. How, then, do brands balance environmental responsibility with what Taylor calls “an inherent desire” to heighten the romance of whiskey and the occasion of its gifting with packaging embellishment?
Finding a Recyclable Alternative
For Irish Distillers, striving for sustainability meant redesigning the hefty wooden box for its annual Midleton Very Rare release, which retails for $250. Starting in 2023, the whiskey now comes in a 100 percent recyclable box made out of paper-based material, one that claims to reduce water usage by 39 percent and fossil fuel emissions by 53 percent. The redesign was part of a broader packaging overhaul that includes dropping the secondary pack for Jameson and other lines.
Master distiller Kevin O’Gorman credits Gen Z, his own children included, and the growing alarm surrounding climate change for fueling a shift in consumer perspective toward prioritizing sustainability over perceived luxury. More dedicated whiskey drinkers are coming around as well. “A lot of those people understand that we can’t keep going the way we’re going,” says O’Gorman. “Packaging has to change and we have to change with it. It’s not really a choice anymore, we have to do it.”
The new Midleton Very Rare box sports a Celtic pattern with copper foil accents and what O’Gorman calls a tactile feel. “You can do so much in terms of packaging design now, particularly with cardboard. It looks fantastic and I think it’ll maybe attract more attention,” he says.
Taylor points to new principles composing a sense of modern luxury, one in which simplicity and detail are valued above maximalism. “Glass can be beautiful, and color can be beautiful, and paper can be beautiful,” he says. Brands that rely on secondary packaging are finding inventive ways to convey that sentiment to the consumer.
High-Design Packaging for Super-Premium Whiskeys
Glenmorangie, which is owned by Moët Hennessy, is collaborating with visual artists to create limited-edition secondary packaging for some of its whiskies. It started in 2021, when floral artist Azuma Makoto designed a specialty pack for its 18-year-old single malt. The following year, they commissioned illustrator Pomme Chan to create a decorative box for A Tale of the Forest.
Both whiskies retail at or above $100, and Luis Frietas, the general manager for Moët Hennessy’s whiskey portfolio, says that the artist collaborations are an effective way to reach new consumers by appealing to a shared sense of culture. At the same time, Glenmorangie anticipates these bottles, and their artful boxes, to carry additional cachet for whiskey drinkers.
“We are not expecting consumers to be overdrinking us to a point that these collector items will be depleted so fast, that the box just becomes a piece of collateral,” Frietas says. “We expect these to live for quite a long time in the consumer’s household, so we wanted to make them much prettier.”
Frietas says Glenmorangie drinkers have asked for a sense of continuity between these artist collaborations, so that they can be showcased together as a collection, and that the next release in the Tales series will likewise feature custom artwork. “For the foreseeable future, we see a continued collaboration to make that secondary package valuable to the consumer,” he says, “because otherwise it’s just a cardboard box.”
These brands aren’t the only ones rethinking secondary packaging. In August, Laphroaig announced it was shifting to a recyclable carton as part of its packaging redesign. In short, don’t be surprised this holiday season, when the luxury whisky you always stock looks or feels a bit different. As Taylor puts it, consumers are slowly learning to leave unnecessary packaging behind. “We believe in a future where there’s no unnecessary packaging,” he says. “There’s a task there, and it will take a bit of time to move away, but I see lots of businesses starting the move and I see a reality facing us.”
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Ted Simmons is a lifestyle journalist specializing in trends, features, and celebrity profiles. A good drink tastes better when it’s soundtracked by great conversation, and he is constantly considering the latest in music, movies, TV, and sports.