The whole world of beer, wine and spirits tends to elevate design to a uniquely privileged position, relative to other industries. Nowhere is this truer than with liqueur labels—a bigger subset than you might think, comprising fortified wines, aperitifs and digestifs, as well as harder mixers.
Often liqueur labels straddle a line between quasi-medicinal authority and bacchanalian hedonism—a duality that is readily apparent when comparing stately bottle labels with the often raucous advertisements that accompany them.
Another interesting aspect about liqueur labels is that almost all of them have their origins in an earlier era. Some, like Carpano, have roots as far back as the 18th century; very few were created after World War II. But by far the most important period, graphically speaking, were the years between about 1890 and 1939, when modern art and design movements like Art Nouveau and Art Deco created modern graphic design as we know it.
Here we’ve put together a visual tour of six of our favorite liqueur labels. Together, they make a nice time capsule of a bygone era.
1. Fernet Branca
Fernet’s iconic logo was designed in the early years of the Twentieth Century by the Italian illustrator Leopoldo Metlicovitz. It features an eagle clutching a bottle of the product, positioned over a globe, as though delivering this extremely bitter, quasi-medicinal north Italian tincture to the world.
Fernet has an unusual, very strong flavor that people don’t often love right away. A few factors helped its success. The first was being allowed in the United States during prohibition on the grounds that it was “medicinal.” The second was a killer knack for advertising, including the euphoric dancing alligator—amazing—and classically painted mermaids shown above.
The design has not changed very much over the last century, but there are some differences. On labels from 1893 (above left), the logo is encased within a frame of Art Nouveau tendrils. On newer bottles it is by itself, its tangerine-to-blue gradient contrasting brilliantly with the pitch black of the bottle, while a highly textured label fills the space below.
The above image was a 1964 poster for Milan’s newly completed subway system. Designed by Bruno Mauri, it is called “Graphic Declension of the Name Campari.” By the 1960s, Campari was not just any other name: along with Vespa scooters, this bitter, bright red aperitif represented all that was exciting about postwar Italy.
Campari’s origins are in the 19th century, but it really consolidated its design identity in the 1930s, under the influence of Art Deco and, especially, Italian Futurism. You can definitely see the impact of the latter in the advertisements shown above by the artist Fortunato Depero.
From this emerged the company’s iconic, hard block capitals, which were even chunkier back in the day, as shown in the 1940s advertisement above left.
Another distinguishing trait of the older bottles is the graphic weight given to the word “Bitter” in extravagant cursive script, acting as counterpoint to the hard-edged logo. Over the years this word has shrunken to a more subordinate role (above right), but it remains crucial to the design.
Carpano’s main product, a vermouth consisting of a white wine infused with citrus and botanicals and fortified with higher proof liquor, is called “antica formula” for a reason: it dates all the way back to 1786. As such, it is the granddaddy of all modern Italian aperitifs.
In the late 19th century, Carpano introduced a new product called Punt e Mes, meaning “point and a half” in the Piedmontese dialect—supposedly a reference to stock exchange transaction that occurred the evening it was invented. The company’s advertisements often presented them as a pair.
The branding of the two products, however, is quite different. The Carpano Antica label supposedly has not changed a bit since 1786; it is quintessentially rococo in its motif of extravagant, classicized vegetation.
The Punt e Mes liqueur labels has a hint of this in the background, but it is plastered over by a big red banner with the product name in angular capitals. We’re not sure exactly when this logo was introduced, but we’re guessing late 1950s or early 1960s based on the jazzy style.
Coming from Germany, Jägermeister definitely rocks an aesthetic very different from its Italian or French counterparts. The typeface is Blackletter, sometimes called Gothic, the color scheme is vivid orange on black, and the emblem is a deer beneath a radiant cross inside a circle.
Is this a liqueur label or a heavy metal logo? Jäger’s unusual graphic identity has prompted all sorts of interpretations, from speculation about satanic undercurrents to a humorous rebus-style reading: O deer God.
In fact, Jägermeister’s graphic identity was devised by the company’s director, Curt Mast, in 1934. Mast was a passionate hunter, and so his emblem is derived from religious icons of the patron saint of hunting, St. Hubertus, which conventionally feature a deer with a cross above its head (above left).
There have been some changes to the design over the years—the type is a bit cleaner now, and there is more negative space—but overall it has remained fairly constant. The green border even still contains the opening lines to a poem by Oskar von Riesenthal about, you guessed it, hunting.
No liqueur label is more emblematic of the Belle Époque in France than absinthe—that cloudy green, anise flavored, wormwood-infused mixture that is believed to have hallucinogenic properties. At the very least, it gets you super drunk, which is no doubt why it became a favorite of bohemian types. And no brand represented this look better than Pernod.
These advertisements are gems of the era, emblematizing the leafy exuberance of Art Nouveau (above left) and the bold angularity of Art Deco (above center). But they also reveal some curious discrepancies. In the left image, the brand name is spelled “J. Pernot.” On the right, it says “Bourgeois Frères,” even though the design is clearly the same. Evidently the brand was undergoing some frequent modifications in its early days.
And it still is. In 1975, Pernod merged with one of its competitors, Ricard, to form the company Pernod-Ricard, which produces many alcoholic beverages. However, it kept both of their original anise products, Pernod Pastis and Ricard Anise, which have confusingly similar product labels. If you ask us, some re-branding may be in order.
No French liqueur label exudes Art Deco majesty like Cointreau, with its rectangular amber bottle, angular banner and strong diagonal lettering. It is hard to imagine that it has ever been any different.
And indeed, it never was. But interestingly, just about every other aspect of the company’s graphic identity was in a state of constant flux in the first half of the 20th century, responding to the avant-garde impulses of the day.
Take a look at the advertising posters shown above, which span the turn of the century through about 1960, and observe how quickly 19th century realism gives way to Cubist-style abstraction, and then snaps back into a psychedelic hyper-realism.
Amidst all this change, the label itself remained a ballast. Indeed, in the nearly 100 years spanning 1893 and 1980, shown above, the only thing that changed was whether the product was labeled Cointreau and sub-labeled Triple-Sec, or the reverse. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?