Wine & Spirits

Authentic Stories

Posted: September 17, 2009 by
Ron Romanik

Today's successful wine and spirits bottles connect with sophisticated consumers by telling an authentic story visually and verbally. The problem with the tequila category is that the brand stories could become quite similar, as most tequila comes from a relatively small region in western Mexico where there are currently over 100 distilleries making over 2,000 different brand variety names.

The finest tequilas are made from 100% blue agave plant juices. For the uninitiated, fine tequilas are best enjoyed slightly chilled, straight, and sipped, and fine tequila bottles are often hand-blown in the rich Mexican tradition. The word tequila can be considered a brand that is promoted and protected by an organization known as the CRT (Regulating Council of the Tequila, A.C.). The CRT objectives concerning packaging authenticity include registering new distilleries by assigning them a "NOM" number and making sure that all premium tequilas that claim to be 100% agave are authentic and bottled in Mexico.

Over the past 15 years, premium tequila has gained a status in the U.S. on par with ultra-premium vodkas and single malt scotches. Consumers are now looking for authentic stories behind the brands and bottles, particularly the pricier tequilas claiming premium quality and artisan traditions. The owners of the tequila brands are trying new ways to tell their stories, and ultra-premium offerings allow the most freedom to modernize tequila traditions.

The now-well-established Patrón brand set the standard in the mid-range 100% agave space for quality, consistency, and packaging in the '90s and has yet to be truly challenged. Mark Cannon, founder and owner of www.pocotequila.com, recommends that new tequila brands create a distinctive bottle design that reflects the core personality of the tequila brand while keeping the total price in the mid-range. "You either have a story or you don't," Cannon remarks.

Creating new standards

Luxco Spirited Brands, a liquor supplier located in St. Louis, has relaunched the 125-year-old El Mayor brand in distinctive custom-crafted glass bottles. Luxco realized that the old bottle designs did not fit the new high-end tequila-sipping demographics, especially with their award-winning, traditionally prepared tequila elixir inside.

Susan Brewster, group brand manager for Luxco, says that the goal of the new bottles was to be out of the ordinary and sophisticated yet still tied to the brand's roots. "It's a marriage of tradition and technology," says Brewster. "There's a story about it." The story includes a deep history of tequila production, now entrusted to third generation master distiller Rodolfo Gonzalez.

El Mayor's cosmetic glass quality and feminine shape are unusual for the male-skewed tequila category. The brand name is silk-screen printed in white, and a small paper label on the front contains the batch number, bottle number, and the signature of Rodolfo Gonzalez. "We felt the label had to have the signature to give it that personal touch," Brewster says.

Chris Frank, principal of the Cfx design firm and lead designer on the El Mayor project, recalls that Luxco viewed the package design as part of a complete marketing campaign. Frank saw the bottle project as a refined presentation that would carry the brand through all media and connect deeply with the tequila aficionado. The end result is a sophisticated brand concept with a "pregnant" asymmetrical bottle that's not too obviously Mexican. Frank thought early on: "Let's have the bottle itself be so spectacular that the consumer wouldn't want to pitch it."

Frank believes that El Mayor's blend of crystal-clear glass and hand-made craftsmanship strikes a balance between the premium and traditional values that El Mayor represents. "We had the luxury of getting to extract the story," says Frank. The El Mayor brand script logo dominates the front panel and becomes almost a signature unto itself, though the design is intended to support the real signature of Rodolfo Gonzalez.

The high-end Corzoª Tequila brand dubbed itself "The Evolution of Tequila" when it debuted two years ago from Casadores (a Bacardi Limited brand), and the bottle won the 2006 Glass Packaging Institute's Overall Package Design award (see Package Design, October, 2006, GPI Clear Choice Awards). The bottle is elegant and distinctive in a thin, rectangular bottle with an off-center spout and off-center label designed by famed creative director Fabien Baron and executed in super flint glass in France.

"Unlike the typical approach to tequila packaging, we wanted to reflect the modern side of Mexican design," Baron says. Yousef Zaatar, v.p. of Bacardi global packaging, says the goal was to take the bottle presentation beyond traditional by mixing the old and new together. He believes the Corzo bottle achieves a cosmetic quality worthy of haute-couture brands like Chanel or Gucci. "We didn't want to be a 'me-too,' we wanted an icon," says Zaatar.

Keeping inside the tradition

Tequila lover and webmaster Cannon was involved in the label design of Los Abuelos tequila. The Los Abuelos brand was Guillermo Sauza's brain child and his primary goal in this tequila was to honor his three grandfathers ("Los Abuelos") and to commemorate them with their names on the neck label. Guillermo Sauza (not affiliated with the current, well-known Sauza brand) had a very clear image of how he wanted the label to look, and Cannon was able to execute that authentic old world, macho mystique of Mexico in a tequila label that Sauza could appreciate.

As an artist, Cannon appreciates the aesthetic of the tequila—in production, craftsmanship, taste, and packaging. He sees the dilemma facing new players in the category as: "The fancier the bottle, the less likely you are to have someone try it twice." Another dilemma is that new tequila brands can be overly eager to become the "next Patrón" brand.

Darin Jones, founder of www.tequila.net, is amazed by the many new brands and bottles he discovers every month. "The trend for new brands seems to be 'Wow' packaging, which makes perfect sense from a marketing standpoint," says Jones. However, with premium tequilas, Jones believes the sophisticated tequila sipper is also a discriminating buyer. "Any consumer that knows little about tequila will always gravitate towards the fancier bottle," Jones explains, "but the educated consumer or aficionado will do research via forums and review websites before purchasing."

Lisa Simpson is creative director at Pearlfisher in New York City and lead designer of the recent Milagro tequila bottle redesigns as well as the Tezon tequila brand launch (Package Design, September, 2006, In the News). Simpson explains that the goal in spirits packaging is to be ornate in a modern way while still fitting into the category. The Tezon bottle tells an authentic and compelling story with freshness and modernity; but the imperfect, asymmetrical bottle is actually mass-produced.

"The thing about tequila is that it's rich in history and rich in process," says Simpson. "There's a lot you can talk about." She believes that compared to vodka or scotch, tequila has a bit more warmth to it. "The key is trying to reinterpret those traditional cues," Simpson says.

Blending the old and new

Alfredo Vazquez and Carols Orozco, two of the owners of the Tequila Un Artesanal distillery, developed the Fina Estampa bottle that may have started a trend toward square shapes when it was introduced in 1999. They believe the bottle design is both modern and old-fashioned because the new innovative shape combines with a traditional execution producing little bubbles in the glass.

The Fina Estampa bottle is created by both hand and machine. The first process is made by hand but a machine rectifies the bottle in the end. When they started the Fina Estampa brand, Vazquez and Orozco were following the square shape of a French perfume bottle. They were pleased when the shape they desired was also easy to handle, compact, and heavy—important brand equities for them. In further brand exploration, the owners of Fina Estampa were resolved to steer away from the over-adorned designs that were the style at the time.

Tequila 374 is named after the telephone area code of the town of Tequila, in the tequila-rich state of Jalisco. The tequila is triple-distilled and uses more blue agave hearts per bottle than the norm. Juan Gonzalez, president of Tequila Tazon Inc., wanted a bottle that no one else had to stand out behind U.S. bars. "Presentation is absolutely everything," says Gonzalez.

Gonzalez developed the 374 bottle with a heavy-base to be practical for every environment. The bottle has embossed elements and the bubbles indicate hand-made craftsmanship. Gonzalez believes the label has a rustic feeling reminiscent of Aztec iconography. "The feedback we got on the bottle was tremendous," says Gonzalez.

The Vida Tequila company was born of the passions of cofounders John and Lisa Barlow. As a possible first, they petitioned the CRT and got permission to use "Tequila" as part of the brand name. Lisa Barlow was careful to settle on a design for the bottle that was traditional and classic yet "clean" and timeless. "I wanted the design to promote a lifestyle," Lisa Barlow says. "I wanted everything to symbolize something."

The thin neck of the hand-blown bottles is a feminine touch for a male-skewed product, and the screen-printed labels require several passes to achieve the desired texture. A tiffany blue 100% silk ribbon wrapped around the neck suggests the blue of the agave plant, an agave metal plate hangs over the front, and the oak-topped cork symbolizes the oak barrels where the tequila distills.

Stories you can believe in

Ricardo Gamarra, founder of AsomBroso tequila, searched far and wide for an exquisite bottle that might equal the exquisite tequila he wanted to bring to market. When he came across a crystal decanter in an 18th century English castle, Gamarra was smitten and paid $2,200 for the antique. The bottle featured a delicate hand-crafted Millefiore design where the thick base sprouts tiny glass flowers inside the bottle.

Gamarra then searched far and wide for a glass manufacturer that could replicate this beautiful design for his AsomBroso tequila. Though he couldn't find a company to fulfill his dream exactly, he found a glass bottle producer in Mexico that could match the dimensions and appearance of the bottle with hand-made bottles featuring a deep punt.

"It's a very complicated bottle," Gamarra explains. AsomBroso bottles have a long bulbous neck and a deeply embossed "sun" that contains an AsomBroso capital "A" metal seal. The new La Rosa line, which gets its unique pink color from French Bordeaux wine barrels, features hand-painted stems and flowers directly on the bottle. Gamarra takes pride in the many special editions that reinforce the elegance of the crystal decanter he found in England. Today, the glass flower Millefiore design is most accurately replicated by an Italian glass manufacturer in the AsomBroso limited edition bottle for the five-year-aged Del Porto.

Guillermo Estavillo, president and CEO of the award-winning distillery of Casa Tequila XQ, named his company and brand "XQ" in hopes of creating a similar cachet that the internationally recognized "XO" category of cognacs. The company started with the high-end extra anejo eight years ago in an X-shaped, blue porcelain bottle, and introduced the clear bottles for the Blanco and Reposado products five years ago.

"We came up with the idea of a 'Q' bottle to have our brand in every back bar with the 'X' and the 'Q' bottles," explains Estavillo, who believes the bottles create a unique difference and reflect the traditions of his country. The clear bottles are hand-blown one at a time from recycled glass finished off with an opalized coating, and the foil labels are hand-painted and hand-applied.

Ten years ago, Don Hector Galindo decided he wanted to make the world's best tequila with a mission. This tequila (to become 4 Copas) had to give back to the community of El Arenal to heal the organic nutrition in the earth that has been harmed by chemicals over the years and to pay homage to the rich cultural fabric of Jalisco and Mexico in general.

Galindo found an ancient distillery (though in disrepair) with a great history, recruited tequila experts, and put great thought and effort into developing a unique, practical, and artful bottle that would present the tequila "in its own skin" and would be valued as a keepsake. The bottle has great local flavor as it is hand-blown in the cradle of artisan alley in Tonala Jalisco, providing symbiotic growth for the recycling industry and the local craftsmen, whose art is being lost to mass-produced factories.

The 4 Copas tequila is the world's only certified organic tequila, and the blue glass infusion acknowledges the blue agave organically. A lithograph dedicated to the history of the distillery adorns the back of the bottle and is visible through the front. Joel Rendon, a leading Mexican artist, was commissioned to bring back to life the "Charro de Agave," paying homage to the Mexican rodeo cowboy Carlos Sanchez, who brought Mexico's national sport, Charreria (risky rodeo full of pageantry), to the world.