A short guide to bottled-in-bond whiskey
Bottled-in-Bond: The best new (old) way to buy whiskey
Words— Kate Dingwall
In the spirits world, there seems to be a new, trending innovation popping up on shelves every other week. A whiskey aged by sound waves? Metallica’s newly-launched Blackened Whiskey matured to the tune of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. A gin that changes colours as you mix it? Victoria’s Empress Gin turns from a deep purple to a brilliant pink as you add tonic, thanks to the addition of Butterfly Pea Flower. While each of these products is buzzy, sometimes the best products are the ones that have been sitting in front of your eyes this whole time.
If you’re familiar with the term bottled-in-bond, it’s probably because you’ve seen the term plastered on bottles most likely sequestered to the back of your grandfather’s liquor cabinet, collecting dust from years gone by. Though the term has been gracing booze bottles for over 100 years, few folks know what it actually means.
A spirit with the Bottled-in-Bond label will most likely not come in a hip, Parsons Grad-designed package. It won’t be a spirit produced at your local craft distiller, nor will it be seen in any flashy adverts. If you’ve seen the term on retail shelves, it’s probably on a bottom shelf, dusty, forgotten, and on a bottle produced by a very old-boy-sounding distillery; think Old Overholt, Col. E. H. Taylor, Old Grand-Dad, and the likes.
So what is Bottled-in-Bond
and why isn’t it top of mind?
Bottled-in-Bond is one of the highest quality designations in the spirits world, applying only to spirits of an American creation. You know how Champagne, Scotch, and Cognac are all produced under strict regulations to where they’re made and how long they age? It’s in the same realm. For Champagne, bubbly can only be made by certain producers in the Champagne region, under tights guidelines that prevent any winery from tarnishing the name of Champagne by producing sub-quality bubbles. Bottled-in-Bond (alternatively known as bonded) spirits must meet similar rigorous standards: the liquor has to be made by one distiller at one single distillery, no outsourcing allowed, it has to be bottled at 100 proof (50%ABV), and aged in a federally bonded warehouse under government supervision to prevent any tampering of the liquid.
Bottled-in-Bond came about as the result of a crisis in the Kentucky Bourbon world. Throughout the 1800s, there was no standard production of whiskey. Whiskey, and booze, in general, was stuff made both in bathtubs and in barrel houses, sold on shelves on grocery stores, taverns, pharmacies, and gas stations.
It wasn’t even until late 1870 that the bourbon bottles on the shelves were even properly sealed - most had a cork popped in or a top screwed on. Because there was no seal, this lead to the heavy adulteration of spirits. To save money, thrifty shop owners and producers would tamper with spirits. Watering down a spirit was one way. The craft quickly discovered that if you took a cheap, neutral-grain spirit and added caramel colourings like iodine, tobacco or turpentine (appetizing, we know), you could trick drinkers into thinking it was bourbon, rum, or whatever spirit you wanted to sell. This trick became commonplace, with store owners and spirit peddlers adding all sorts of additives to make cheaper spirits smell and taste like more expensive pours.
Craft distillers of the time, who were proud of their work, were up in arms. Politicians (known as heavy tipplers themselves) were getting sick of their questionable-quality nightcaps. They stepped in to help both producers and imbibers by putting in place a government standard on bottles.
Cue Bottled-in-Bond. The BiB act of 1897 was instilled to give drinkers the peace of mind that they weren’t drinking well, poison, by placing tamper-proof seals on the bottles to prevent charlatans and hacks from impurifying the bottle. It quickly became the hallmark for the best-of-the-best. Top shelf spirits were all emblazoned with Bottled-in-Bond.
But by and by as time went by, as generations grew older, less discernible and under-educated drinkers made BiB fall out of relevance. Bottled-in-Bond soon became a curiosity or a label attached to old-timey drinkers. Even the most well-known bonded whiskeys grew out of favour as generations aged, until bonded was barely discernible amongst drinkers.
When craft distillers started popping up across the continent some twenty years ago, bonded started to gain it’s pulse back. Perhaps because it requires a penance similar to those of organic and natural: it’s made without additives, all by hand in one distillery, and bonded basically translates to a “Made by Hand, Right Here” label.
While big-names like Jack Daniels and Heaven Hill are trotting out current incarnations of BiB, smaller craft distillers are starting to purvey their own takes. New Riff Distilling out of Kentucky launched with a full line of BiB, as have Wilderness Trails. Privateer Rum launched with a ballsy line of not whiskeys, but Bonded Rums. Part of the revival has been at the hand of bartenders, who fiend the stuff because of how Bonded spirits stand up in cocktails. Because of the higher proof, Bonded spirits pair better with mixers, and are less likely to cripple to dilution as you shake a cocktail or sip a drink.
Here’s the best thing about Bottled-in-Bond. While it’s an obvious mark of quality whiskey, it’s also surprisingly affordable. While you’re average under-$40 bottles will be a blend of a few different ages, you’ll be hard pressed to find a bottle of Bonded over $40. For some reason, a label of authenticity and quality comes really darn cheap. Because all of the bourbon comes out of a bonded warehouse, spirits brands aren’t taxed until the bottle leaves the warehouse, meaning they can pass the savings onto the consumer.
Bottled-in-Bond has a vivid heritage behind it, all stemming from the desire to keep American whiskey at its best. Though it’s an old measure of quality, it’s a designation that fulfills the needs of even the most discerning of drinkers. It’s a bottle fit to impress both your boss and your bartender friend and priced at a wallet-relieving price, it’s an insider’s hack at getting a top-quality budget without the guesswork.