Vessel states

We take our glass bottles for granted, but as SMWS honorary ambassador Hans Offringa reports, it’s been a long journey for the whisky world from the Stone Age to hand-crafted decanters


Phonecian glass necklace, 6th century BC


When looking at your favourite whisky bottle, you may not realise how long glass has been a raw material used to make objects. As early as the Stone Age it was used in its natural state – obsidian, a black volcanic glass from which weapons and jewellery were crafted. That is a far stretch to modern bottles in use today.

In between, some interesting events occurred. Archaeological findings prove that the first manufactured glass dates back to approximately 4000 BC, mainly in Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia. Around the 16th century BC, hollow glass became en vogue. The first manual on glass making was available around 650 BC as part of King Ashurbanipal’s library. At first the production of glass took much time and craftsmanship. Hence only the extremely wealthy could afford such luxury. The invention of glassblowing in the 1st century AD meant a huge leap forward. Glass objects now became more readily available and slowly made their entrance in households.

Roman Cage glass courtesyof Matthias Kabel, 4th century CE

Library of Ashurbanipal


During the Roman Empire the glass making industry blossomed and found its way to Western Europe as well. It would have still been of a darker colour until AD 100, when Alexandrians discovered how to produce clear glass. Glass making slowly conquered the Northern European countries. Evidence of glass industries in Britain have been found in an area around Wearmouth and Jarrow, dating back to the late 7th century, as well as in the regions of Sussex and Surrey, albeit much later, around the 13th century. In the late 1400s and early 1500s glass making became more widespread in Europe.


An English glassmaker named George Ravenscroft invented a lead crystal glass in 1674, which is considered a breakthrough in the industry’s development. The addition of lead prevented the glass from becoming cloudy during the manufacturing process. Furthermore, it was easier to decorate and due to a higher refractive index, its beauty and brilliance stood out.

In 1745 a glass tax was introduced in Great Britain, with clear glass being taxed at 11 times that of dark glass. Bottles were valued and hoarded, and not widely used commercially.

This piece of legislature prevented the growth of the glass industry for more than a century because heavy excise duties had to be paid over the amount of glass melted in purpose-built factories, also known as glass houses.

Examples of Ravenscroft’s glass, courtesy of V&A museum

In 1845 the British government repealed the Excise Act, after which the glass industry in Great Britain started to really flourish. With the invention of a standard way to manufacture bottles (in a mould rather than hand-blown), it became more common to bottle whisky and brand it rather than sell it in bulk.

Corks that fit flush with the top of a bottle’s neck enabled whisky producers to guarantee the content of the bottle. When whisky was sold in bulk, it was easier for unscrupulous middlemen or publicans to tamper with the liquid. But once a whisky maker or blender could reliably seal his own bottle, it became possible to brand the contents and market it globally.

The first whisky bottles would have the brand name blown into the glass, when it was not possible yet to effectively adhere labels to bottles. The first labels started to appear around the end of the 1870s. Nowadays there are still a few brands that have their names blown into the bottle, like Dewar’s and Jack Daniel’s.


Nearing the end of the 19th century, production shifted from hand-blown production to a semi-automatic process thanks to an English gentleman named Howard Ashley. He invented a machine with which about 200 bottles per hour could be manufactured. It meant tripling capacity, compared with traditional blown glass.

Around the same time the invention of the screw cap offered an alternative to a cork. It led to a modification of the neck of the glass bottle to screw the cap on. The first Scotch whisky marketed in a bottle with a screw cap was Teacher’s, around 1913. White Horse Distillers of Glasgow helped pioneer the screw cap, originally made of aluminium. They addressed the problem of tampering by fitting a foil capsule over the cap, with a tape under it to tear the foil open. White Horse claimed that sales of its whisky doubled in the six months following the introduction of the screw cap. Other ways to seal a bottle were the use of wax and paper seals. The latter were often used as bonding [tax] seals for export purposes.


In the first decade of the 20th century, American Michael Owens created a fully automatic bottle-blowing machine, capable of an hourly production of 2,500 bottles. Now production of glass containers moved away from being a craft and entered the realm of science.

Today modern and highly automated factories can produce millions of glass bottles per day, in almost every colour imaginable. However, there are still specialist companies who make exquisite bottles and glasses by hand. Such a company is the famous glass manufacturer Lalique, founded in 1885 in France. Lalique glassware is of high quality and design. Special Lalique decanters with unique forms, such as those designed for The Macallan, are partly hand-blown and have to be finished in a special mould with compressed air. The crystal bottle is so thick that it takes eight days for gradual cooling in a special oven. In comparison, whisky or wine glasses take only five hours to cool. Some years ago, we were invited by Macallan to visit Lalique in the Alsace, France, to see with our own eyes the making of such a decanter.

Many bottles are packaged nowadays – often in fancy tubes, cartons or wooden boxes. They are usually elaborately decorated and have become an extension of the bottle, and also protect the glass.

So, next time you pick up a bottle of whisky, you may reflect upon the importance of glass for the development of whisky brands and their distribution.

Manual production of specialist bottles

Michael Owens’ automatic bottle-blowing machine