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The Said It Couldn't Work - Inside Craft Gin

“Carving out a new approach for bottle and stopper design was never going to be easy, especially when you get repeatedly told it’s technically not possible.” Graham Taylor

You know the feeling. You’re swimming against the current and nothing is going your way. You encounter one obstacle after another after another. Failure is waiting in the shadows. Waiting for the chance to sneak up and beat your confidence with a flat stick.

It’s at times like these when you must choose to either give up or keep going. It’s at one of these times that Graham Taylor, Crafty Distillery's founder, was pondering just that. Allow tens of thousands of pounds and many many months of graft to stay on the drawing board, or keep heading into the unknown. All because Crafty wanted a new bottle design, which should be simple right?

You probably never imagined that the tale of a glass bottle could be so dramatic. While it hasn’t quite made it to Hollywood yet (for the record, Graham’s open to offers), it does present a compelling insight into challenging convention, failure, success and something that we take for granted. Find out how a spirits bottle can be at the centre of all this. Join us as we peel back the curtain on creating a craft spirits brand.

We Taste With Our Eyes
Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate. Already you can picture the glossy purple packaging with it’s swirly writing. What does this have to do with craft gin and craft vodka? Travel with us back to 2014 when Cadbury successfully riled their customers like never before. When they provoked more fist-shaking and finger-waggling than anyone could ever have imagined. How?

Their customers were adamant that their beloved chocolate had been ruined by a change to the recipe. A change that made it sweeter. But Cadbury had done nothing of the sort. So what had changed?

The answer is nothing but the shape. The blocks of chocolate had simply been made a little rounder. The point here is that not just the visual information, but also the tactile and auditory information that our brains receive impacts perceptions such as flavour more than most of us realise. Far more in fact. And craft spirits are no different.

The Truth About Craft Spirit Bottles
“It’s not legitimate to separate product from pack. It’s a total experience you’re after. It’s an area more important than most people realise, yet you go to company after company after company, and packaging development is outsourced.” Dr Charles Spence – psychologist at the University of Oxford

It’s no wonder that today it has become necessary for some artisan spirit brands to pay design agencies an eye-watering amount to create just the right look and feel. With often great results. However, this was not always the case. If we go back a few years most craft gins were bottled in off-the-shelf glass that would then be given a brand flavour through decoration and or labelling. Crafty Distillery being one of them.

While Crafty Distillery managed to source a relatively unique bottle design, it was still in the mainstream thinking of the time. As Graham Taylor explains:

“In the first and second wave of new gin brands launching in the UK between 2010 & 2017 there was a range of mass produced glass designs available that were easy to get hold of, consistent and relatively cheap. With very few supply chain issues. They were inoffensive shapes yet recognisable, so ticked a few boxes. And importantly you didn’t have the cost of starting from scratch.”

“When this wave of craft gin brands that came out, us included, almost all simply didn’t have the money to invest in creating a new bottle designs because it’s super expensive and at the time for not necessary to achieve a brand that could stand out for the right reasons. This is the reality. But then you’re left with the problem, at it’s core it’s a generic product and as the market became more competitive with hundreds of new brands launching, brand uniqueness become ever more important.”

To make off these shelf bottles stand-out and convey the brand’s identity, the responsibility fell onto label design and decoration. Even generic bottles can look great with labelling alone. But as time went on, the team at Crafty Distillery realised that to be in-keeping with the brand’s culture of innovation, and to make some serious visual impact they needed to completely revisit the concept of packaging.

What Is A Bottle?
“We wanted to create something that was tangibly different. So that you know in your being from all your subconscious memories that you’ve not seen this shape before. It needs to NOT follow a design trend as trends get copied and run their course. Even if that means you’ll probably won’t be as successful in the short term. Now that’s a tough one to admit, but it’s the truth. Then there’s the question of what is a bottle? How can we think about this vessel in a new way that people have not thought about before?”

For Graham and the rest of the team at Crafty Distillery, creating something unique and different meant starting at the very beginning. Rethinking our relationship with the humble bottle, at a time when there were some easy wins following known trends in glass.

Of course a bottle, being a bottle, is constrained by certain parameters. For Crafty Distillery, one of these parameters was the material – glass. One of the unique angles though, was how can a bottle have a lower environmental impact, and within this, how can it be designed to have multiple uses beyond being just a vessel for gin? What Crafty describes as packaging with purpose. A new idea that simply hadn’t been explored before. 

“The thought of being able to create something locally in the UK was not only practical, it was also a much greener way of doing things. Why ship all this glass across Europe or farther when you can get it produced only three hours away and even better with 100% of the sand from Scotland. And why not reduce the weight and use less glass, less materials and less energy in the first place? So let’s make it in the UK. Let’s reduce our impact. Let’s create something that is totally unique, one that doesn’t follow a current design trend.”

Rather that outsourcing the design process, with his design background Graham was able to keep the whole process in-house. A big part of the goal was to create a gin bottle that had a very wide neck to open up the possibilities once it’s been emptied. Display flowers in it, keep pasta in it, serve water from it, even keep dog biscuits in it – anything to keep it in use for as long as possible.

“Isn’t that what the journey’s all about. If you can make something better, and useful, and purposeful, and reduce your impact, and delight consumers with something they haven’t seen before. Surely it’s worth the effort? Up until this point no-one had created a bottle for premium spirits that went beyond being used for a lamp after it was finished.”

“We just needed to find someone crazy enough to help us develop the ideas and manufacture it, so it works and doesn’t cost the earth!”

 Against All The Odds
“Why do you want the bore of the neck to be that big?” remarked one glass company.

“Well because we want the bottle to be used for many other things.” replied Graham

They came back with, “No it’s crazy, don’t do it, it won’t work!”

After going back and forth on the design between different glass companies for six months, the overwhelming response was that it wasn’t possible. But Graham believed in the design, and thought “Let’s just keep looking for someone who can get behind a step forward in glass design, and accepts it won’t be easy but wants to come along on the journey with us”.

“We sent the design into one company and they had this designer at the time who just thought differently. From the moment I spoke to him, he thought the design was so radical and he hadn’t seen anything like it before. I said to him, do you think it is going to work?”

“I don’t know. But let’s try.”, came the reply.

So work began to see if this design could work in the real world. Tweaks had to be made. A few compromises here and there. But progress was being made also which was encouraging for Graham and the team in Galloway. In reality though, this was proving to be a huge challenge for everyone involved.

“We started testing it. Because the bottle neck was so wide, it just kept on collapsing when it came out of the mould. It was the most tested design the manufacturer had ever trialled. They ended up sampling the bottle seven times. The most they had ever sampled a bottle before was three times!”

Everything they attempted just ended in failure. Again and again and again. Nothing seemed to work. The biggest issue was with the bore of the neck. It simply couldn’t hold it’s structure as it came out of the mould. With nothing but rejections and failed attempts, Graham was at a point where he was ready to cut his losses.

“I was prepared just to got back to the drawing board. To draw a line under the money we had invested and just accept that it wasn’t going to work.”

The Breakthrough
“They could see that we were getting close. And they genuinely wanted to make it work because it was innovative and unique. We just kept pushing until we got a phone call from the guys at the factory.” 

They said, “It’s worked, the final test has worked!”

The issue was around the temperature of the glass as it came out of the mould. Put simply it was too hot. The moulds are normally made from a hard alloy, that whilst being cheaper and easier, is not as efficient at radiating heat as other metals. Brass on the other hand is.

“Normally the moulds are made from a very specific metal. Which makes the moulds more cost effective, hard wearing and conducts the heat in a way that allows production at the speed that they want. To make the design work, although it was more expensive, they ended up making a part of the mould out of a brass alloy. This would conduct the heat better and stop the bottle collapsing when it came out of the mould, ensuring the machine can still run at the speed that makes production feasible.”

It was a breakthrough moment. After 18 months of design work, searching, trialling, and for the most part failing, finally there was light at the end of the tunnel. Graham’s bottle design was a reality and it ticked the boxes.

“For me and for Crafty. If we’re going to develop a liquid we’re going to take two years doing it. We’ll go to the absolute extremes to ensure that we create something that shouldn’t be this accessible at this price point. It’s only possible because we do everything ourselves. It’s the same with our packaging. We want to create packaging that delights, excites and attracts people, because they can see that we really care, and we’ve really thought about it. About reducing our impact. That we really care about innovative design that doesn’t jump on the current design trends.”

“What we’re also really proud of is that by making it 33% lighter we turned the idea that ultra premium needs to be heavy on it’s head for the consumer. We showed that lighter can still look and feel premium, and in the 2 years since it’s launch have witnessed other brands follow this thinking. For me that is the true sign of innovation, when others in the industry take note and see the benefit in the new thinking. Meaning that not only are we as a business saving around 12.5 tonnes of glass, which helps to reduce the CO2 used in production, shipping and recycling, combine that with a few other brands and the positive impact is really getting somewhere!

The result was a bottle that was lighter. It was manufactured as close to the distillery as possible. It had a multitude of purposes beyond containing gin. And it embodied Crafty Distillery’s innovative spirit. It’s a bonnie wee thing to look at too.

“The process was pretty special. Working with the glass company who put so much effort into making it work with their engineers. No design agencies involved, just myself, the guys at the distillery. So really, all in-house and a tribute to not taking no for an answer.”

Not Just Another Spirits Bottle
All the grit, determination and rejection that went into making this bottle a reality is hidden from the consumer, for the most part. It’s just another bottle that looks nice. But while we like to think that it’s the liquid inside the bottle that really counts, as we have seen with Cadbury, everything impacts the experience. And it needs to taste as good as it looks.

If we return to Charles Spence, a psychologist who has dedicated himself to the study of flavour, “Flavour perception is multisensory, with all of the senses, including vision”.

Our approach at Crafty Distillery has always been to closely examine every single variable. We see it as the only way to achieve a level of quality that matches our expectations. The differences are often nuances, but they all add up, and our bottle design is just one of those nuances. Take for example some of the other fine details that were carefully designed into our bottle.

Colours, shapes and textures have a much greater impact on flavour than people realise. The colour of our Hills & Harbour Gin bottle was chosen to reflect not just the vibrant and fresh taste of our gin, but also to encapsulate both the lush Galloway forests and it’s famous coastline. Plus it’s easy to find on a crowded shelf of gin bottles.

Nature is also represented in the embossed designs that run down the sides of the bottles. While it would be easy to assume they are there to provide a textured, grippy surface, they embody the botanicals that flavour our gin. Botanicals that come from the hills, the coastline, and the sea. Of course with the sun and the rain too.

But there’s also a bigger responsibility.
We believe every distillery has a responsibility to do better when it comes to environmental impact. So creating a lighter, UK produced, and multi-functional or upcyclable bottle was a big priority for our design. Adding all this together, we hope you can appreciate that it is not just another gin bottle. It may not be perfect (yes you get few drips when pouring sometimes), but we believe it’s an important step in the right direction.

Yes it also has a quirky stopper that can be a bit tough to open (we’re still improving that). However, when we looked at the stopper we thought to ourselves, “how can we make such a simple thing multifunctional”. The answer was to incorporate a wooden spirits measure into it. While some may find it a gimmick, it’s genuinely useful for others who like to measure their spirits. At the very least, it provides a moment to appreciate the level of attention that went into designing our bottle.

When you want to do something different, something new and innovative, there are many challenges to overcome. The wider neck that increases the bottle’s reusability brought with it a plethora of other challenges. Challenges like getting a big stopper to work consistently. The story of the stopper is an entire other journey in it’s own right. And the subject of another article.

For now, the next time you pick up one of our bottles, have a wee look at it a bit closer. And spare a thought for the spirit of innovation and graft that went into it.

“It just goes to show that there’s always room for advancing an area through innovation. You just have to care enough about doing something different, and accept that breaking the mould will not be fast or easy” 

If you enjoyed this story and want to discover how our Hills & Harbour Gin was created, you’ll love our article: Chicken Noddle Soup, And How It Became Gin!

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