Loch Fyne Whiskies
 Loch Fyne Whiskies

BOTTLES—A HISTORY

Charles Maclean

This article is just one of many from ‘MacLean’s Miscellany of Whisky’, a fascinating wee book hoochin’ wi’ unique and novel information. Price £10.00.

(buy here)

Glass bottles began to be used for holding wines and spirits in the mid-17th century, but they were very expensive, so only the wealthy could afford them. They were mainly used as ‘serving bottles’ or decanters, rather than ‘binning bottles’ for storing wine in the cellar.

Glass pads, impressed with the owner’s mark or coat of arms, were attached to each bottle, and the bottles themselves were taken to be filled by the wine merchant, or filled in their owners’ cellar by the butler (i.e. ‘bottler’). Within only a decade or so, the middle classes were also able to afford glass bottles: Samuel Pepys records in his diary of 1663 that he ‘went to the Mitre’ to see wine put into his ‘crested bottles’.


The earliest glass bottles had spherical bodies and long, parallel necks, with a rim at the top to hold down the string which kept the stopper in place. They are known as ‘shaft and globe bottles’.

By 1700 the neck had begun to taper and the body to become compressed—these are ‘onion bottles’. They continued to be treasured, and in Scotland were commonly used as decanters for whisky in public houses. In the Highlands it was traditional to give them as marriage gifts, crudely engraved with the names of bride and groom, the date of the nuptials and even with an illustration of the event.

Between 1700 and 1720, the onion shape was sometimes exaggerated, so the body became wider than the height, then about 1720 the sides began to be flattened by rolling on a steel plate while the glass was cooling—a process called ‘marvering’—in order to rack them in the ‘bins’ of the cellar.

Early marvered bottles were ‘mallet’ shaped, where the straight sides tapered away from the base, but over the next twenty years they became taller and more cylindrical, particularly after 1740, by which time the value of maturing wine in the bottle was becoming generally recognised. By mid-century many wine and spirits merchants had their own bottles, with their name or trademark pressed into the glass pad, to be returned for refilling with whatever liquor was available.

The classic French wine bottle shapes familiar to us today had evolved by about 1800—there was a huge growth in the number of glass factories in Bordeaux, particularly, which was producing around two million bottles a year by 1790. Bottles from this period can often be identified by a slight swelling around the base, caused by the glass ‘sagging’ while the bottle cooled in an upright position.

Until 1821 bottles were free-blown, which meant that capacities and dimensions were not standardised. So when one reads of hearty drinkers of the late 18th century downing three or four or even six bottles of wine at a sitting—this seems to have been especially common among Scottish judges of the period, who habitually drank claret while sitting in judgement—it might be supposed that the bottles of their time were smaller than those of today. Not so. Research done in the Ashmolean Museum in Cambridge shows that the average bottle size was if anything slightly larger than today!

In 1821 Henry Ricketts, a glass manufacturer in Bristol, patented a method of blowing bottles into three piece moulds, which made it possible to standardise capacity and dimensions. Such moulds left seam marks—the way in which collectors identify them today—but during the 1850s a process was developed to remove these by lining the mould with beeswax and sawdust, and turning the bottle as it was cooling.

Until about 1850 all wine and spirits bottles were made from ‘black’ glass—in fact it was very dark green or dark brown—owing to particles of iron in the sand used in their manufacture. Clear glass bottles and decanters were made, but they were taxed at eleven times the rate of black glass.

Indeed, owing to the Glass Tax, bottles remained expensive, and continued to be hoarded and re-used until after 1845, when duty on glass was abolished. The earliest known ‘whisky bottles’ were re-used wine bottles. Even after the duty had been lifted and clear glass began to be used more, whisky makers continued to favour green glass bottles, often with glass seals on their shoulders. VAT 69 continues this style of bottle.

Many whisky companies continued to fill into small casks and stoneware jars and offered their goods in bulk. It was not until 1887 that Josiah Arnall and Howard Ashley patented the first mechanical bottle blowing machine, allowing bottled whisky to really take off. In the trade bottled whisky was termed ‘cased goods’, since it was sold by the twelve-bottle lot packed into stout wooden cases, like top quality wine today.

Bottled whisky, properly stoppered and sealed, was less liable to adulteration or dilution by unscrupulous publicans and spirits merchants than whisky sold in bulk, and during the 1890s cased goods became the commonest way for whisky to be sold, particularly in the off-trade.

The use of plastic (polyethylene) bottles, developed during the 1960s and adopted by soft-drinks manufacturers, has largely been eschewed by the whisky industry, except for miniatures supplied to airlines. These bottles are called PETs—not a reference to their diminutive size, but to the material they are made from: Polyethylene Terephthalate. Their clear advantage is weight, and they began to become commonplace in the 1990s. Concerns about shelf-life, and contamination by oxygen or carbon dioxide have been addressed since 1999 by coating the outside of the bottle with an epoxy-amine-based inhibiting barrier.
Bottle Capacities

William Younger’s examination of bottles from between 1660—1817 in the Ashmolean Museum showed the capacity of wine (and therefore whisky) bottles remained relatively constant at around 30 Fl.Oz during this period, in spite of bottles being free-blown.

With the introduction of moulded bottles in the 1820s it became much easier to standardise capacity, and this was soon fixed at 26 2/3 Fl.Oz (or 1/6th of a gallon).
About 1900 this capacity was defined by law for a standard bottle—along with 40 Fl.Oz (equal to an Imperial quart – 2 pints), 13 1/3 Fl.Oz (half bottle), 6 2/3 Fl.Oz (quarter bottle), 3 4/5 Fl. Oz (miniature). Brand owners were not required to print the capacity on the label until after the Second World War, however, although some did.

Since January 1980 capacities have been expressed metrically on bottle labels, in line with the Système International d’Unités, when 26 2/3 Fl.Oz became 75 cl, half bottles 37.5cl, quarter bottles 18.75cl and miniatures 5cl.

In 1992 the standard bottle size throughout the European Community was lowered to 70cl. The United States retains fluid ounces, with the ‘reputed quart’ remaining the standard bottle size (75cl). In Japan, both 75cl and 70cl bottles are acceptable.

WHAT BOTTLE COLLECTORS ESTEEM

Age—free-blown and moulded (pre 1870) bottles have ‘pontil marks’ on their bases, created by the iron rod, called a pontil, used to manipulate the molten glass.

Rarity—the fewer known examples, the more valuable the bottle will be.

Texture—variations in glass surface, number of bubbles in the glass, stretch marks, changes in colour.

Colour—unusual, dark or strong colours, or a colour which is rare for that kind of bottle.

Embossed—where bottles are embossed (uncommon in early whisky bottles), the clarity of the embossing, its heaviness (heavier the better), its intricacy, and the interest of the design or words.

Shape—the aesthetic quality of some bottles.

Labels—any item with its original label, contents, carton or box is of more interest than an ‘empty’.