Brandy labels are top-shelf

Anne Marie Mohan

January 29, 2014

12 Min Read
Brandy labels are top-shelf

Christian Brothers® Brandy, distilled in the U.S. since 1882, is one of the most well-known brandies in the domestic distilled spirits industry and is often referred to as the number-one "call" brand, or brand that consumers most often identify by name to a bartender when ordering a brandy. The smooth, amber-colored spirit, acquired by Heaven Hill Distilleries, Inc., Bardstown, KY, in 1999 from United Distillers and Vintners, is the only American brandy that uses the same pot-still production method used with fine cognacs—a process that Heaven Hill says yields a superb, rich flavor that is enhanced by years of aging in hand-selected, oak casks.

In 2004, Heaven Hill upgraded the product's packaging to enhance its shelf presence, broaden the brand's appeal to a more contemporary demographic and to more clearly communicate the quality of the Christian Brothers brand. Says Josh Hafer, corporate communications manager, "We redesigned the label with an elegant, black look, accented with gold, and with a very heavy emphasis on the 'VS' [a U.S. branding designation used to indicate the quality of the brandy] as a means of elevating the brand's sophistication."

Until last year, these labels acquired their striking, yet refined decoration through sheetfed-offset printing only and were individually die-cut and glue-applied to the Christian Brothers' bottle. In early 2005, upon its transition to a new West Coast copacker, Heaven Hill charged converter J.R. Cole Industries ( with the task of precisely replicating the cut-and-stack, cold-glue label in a pressure-sensitive format to meet the new copacker's labeling capabilities.

Relates Millard Sims, operations manager, "We challenged J.R. Cole to duplicate the cut-and-stack, cold-glue label, and they did an excellent job. In fact, if the labels were side-by-side, it would be very difficult for a consumer to pick out which one was pressure-sensitive and which was cut-and-stack."

With the packaging redesign of Christian Brothers Brandy in 2004, Heaven Hill used the opportunity to reposition its product within the distilled spirits market. To suggest the brandy's usage as a lifestyle brand, as well as extend Christian Brothers' reach to the younger, legal-age drinker, Heaven Hill introduced a new tagline—"CB & (any occasion) completes whatever you start," which implies that "Christian Brothers plus any occasion equals the perfect occasion," explains Hafer.

Aware that the bulk of its buyers are "white consumers of a reasonable household income," Heaven Hill also positioned Christian Brothers as a merchandisable brand, with in-store, on-pack promotions, sweepstakes and giveaways. Hafer adds that two other marketing strategies focus on the brand's African American and Hispanic consumers.

To maintain the product's brand equity while revitalizing its packaging, Heaven Hill worked with design firm Keller Crescent Co. (, which it says has helped it successfully redesign several of its other brand labels, as well. The Christian Brothers redesign retained the classic, "cathedral"-style bottle, as well as some key label elements, including the CB "grape wreath" graphic, the "Since 1882" heritage statement and the CB logotype. Changes to the label included replacing the burgundy "velvet" look of the old face label with a glossy, black background and adding the prominently positioned "VS Very Smooth" copy.

A black-and-gold-foil neck wrap and capsule, with the repeating copy "Christian Brothers/Very Smooth Brandy," elegantly completes the package.

The new cut-and-stack labels made their debut in June 2004 on Christian Brothers' full range of bottle sizes, including the 50-, 100-, 200-, 375- and 750-mL and 1- and 1.75-L sizes, and were "very well received by consumers," relates Hafer. "There's always a fear that you're going to damage the brand equity a little bit with a redesign. The good thing is that Heaven Hill is an independent, family-owned business; we're not a massive company, so we're pretty agile. We've gone though several package changes with our brands, and we have a very good track record.

"One of the key equities of the Christian Brothers brand is the cathedral bottle, which didn't change. It's an eye-catching element and probably helped consumers recognize the brand."

Heaven Hill packages its Christian Brothers Brandy in two locations—one at its facility in Bardstown, the other on the West Coast. In 2004, it switched its West Coast business to contract bottler Frank-Lin Distillers ( in San Jose, CA. While excellently equipped to bottle the Christian Brothers Brandy, Frank-Lin did not have the capabilities to apply the cold-glue labels. "Their equipment was designed to run a pressure-sensitive label," explains Sims. "We could have stayed with the cut-and-stack, with some additional equipment costs, but we decided to let J.R. Cole try to duplicate this label, which they did—to perfection."

A converter of p-s labels and folding cartons, Charlotte, NC-based J.R. Cole comprises four converting operations, all of which are located within a 10-mile radius. Together, they cover approximately 159,000 sq ft. The flagship folding-carton division, Southern Converters, Inc., was founded in 1979. The Labeltec roll-label and insert subsidiary, which converts Heaven Hills' p-s Christian Brothers label, as well as p-s labels for other Heaven Hill brands, was established in 1982 to serve a growing demand from existing carton customers for color-matched p-s labels. Ten years later, J.R. Cole spun off Pharmaprint to convert pharmaceutical roll labels and inserts; in 1987, it launched Carolina Prepress to provide artwork and plates for its sister companies, as well as for some noncompetitive converters.

J.R. Cole's customer base includes health and beauty, healthcare, household care, wine/spirits and consumer electronics packagers across North America. This long list of Fortune 500 businesses employs the converter's flexo, offset, rotary screen and rotary letterpress printing, embossing/stamping, die-cutting and folding/gluing services.

"We serve the high-end customers of various markets," says Joe Richards, vp of sales. "The cliché of being 'a one-stop shop' is true at J.R. Cole. We will handle today's demands for shorter runs, and even manage inventory for customers."

Adds Larry Long, vp of manufacturing, "While we do provide a broad range of services, we don't serve all markets. That can hurt your business in the process. We get to know our customers requirements very well in certain markets and make the best product possible."

One way of achieving that goal is through the company's new Heidelberg ( Speedmaster CD 102 sheetfed-offset press, installed at the Southern Converters plant last March. The 40-in., six-color-plus-coater system is expected to help shorten job makeready times and speed changeovers with its automatic inking unit, automatic plate hangers and rapid registration. Although J.R. Cole currently uses only water-based coatings on the press, each print interdeck dryer is prewired for ultraviolet curing.

"It's an excellent piece of equipment," says Southern Converters general manager Lee Swope, who goes on to say that although the company has state-of-the-art equipment, that's not necessarily what makes J.R. Cole special. "Our responsiveness to customers is our strong suit," he says. "When they put an order in, they want it turned and shipped in ten days—sometimes even less in the label division.

"We're still small enough to turn on a dime. We react very quickly. It's not a case where we have a big committee; decisions are made almost overnight."

To support its label business, last spring J.R. Cole added a new 16-in., eight-color press from Multi Print Systems ( at the Labeltec facility. Manufactured by MPS in The Netherlands, the completely servo-driven equipment features interchangeable print stations with a combination of UV-flexo and rotary-screen printing. It handles substrates from 1-mil unsupported films to .020 paperboard, as well as shrink-sleeve materials. Subsystems include in-line hot-stamping and laminating capabilities, three die-cutting stations and web turning.

"Changeover between screen and flexo takes only minutes," says Darrell Somerville, label operations manager. "The servo drives cut waste to only 200 feet of material, and once registration is set, there's no manual adjustment."

The latest equipment addition to J.R. Cole's arsenal, installed in September, is a 16-in. KOR Engineering ( VR inspection slitter/rewinder stationed at its Pharmaprint plant. Fitted with an AVT Advanced Vision Technologies ( digital defect-detection system, the unit also uses up to four Domino Amjet ( A400 ink-jet printheads to sequentially number the back of pharmaceutical labels.

J.R. Cole's Carolina Prepress operation is truly a "start-to-finish" business, offering everything from original label and carton graphics and structural design to final printing plates for both offset and flexo work. For narrow-web flexo labels, Carolina Prepress recently added an Esko-Graphics( CDI Spark digital flexo plate imager and a DuPont Packaging Graphics ( Cyrel® FAST 1000 TD flexo plate processor. Along with film imagesetting, Carolina Prepress also provides contract proofs.

Capital investments have lately been fast and frequent at J.R. Cole, but that's also one of its strengths, says Dave Harris, technical manager of label operations. "What's unique to our management is that we don't have a lot of levels to act as a stumbling block to progress," he says. "It's given us the freedom to make commitments and live up to them."

Adds J.R. Cole president and CEO Bob Cole, "The roll-label business is as wide open as it was forty years ago. The entry level is such that a garage and a credit card will put you in business. Converters come and go on an almost weekly basis. The fragmentation of the industry is almost beyond belief.

"The consolidation of retailing has provided opportunities for nimble, customer-oriented converters. I believe there will always be a market for converters fitting this profile."

At Heaven Hill, Sims confirms J.R. Cole's commitment to service. "There are several very good pressure-sensitive label converters out there," he says, "but what we have found with J.R. Cole is that they have always met our quality requirements, their customer service is excellent, and their pricing is fair." When Heaven Hill approached J.R. Cole in February 2005 about replicating its cold-glue labels in a p-s format, the converter was already supplying Heaven Hill with p-s labels for some of its other brands.

For J.R. Cole, the process of creating the p-s label involved testing materials in its lab and experimenting with postprint processes to achieve the desired results. For the label stock, J.R. Cole selected Raflatac's ( Silver Vac, a 2.7-mil metallized, paper-based facestock, coated with RP51 modified acrylic dispersion permanent adhesive and laminated to a 40# white kraft release liner. "This particular label construction allowed us to match the glue-applied labels," says Ken Fender, Labeltec plant manager. "We had to be able to tint the silver foil gold to match the labels exactly. The tints available with the gold-metallized papers in pressure-sensitive were not an exact match. This was unacceptable to the customer.

"We tested materials in our lab from several different suppliers, and the Raflatac material seemed superior for this particular application."

Labels are printed on a Mark Andy ( 12-color, UV-flexo press with 600-line anilox rolls, using UV-flexo inks in black, gold tint, red and white from Zeller+Gmelin ( The 150-line-screen printing is topped with a UV-flexo coating, then embossed in-line using a male/female brass die from RotoMetrics ( Die-cutting is also performed in-line, using magnetic dies from Gerhardt ( According to Fender, the Mark Andy press was selected for this application because of its in-line embossing, coating and die-cutting features and because "the UV-flexo stations were required to achieve the desired density of the black background."

From Millard Sims' perspective, one of the biggest challenges for J.R. Cole was matching the embossing of the cut-and-stack labels. "They ran several tests to ensure that they met our criteria and our quality requirements, and they sent samples to us to review," he recalls. "After a couple of attempts, they were able to match the embossing perfectly with that of the cut-and-stack label."

In April 2005, the p-s labels were introduced into the market served by Frank-Lin on the 50-, 200-, 375- and 750-mL and 1- and 1.75-L sizes of Christian Brothers Brandy. For the 200- and 375-mL sizes, J.R. Cole also converts a partial/spot trapezoidal neck label, using the same Silver Vac label facestock, printed with black and gold-tint UV-flexo inks and a UV-flexo coating.

For Heaven Hill, when it came to the switch to p-s labels for its West Coast-packaged Christian Brothers Brandy products, no news was good news. "We have not had one complaint since we switched to the pressure-sensitive labels," says Sims. "I'm not even sure that a customer would even know we made the change."

More information is available:

J.R. Cole Industries, Inc., 704/523-6622.

AVT, Inc., 770/541-9781.

Domino Amjet, Inc., 800/486-7351.

Esko-Graphics, 800/743-7131.

DuPont Packaging Graphics, 800/345-9999.

Frank-Lin Distillers Products, Ltd., 408/259-8900.

Gerhardt USA, 717/417-1313.

Heidelberg USA, Inc., 888/472-9655.

Keller Crescent Co., 800/457-3837, ext. 625.

KOR Engineering, Inc., 905/842-8452.

Mark Andy, Inc., 800/700-MARK.

Multi Print Systems, 513/831-2483.

Raflatac, 800/992-3882.

RotoMetrics, 800/325-3851.

Zeller+Gmelin Corp., 800/84U-VINK.

Sign up for the Packaging Digest News & Insights newsletter.

You May Also Like