Birth of the Buffalo Trace Package

With most products, there is a story behind its birthing. Here is one such story known by but a few.

I was privileged to be on the team that was tasked with the development of the branding for the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY and the design of the iconic Buffalo Trace Bourbon package. I worked for SPAR, Inc as the General Manager and Creative Director back then. SPAR was owned by Bill Goldring who owned the Sazerac Company and the Buffalo Trace Distillery among others. I am now retired and so is SPAR.

In the mid-nineties, Sazerac bought the old Ancient Age Distillery (now Buffalo Trace) and set about taking this 200-year-old run-down relic into the 21st century. Mark Brown was hired by Bill to lead that effort, and he has done nothing less than a fantastic job. SPAR was doing most of Sazerac’s package designs and advertising at the time, so we were brought into the process that would be responsible for the rebranding the Ancient Age Distillery and development of what would become its flagship brand.

That process began for me back in 1998 when Mark set up a committee, which consisted of himself, me, the bourbon brand manager, VP national sales manager, the VP legal, and the VP distillery production manager. Mark began the process by calling the team together and giving us all a history lesson on the old distillery. He then took us on tours of every distillery in Kentucky and later Jack Daniels in Lynchburg, TN. He wanted us to see what others had done (or not done) with their facilities in building a “home place.” Some, like Jim Beam, had been very successful drawing many visitors to the distillery for tours, and Beam was not easy to find. The Ancient Age Distillery was not far off an interstate and much easier to find but had only a small fraction of Beam’s visitors. And rightly so; it was, to put it bluntly, pretty much a dump that made good whiskey. That would change as anyone who has visited the Buffalo Trace Distillery lately will testify.

During the process of cleaning up the distillery site, it was discovered that the buildings had, at one time, been painted dark green and copper orange. These colors eventually became the livery colors for the distillery and its branding.

Mark carefully led the development team to choose “Buffalo Trace” for the distillery name because of its history of sitting alongside the Kentucky River at the site where huge buffalo herds had once crossed in their migrations, cutting large swaths through the forests that became known as the Great Buffalo Trace. It was a great choice, and he got no resistance from the rest of the team, so the name became The Buffalo Trace Distillery, and the flagship brand would also carry that name.

The team began to consider design parameters for the branding logo and package design. We wanted something that looked completely authentic and would become iconic. Mark referred to the need for a “wow factor” in the final package design. He also “suggested” the bottle should be short rather than tall, shapely, and have a bulbous neck to resemble an old pot still. As part of the indoctrination process of visiting distilleries in Kentucky, I toured the Oscar Getz Bourbon Museum in Bardstown, KY to view old packages, taking lots of pictures. Special mention had been made in the team meetings that the package had to have a traditional cork finish (closure), thus I focused on what those kinds of finishes looked like on 100+ year-old bourbon packages. Buried in the requests was one by Mark that we consider creating a “buffalo swoosh,” a stylized rendering of a buffalo, that could be used much like the way Nike uses their swoosh. Other than that and the certainty that a buffalo would be in there somewhere, that is pretty much what I gave my designers to work with when I got back to New Orleans.

My design team of Steve Decker, Catherine McAcy, and Reneri Turcios began reviewing my photos and all available bourbon and related whiskey packages before beginning to sketch out designs for consideration in our many internal design meetings. I took the info I had been given and laid out what I thought the bottle should look like, with a heavy emphasis on the neck and finish shape. This design and some rough label concepts were presented at the next development team meeting in one of our distillery tours. The bottle was approved with minor changes. Some of the label and logo designs were approved with requested changes for future consideration.

Back in New Orleans, I made the changes to the bottle shape and gained approval from the development team for the next step. I sent my concept drawings to the glassmaker, and he came back with a mechanical drawing for a 750ml bottle, which was submitted to the development team and eventually approved.

We had a drawing and no “decoration” (the labeling) beyond some rough 2D sketches done by my designers using the drawing from the glassmaker. We ordered a couple of full-sized lucite models of the approved bottle design, including having them stained to look like they contained bourbon and began applying early designs to these. We settled on a few, and I flew out for another meeting with the rest of the development team. They liked the designs and homed in on a couple for revisions. 

Meanwhile, as a separate project, we had commissioned a painting of a buffalo by a famous wildlife artist in Colorado discovered by one of my designers on a vacation trip to San Fran, Lee Cable. It was to be a painting of a buffalo along the Kentucky River where they swam across. I supplied photos of the Kentucky River taken from one of the buildings at the distillery for Lee to use, and he began submitting pencil sketches for the pose of the buffalo in the painting. The first one was well received by both the design team in New Orleans and the development team in Frankfort. Mark asked for one minor change to spread the front feet further apart. A revised drawing arrived from Lee, and we began using it as a placeholder in the concept package designs, never intending to use the pencil drawing in the finished design.

I had designed the requested “buffalo swoosh” for an early version of the package and was asked to incorporate both the swoosh and the buffalo drawing into the design. I was initially concerned that the modern-looking swoosh wasn’t fitting with the traditional label concepts we had developed. We eventually compromised by including the swoosh into the brand logo, combining it with a period looking font.

The second-to-last development team meeting had been in the Cincinnati Airport, and I returned to New Orleans with requested design changes from the team. They had rejected some of the changes/improvements we designers thought were needed, and I was disappointed in the selected design. The development team’s requested design changes were expected to result in the final approved design. But what I saw happening was a racehorse being designed by a committee, and the result was looking more like a camel.

I briefed my design team, and they made the changes the development team had requested. The “final” design was a rather traditional looking paper label on a really nice bottle. It looked good but didn’t have that wow factor. I called an internal meeting with my design team and expressed my doubts about the design. Everyone agreed with me. It was a good design but far from a great design. We could go along with the development team’s design or submit something completely new that we thought was better, a risky move for the designers at this point in the process. Steve Decker recalled a label we had previously seen on another package that had one edge torn off and suggested we consider something like that to spice up the design. I agreed, and they threw together a new design.

Unlike the inspiration source, we tore all sides, and the final torn shape was quite accidental. It had several things going for it. For one it was not symmetrical. In fact, it wrapped partway around the front of the package almost to the back on one side and was applied at an angle, a very unusual technique back then, especially for a bourbon package. This gave the design great shelf-presence. In a sea of rectangular labels on the shelves of a liquor store, the torn label package jumps out at you.

We positioned the buffalo pencil drawing on the torn label off to one side. We made him so large that the edges of the “tears” cut through the buffalo’s hump and his feet, and with the label applied slightly off-kilter, he looks like he is bursting forth from its confines. This combination of effects gives the buffalo a feeling of power and dynamic action. The paper background color was intended to look like parchment to further enhance its “aged” look. The logo was no longer part of the paper label but was placed below it directly on the glass by the  ACL (Applied Color Label) silkscreen process and fired on. The whole character of the package was radically different from the “camel” version. We designers loved it, and I had to then go sell it to the development team at our last distillery tour, Jack Daniels.

The rest of the development team drove down from Frankfort, KY in a large van and picked me up at the Nashville Airport. I was in the middle/front row with most of the team crammed into the two rows behind me. We are rolling down I-24 to Lynchburg, laughing and cutting up when Mark asked me to break out the design for final approval. Showtime. I dug down into my sample case and pulled out the “camel” design and held it up to their fawning approval. I said nothing as they discussed the design and how much they liked it—and I tried to decide how I was going to present “the other” design.

Once the back-slapping had subsided, I said, “OK, this is nice, a good design, but we are not really happy with it. We would like to offer something else for your consideration, something a bit more daring.” I then pulled out the torn label design and held it up.

Dead silence in the van. All I heard was the low roar of the tires on the concrete as they considered the design—one that was shockingly different from what they had requested.

Finally, Mark said, “WOW!” And I knew we had a winner. That broke the dam, and everyone chimed in. I explained our reasoning for the design and why we thought it would be great for the brand, a sale I didn’t have to make, and the “camel” was put out to pasture.

We toured the Jack Daniels Distillery and retired to the park in Lynchburg to finalize everything. I put both dummy designs on a picnic table, and the team viewed and discussed them one last time. It was unanimously agreed that the SPAR version was a racehorse and was approved as is.

Back in NOLA the design team was ecstatic. And that’s the story of the Buffalo Trace package.


Filed under Art and Design

3 responses to “Birth of the Buffalo Trace Package

  1. Richard A Caire

    Nice to read the history of how the branding was developed … it’s effective, too …



    Lane, Neat Story and a good looking bottle of Bourbon. Now the most important question: What about the quality of the Bourbon in the Bottle?  Does it fit the packaging?  Is it a good quality bourbon? Thanks, Doug


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