Friday, February 9, 2018

"Bond. Bottled-in-Bond"



If the only Bond you know is James, you're not alone. Once considered the epitome of 'the good stuff' in American whiskey, the 'bonded' or 'bottled-in-bond' (BIB) designation fell into disuse. Old Grand-Dad Bonded, the best-selling bond for many years, was one of the few nationally-distributed bonded whiskeys that remained. Heaven Hill had a stable of inexpensive bonds (Heaven Hill, J.T.S. Brown, J.W. Dant, T. W. Samuels) sold primarily in Kentucky. Sazerac's Very Old Barton, another mostly-in-Kentucky brand, had a bonded expression. Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond (the green label) was also available here and there.

But bottled-in-bond is back in a big way. Beam Suntory, which makes OGD Bonded, has recently introduced Jim Beam and Old Overholt BIB expressions. Brown-Forman has launched bonded versions of Old Forester and Early Times. Heaven Hill has a super premium bond in Henry McKenna. They also make Mellow Corn, the only bonded corn whiskey on the market, and Rittenhouse, the top-selling bonded rye.

Recently, several micro-distilleries have introduced bonds as a way to proclaim, "Look! We actually have whiskey that is more than four years old." They include Kings County, Laws Whiskey House, Mountain Laurel Spirits, FEW Spirits, and Tom’s Foolery. Typically these are limited releases, some sold only at the distillery.

What does 'bottled-in-bond' mean? Its roots are an 1897 Federal law called the Bottled-in-Bond Act. It was America's first 'truth in labeling' legislation. In return for allowing the Federal Government to monitor their operations and adhering to a strict set of rules, producers could label their products 'bottled-in-bond,' which the government considered a guarantee of whiskey authenticity. Though guaranteeing quality per se was never the intention, it became that de facto.

The most obvious characteristic of a BIB is its proof, 100°, which means one-hundred degrees of proof, also known as 'full proof,' which is 50 percent alcohol, 50 percent water. Though essentially arbitrary, this was long believed to be the ideal alcohol concentration for a whiskey. Modern tastes seem to prefer a milder 40/60 mix, but bonds must be 50/50, no more, no less.

A bond must also be at least four years old but it can be older. The Henry McKenna Bond, for example, is 10-years-old.

The lesser known but more interesting characteristic of bonds is their singularity. A bond must be the product of a single distillery and a single distiller during a single distilling season. A 'distilling season' is a six-month period, either January-June (Spring) or July-December (Fall).

Think of bonds as 'single batch' whiskeys. The singularity rule means producers can't 'correct' a bottling batch by mixing in older or younger whiskey, or whiskey from another distillery. This makes barrel selection critical. If you really want to experience a distillery's house character, drink one of their bonds.

Although bottled-in-bond whiskeys were made and sold pre-Prohibition, it was only after the drought that they came into their own. Prohibition, the Great Depression, and World War II all kept the American whiskey industry from building up a solid stock of fully aged whiskeys for more than 25 years. In a market chock full of immature spirits, the words 'bottled-in-bond' became a Holy Grail in the late 40s and 50s, and into the early 60s. Then the whole American whiskey market crashed. Instead of being desirable, bonds came to be considered old-fashioned. One after another, major producers discontinued their bonds in favor of 80° proof expressions.

In today's crowded whiskey marketplace, new products are the easiest and surest way to grab attention. The long whiskey aging process makes it hard to develop products that are from-scratch new. For large producers especially, bonds are a way to create a new product from existing inventory. Bonds appeal to newbies and veterans alike. Truly, bonds are back but there is no way to know if they are here to stay.

11 comments:

Christopher Whalen said...

Thanks, Chuck, for another interesting post.
I've been interested in BIB's for some time. I've been able to pick up the Old Grand-Dad BIB here in Vermont, but nothing else is available. When I visit family in Cincinnati, I can find many BIB's you mention in this post when I pop into Kentucky, and find them well worth the purchase price!
Hope other distilleries pick up on this practice.

Rob K said...

There's was even a bonded apple brandy from Laird's but they've had to drop the bonded designation because of demand. And I still miss Heavenhill 10yo BiB...

rarebird101 said...

Great article, Chuck. Lately I've seen a few dusty bourbon bottles (60's-70's, I believe) labeled "Bottled-in-Bond" at only 86-proof. I've heard these were export exceptions. Was that legal years ago (or maybe it still is)? Thanks!

Chuck Cowdery said...

I've seen those too but can't explain them.

Brian McDaniel said...

For the record, James Bond favors Old Grand-Dad bourbon in the books, and Haig and Haig (now Haig Dimple) for Scotch. He drinks a lot more bourbon & branch and Scotch & soda in the books than he does martinis.

Crash said...

It’s still 100-proof, but I believe they had to drop the Bottled-In-Bond designation because it’s not made during one distilling season. Either that, or it’s slughtly younger than 4 years old.

Anonymous said...

I like BIB, not because I think it automatically means better quality. It does, however, communicate more clearly what is in the bottle. I want to know more about what I am drinking. Unfortunately much of the whisk(e)y world is going the opposite direction.

Brian McDaniel said...

I wish I could get bonded chocolate bars, for the same reasons.

Chuck Cowdery said...

On the subject of bonds for export bottled below 50% ABV, our friend Chris Middleton of the Whisky Academy offers this: "Oddly, the 1897 Act permitted B-i-B export at 40% ABV. The British until December 1915 legislated to reduce spirits to 35UP or 37% ABV due to War restrictions and the need for sobriety. Other Commonwealth countries, such as Australia in 1905 bottled at 10 – 15UP or 51 – 48% ABV. Significant volumes of common whiskey went to France, still suffering catastrophic grape harvest declines since Phylloxera arrived on native US grape cuttings half a century earlier. This whiskey was further rectified and made into brandy for export sales. Why then 40% ABV in the 1897 Act? Maybe excise tax differentials made it more economically attractive for export incentives? Perhaps the French? The French were re-rectifying much of this spirit since 1872, along with German potatoes and beet spirit to formulate brandy. Then export it back to the US and Commonwealth countries as premium cognac and French brandy."

Thomas Domenig said...

I am curious about "a single distiller"? How can this be controlled in a modern production facility with a couple of different employees and 24-7 production? I suppose there are different people involved in distilling a batch of spirits depending on the work hours and holidays.

Or is the requirement of one single distiller obsolete in the meantime?

Chuck Cowdery said...

'Distiller' means the distiller-in-charge, or master distiller.