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Why luxury spirits command high price tags

Luxury spirits producers are turning away from the bling designs of old to embrace heritage, provenance and craftsmanship in their packaging, Becky Paskin finds.

The time spent on manually producing a luxury decanter or spirits packaging is vastly underestimated

First impressions count, particularly for those consumers keen to make a statement by splashing the cash on a prestige Scotch or Cognac. But the first contact made with a luxurious spirit is not the initial whiff of sultanas and toffee on the nose, it’s the impression made by the bottle itself.

By definition new prestige spirit releases command high price tags, which must be reflected through the quality and design of the packaging to give buyers a sense of value for money, particularly when those consumers are spending anywhere between £500 to £1 million.

While some producers opt for the “less is more” approach, choosing modest designs to highlight the liquid as the primary focus, others address a common consumer desire to generate awe and jealousy among friends, colleagues and even strangers through ostentatious packaging.

Precious stones, sparkling surfaces and extravagantly-shaped bottles have all been exploited in the past to convey a sense of worth, but with the prestige spirits market growing faster than any other spirits category – 16% volume in 2011 (IWSR) – producers are seeking ways to differentiate their releases to ensure they retain an element of exclusivity.

“More and more clients wish to develop high-end brands,” says Stéphane Decaux from Baccarat’s flaconnage bottling department. “They wish to offer a combination of tasting experience, quality, refinement, craftsmanship, prestige and scarcity. They wish to offer something that is not affordable to the majority. By developing bespoke decanters, we are responding to a need for differentiation, excellence and high quality; representing true heritage, luxury products.”

Since the economic crash, excellence and high quality has come to adopt a new meaning. With the post-recession world now pursuing nostalgia and heritage, the bling designs that were sure to attract attention in the past have been replaced by a new-found reverence for traditional skills and craftsmanship, with a product’s life story now more important than ever before.

Maison Hardy sourced the finest designers and craftsmen for its Printemps release last year


“Core to our strategy and approach on packaging is the idea of truth,” explains Jeremy Lindley, global design director for Diageo. “The start point for us always delves into that and has a good look at the stories behind the product – who’s created it, where it’s from, how it’s made, or what’s unique about it. Sometimes we go all the way back to John Walker, or we may focus on the master blenders and distillers of today.”

In the same way an antique’s worth is heightened by an interesting story, greater value is bestowed upon prestige spirits that are accompanied by a tale of its origin, which can often be older than the purchaser themselves.

The most successful packaging designs therefore are those that can communicate that heritage while remaining aesthetically attractive.

Diageo, which first attained a Royal Warrant from King George V in 1955, only collaborated with other Royal Warrant holders to craft the packaging for the £100,000 John Walker & Sons Diamond Jubilee release in 2012, created to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation.

Diageo offered the first of 60 decanters produced to the Queen herself as a gift, before the rest were offered for private sale with the profits donated to the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST).

The Dalmore Paterson Collection meanwhile, thought to be the world’s most expensive Scotch collection on the market at £987,500, was created purposefully to celebrate the craftsmanship of master distiller Richard Paterson, who has worked with parent company Whyte & Mackay for 40 years.

The 12-bottle collection, which is presented in a bespoke wooden cabinet, comes complete with a personal, hand-written ledger capturing Paterson’s thought process as he chose each whisky, naming each one after the people who have influenced his career, from his own father and grandfather to the founders of Whyte & Mackay.

“When people are spending a lot of money on a luxury product they want to feel it’s something that’s been touched by human hands and skill, and not mass produced,” explains Bob Dalrymple, Whyte & Mackay’s global marketing controller for malts. “When you start with that kind of product story, when it’s all about the liquid, you’re starting from a good place. It’s not about flash, it’s about substance.”

Scotch producers invariably seek out Scottish designers for luxury releases


Stories chosen to convey a brand’s heritage have ranged from royal ties and Viking ancestry to famous expeditions and national independence, but none would be truly authentic if a part of the packaging did not pay homage to the liquid’s provenance.

Scotch producers are increasingly looking to craftsmen based in Scotland for their packaging solutions, in the same way Cognac producers are using more French designers.

The John Walker & Sons Diamond Jubilee is a prime example of packaging used to communicate a product’s provenance.

The decanter and two bespoke glasses are presented in a box crafted by NEJ Stephenson – cabinet maker to Queen Elizabeth II – from English oak and Scottish pine from the Sandringham and Balmoral estates, as well as a selection of other indigenous Commonwealth timbers to not only heighten the royal ties of the whisky but communicate the whisky’s source.

“A large part of the sales process for the box was around the provenance of the material and skills of the craftsman, whereas quite often in projects the craftsman is ignored,” says Neil Stephenson, managing director and founder of NEJ Stephenson.

Meanwhile Cognac producer Maison Hardy has traditionally collaborated with French crystal design studio Daum for its luxury products since 1981. Maison Hardy famously achieved a Guinness World Record for ‘Perfection’ – the world’s most expensive decanter of Cognac at US$3,750.

“Although my father who produced ‘Perfection’ was a forerunner, at the time everybody thought he was crazy,” says Benedicte Hardy, brand ambassador for Hardy. “Our competitors couldn’t believe anyone would pay that kind of money for a Cognac in French crystal packaging, but now that I see everyone going into the luxury spirit segment, I laugh. Now they believe in it.”

Maison Hardy has since moved on to collaborate with another French crystal producer Lalique for its Four Seasons series, the first of which is Printemps due for release this October. However, as Hardy found, sourcing the very best designers in the liquid’s country of origin can be tricky. “Our leather presentation box is made in Spain, as we could not find the quality we needed in France, but with the Spanish expertise in leather, it was the next best thing.”

The Glenfarclas and Hine 1953 Auld Alliance obelisk was handmade to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee


As Lindley points out, it’s also the element of human interaction that makes craftsmanship so appealing when it comes to luxury spirits packaging.

“People are intrigued by what goes into the development of a product, and where the expertise and ideas come from,” he says, adding that the design process for a luxury launch can usually take up to two years. “It’s understandable when you consider the level of work, design and craftsmanship involved.”

For Stephen Paterson, managing director of jeweller Hamilton & Inches, which created the bespoke bottle collar, stopper and keys for the presentation box, as well as the silver work for The Dalmore Paterson Collection, crafting by hand is of utmost importance.

“Machine engraving is engraving with no soul,” he laments. “You may only have six bottles to do, but because you hand engrave each one there are subtle differences, making each bottle unique.”

Baccarat’s Decaux agrees: “It’s a real challenge to develop a decanter. Nothing is automatic and this is the chief difference with mechanised production and the signature of hand-crafted glass.”

For those concerned this preoccupation with craftsmanship could cause brands to seem outdated, Lindley argues that the trend has actually encouraged a new era of design.

“It’s actually been exciting in the way it’s bounced into an edgy, creative, fun expression of a lovely old set of values,” he claims. “I’m a big fan of the design eras where people valued craftsmanship, decoration and joie de vivre, which I feel we’re rediscovering now.”

Whatever the design, whether chic and understated or bold and punchy, luxury spirits packaging should strive to add noticeable value to the overall product and generate excitement around the exceptional liquid it conceals within. After all, as Hardy summates: “Why should something so exceptional be in a plain package?”

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