Labelled with love
Ever wondered how many different bottle label designs the SMWS has had over the years? Our ambassador for Victoria and Tasmania in Australia, Alex Moores, has been adding them up – with surprising results
PHOTOS: PETER SANDGROUND
The first iteration of the iconic 1983 full bottle label appeared with all details and cask code handwritten in red ink, I like to think by Society founder Pip Hills himself. This lasted for under a year before the details and cask code were printed, first with a big separating dot in the centre before being replaced with a standard full stop in August 1984. The celebratory Fifth Anniversary bottlings added some banner text across the top and bottom to celebrate the occasion, in bold font reminiscent of the American military stencil.
These labels had “The Whisky Museum Est 1983” and “The Vaults Leith” written in a scrawl across the front of the building, which was removed in around August 1993. I cannot find a historical reference for if this was ever a real sign, other than images of the beautiful JG Thomson & Co original building with “The Vaults Leith” emblazoned on the front. Perhaps the whisky museum concept was somewhat of an homage to the sign Pip would have seen walking up the steps to buy the building.
“The sun dipped lower parting the clouds, a small boat sailed into view on the right, and the building morphed to have slightly straighter lines, possibly as a result of some repairs to the facade”
1996: CHANGES AND ANOMALIES
The dates blur slightly in terms of the phasing out of this label, in what I can only imagine was a ‘waste not, want not’ approach to a big print run.
When the code circle shrank and moved up to make way for the name of the bottling in 1996, so too was “No.” added above the code rather than in the ring and the logo changed in some touching minor ways. The sun dipped lower parting the clouds, a small boat sailed into view on the right, and the building morphed to have slightly straighter lines, possibly as a result of some repairs to the facade.
On some bottles of the original label, the words “single malt scotch whisky” appeared in the ring containing the cask code, and were relocated to above the main details (which now spelled out the age statement) where they remained as “single cask single malt whisky”. The change was clearly motivated by needing to make room for the unique bottling name, but not all bottles had names, and there are even examples of some with handwritten titles. It is unclear whether this was official, or the actions of an enthusiastic third party at the end of a tasting event. There were some anomalies under this label, including the “L” casks with the centre oval code for the French market, the X.100 casks getting adorned with gold trimming (I have only found two examples of distilleries reaching 100 releases at the right time), and special labels for the first Japanese whisky releases, all in the 2000s.
2008: NEW BOTTLE, NEW LOOK
Enter the Society’s most significant label change, in August 2008. The cask type was specified, tasting notes provided, the logo embossed onto the brand-new bottle (still iconically green) rather than on the label itself, and importantly the heightened prominence of the big red code. This was all announced to members in the first ever Unfiltered, around four months later. Skip ahead a mere two years after that, more detail was added, with the distillation date added for further transparency. This was also the era of the special editions with custom artwork. The Society played with both a vertical and horizontal layout for these images, as well as a full picture label for the various and highly sought-after art series. Mainly used for commemorating branch anniversaries, there are some for special events, and of course the festival bottlings began in this period with a single release for Feis Ile 2015.
2017: COLOUR COMES IN
In 2017, the flavour profiles came to the fore, with a colour stripe and cap to brighten up the bottles. The age statement got pride of place, and the tasting notes were shortened slightly, perhaps to make room for some longer and more entertaining names, maybe representing the Tasting Panel taking on more drams in one session and seeing the creativity flow (peaty drams do tend to have more bizarre titles...). There were also some limited cases of older bottles being relabelled under the new livery, including some from as early 2015.
2020: THE MONOGRAM
This brings us up to speed with the launch of the new monogram, and the current version of the label, which you can read more about by click on the link below.
Accordingly, I would categorise the labels by the following eras:
1983-1996: The original label, which had six variations;
1996-2008: The sailing ship label, which had five variations;
2008-2017: The big code label, which had five variations;
2017-2020: the character label, which had five variations; and
2020-present: The monogram label, which (currently) has four variations.
So by my counting there have been 25 very distinct labels so far, and this does not account for the one-off styles such as 26 Malts and 114.3 in celebration of 28 Queen Street, and the dumpy bottles to celebrate the Millennium Malt (114.1) and 18th Anniversary (9.30).
So when people refer to paper labels and confuse modern iterations to say the SMWS has seen a couple of changes to the label over time, I would reply that we are at 27 Society labels and counting...