What do we talk about when we talk about alcohol? Discussion on the subject tends to focus on a few distinct areas: the ways alcohol has developed, where and how it is made (and by whom), and what it is like to consume. Alcohol as history, alcohol as an industry, alcohol as a drink. There is notably less attention paid to another factor, one that can be just as illuminating as its creation or composition. Between the cask and the glass, a part of the journey is missing from the conversation. The answer isn’t at the bottom of a bottle: it is the bottle.
By thinking about alcohol in terms of a discrete unit – something that is sold, bought and owned – we can reflect upon our relationship with it. As drinking habits evolve, so too does the way we interact with the vessels that contain the substance. What’s crucial is that aside from periodic cosmetic updates, the bottles themselves never really change, even as everything else does around them. This applies in particular to spirits: wine has long been a volumetric jumble, where bottle sizes lurch from the 187.5ml Piccolo to the 30l Melchizedek – four-foot-tall behemoths that have an unfortunate tendency to explode from the pressure of all the inordinately expensive champagne they hold.
In contrast, spirits have existed in a two-tier system for as long as the industry has been established internationally, a steadfastness unsurprising in a drink that can take decades to produce. This set-up currently comprises the global standards – 35cl, 50cl and the regular 70 or 75cl, depending on whether you live in the EU after 1990 or not – and 5cl miniatures. While the ubiquitous 70cl is considered the regular, ‘true’ bottle size, its weird and diminutive cousin is the more compelling. Like the Post Office Railway that ran alongside the regular London Underground for 76 years without anyone really noticing, miniatures have had a quiet parallel existence to full bottles since they were devised, noticeable only to those who were paying attention.
The invention of the alcoholic miniature pre-dates not only the hotel minibar that is now one of its natural habitats, but glass bottles as well. Miniatures were a necessity of early 18th-century sea trade. Spirits, often combined with bitters, sugar and water, had become the American drink of choice, as the raw materials weren’t available to produce wine or beer and neither drink travelled well.
With customers understandably wary of purchasing an entire barrel of liquor, modest ceramic vessels would be used by salesmen as testers. Such containers were standard at the time: bottles that did exist were large, made from stoneware and only used for storage. This practice continued until 1846, when John Dewar Sr. opened a wine and spirits shop in Perth and sold bottles of his ‘White Label’ whisky blend. The concept of glass bottles for spirits was subsequently popularised over the following half a century as the blend became the market leader globally.
Even with their own conversion to glass, it wasn’t until the 1930s that miniatures became desirable objects in their own right. Despite the timely demise of American Prohibition in 1933, high import duties and the Great Depression rendered spirits like whisky and brandy unaffordable to virtually every stratum of society. It was in this troubled environment that miniatures prospered: they avoided tax because they were classed as samples, while their reduced volume made them a more attainable option over full bottles. Accordingly, ingenious European spirit producers shipped miniatures to the US in huge quantities, ensuring that bottles were packaged identically down to the labels.
Sharing the fate of Shirley Temple, big band music and tommy guns hidden in violin cases, the 1930s would prove to be the high watermark for the miniature. Diminished but persevering, in later decades it trudged on with a role that had much in common with its original mission. Even after the worldwide economic downturn abated, a full bottle of spirits remained an expensive investment without knowing what you were tasting. Devoid of the inquisitive, increasingly well-informed drinking culture we enjoy today, this was also an era before pub shelves creaked under the weight of dozens of half-empty spirit bottles. With interesting single malts considered elusive or near mythical, pub choices were woefully limited: a gin, a rum, a blended Scotch, a creeping sense of malaise. The solution was, and remains, a good miniature: a satisfying single drink in itself, or a reasonably priced taster for a possible future purchase. While miniatures were living out their functional, unsexy purpose as tiny, alcohol-filled trial balloons, however, another trend had begun.
Watching an episode of ‘Antiques Roadshow’ bored and depressed on a Sunday evening will verify that absolutely anything can be considered collectable, but certain objects lend themselves to the hobby better than others. It is therefore not a surprise to learn that affordable, space-efficient versions of spirit bottles, differentiated in all sorts of highly specific ways, became items that would be fervently stockpiled for personal collections.
Miniature collecting has been a popular, if idiosyncratic, pursuit ever since the bottles themselves were designed to directly imitate their towering brethren, and for collectors it’s this distinction that is key: a true miniature is defined as any bottle for which an accompanying full-sized version exists. While gimmick bottles of the kind popular in Scotland’s tourist shops have their own kitsch allure, what rules them out of consideration is their unspecified, unreliable contents. “Who knows what the whisky is inside?” muses Laurie Drake, Vice Chairman of the UK Mini Bottle Club. “It’s probably just a grotty old Bell’s. I need to have a name on my label so I know what I’m collecting.” In addition, the miniature must also have a sealed cap and contain at least some of the original liquid, although losing a portion to evaporation (surely the angels’ second share) is a known potential hazard. Originally this would be battled by coating the top of the neck with nail varnish, but now the miniature collector’s best friend is a clear paraffin tape used in laboratories and called Parafilm.
While Drake is particularly invested in miniature collecting – his wife literally wrote the book on the subject – his experience is representative of the community he helps run. A collector of such bottles for over 20 years, he boasts a dedicated whisky room in his house, and it’s the effect the room has upon visitors that for him is part of the appeal. He notes that the vast majority of the Mini Bottle Club collects whiskies, and many specialise further still – Drake amassed more than 2,500 different distillery malts before whittling his collection down to just Famous Grouse. Rather than hoarding good leads, the members of the club help each other out, letting their peers know when new bottlings are available: “The idea isn’t that I want to have more whiskies than you,” says Drake. “It’s not a competition, or trying to outdo anyone, it’s just collecting for your own personal gratification. It’s a satisfying process, and to us they look nice on the wall. To other people they probably don’t.”
This spirit of cooperation among collectors isn’t just goodwill but an awareness that they’re part of an endangered species. The Mini Bottle Club persists in its cause, holding regular auctions and annual meetings, but the existing members are ageing and new ones are rare: from a peak in the 1990s of around 400 members, roughly a quarter remain. The news is brighter abroad, where collecting has grown unexpectedly popular. Beyond American collectors, who are more accepting of figural miniatures, there is a thriving scene in Asia, particularly in areas long exposed to Western alcohol such as Hong Kong. This is of little consolation to British collectors, where a free fall in popularity is symptomatic of an overall decline in collecting as a pastime. Like many of his fellow members, Drake started off in his youth by collecting matchboxes, cigarette cards and football programmes, quaint diversions that are almost unimaginable for a teenager today. “Young people are more interested in their computers and tablets. They’re not into collecting anymore. Most of our members are overseas now, and in the UK it seems to be dying out. It’s a shame. The best days, I think, are over.”
It isn’t just in the realm of collecting that miniatures are beleaguered. The cost of producing a miniature isn’t far off the cost of making a full-sized version, yet the final product is sold for a significantly lower price, which means they struggle to remain a sustainable revenue option for distributors. Additionally, the growing reluctance of alcohol makers to produce new miniatures is exacerbated by waning consumer demand: miniatures are ultimately an expensive way to buy an already expensive product.
Miniatures continue to have a place within drinking culture, as gifts for Christmas or Burns Night, or trusty accomplices for interminable train or plane journeys, but otherwise their presence is dimming. In a certain sense, they have become a victim of alcohol’s success: their traditional use as a sampling method is under threat as pub choice is increasingly varied, not to mention cocktail bars, dedicated whisky shops and other venues where one can try interesting spirits without having to sell a kidney on the black market. Why buy a selection of miniatures when for the same price you can get a full bottle of a drink that you’ve read about, or attend a tasting run by someone knowledgeable and passionate? Even South Carolina, the unlikely centre of the miniature alcohol world, is no longer safe; until the state’s constitution was amended in 2005, it remained the only place in America where it was legally required for all restaurants, hotels and bars to serve spirits from miniature bottles. Inevitably, the law change resulted in confused bartenders racing to learn how to free pour measures, and customers disappointed that their regular drinks were suddenly much weaker.
If the miniature’s long history demonstrates anything, it’s that the bottles have an odd tendency to find a purpose. One such use now is to be a historical experience. Whisky is organic, so even though it doesn’t age once it’s been bottled, different bottlings of single malts will inevitably vary over time. “With miniatures, people who are dedicated can follow the whole progress of a specific drink,” suggests Dominic Roskrow, former editor of Whisky Magazine and author of several books on the subject. “I’m a forward-thinking person so I’m not very interested in history lessons, but I can understand the appeal of that. It’s like driving an old Triumph Herald from the 1960s: a step back into an experience.”
While miniatures have been supplanted by tastings, the general increase in interest has also created attendant opportunities for the enterprising. Roskrow cites the marketing strategy of The Last Drop, the incredibly exclusive 50-year-old scotch blend that can cost thousands of pounds and comes with its own miniature: “The idea is that you taste the whisky using the miniature and decide if you want to open the big bottle or keep it as an investment.” This canny move from the blend’s distillers has been met by an equally canny response from buyers, many of whom have sold their miniatures online. “They’ll make a considerable amount of money doing that because it’s the only way some people will ever get to taste the drink,” he explains. In the more sane area of the price spectrum, miniatures are also being used as an extension of tastings. Roskrow himself co-runs an online whisky-tasting club – an opt-in service where members buy bespoke sets of different miniatures decanted from full-size bottles, like a cereal variety pack with tasting notes.
Even as miniatures are buffeted by inexorable change within the alcohol industry, it seems unlikely that they will ever entirely disappear, if only for the simple reason that sometimes circumstances dictate the need for a small amount of liquor in a discreet receptacle.
As Apollo 8 returned from the first ever orbit of the Moon in 1968, for example, its three-man crew were told of a surprise Christmas present from NASA: three Coronet VSQ California Grape Brandy miniatures. In a prudent yet spoilsport move, mission commander Frank Borman told his fellow astronauts they would have to wait until they got home (40 years later his crewmate Jim Lovell sold his still unopened bottle for $17,925). This was a sensible decision, and almost certainly the wrong one: if there was ever an appropriate time to drink a miniature, it would surely be travelling home from the Moon on Christmas Day, with such a long way still to go.