It’s All in the Detail: Creating the Rarest Japanese Whisky Bottles

It’s All in the Detail: Creating the Rarest Japanese Whisky Bottles

K ODAWARI: The Greatest Japanese Whisky Collection is a celebration of the best of Japanese craftsmanship in whisky form. The collection comprises over 250 bottles of the finest single and blended whiskies from across Japan, each with its own identity and story. Headlining the sale is the oldest Karuizawa ever bottled, Karuizawa 52 Year Old 1960, and a trio of Karuizawa 50 Year Old 1965 bottled for the 60th Anniversary of Parisian spirits retailer, La Maison du Whisky. Each comes housed in an exquisite presentation case designed by Leith-based studio Contagious, experts in the design and delivery of drinks brands.

Sotheby’s spoke to James Hartigan, Creative Director at Contagious, to discover how they became involved in the creation of these exclusive projects and how they delivered some of the most iconic whisky packaging ever seen.

How you were first contacted to work with Number One Drinks on these releases and what made you keen to be involved in the project?

Marcin Miller had heard of Contagious and our packaging work in the drink sector though a mutual friend and first approached us in 2012. Marcin was part owner of Number One Drinks Co. and had recently acquired Karuizawa’s entire stock and European distribution rights.

Early discussions were around creating a ‘Final Trilogy’ of whiskies from Karuizawa’s oldest stock—releasing a 40yo in 2013, a 45yo in 2014 and finally a 50yo in 2015. This idea was eventually superseded by the idea of spearheading this incredible collection with the pinnacle of the stock—41 bottles from the oldest cask, the 1960. We recognised the significance of the Karuizawa collection early on in the conversations with Marcin and his business partner David Croll, and spotted a great opportunity for us to play a key role helping to rekindle a new appreciation for Japanese whisky.

Designing and creating something like this obviously takes an immense amount of time and resource. How did you approach the process?

We were first contacted in February 2012 and initial hopes were that the first release could be as early as July that year. Once the design process got underway however it was obvious that the level of detail and craft required for the 1960 release would take far longer to complete. February 2012: Initial conversations and brief; March 2012: Preliminary research and planning; April-June 2012: Concepts; June-August 2012; Copywriting and content creation; July-December 2012: Design development; January-February 2013: Artwork; February-March 2013: Production; April 2013: Delivery and launch in Tokyo.

What did the creative process involve and from where did you take your inspiration? How did this translate into the final designs?

It was important that we paid the utmost respect to some of the rarest and oldest Japanese Single Malt Whisky in the world. We were fascinated by Japanese culture, craftsmanship and the country's longstanding relationship with whisky—both past and present.

We delved into the history of Karuizawa, drawing a lot of inspiration from the way both Japanese and Scottish culture is reflected in the way the whisky was produced, then ultimately identifying potential buyers, understanding their motivations for investing, and pinpointing the factors they consider when purchasing an ultra-rare whisky at such a high price point.

When La Maison Du Whisky purchased two casks of Karuizawa 1965, we recognised a great opportunity to introduce the pinnacle of Japanese whisky to a very knowledgeable and influential audience. The outturn from the casks resulted in four different products. The first one was a Travel Retail exclusive for the Far Eastern market, specifically designed so the whisky could be shared and enjoyed. The second and third products were individual sherry and bourbon single cask bottlings inspired by the Japanese art form of Monyou, which were presented in handcrafted fabric boxes and encouraged consumers to participate in traditional Japanese pattern printing methods.

The final expression celebrated Japonisme, a movement of French artists paying homage to Japanese craftspeople and the marriage of France and Japan. This blend of the sherry and bourbon cask was presented in a nude leather box, inspired by Parisian design and featured an intricately engraved decanter decorated with an illustration by a French and Japanese illustration duo, marking the LMDW 60th Anniversary.

How did the distillery and the whisky itself play into the design of the packaging?

The style of Karuizawa was historically similar to that of Scotch, and it influenced both our aesthetic and our design approach. A good example of this is the Karuizawa 1960, where the bottle has a split label design.

One label was hand-drawn by a Japanese Kanji master, while the other was letterpressed in Scotland. The outer pack's split design pays homage to a Japanese puzzle box and features white slivers of the original cask head, which were hot-branded with the whisky specifics. This way, the owners of the whisky would forever carry a piece of the original cask where the whisky was aged.

For the 1960, this formed the basis of all our designs. We used handmade Japanese paper, kanji masters, authentic antique netsuke charms, and the finest Scottish cabinet makers, letterpress or woodcut illustrators. We tried to keep everything authentic to stay true to the relationship between Japan and Scotland.

Which producers did you work with on the different elements of the packaging and how did you seek them out?

We collaborated with more than 20 skilled craftspeople from around the world to create luxurious and authentic packaging for the Karuizawa 1960 and 1965 bottles. Each of them was a world-class expert in their field. From handmade decal edge papers crafted in Japan to the most authentic option available for cabinet makers, the packaging included a range of high-quality materials intricately brought together for a complete packaging set that was befitting of the liquid.

The netsuke on the Karuizawa 1960 were provided by world-famous antique dealers, and with only 41 bottles available, each bottle was presented with its own netsuke and named accordingly. We also worked with brush makers, ceramists, and other specialists to create the most exquisite and authentic packaging possible.

Our main focus was on authenticity, and we searched the world high and low to find the very best people for the job.

Whisky & Spirits

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