For whisky lovers, the packaging that holds their precious bottle – and the bottle itself, with its carefully designed contours, dimples, decanter-style elegance, in crystal clear or tinted glass, with richly coloured porcelain flagons in velvet bags – is an evocative starting point to the warming dram that awaits.

The story told in the dram’s presentation taps into everything from history and heritage to landscape and nature, wrapped up in aspirational packaging evoking luxury, elegance and style.

Ever since a striding Johnnie Walker appeared on the label, red coat swinging and tipping his top hat in jolly greeting, whisky has been a successful marriage between what’s in the bottle and the emotional tug sparked by how it is presented. But now the face of whisky – or, at least, the boxes, tubes, presentation tins and bottles that it comes in – is going through a very modern makeover.

This week, it emerged that the Islay distillery, Bruichladdich, has broken with tradition and, in an effort to reduce waste, energy usage and excess materials, is cutting back on “unnecessary” outer packaging.

Its Port Charlotte range was already being sold exclusively without its traditional, distinctive, black and gold tin box. It follows last year’s “One Tin Lighter” initiative which offered customers the chance to opt out of secondary packaging: more than half chose the “no tin” option. According to Bruichladdich, revived in 2001 after seven years in mothballs, production of each tin had produced 1.13kg of CO2.

Stripping back on presentation is part of a drive to be more sustainable: behind the scenes, the Victorian distillery is preparing to install innovative hydrogen combustion technology to heat its stills and decarbonise the distillation process.

Others are also rethinking their elaborate packaging: Chivas Brothers’ premium brand, Royal Salute, has replaced its signature porcelain flagon – which often crops up, empty, on online auction sites – with a more sustainable, although perhaps less luxurious, coated glass flagon. What is lost in heritage – the flagon has been a feature of the brand since its launch in 1953 – it makes up for by ticking a giant green box: the move results in a 70% reduction in the carbon footprint of the primary packaging.

It may be a sector which loves to trumpet heritage, history and tradition but, with the industry aiming to make all new packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, it seems change is coming.

Signs of what lies ahead emerged at COP26, when a limited-edition blended Scotch drawn from 26 distilleries across Scotland’s five whisky regions was released. It features a bottle made from 97% recycled glass and with a stopper made from recycled wood and cork.

Some distilleries are exploring the use of thinner glass bottles, while Diageo has collaborated with glass manufacturer Encirc to use waste-based biofuel-powered furnaces to produce a pilot of 173,000 Black & White bottles made using 100% recycled glass.

More recently, The Macallan launched its Harmony Collection, a limited release series of single malts with a sustainability message. The first, Rich Cacao, has a presentation box made of paper derived from from cacao pods discarded during the chocolate-making process.

In Wales, Bangor University’s Biocomposites Centre in collaboration with Pulpex – a research and development collaboration between Diageo and venture management company Pilot Lite – has designed a paper bottle for spirits made from sustainably sourced, FSC-certified wood pulp.

Whilst paper bottles may be hard to swallow for drinkers who like their dram to ooze luxury, in Singapore there are even fewer frills attached. There, some supermarkets now feature spirits vending machines that dispense whisky, gin and vodka straight into customers’ reusable bottles.

But does removing so much of whisky’s luxury components and stripping back to basics take away some of its precious magic?

Jim Murray, author of the annual Whisky Bible, says a careful balance needs to be struck between reducing waste while still retaining some of the rare qualities that make drinking whisky feel like a special experience.

“Whisky is all about taste, the feel of it in your mouth, the smell,” he says. “The outer covering that it comes in adds to that sensual aspect. How a product is packaged can enhance or detract from the sensuality of the whisky. Packaging is important – we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water.”

He agrees, however, that whisky has a packaging problem. “In recent years some of the packaging has got more and more demented,” he says. “Some bottles are so heavy that, once empty, they could be used as weapons to kill someone – there is a serious amount of glass going on.

“And some are hideous. They are just there to catch the eye and they don’t serve any purpose. I don’t give a monkey’s about the packaging, it’s all about the whisky,” he continues, “but sometimes we consumers can be sucked in by the packaging and then left a bit high and dry when you taste the contents.”

Nonetheless, Mr Murray feels a twinge of regret at the demise of Chivas’s porcelain flagons. “There’s a history of whisky going into ceramic containers,” he says. “I am a little sad to see some of it go as it can be quite elegant and rather lovely. But if they are going to cut down on the packaging, I hope this is shown in the price of products coming down, too, but I suspect it won’t.”

For whisky brands, shedding outer layers means exposing the naked bottle to the supermarket shelf, which creates the dilemma of whether to convey their story of heritage and tradition or groundbreaking sustainability.

According to Lynsey Pritchard, client services director at Thirst, the creative agency that worked with Bruichladdich on its new-look Port Charlotte brand, this will require a creative approach.

“Some consumers will be engaged with the sustainable message and automatically make that purchase,” she says. “But some will feel deprived. It might be that the bottle or label has to work harder.

“Brands might have to think of what they can do to enhance customers’ interaction with the brand. We have seen online videos where the distiller takes you through a virtual tasting, or it might be a Spotify playlist to have with your dram.”

Whilst Scotch whisky has been built on heritage and tradition, a new breed of consumer often seeks brands that align with their modern values, she adds.

“When choosing a brand or making a purchase, it’s going to be something you want to be seen with and share on your social media. It’s quite new to the whisky industry but we see it in other industries such as fashion and beauty; beauty has a big focus on natural, vegan and refills.

“The trends we are seeing are interesting. We can argue that luxury has now become a purchase that removes the guilt from indulgence – it’s not really about financial wealth or special status, it’s about self-improvement and living guilt free.

Whisky producers are already “thinking outside the box” it seems. Colourful bottles have appeared: Bruichladdie’s The Classic Laddie comes in bright turquoise; Haig Club’s vessel is rich, blue and square.

There’s also been a surge in colourful, eye-catching arty labels such as The Boutique-y Whisky Company which features bold cartoon graphic designs, collaborations with artists – Glenfiddich has worked with some of the world’s most innovative artists for two decades – and tie-ins with influencers and celebrities. Even venues feature: The Dalmore’s The Luminary Series of limited edition malts has been curated in partnership with V&A Dundee, blending whisky and architectural design.

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) says the sector has made significant inroads towards becoming a greener, more sustainable industry. It points out that greenhouse emissions have been cut by more than 50% since 2008, while almost 40% of all energy used by producers is obtained from non-fossil fuel sources, compared to 28% in 2018.

As well as the pledge to have all new packaging recyclable or compostable by 2025, the industry has also pledged to use water responsibly and play an active role in the conservation of Scotland’s peatland.

The SWA’s Sustainability Strategy, meanwhile, commits the sector to reaching net-zero emissions in its operations by 2040.

Ruth Piggin, director of industry sustainability at the SWA, says: “At present, some consumers do expect premium products like Scotch whisky to have a premium look and feel, sometimes equating this to more elaborate packaging. We will challenge this perspective while reassuring consumers that using low-carbon – and less – packaging will not reduce the premium nature of Scotch whisky and how it is presented. Our industry is committed to addressing the impact of the packaging used to bottle and transport Scotch whisky around the world. Getting to net zero is a clear priority for us, therefore tackling this agenda is critical.”