In How To Date A Bottle – Part 1, we saw that standard information such as size, strength and royal warrants on a label are often enough to help you date a bottle.
Learning How To Read A Tax Stamp will give you a rough idea of bottling era, but tax strips mainly appear on whiskies for the US and Italian markets which means they are of limited utility.
So next you need to look closely at the jumble of letters and numbers on the base of the glass bottle itself to ascertain a date, and it’s not as tricky as it looks.
Use Good Bottles
When it comes to 20th century Scotch whisky, either single malts or blends, the majority of bottles were made by the same company, United Glass Bottles, which means we can piece together some of the codes to more precisely date a bottle.
Originally known as United Glass Bottle Manufacturers Ltd., the company was founded in 1913 following the merger of five glass makers from the north of England whose goal was to obtain rights to use the Owens automatic bottle machine. Invented by American Michael Joseph Owens, the machine revolutionised glass bottle production in the early 20th century.
In 1937, United Glass Bottle Manufacturers Ltd became a subsidiary of Distillers Company Ltd through its acquisition of British Bottles Ltd, which was DCL’s bottle manufacturing subsidiary. This meant that UGBM now produced glass bottles for most of the biggest names in whisky, including John Walker & Sons, Buchanan’s, Dewar’s, Haig and White Horse Distillers.
In 1959 the company reorganised and changed its name to United Glass Ltd., and in 1968 it changed again to UG Glass Containers Ltd.
How Old is My Bottle?
Many of the bottles that come up for auction range from the 1950s through to the present day. Older whiskies do appear, particularly blends, but single malts from the 1950s and earlier are rare. In the pre 1950s era the big blenders of the day dominated the global whisky market and single malts remained a special interest.
So let’s take a look at how we can assess a bottling date from the glass bottle codes.
1913 To 1950s
From the founding of United Glass Bottle Manufacturers in 1913 to the end of the 1960s, the bases of its bottles were embossed with the letters ‘U G B’ as seen on this bottle of 1950s Buchanan’s Black & White. Note the upper codes (the letter and numbers above U G B). The ‘S’ on the left hand side indicates this bottle was made at the company’s Sherdley factory, but as this operated from 1913 it’s not a great help in narrowing down the date range.
This base code alone isn’t enough to date the bottle accurately but the royal warrant to The Late King George VI confirms that this bottle comes from the early 1950s.
As we move into the 1960s bottle bases become more uniform. The ‘U G B’ stays in place but a new sequence of upper codes begins. Bottles from the earlier part of the 1960s have an upper code which begins ‘S A’ followed by three digits. You can see it clearly here on this old 1960s bottle of White Horse, sealed with a spring cap and bottled for the Spanish market.
Following the S A codes, we see ‘S B’ codes start to appear, again followed by three digits and positioned above the familiar U G B. This 1960s bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label features this code.
At the end of the 1960s the ‘U G B’ code is replaced by the letters ‘U G’ inside a hexagon, and the upper codes change from ‘S B’ to ‘S C’, as seen on this 1970s Vat 69 bottled for the Italian market. So if you see an ‘S C’ code and a ‘U G’ in a hexagon on your bottle, chances are it was filled in the 1970s.
It’s interesting to note that the label designs on some dominant brands have remained largely unchanged for decades so the bottle code is our surest way of assessing the date. The bottle code is particularly important for dating bottles intended for export markets as these didn’t use the old imperial measurements that we used to help us date bottles in How To Date A Bottle – Part 1.
1980s – The Next Generation
As bottle manufacturers moved into the 1980s the bottle codes changed, predictably, to ‘S D’ and eventually ‘S E’.
For assessing the date of bottles from the 1980s and 1990s it’s generally more informative to identify the label design, digital codes and weights & measurements than bottle base codes.
This introduction should help you date your own whisky bottles, but a bottle code only tells you part of the story. Always check the label design, wording, type of closure, condition as well as the bottle code to help you date a bottle.