Behind the Bar
What Bartenders Think About Bottle Design
The spirits industry has long heeded the voice of the consumer. Many spirits are fit for sipping, yet seem to be made without much consideration for regular usage behind the bar. There, the objective is peak efficiency in terms of both revenue and service, and often, the bottle helps dictate the speed at which bartenders can make drinks and provide hospitable service. What does this mean for spirits brands? No matter how beautiful the label or how enchanting the spirit, your liquor may get shelved to the back bar — or not stocked at all — if it doesn't make their jobs a bit easier. We asked a few working members of the industry to chime in on key features in shape and functionality of bottles.
Everything has to speak the same language behind the bar for speed, accuracy, and comfort.
Stefanie Bair, bartender at Chumley’s, New York: "You want the bottle to be shaped so that it's easy to grab and manipulate one-handed, so you can use your other hand on the soda gun, or to grab garnish, et cetera. Not too bottom-heavy, so you can flip it and pour easily, without having to support it too much with your forearm or put too much pressure on your wrist, and you don't want the neck to be too wide — one of the worst things is a bottle that doesn't fit a speed pourer, so it leaks product all over your rail and hands when you're pouring. You also want it to fit into your rail taking up the minimum amount of space possible so you can pack as many bottles within reach as you can."
Ryan Fitzgerald, managing partner at ABV and Overproof, San Francisco: "The main complaint with cocktail bars over the years has been that the cocktails take too long, so bar managers and bartenders all over are doing anything they can to shave seconds off production time. Clunky bottles rarely find their way into the well. That means they aren’t in menu placements, and that is where producers want to be."
Devon Tarby, bartender and co-owner of The Walker Inn, Los Angeles: "Very simply put, the simpler the better when it comes to bottle design. A bottle is a tool just as much as a jigger or a bar spoon, so ergonomics should be considered above all else when choosing the materials and shape of a bottle."
Bradford Tolleson, beverage manager, Brush Izakaya, Atlanta: "So many liquor bottles' designs are designed more from a marketing perspective and have little functionality. Anything with a short neck on it is going to be very hard to pour, and is probably going to promote spillage. Likewise, anything with an extremely long neck on it is going to be purely obnoxious to handle, and anything with a square shape is going to be brittle."
Nick Chaivarlis, bartender at Ration and Dram, Atlanta: "In terms of bottles, it's always baffled me how many bottles aren't bartending-friendly. I get it. People need to buy appealing things on shelves. Consumers look at those things. But we, the barkeeps, are the group selling the spirits for the most part, and if we don't carry certain things because of ease, then it's hard to stand behind it. I'm not saying that some things are 100% off limits, but there are so many spirits now that sometimes bottle shapes are taken into consideration for high volume places. I know I've considered it. I never let the quality of the spirit suffer for ease, because that's downright foolish — but if there's an alternative and it makes things easier, then it seems like a no-brainer."
Key features in shape and functionality of a bottle
Bair: "I tend to prefer the liquor bottles that follow a wine bottle shape. Take Fernet-Branca, for example: it's called for frequently, so it makes a lot of sense to have in the well. It's smooth, not too wide, the glass has even weight distribution throughout and it pops a speed pourer perfectly. It's ideal for churning out drinks fast. Of course, it's understandable that brands want to vary bottle design so that they stand out more. But guests will only see the bottles if they're on the back bar — not in the rail. And usually, bottles that are in the rail are getting poured through faster. When a bartender is deciding what bottles to put in their rail, a big factor that they're considering, aside from price and how often the brand is called for, is whether or not it will fit."
Fitzgerald: "Wide bottles are a drag, too. Marketing loves them because they have a large canvas to display the brand’s logo and they take up more room on a back bar. But back bar real estate is at a premium; there’s only so much space. If we even consider a wide bottle for the back bar, it often gets turned sideways to make room for the rest of the bottles which is not what marketing wants."
Tarby: "Picking up an unnecessarily heavy piece of glass all night can lead to fatigue and injuries over time. Similarly, oddly shaped bottles or bottles that don't accommodate a speed pourer very well can result in strained or awkward movement."
Tolleson: "The other thing I consider is the actual look on the bottle. I feel like every bottle on the back bar represents me, the bar manager, as well as mirrors the crowd that comes into your establishment. I refuse to carry bottles that look cheap, and choose cheap bottles for my well that are not only high quality, but are attractive, so when guests see the bottles, they feel good about throwing down $10-$12 for a drink."
Chaivarlis: "If it fits in the rack, then it makes us happy. If you can pull a bottle up and not have to change the complete rhythm of how you're working, it helps and we appreciate it. It also needs the ability to put a spout in it."
Bottles that look nice but can change the course of your night
Bair, on squat circular-shaped bottles: "It's not easy in a high volume setting because it doesn't fit a speed pourer well. It was always on my back bar and the constant turning to grab it would aggravate my back. It also always took time to pour out shots because, without a speed pourer, it had to be measured instead of counted. The squat circular bottle shape also meant it didn't fit the rail well — you can't easily wrap your hand around it."
Chaivarlis, on making concessions for certain spirits: "There are certain bottles that bars will carry even if they're awkward, so we work around those things. We make cheater bottles for service wells which helps a lot for liqueurs but those are the things that we default to throwing in cheaters."
Bottles that make bartenders' lives easier:
Bair: "There are a few brands that have kept their bottle shape but have made certain design accommodations so they're easier to grab. Hendrick's is short, squat and round, but the bottle has two grooves on the back so you can securely grab with one hand. Combier has a bottle that keeps their signature square shape, but is indented on either side so that you can snugly fit it in your rail next to your more typical tall, cylindrical bottles. These considerations are really appreciated by bartenders."
Fitzgerald: "The 86 Co. has bottles that are ideal. They have obviously taken this very seriously, going so far as to design their bottles to have easy-to-remove labels and embossed measurements (liter and ounce). Bottles also have a small glass ridge, making it easy for bartenders to grab and upend the spirit for easy pouring. This makes the bottles good for batching, juices, and inventory — essentially making their empty bottle a tool. Brilliant."
Tarby: "My personal favorite bottle is Rittenhouse -- it's light, slim, round, doesn't leak with a speed pourer, and houses delicious whiskey!"
Tolleson: "The most functional bottles I have found are those that are shaped like sloped-shouldered wine bottles. However, this design is very rare in the world of liquor."
Chaivarlis: "Bottles like the shape of Plantation rums — longer neck, solid base for putting in a speed rack, easily recognizable label — are godsends. In terms of how I would design a bottle, the 86 Co. hit the nail on the head. And what’s even better is that the product is good and it comes in a well placement. Ideal and thoughtful. They did a really good job of making things practical and exceptional."