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National Animals as Whisky Icons


Buffalo Trace bourbon image by whisky.de

Animal depictions on whisky labels have been a popular choice for many distilleries. From stags and deer to various bird species, the animal icon brings brands closer to its country of origin and its heritage. 


Although many have chosen to display animals found in the land surrounding the distillery itself, some distilleries proudly display the national animals of their countries. This practice is less common than some might think. 


This article will examine six whisky-producing countries to determine if the national animals can provide insight into why these animals appear on whisky branding. Please note that we will not include Australia and its national animal, the kangaroo, as there is only a distillery called Kangaroo Island, which does not produce whisky.



 

Scotland - The Unicorn

Scotland National Animal The Unicorn

Scotland has chosen the unicorn as its national animal, which may surprise some who would assume that the stag would be the most fitting choice. The unicorn is a magical creature that has appeared in various cultures, including ancient Babylonians and the Indus civilisation. It is known for its white horse-like body and single spiralling horn and is a symbol of purity, innocence, and power in Celtic mythology. Legend has it that the unicorn's horn can purify poisoned water, and also the creature also represents good luck.


Despite being mythical, the unicorn has always captivated the Scottish people, thanks to its representation of independence and strength. The unicorn has been featured in Scottish coat of arms and heraldry since the mid-1500s. For centuries, Europeans believed unicorns were real and could be found in countries such as India, Persia or Abyssinia. Only in the early 1800s was their existence as pure fantasy widely accepted.


Regarding whisky, Fettercairn is the only distillery that has chosen the unicorn as its icon. The unicorn was first introduced as part of the brand in 2010 when the distillery rebranded its range and launched a limited-release 'Fior'. Since then, it has become a symbol of Fettercairn whisky. During the latest rebranding of the distillery's range in 2018, Fettercairn introduced its round unicorn tag, and the whisky has since gained in popularity.


Fettercairn single malt whisky 2010 to 2018 unicorn labels

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



Although the unicorn is not a common feature on whisky labels, it has appeared on a few independently bottled whiskies, such as Signatory's bottling of Ben Nevis and Thompson Bros' recent bottling of Fettercairn. The term 'unicorn whisky' has also been used to describe extremely rare whiskies, no matter their country of origin.


Unicorn themed independent whisky bottlings

Image by The Whisky Ardvark - Examples of unicorn-themed independent whisky bottlings



 

England - The Lion

England National Animal The lion

The national animal of England, the lion, has a long history associated with the Royal rulers. First adopted as a symbol of three lions in the 1200s, the animal represents strength, power, courage and leadership. Although not native to the British Isles, among other exotic animals, majestic lions were kept at the Tower of London from the 1200s to 1835 and given to the English throne as gifts.


Despite the lion's historical significance, none of England's more than 50 whisky distilleries have chosen it to represent their brand. Instead, they've opted for other intriguing animal icons, such as a dragon, an owl and a hen.


As a consolidation to the lonely lion, it has appeared in some of the most iconic whisky brandings, including the Whyte & MacKay blend and as an early icon for Gordon & MacPhail due to its obvious link to Scotland. In recent years, Lagavulin has seemingly adopted the lion as its icon for limited releases. The animal has also featured in multiple limited-release labels from other distilleries and independent bottlers; none of them just seem to be English.


The lion (and, of course, the unicorn) is also part of the Royal Warrant given out by the highest-ranking English Royals and has been displayed on the labels of multiple whisky producers and brands.


whisky labels with lion icon

Image by The Whisky Ardvark



 

The United States - The Bald Eagle & American Bison


The United States National Animals the Bald Eagle and American Bison

The bald eagle has been the national bird of the United States since 1782 and is a symbol of strength and freedom. In 2016, the National Bison Legacy Act was passed, and the bison (scientifically known as Bison bison) was named the national mammal of the US. Although buffalos can only be found in Africa and Asia, the word 'buffalo' is commonly used in the US to describe the American bison. The American settlers once hunted the bison to near extinction, and it is the largest land mammal in Northern America. Both the bald eagle and the bison are deeply rooted in American folklore and closely associated with the culture of Native Americans.


The George T Stagg distillery was renamed Buffalo Trace in 1999, and the bison has served as an icon of the Kentucky-based distillery ever since. The distillery also produces a bourbon called Eagle Rare, launched in 1975 to compete with another famous bird-themed bourbon, Wild Turkey.


Many of the approximately 1,300 American whiskey brands have yet to dare feature national animals in their branding, possibly due to trademarks and the popularity of the two existing famous brands. However, brands such as Brush Creek, Disobedient Spirits, and Eagle River Whiskey have, in the past, tried to incorporate the iconic animals into their branding.


More commonly used animals in American whisky distillery logos include a bear, a horse, and deer antlers.

Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare bourbons

Original Images by Buffalo Trace



 

Ireland - The Irish Hare

Ireland National Animals The Irish Hare and Northern Lapwing

Ireland does not have an official national animal, but the unofficial mammal, The Irish Hare, also known as the Mountain Hare, is commonly associated with the nation. It is celebrated for its cultural significance and presence in Irish folklore. The hare has been featured in tales as a mystical being capable of traversing different realms and is associated with the Celtic god Cernunnos. These legends have helped elevate the hare to a position of national reverence.


In 1990, a committee chose the Northern Lapwing as Ireland's national bird.


Although none of the 60+ Irish distilleries in operation has selected the Irish hare or the Northern lapwing as a mascot, some have chosen the whitetail deer and other birds, such as a swallow, a redbreast or even the phoenix.


However, a lesser-known whiskey brand, Harp & Hare, features the rabbit on its labels and bottles of Irish whiskey. The brand is owned by Pittsburgh-based Premier Innovation Group, founded in 2017, and no information other than 'Product of Ireland' has been made public about the origin of the whiskey.

Harp and Hare Irish whiskey and cream liqueur

Images by Harp & Hare



 

Japan - The Green Pheasant & Koi Carp

Japan National Animals Green Pheasant and koi carp

Japan, similar to Ireland, does not have a national mammal, but Japan does have a national bird and fish. Even though the crane, a bird of happiness, might be a good guess for a natural bird, it is, in fact, the green pheasant, known as 'kiji' in Japanese. Declared the national bird in 1947, The Kiji is exclusive to Japan, except the island of Hokkaido. The pheasant has significance in Shintoism and is often used as a messenger of the Sun God, Amaterasu. It symbolizes good omens, parental love and sacrifice.


Koi Carp, or 'Nishikigoi,' is Japan's national fish. Valued initially as a meal fish, the species has been bred to be a decorative fish since the 19th century, with over 200 different varieties now available. These are coloured, domesticated variants of the wild Amur carp. They represent good luck, perseverance, prosperity, and good fortune.


In Japanese whisky labelling, the koi carp is more prevalent than the pheasant. Although distilleries have not chosen either as an icon, the koi carp has been featured on bottles of Karuizawa. The samurai, geisha and dragon are more commonly depicted as symbols of Japanese culture in whisky bottles.


Karuizawa koi carp labels

Images by Whiskybase / Distilia



 

Canada - The Beaver

Canada National Animal The Beaver

Canada's official national animal is the beaver (castor canadensis). It was chosen over the moose to distinguish it from other countries. The National Symbol of Canada Act received royal assent in 1975, making the beaver an official symbol of Canadian sovereignty. This law aimed to highlight the beaver as one of Canada's important symbols.


The beaver has made multiple appearances in whisky. From 1950s adverts for Carrington's Canadian whiskey to the recent adaptation of the creature by The Woodman whiskey brand, the beaver is paraded proudly as Canada's national animal.


Canadian whiskies with beaver

Image by The Whisky Ardvark

 

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