Why So Many Liquor-Bottle Labels Are Being Made Into Works of Art
According to the artist behind Hennessy's latest Very Special bottle, it actually makes a lot of sense
It’s easy to forget that the same libations responsible for co-authoring your last half-legible drunk text have also helped fuel some of the greatest artworks of all time. You’ve heard all the stories about Vincent Van Gogh and Ernest Hemingway, how some of the world’s most famous creatives were also prolific imbibers, and many have pointed to their art as the product of artistic genius under the influence.
While a few shots won’t turn you into a bestselling novelist or one of the most-faked painters of all time, art and alcohol have had a long flirtation, which many liquor brands have tapped into in recent years. After centuries of influencing artists, alcohol makers have begun seeking something in return from the visual arts, collaborating with contemporary creatives on one-of-a-kind labels for special edition releases.
The trend can probably trace its modern origins to a print ad collaboration between pop-art icon Andy Warhol and Absolut Vodka in the mid-1980s. The ad, aptly titled the “Absolut Warhol,” marked the beginning of an ongoing relationship between the top-shelf vodka and high profile artists, including the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Damian Hirst. Absolut’s embrace of the art world eventually expanded to include collaborations with photographers, filmmakers and even musicians like Lady Gaga, with the label also going on to develop Absolut Art, a platform dedicated to promoting and supporting contemporary art and artists.
Thirty years after “Absolut Warhol” first appeared in print, the liquor company paid homage to the collaboration with a 2014 ad campaign based on Warhol’s original design. The artist’s vision was resurrected on four million Absolut bottles around the world, or, as Stuart Elliot clarified for the New York Times, “a liquor bottle based on a liquor ad is being brought to life and will itself appear in ads.”
While Absolut’s 2014 release was perhaps more, in Elliot’s words, “Madison Avenue meta,” it wasn’t the first or last incarnation of the art-meets-liquor-meets-advertising trend to hit shelves in recent years. 1800 Tequila launched its Essential Artists series in 2008, and has since collaborated with more than 40 contemporary artists whose work has adorned upwards of 50 highly-prized collectible bottles.
Such artist collaborations aren’t just for clear liquors, either. Last month, premiere cognac producer Hennessy continued its own legacy of partnering with leading contemporary artists on limited edition labels with the release of the brand’s ninth annual Very Special bottle, designed by Argentinian-Spanish artist Felipe Pantone. The artist, whose electric, geometric work evokes a striking collision between a retro and futuristic vision of the digital age, paid homage to his background as a street artist as well as the brand’s 250-year history in his original design for the limited edition bottle.
Pantone’s vivid, seemingly hyper modern design is based on an original artwork, entitled W-3 Dimensional Three Stars, that he created for the special edition bottle after what he describes as a long and intense collaboration with Hennessy. “It didn’t happen overnight, that’s for sure,” he tells InsideHook.
While Pantone’s futuristic, digitized vision dominates the dynamic composition, the artist maintains that the design actually bears significant influence from the brand’s past in keeping with the collaboration’s theme of “remixing the present.”
“My work is all about being very contemporary, being true to what I’m experiencing within the present times, the digital change and the whole transformation that we are all going through,” he tells InsideHook, adding that, while “Hennessy has such a rich history, they are also re-imagining themselves quite a lot.”
Pantone recalls the year-long collaboration as a very rich and largely unmediated process in which he worked directly with the brand to discover a through line uniting their respective visions. For Pantone, that key connection was hidden in the Hennessy archives in Cognac, which he perused on multiple trips back and forth throughout the collaboration.
“One of the things I found is that Hennessy V.S. used to be called Hennessy Three Stars, and that’s why I made use of this,” he says, pointing to the artwork’s titular tri-star design that graces the top right corner of the new special edition label. The stars, he explains, are a fixture of street art, making them the perfect point of intersection between Hennessy’s historical legacy and Pantone’s contemporary vision.
For Pantone, the influx of brands and labels partnering with artists in recent decades doesn’t come as a surprise. “Any sort of packaging enhances the experience,” he says. “By having a label or packaging, you’re trying to tell the story of what the product really is.” Who better to tell that story than artists, whose work has long been engaged in a kind of mimetic reciprocity with the subjects that fuel it?
“A lot of brands, whether it be alcohol or fashion or anything else, are collaborating with us and I think it makes sense,” says Pantone. “I’m very grateful to see it happen.”