There will always be a place in our heart (and our minibars) for the marvellous miniature. Arguably, these small-scale survivors are the hardest working bottles in the booze business.
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 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.
What’s crucial to note, is that aside from limited cosmetic updates, booze bottles 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 which have an unfortunate tendency to explode from the pressure of all the ridiculously expensive Champagne they hold…
In contrast, spirits have (largely) existed in a two-tier system for as long as the industry has been established internationally. This set-up currently focuses on either a 35cl/37.5cl or 50cl option, a regular 70 or 75cl and then 5cl miniatures. While the ubiquitous 70cl is considered the regular, ‘true’ bottle size, its weird and diminutive cousin is the far more compelling. Miniatures have lurked in the background of everyday life for centuries: a quiet, parallel existence to full bottles, 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 also pre-dates alcohol served in glass bottles.
Miniatures were a necessity of early 17th/18th century sea trade. Spirits, often combined with bitters, sugar and water, had become the drink of choice, as the raw materials weren’t available to produce wine or beer and neither of these drinks travelled well. With customers and sailors (understandably) wary of purchasing an entire barrel of liquor, modest ceramic vessels would be used by salesmen as 'testers'. Plus, with a tax on glass in the 1600s and again in 1746, ceramic or stoneware bottles were fairly commonplace.
Even with their own conversion to glass in the late 18th century, 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 meant that spirits like whisky and brandy were unaffordable to virtually every sector 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, European spirit producers shipped miniatures to the US in huge quantities, ensuring that bottles were packaged identically down to the labels.
But the 1930s would prove to be the high watermark for the miniature. Diminished but persevering, in later decades the miniature trudged on. Even after the worldwide economic downturn abated, a full bottle of spirit remained an expensive investment. 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. Pub choices were woefully limited: a gin, a rum, a blended Scotch, perhaps, and 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.
These affordable, space-efficient versions of spirit bottles, differentiated in all sorts of highly specific ways, were fast becoming items that would be fervently stockpiled for personal collections. Whilst a trend at it’s peak in the later half of the 20th century, the news is brighter abroad where miniature collecting has grown unexpectedly popular, particularly in areas long exposed to Western alcohol such as Hong Kong.
There is a growing reluctance of alcohol makers to produce new miniatures, exacerbated by waning consumer demand, miniatures are a pricier way for suppliers to showcase an already pricey product... So 'troublesome' were these tiny serves, that Chicago even banned the miniature in the 1980s...
But miniatures very much continue to have a place within drinking culture, as gifts for Birthdays, Christmas or tasting events such as Burns Night. As trusty accomplices for interminable train or plane journeys, or as sample-size tasters of lesser-known products. 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 choices are increasingly varied, not to mention cocktail bars, dedicated shops and other venues where one can try interesting spirits without having to fork out a fortune.
However if the miniature’s long history demonstrates anything, it’s that the bottles have an odd tendency to find a purpose. Take, for example, 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 then want to open the big bottle or keep it as an investment.
And we're stating it now: miniatures are making a comeback. Sometimes circumstances dictate the need for a small amount of liquor in a discreet receptacle, sometimes you really do want to sample something new, in the comfort of your own home, without shelling out for an entire bottle. And sometimes, you want to give the great gift of alcohol, but a) can’t afford a full bottle of craft spirit b) aren’t sure what exactly to gift or c) simply can’t decide on a single spirit.
And so, to the next chapter, the 31Dover.com pick and mix. Choose three miniatures, we'll pop them in a great little gift box and ship them direct to your door (or to your recipient of choice) - for tomorrow.
Because sometimes, the best things really do come in small packages…
(This article has been adapted from an article that first appeared on Hot Rum Cow, by Jason Ward.)