NPR logo From Medicine To Modern Revival: A History Of American Whiskey, In Labels

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From Medicine To Modern Revival: A History Of American Whiskey, In Labels

Many a book, blog and news article has been devoted to the topic of whiskey: the way it's aged, where to drink it, how to store it and serve it or pair it with food. But comparatively little attention has been paid to how whiskey is packaged.

Which is a shame, really, when you think about how a beautiful, funny or fancy-looking label can influence which bottles we buy — and which we ignore — when shopping the whiskey aisle.

Spirits and wine writer Noah Rothbaum felt that it was time that American whiskey labels had their day in the spotlight. His new book, The Art of American Whiskey, traces the history of surprisingly elaborate labels from the 1800s to today.

In the beginning, there was the jug.

Before distilleries used glass bottles, many of them offered liquor stores branded ceramic jugs that could be filled and sold to customers. This pair of George Dickel jugs was used around 1900. From The Art of American Whiskey by Noah Rothbaum. Courtesy of Ten Speed Press/Diageo hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Ten Speed Press/Diageo

Before distilleries used glass bottles, many of them offered liquor stores branded ceramic jugs that could be filled and sold to customers. This pair of George Dickel jugs was used around 1900. From The Art of American Whiskey by Noah Rothbaum.

Courtesy of Ten Speed Press/Diageo

Rothbaum says the expense of glass bottles meant that, until the early 1900s, alcohol was sold in large barrels. Bars or stores would buy these wooden barrels direct from a distiller and allow customers to come in and fill their own glass, flask or decanter with whatever was in stock. While this may have been good enough for the drinking man, it wasn't for doctors, who "prescribed alcohol for all types of maladies," according to Rothbaum. In 1871, Old Forrester Whiskey was the first to put its product in a sealed bottle at the distillery — ensuring that doctors and consumers knew exactly what they were getting.

Jack Daniel's trademarked the term "Old No. 7" in 1908, although the familiar black-and-white design seen above wasn't introduced until 1911, according to Rothbaum's book. via Wikimedia hide caption

toggle caption via Wikimedia

When federal legislation preventing the adulteration of food or beverages went on the books in the early 1900s, the single-use bottle's place in history was assured. Manufacturers now had impetus to make whiskey labels stand out from the crowd. Though the spirit itself was already established, in 1908 Jack Daniel's decided to trademark the term "Old No. 7" — which it still produces today.

While Jack Daniel's may not have been the first to trademark a design element on an American whiskey bottle, the distiller was certainly an early adopter. Rothbaum finds it particularly fascinating that the company was worried about trademarking the name, since "no one actually knows what [Old No. 7] refers to." (Though there are theories.)

Unfortunately, the history of whiskey, like that of many spirits, wasn't always well-documented. Some of Rothbaum's favorite labels in the book have little information to go with them. "Back in the day, each brand might sell their whiskey in multiple markets under different names or using different label art," he explains. Yet reading between the lines often leads to some interesting findings.

Take Prohibition-era whiskeys. These were sold under the guise of medical "prescriptions," but they didn't come in bottles you'd expect to contain medicine. "Many had lavishly designed bottles and cardboard boxes," Rothbaum says. "Everyone knew what the whiskey was really for."

During Prohibition, whiskey could legally be sold as medicine. This particular bottle of Four Roses bourbon was prescribed to a patient in Sparks, Nev., in 1924. The label tells patients to mix 2 ounces of whiskey with hot water. From The Art of American Whiskey by Noah Rothbaum. Courtesy of Ten Speed Press/Four Roses hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Ten Speed Press/Four Roses

One such spirit, a 1924 rye whiskey called Golden Wedding, featured ringing bells embossed onto the bottle — perhaps a better choice for newlyweds than someone with a toothache. Rothbaum came across a bottle of Four Roses bourbon with pharmaceutical instructions stamped on its front label. The label instructs patients to mix 2 ounces of whiskey with hot water — which sounds suspiciously like the makings of a hot toddy.

These days, drinking with a nod toward nostalgia has become popular — think of all those Mad Men-inspired cocktails of recent years. But when it comes to whiskey, marketing with an eye toward the past is actually a very old trend. An Old Forman whiskey label from the early 1900s bears a pastoral image of a farm, and many other bottles advertised themselves as somehow traditional or old-fashioned. It could be that Americans are just sentimental by nature, but Rothbaum conjectures that whiskey itself inspires this type of marketing. After all, with whiskey, age is a major selling point.

This label for Old Fashioned Whiskey, aged 16 years, features an idyllic pastoral scene. From The Art of American Whiskey by Noah Rothbaum. Courtesy of Ten Speed Press/Buffalo Trace Distillery hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Ten Speed Press/Buffalo Trace Distillery

This label for Old Fashioned Whiskey, aged 16 years, features an idyllic pastoral scene. From The Art of American Whiskey by Noah Rothbaum.

Courtesy of Ten Speed Press/Buffalo Trace Distillery

"So much of the flavor and, obviously, all of the color comes from the barrel and aging," Rothbaum says.

But from the 1970s until recently, whiskey suffered from a bit of an identity crisis — and that was reflected in its packaging.

"After the upheaval of the '60s and '70s, people wanted a break from American whiskey and whiskey in general," Rothbaum says. The counterculture youth, he says, rejected not just their parents' social norms but their libations as well.

As sweet cocktails like Cosmopolitans and Sex on the Beach gained traction and drinkers turned toward tequila and vodka, the whiskey business entered what spirits writers have dubbed "the dark ages." Many distillers either consolidated or closed, and the remaining brands did what they could to stay relevant, Rothbaum writes. Jim Beam, for instance, created specialty labels to make its product appeal to drinkers on various airlines. And in 1970, Tennessee whiskey maker George Dickel sold a jug-style bottle with a portrait of its brand ambassador, country music star Merle Haggard, printed on one side.

"Through almost every design era, there's always been a struggle to be both modern and reflective in terms of historical or old-timey design elements," Rothbaum says.

To honor its long-serving brand ambassador, Dickel sold this jug featuring country music star Merle Haggard in the 1970s and early 1980s. From The Art of American Whiskey by Noah Rothbaum. Courtesy of Ten Speed Press/Diageo hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Ten Speed Press/Diageo

To honor its long-serving brand ambassador, Dickel sold this jug featuring country music star Merle Haggard in the 1970s and early 1980s. From The Art of American Whiskey by Noah Rothbaum.

Courtesy of Ten Speed Press/Diageo

In that sense, today's labels are not so different, even though whiskey is currently in the midst of a revival. Take, for example, the label for Old Blowhard's 2014 Kentucky bourbon whiskey. At first blush, the design looks straight out of the past, but look twice and you'll notice it's a bit too twee — in a very modern sort of way. Old Blowhard is vintage with a twist. And, in some ways, that's exactly what craft distillers are going for in their products as well.

The labels, says Rothbaum, are "almost a Wes Anderson version of whiskey design."

"Those labels," he adds, "sum up the current zeitgeist for this hipster, old-timey lifestyle."

At first blush, the label for this bottle of limited-edition Old Blowhard seems to suggest the brand is old, but it actually debuted in 2014. From The Art of American Whiskey by Noah Rothbaum. Courtesy of Ten Speed Press/Diageo hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Ten Speed Press/Diageo

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