Green River Kentucky Bourbon’s Packaging is Steeped in History

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 04/05/2022 | 5 Minute Read

You can’t fake heritage.

Consumers love a good backstory and feeling like they’re buying something authentic and tied to the past. Brands that aren’t lucky enough to have a history at the heart of their identity have even resorted to making something up—Hollister claims a 1922 start date when it really began way back in, um, 2000, and watch brand Shinola didn’t so much rise from Detroit's ashes as it was strategically placed there by the manufacturing company.

But then you encounter something like Green River, a Kentucky bourbon with a genuine past, well, that’s worth toasting to.

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“When J.W. McCulloch started the brand in 1891, the bourbon category was all over the board in terms of quality and ingredients,” said Mike Bowman, group account director at Moxie Sozo. “He wanted to make a very consistent product, a premium product that they advertised as such.”

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Prohibition had other plans in mind, though—and between an after-hours fire, the facility changing management, and the name getting sold, Green River bourbon was, up until recently, a thing of the past. With a couple of years left in the aging process, Green River Distilling approached Moxie Sozo to resurrect the brand and its namesake bourbon. Green River is a pre-prohibition bourbon and the tenth bourbon distillery in the state—it was a chance to position the brand with an identity and packaging that digs deep, highlighting their Owensboro, Kentucky pride.

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Editorial photograph

Derek Springston, chief creative officer and partner at Moxie Sozo, said the goal was to restore the brand. They wondered: had prohibition never happened, had the name for the distillery never changed, had the property itself never been sold, what would Green River look like today? With over a century of history tied to the name and the distillery location, Moxie Sozo researched old packaging, images, and brand lore to design Green River as we know it today.

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Most prominent in the design is the bottle itself, a custom glass beauty to behold. It incorporates horseshoe imagery from past labels, along with textured riveting and other small details. Plus, the unique shape makes it an item to collect. Rather than make Green River’s bottle look like an enormous bourbon-filled horseshoe—which would certainly stand out but would also certainly border on kitsch—the agency went a more sophisticated route that’s also easy and comfortable to hold. 

“We were responsible for the concepting and wireframing,” Nate Dyer, senior creative at Moxie Sozo, said. “From our experience with form factor design, we had a pretty good idea of how this would work. We concepted, designed, and wireframed the bottle, then worked with an engineer to develop the CAD. We are very pleased with how it turned out.”

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The eye-catching bottle design is juxtaposed with a straightforward, confident label consisting of words only. This direct approach gives them flexibility with future special releases and varieties, like Green River’s bottled-in-bond spirit or rye. With the label, the brand leans into its legacy with a word mark and layout that looks quintessentially bourbon—think thick sans serif text with flashes of warm honey.

“It’s not trying to be something it’s not,” said Derek. “There have been a lot of really good bourbons to come out recently from some newer distilleries in Kentucky that are pushing a more modern, contemporary differentiation. This is not that. There’s a lot of mystique to play with when you have a brand with such a legacy.”

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The label also includes the designation “DSP-KY-10” since Green River is, remarkably, produced as the tenth ever bourbon distillery in the country. Many of the original distilleries in the United States no longer exist, and the bourbons of today might not advertise their distillery number since something in the hundreds (or thousands) isn’t particularly special.

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As much as the brand’s history played a part in the packaging design, all of it can’t fit onto a label. Moxie Sozo had heaps of content available to them, so part of the design process included deciding what would go on the label and eliminating anything that wasn’t truly necessary for the bottle. Some things were easy to walk away from (the team mentioned there is a racist image that no longer reflects the brand’s values); still, much of the brand’s dedication to quality and backstory needed to be sifted through and considered carefully.

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Editorial photograph

They worked with Green River to perfect the elements they’d bring to the packaging while simultaneously pulling some of those stories into ads they generated for the brand. Green River has also revamped its tasting room to match Moxie Sozo’s work, making it a more cohesive experience.

Green River’s design respects the legacy of Kentucky bourbon and nods to its own history, but it’s still fresh, bold, and lively—pretty impressive for a brand they revived after 130 years.

“It’s a unique experience to start designing a brand that’s over 130 years old,” Mike said. “When Moxie Sozo started, it still had a couple of years to go before we got to see anything, and now it's finally out. It’s been a really fun journey.”

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Go here to learn more about Moxie Sozo!

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