The true story of the world’s most outrageous bottle of Saké

The true story of how Carter Hales Design Lab got nominated for a major international design award based on a sticky note drawn by the head of a trading unit at a German investment bank.
The Sticky given to us by our client, Neil Hosie.

Several famous design firms competed for the chance to design a new bottle from scratch. Only one was shown the Sticky.

After we made it through the final round we wondered who else was in the running? Everyone who matters, is all we can say. Calls went out to highly respected firms. Even a certain childhood hero of our design director, Sean Carter, had a shot at taking Four Fox Saké to the altar.

But in the end we squeaked through. We were just relieved that no one else was shown the Sticky. Otherwise things could have been different.

We were hired to design the packaging and identity for a new bottle.

The brief was written by a team consisting mostly of bankers (Neil Hosie, Andrew Rizkalla and Dave Innerdale). It had four parts:

  1. We envision a tall and narrow bottle evoking the aura of a traditional sword. Okay…
  2. Ideally the bottle has an elegant curve to mimic the curve of a blade. Okay…
  3. The handle/cap could be wrapped in silk (or similar texture) to mimic the real thing.This is starting to get visceral...
  4. The logo is set on the bottle with a backdrop of traditional Japanese text (as a light watermark) to emphasize authenticity. Gotcha.
The second Sticky note Neil Hosie gave us.

The brief ended with:

This isn’t set in stone but it is the image we want to convey.

Not set in stone? We might take you up on that.

With brief in hand we set out to design a custom bottle. We aimed high.

We agreed that the Four Fox bottle should be so radically different than any other bottle that no self respecting billionaire would be seen drinking anything less.

We wanted to hear stories about how people would break into private jet terminals so they could steal secret stashes of Four Fox Saké only to get caught and say they would do it again.

We wanted to read about how vacations of movie stars had been ruined because the Four Fox delivery truck had been hijacked (again!) by a gang whose leader was a notorious arbitrage trader who had once served time for currency manipulation in the nineties.

But most of all, we were dying to see our bottle light up in a feature film starring Sam Esmail fighting chinese hackers. That would be the balls. Only because our bottle is one of very few bottles in the world that lights up. And if anyone would drink Four Fox, it would be Sam Esmail.

Our Process

Over the years we have developed a methodology that is not dependent on our clients furnishing Sticky notes. We like to think our process ensures that we fully understand the business objectives of the brand and how the design is supposed to accomplish those objectives.

But we’re not at all obsessed about “our process”. We’re totally fine with admitting that our output is dependent on the people who work on the project.

Which is why we have good people!

As a design lab, we like to say: leave it to the chemistry. Which is another way of saying that briefs are strictly necessary but should not be strict, necessarily.

The Saké

14% ABV Ultra Premium Sake. It says in Neil Hosie’s handwriting.

If you look at the bottom of the second sticky note that Neil Hosie gave us, you can see that Four Fox is an ultra premium saké.

Translated: this bottle is supposed to reflect a super luxury product that is based on a very traditional (old) beverage. The fact that saké squarely belongs to the Japanese is Stop Number One on today’s interesting journey. I am actually excited for you.

We’re not trying to be cute here: stating that saké belongs to the Japanese is the same as saying Bordeaux wines belong to the French. Saké is a Japanese product that incorporates Japanese ingredients in the same way that Bordeaux wine incorporates French grapes from a French region and are often enjoyed against the backdrop of French culture. If you care to take it that far.

The wider working group (us and the client) discussed all of these things in great detail but internally we knew we would have to tackle the actual details of the brief later: whether the handle was wrapped in silk (what colour?). Or how curved or how tall or (gasp!) how light the watermark should be on the bottle. Details at 11.

We’d confront these details after we really figured out what the essence of this bottle was all about. We were pretty certain our client would be okay with our approach. After all, they said fuck a lot.

It turns out the conference calls peppered with fucks suited us just fine. I would even say it enriched our quiet environment. Who knew!

Two people in our office who never swear were now dropping F-bombs every time Illustrator crashed! The lab chuckled every time. Even our office pets seemed amused. To say that we loved the client who drew adorable foxes and cursed often was the truth. Four Fox had made our world a better place.

Our first cut at a theme always starts with a slide. To get a feel for the positioning we write some messaging and wrap it up with some sort of type treatment (font) and some other flavouring (pictures or whatever).

I’m going to show you exactly what we showed the client during our first presentation.

Slide One: Introducing Four Fox

Our first cut at defining the character of Four Fox.

Hey. You’ve got to start somewhere! Slide number one is more about what this product is not. It is not yellow. It is not serif. It is not a total risk taker even though the words say otherwise: FOR THOSE WHO SEEK A DIFFERENT PATH. YOU DON’T PLAY BY THE OLD RULES.

It’s a theme, right? It’s a theme based on an attitude.

So we’re trying to define the boundaries of this bottle and the Four Fox brand by trying to define the attitude of the person who might drink this product.

Just wait: this is about to get crazy!

This is probably a good time to remind you that everything you are reading here is true.

So with Slide One, the client is supposed to take it all in and think: okay, these guys have been paying attention. What else have you got?

A rendering of the bottle. That’s what we’ve got.

Well let’s see it then! Wonderful!

Rendering of the typical bottle with a detail that adheres to the Sticky note brief.

Very funny, guys. Maybe next time. Once we got past the fox tail and the technical renderings we moved into a new realm. It was almost like “Oh. This is why you guys came recommended. You can actually do stuff!”

After the first couple of weeks, we were all on the same page. We knew that designing a “typical” bottle wasn’t going to cut it.

So the real work began: figuring out the real essence of the bottle. What is it that makes Four Fox so special, goddamn it?!

For starters:


But not just any snow. No.

The snow that goes into making Four Fox Saké is pure-Samuel-L.-motherbleepin-Jackson melting snow.

And rice.

Same thing for the rice. It’s pure. Really pure.

The rice they use is SO PURE because they polish it! Seriously. They polish the rice until it is 40–50% of its original size! Crazy, right? We’re talking about grains of rice here! Have you heard of such a thing? We hadn’t.

Which brings me to a really important point. The ingredients of Four Fox Saké — and the way they are combined — is a tradition that is thousands of years old! We’re talking emperors here, man!

So we studied all of this stuff. Hard. Reams of Wikipedia pages. We delved so deep into the history of saké that one of our guys almost went to the actual library.

And let me tell you: the history of saké is fantastic. At a certain point you say, wow. I never knew I could know so much about saké. And that’s the point when you know you’re ready to create Slide Two.

So we were ready to write Slide Two. If Slide One was about their hand drawn Sticky note, Slide Two would be about our diligent research.

We wanted to make sure that we taught — no, that we showed — our clients that we knew something about saké!

Yes, with Slide Two, we would impart our mastery and understanding of the thousands of years of saké-making that had come before this big presentation we were making about a new brand that would set the world of nightclubs and private jets on fire while ruining vacations for household names because the truck had been hijacked. Yet again.

This is where the story starts to get interesting. You might want to grab a coffee or a saké right about now.

Slide Two: About Four Fox

This is the kind of work you hired us for, right?

Um. Do you have another bottle to show us?

Oh yes. Of course.

The snow. The pure, pure snow.

Ooooh! That’s nice! I like that snow! Now we are getting somewhere!

The room wells up with pride. If they think that’s good…wait until they see what’s really coming we thought.

No question: we were excited about the gigantic payoff earned by our (almost) trip to the library and the chemistry of our amazing team.

Because somehow, by some generous bequeathment from the Justify-Your-Design-Lottery-Foundation, something amazing fell from the sky and landed right in our little laps.

Something so amazing that to this very day it is still hard to believe.

It was time to explain the sheer coincidence of what we had discovered to our client who is also the head of institutional sales at a German investment bank.

We have something quite remarkable to tell you, we began.

(Dear reader: Sip your saké or coffee or whatever because we will now explain how our foray into Japanese mythology paid off so intensely).

…We have learned of Torii gates and tales of Japanese Gods…

And we have found one God (or rather HE HAS FOUND US) that fits so perfectly — so ideally — into our narrative for this brand that had we notfound him (or had he not found us!) there would consequences of global concern: Earthquakes! Calamity! Disease! Famine! Or more waiting around to find the right answer! Which is totally boring and we’re not into that at all.

Had we not found what we were looking for, we would have missed all that is great and artful about life and our noble profession of design.

Oh! The feeling to arrive at Slide Three with such grace and goodness and to know that anything after would surely be viewed as an effortless pursuit of what was simply waiting for us! How were we so fortunate to find what was waiting to be found? What could be more perfect and humble than that? The Gods were smiling on us. “At last,” they cheered, “Inari Okami has been found!”
Slide Three: we discover Inari Okami, the God of a bunch of applicable things.

WHAT?! There’s a Japanese God of FOXES?

F**K OFF!!!!

AND: HE ALSO HAPPENS TO BE the Japanese God of fertility, rice, *and* saké?

(Did I not tell you this was going to get crazy?)

As if powered by Inari Okami himself, the great machine that is the Carter Hales Design Lab whirs into action.

The God of Saké himself inscribes the details of his own identity to reveal himself through Four Fox.
Rendering of bottle №3 based on Inari Okami. Notice the light watermark.

We got this.

You know that feeling when you’ve figured something out? It’s like when you learned the concept of dv/dt or how to trade stock options, really? At some point you actually say out loud: Now I got this.

I mean, other people have to agree that you have in fact, got it. But in our case discovering a Japanese God of foxes who also covers off everything else that our new brand is supposed to represent (Fertility! Rice!) was a pretty amazing sign that we were on the right track.

So. We got this. The Four Fox identity, that is.

With that in hand, now is the time to really figure out who the character behind this fine bottle of saké really is.

Slide Four: who drinks Four Fox Saké?

Do you remember Slide One? Hint: “You’re bold. You’re a risk taker.” We’ve come a long way, right?

Well, the difference between Slide One and where we’re at now after discovering Inari Okami is that we know that our Four Fox drinker is a killer. Or, rather, that like any decent emperor he would kill another man in battle. Sounds reasonable.

This gave us the motivation to really sharpen things up:

The buyer’s persona.
Slashes in the wordmark reflect the innate nature of our target audience.
Those pointy things are based on Samurai weapons. If you watch Forged In Fire, you know they kill.
Our “Killer” Design #1
Our Killer Design #2: The Samurai sword is much more obvious. Because it’s good to know when a killer is around
We rendered it in Gold. Not bad. But not THE BEST. Yet.

The Final Selection

We ran through dozens of combinations until we found the right one.

The final identity for Four Fox Saké
The final custom bottle.

But we didn’t stop there. We engineered an LED light that would be installed in each and every bottle so that it was illuminated like no other saké bottle on the planet.

Inari Okami told us he wanted it that way.

On September 23 we’re going to Shanghai to wage war against other bottles! Cheer us on!


By Steve Yanor for Carter Hales Design Lab.

Follow Carter Hales Design Lab at @carterhaleslab