Alexis Beechen was running advertising for the Dos Equis Beer Most Interesting Man campaign when she saw how popular canned wine was becoming. Though intrigued by the concept, she thought something was missing. Yes, canned wine offered convenience and portability, as well as the ability to enjoy two or three glasses instead of an entire bottle. But the can couldn’t be closed. Once the top was popped, consumers had to drink it all or risk spilling what was left.
“I knew customers would enjoy a single-serving size. But at the end of the day, you had to sell a half bottle of wine,” says Beechen. “I wanted to find a way to turn that half bottle into a single-serving size.”
She started a wine company called The Drop, selling California-sourced red, white, and rosé wine in 375mL cans with a reclosable top sourced from Germany. A plastic toggle, which slides back and forth, replaces the pull-tab. That means wine drinkers can open the can, have a couple of swallows, and slide the toggle over the opening to save the rest for later.
Sound too weird for wine packaging? Maybe a couple of years ago. But talk to enough producers, analysts, and packagers, and there’s a sense that alcohol packaging is becoming more innovative than ever. This is especially true for wine, which has clung to the 750 mL bottle like a nursing baby. Can the days of packaging wine, beer, and spirits in traditional glass bottles—because that’s the way it’s always been done—be coming to an end?
The answer is a surprising, though qualified, yes.
“The success of cans with wine was the lever that opened the door,” says Napa wine marketing consultant Paul Tincknell, who’s advised companies trying to bring a variety of alternative packaging formats to market over the years. “Once producers saw that consumers would try something different—and would try it with wine, of all things—it opened up all sorts of possibilities.”
So how about, besides recloseable cans, packaging that includes paper bottles, plastic bottles, flat bottles, and aluminum bottles?
“We recognized the drinks industry was very keen to be more sustainable,” says Malcolm Waugh, CEO of British sustainable packaging company Frugalpac, maker of the Frugal Bottle. The product, made from 94 percent recycled paperboard, is up to five times lighter than a glass bottle, has a carbon footprint up to six times lower, and is easy to recycle. “It’s been quite easy to overcome the traditional reluctance among the wine industry.”
Looking for sustainable solutions
Alternative packaging has a long and failed history in the alcohol business, especially in wine. Save for bag-in-box wines (and then mostly in Australia) and canned beer, glass bottles have dominated for generations. The few exceptions, such as Boisset’s PET wine bottles a decade ago and a Japanese attempt at cans at about the same time, flopped. The former couldn’t overcome consumer and retailer resistance; the latter ran into manufacturing and legal issues in the United States around allowable can sizes.
Ten years later, though, there’s renewed impetus for all this innovation. Climate change, sustainability, and increased government regulation (especially in the European Union) have companies large and small looking for more ecofriendly alcohol packaging. The glass bottle, for all its recycling credibility, is heavy, inconvenient, and expensive to ship.
Perhaps the best indication of this shift in mindset is the paper bottle for Johnnie Walker Scotch, which will launch in early 2021. That Johnnie Walker’s owner, the $17 billion multi-national drinks giant Diageo, sees a need for sustainability speaks volumes about what’s going on.
“It’s a very exciting milestone for us and we will be looking closely at what other brands we can trial it with,” says a Diageo spokeswoman. “Consumers want to purchase products that are made sustainably, or from sustainably sourced resources, and they have choice within their purchasing options. Also, consumers are more savvy than ever, and we believe there will be a demand for a bottle that’s sustainably sourced and will degrade in the natural environment.”
The Johnnie Walker bottle is made from a product called Pulpex, which is supposed to be the first-ever completely plastic free, paper-based alcohol bottle. Typically, a paper bottle will have a food-grade pouch, similar to what’s used in box wine. But the Pulpex doesn’t need a pouch. It’s made entirely from sustainably sourced wood, so even if it isn’t recycled, it should degrade “naturally.” The bottle’s construction is flexible enough that it can be made into varying sizes; Pepsi may use it for soft drinks.
Other materials, other formats
Pulpex isn’t the only foray into alternate packaging.
Garçon Wines’ flat PET bottles, which are about as thick as a couple of books, are made in the UK from 100 percent recycled PET. The 750 mL bottles weigh just 2.2 ounces, more than four-fifths less than a typical round glass bottle.
Trivium Packaging, a $2.7 billion company focusing on sustainable metal packaging, produces aluminum bottles for wine, RTDs, and hard seltzers. Trivium CEO Michael Mapes says improvements in aluminum bottle technology—including the ability to thread the bottle for screwcaps, new alloys allowing for unique bottle shapes, and improvements in can linings to keep beverages fresher—have boosted the container’s use. “Plus,” he says with a laugh, “an aluminum bottle just looks cool. It always starts a conversation.”
China’s Shining Aluminum Packaging offers aluminum wine, beer, and spirits bottles in 60, 375, 500, and 750 mL sizes. According to a company spokesman, most of its customers are in Europe and the United States, and use the bottles for new products. The bottles can be printed a full 360 degrees, with nine-color bottle printing.
The German-designed Cooleo is a double-layer glass bottle with a glass stopper. The double layer means there’s a vacuum between layers, which should keep cold drinks cold and hot drinks warm for much longer, says a company spokesman. A German winery has ordered the bottle, but the company says it can be used for more than wine.
So why are there still so many heavy glass bottles on store shelves?
Some of it, certainly, is cost. An aluminum bottle can cost two to three times as much to produce as comparable glass or plastic bottles. This rules out all but the largest companies, like Diageo, that can afford that kind of investment. In addition, cans are dominating so much of the discussion that many producers aren’t looking past them to something even more innovative. Scott McCarthy of the Ball Corporation, which has added cans to its glass bottle portfolio, says, “I’m not sure we have much to say now on ‘beyond cans.’”
Much of it is occasion use. The Drop’s wines focus on sales to sporting events, concerts, and the like, as do many aluminum and plastic bottles. That emphasis saw company sales double from 2018 to 2019, but the pandemic has put a stop to that.
Still, its advocates say new innovative packaging can overcome those obstacles. They point to an increase in corporate social responsibility. This means packaging costs will not be seen as a short-term problem, but as something that could pay off in the long term.
What comes next?
In addition, there’s the Holy Grail of the alcohol business: attracting younger consumers who see sustainability as part of their buying decision, just like price and quality. There’s still dispute among analysts about whether this is true—witness the success of single-serve packaging among younger consumers—but Tincknell says younger consumers bring another, often overlooked approach to this kind of packaging that doesn’t have much to do with sustainability.
Consumers have always bought wine for the label, he says, but millennials and gen Z bring an even more nuanced approach to design and style than their parents and grandparents. They’ll often buy a product based on what it looks like—something Apple long ago discovered with its iconic design (and premium pricing).
Mapes is certain single-serve aluminum bottles can solve both sustainability and occasion problems. Aluminum is easier to recycle than plastic, he points out, while the single-serve size opens new markets. “If you’re watching a football game, and three people want beer and one wants wine, now there’s a chance for wine consumption without opening an entire bottle,” says the Trivium head. “That’s good for producers and for consumers.”
Producers like Beechen are convinced innovation will come to wine packaging sooner rather than later. She sees her brand moving to off-premise from events, because it works so well. When she talks to retailers, Beechen opens the can, closes it, and then turns the can upside down. The toggle is so secure that nothing spills out.
How can you not want to buy something like that, she asks?