Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Happy Birthday, Bottled-in-Bond Act



One-hundred-twenty-three years ago today, Congress passed the Bottled-in-Bond Act. 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 has come back in a big way. Beam Suntory, which makes OGD Bonded, now has Jim Beam and Old Overholt BIB expressions. Brown-Forman has bonded versions of Old Forester and Early Times. (Which is funny since company founder George Garvin Brown opposed bonds.) Heaven Hill has a super premium bond in Henry McKenna and their #1 bourbon, Evan Williams, now comes in a bonded expression. They also make Mellow Corn, the only bonded corn whiskey, and Rittenhouse, the top-selling bonded rye. Sazerac also has a premium bond, named for the father of the Bottled-in-Bond Act, Col. E. H. Taylor Jr.

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, New Riff, FEW Spirits, Dad's Hat, One Eight, and Tom’s Foolery.

What does 'bottled-in-bond' mean? The 1897 Federal law 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. George Dickel Bottled-in-Bond in 13-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 mostly 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. Bonds are back.

6 comments:

katfish said...

Just bought a BIB Rittenhouse and an Old Bardstown (since we were there). I remember when BIB was the biggest "thing" for whiskey drinkers in the Chicago area. I was a little kid, but my Dad and uncles got stoked.

kaiserhog said...

I love bottled in bond whiskey. Evan Williams BIB punches way above it's price and yes the higher proof does carry more flavor imho. I would love to get my hands on some New Riff but it has not made it way to the Ozarks yet.

ModernThirst said...

That photo looks familiar somehow...
https://modernthirst.com/2014/04/21/bourbon-review-henry-mckenna-single-barrel-bottled-in-bond-barrel-selection-program/

Anonymous said...

Ahh. The scourge of MGP. A reproliferation of this would bring down the biggest whiskey scam in American.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Like the others have said, I appreciate the value many BiB bourbons deliver.

A couple years ago, well respected liquor writer SKU opined it might be time to retire the BiB designation. https://spiritsjournal.klwines.com/klwinescom-spirits-blog/2018/12/12/is-it-time-to-retire-bottled-in-bond

I was befuddled by the suggestion then, and remain so today. Love live BiB!

Agent SJ said...

I'm relatively new to the bourbon game, less than 10 years. When I started tasting I was drawn to the standard written out, and Evan Williams BiB. All these years later, I still prefer to bring a bottle of bonded rye or bourbon for a host gift. If they know distilled spirits, they will be pleased. If another guest mixes my bottle with cola or ginger ale, no harm no foul. I hope that Bonded in Bond lives forever.