Most whiskey lovers today appreciate that there are strict government guidelines attached to the manufacture of alcoholic beverages, including bourbon. Drinkers of Kentucky’s favorite spirit know those guidelines include that the recipe of cooked grains (the mash) that goes into the fermentation tank has to be at least 51 percent corn, for example. The distillate must be aged in new charred oak containers (usually 53-gallon barrels), and only distilled water can be added before bottling. Absolutely no additional colors or flavors are allowed.But throughout much of the 19th century, when whiskey consumption in the United States was even more common than it is today, buying good quality bourbon could be a pretty hit-or-miss enterprise.
Most whiskey was sold by the barrel until the last few decades of the century. Bars and taverns purchased it that way. If you wanted to buy some for drinking at home, you took your own container to a store where the proprietor would fill it out of a barrel he had bought. However, if that barrel’s volume started to get low and whiskey demand was high when a new barrel wasn’t scheduled to arrive any time soon, a shopkeeper might very well top up the barrel with water. This had the obvious and unfortunate result of reducing the alcohol content and lightening the color.
No problem. Just add some tea or prune juice (or maybe a little creosote) to darken the whiskey. It was easy enough to give the proof a boost with a good glug of kerosene. Yum.
So, when Louisville whiskey salesman George Garvin Brown had the idea in 1870 to sell his bourbon exclusively in sealed glass bottles, his marketing innovation was more than welcomed. Glass bottles were still expensive to manufacture, but Brown branded this bottled spirit Old Forester and gambled that people would pay more for it, because the sealed bottle (with his signature on each label) was a promise of quality. He was right. There’s no better proof than the fact his company, Brown-Forman, is still in business and making Old Forester today – nearly a century and a half later.
Still, even after the introduction of sealed glass bottles, whiskey hanky-panky did not go away. Many, though not all, whiskey rectifiers (people who bought barrels from various distilleries and bottled them under their own brands) could modify that product pretty much any way they wanted to during the time between the product leaving the barrel and entering the bottle. Adding neutral spirits, artificial coloring, and even some seriously bad ingredients such as sulphuric acid was common. (I am not making this up.) Even after such product tampering, it was perfectly legal to label the stuff “bourbon” or “whiskey.”
By the 1890s, these practices were so widespread that distiller Col. E.H. Taylor, Jr. of Frankfort saw that some serious government intervention was needed. He contacted the secretary of the U.S. Treasury, John G. Carlisle — who happened to have been a former congressman and senator from Kentucky — to help push new regulations through Congress.
Those regulations became the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. For tax purposes, whiskey was already aged in federal government bonded warehouses. The law made sure that a bourbon (or rye) “bottled-in-bond” met guidelines that would assure the information on the whiskey label matched the contents of the bottle.
In order to be classified as bottled-in-bond, the bourbon had to be made at a single distillery by one distiller during a single distilling season (January-June or July-December). It had to be aged a minimum of four years in a bonded warehouse and be bottled at exactly 100 proof (50 percent alcohol by volume). Furthermore, it bore a tax stamp on the neck that made its origins explicit.
What Taylor had succeeded in doing was creating the very first federal consumer protection law in the United States. The safety of America’s entire food and beverage supply would eventually result from additional regulations — including the Pure Food and Drug Act — that were inspired by that 1897 law.
The law has evolved since then. The Reagan administration eliminated the positions of the government gaugers who oversaw bonded warehouses in the 1980s, and the tax stamp was discontinued in 1984 as part of the Deficit Reduction Act. The rest of the rules have remained intact, and there are still a few brands of bonded bourbons on the market. While these products only make up about five percent of all bourbon brands, distillers and bourbon drinkers like them for the same reason they did when the Bottled-in-Bond Act came about in the first place: quality assurance. When you buy bourbon that states on its label that it is bottled-in-bond, you know what you are getting.
Interestingly, they also represent some of the best bargains in bourbon. Many brands such as Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond, Old Grand-Dad Bottled-in-Bond, Old Bardstown Bottled-in-Bond, and Very Old Barton Bottled-in-Bond can be found at retailers for under $25 a bottle.
A good way to become acquainted with bottled-in-bond bourbons is to head to Bourbons Bistro on Frankfort Avenue where the knowledgeable staff will be happy to put together a bonded flight for you. You can also look for the following bottles on retail shelves. Each is an excellent sip.
Bottled-in-Bond Tasting Notes:
(Distilleries are listed in parentheses.)
Col. E.H. Taylor, Jr. Small Batch (Buffalo Trace)
Rich mouthfeel with rich caramel, vanilla, apple, honey, hazelnuts, and sprinkling of nutmeg.
Early Times (Brown-Forman)
Roasted corn with a dash of black pepper. Distinct pear fruit is especially prominent on the finish.
Henry McKenna, Single Barrel, 10 years old (Heaven Hill)
Caramel apple with cherries, a little milk chocolate, and notes of leather, nutmeg and honey.
Jim Beam Bonded (Beam Suntory)
Vanilla wafers, candy corn with some hints of tobacco and a little cherry hovering above a clean, oaky finish.
Evan Williams White Label (Heaven Hill)
Crème brulee with candied almonds, apples, cinnamon. A very smooth sip with a sweet finish.
New Riff (New Riff)
Cinnamon, brown sugar, some butterscotch and a generous base of vanilla and caramel.
Old Bardstown (Willett)
Almost chewy mouthful. Caramel and dark cherries with some cocoa and toasted oak and pepper.
Old Forester 1897 (Brown-Forman)
Cinnamon coffee cake with vanilla icing. Fruity aromas and flavors include bananas, pears braced by more cinnamon.
Old Grand-Dad (Beam Suntory)
Toffee and candied nuts with layers of vanilla and caramel, sweet baking spices and zest of orange peel.
Very Old Barton, 6 years old (Barton 1792)
Crème caramel, sweet cherries, cinnamon and nuts with a touch of tobacco leaf and sweet oak.