A New Souvenir From Amsterdam: Canal Water In A Bottle

This year Amsterdam is celebrating the 400th anniversary of its world-famous canals. Two creative Amsterdammers came up with a perfect souvenir for this special moment — a limited-edition set of good-looking bottles filled with, eh, canal water! ‘Cause who doesn’t want a piece of UNESCO World Heritage on his/her desk?

Amsterdam Canal Aqua by designer Glenn Doherty and copywriter Tom Ormes, both working at creative agency Iris, is a unique set of four beautifully designed bottles filled with water taken from four of the city’s renowned waterways — the Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and Singel. Each of the limited-edition bottles tells a story about the canal’s history. A QR code on the reverse shows the exact geolocation the water was drawn from. Last week we visited the Iris office to talk to Doherty and Ormes about their remarkable set of souvenirs.

Amsterdam Canal Aqua

What was the main reason for you guys to start this project?
“2013 has been a big year for Amsterdam; the opening of the renovated Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum, the 175th birthday of Artis (the zoo, J.B.) and of course the 400 year anniversary of the canals. I was inspired by this news and wanted to create something that could pay tribute in some way. I’ve always been fascinated by the Amsterdam Canal Ring and the rich history it’s witnessed over the last 400 years and wanted to somehow capture this story in an unusual way. The bottle seemed like a lovely way to package this history. It had to be designed in a certain way to make it feel like a luxurious souvenir or a piece of art that you’d want to keep. A bottle of genuine Amsterdam Canal Water from the 400th year — 2013.”

You said you used baskets to draw the water out of the canals. Did you find anything remarkable in there? Fish? Bicycle parts?
“Unfortunately not! I’d love to say there were but surprisingly, the first bucket-drop test revealed that the water appeared pretty clean. I think if I’d had access to some serious machinery to extract a little deeper, I’m pretty sure I would of dredged up a mutant fish or the remains of a once proud but now rusty bike. We spoke with a researcher of Dutch surface water and he said you can be pretty sure that the following substances are in grachtwater: rust (from bikes); nonylfenolethoxylaten (a substance that disturbs the hormonal system, and which is used in soaps and cleaning products); painkillers including aspirin, dyclofenac and isobutylphenyl propionic acid; cocaine; amphetamine; and soft drugs, substances out of weed and hash. I think it was important not to cloud the amazing historical side of the story with these less savoury facts. That’s why we chose not to include them.”

Amsterdam's canal belt


Do you consider Amsterdam Canal Aqua to be a form of city-branding? If yes, to which extent?
“That’s a good question. The city’s iconic heritage is known globally, however certain aspects of its tourism have stained its image. This piece is not meant to be a souvenir for the masses, however, I think the design helps package the city’s 400 year canal ring anniversary in an interesting way. If it goes viral then this would raise the city’s profile and hopefully capture peoples imagination. I felt it was important to use design cues relating to the city and that’s why the three crosses from Amsterdam’s Coat of Arms are part of the label design. By highlighting the local craftsmen and people involved in this project, Amsterdam could profile itself as a city that’s interesting and multi-layered – not only to tourists.”

How do you see this project develop in the future?
“Being an ex-pat living in Amsterdam, it would be great to give something back to the city. Donating a set of bottles to the prestigious Rijksmuseum or the Scheepvaartmuseum would be a great honour. I even thought we could give a set as a gift to the King, that would be fun. Initially, we produced a limited number to start with in order to gauge how the reaction would be. The limited number are available for purchase at a price of €50 per bottle. We are planning to donate any monies made for a water related charitable cause. The project could develop in other countries that have famous waterways and rivers that could be captured in a similar way.”