September marks the beginning of Bourbon Heritage Month. For my first blog post of the month I thought I’d take a look at a pivotal moment in American whiskey history that has not only had a massive influence on the bourbon whiskey we enjoy today, but will continue to play a key role in the bourbon and other American whiskies that we will enjoy in the future.
When it comes to bourbon’s rich history you don’t have to be an expert to know that its colorful past goes as far back as America’s very own history. The first American whiskies were born on the Frontier and hail from a rich history involving immigrants and farmers, presidents and gangsters, industrialists and dry crusaders, and everyday men and women. Just as the bourbon we know today was shaped by these people, bourbon has also helped to shape America.
According to the History of Bourbon and the Kentucky Bourbon Timeline, the distillation of spirits in North America was started by early American settlers who brought small stills with them for personal use. At the time, many farmers with excess grain after harvest were distilling these for social and economic purposes and it wasn’t until the early 1800s that this corn-based spirit was actually aged in barrels and began being referred to as ‘Bourbon’ whiskey. Skipping ahead past the War of Independence, the Whiskey Rebellion, the elimination of the whiskey tax by Thomas Jefferson, the advent of the Coffey Still, the creation of Dr. James Crow’ Sour Mash process, Old Forester – the first bottled bourbon, and the advent of the Old Fashioned Cocktail in 1886, and we’ve have reached the exact period of bourbon history that this post will be discussing today, 1897.
Let’s set the scene:
It was the late 19th century and the whiskey market was heavily unregulated. On one side, reputable producers made straight whiskies from grains: distilling, barrelling, ageing them for the required 2 years or longer, bottling these once mature, and hoping to sell them and make an honest living. On the other side, you had rectifiers who bought their distillate from unknown sources, aged it for questionable amounts of time, often blended it with whiskey from several distilleries, added stuff such as tobacco spit, iodine, colouring, and sometimes poisonous additives, and then selling these heavily adulterated whiskies with false claims of age and quality for a good deal cheaper than the straight whiskey distillers. It was a hot mess, and despite a number of rectifiers selling honest quality whiskey, many flooded the market with cheap, sometimes poisonous, ‘whiskey’ which damaged the industry by breaking the trust and risking the health of consumers all whilst putting honest distillers out of business.
Knowing that something had to be done to differentiate their quality straight whiskies before irreparable damage was inflicted upon the industry, the distillers of straight whiskies banded together to lobby for action. And so, in 1897 under the leadership of OFC Distillery owner, Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, and the Secretary of the Treasury, John G. Carlisle, the Bottled-in-Bond Act was passed. This was the first piece of consumer protection legislation passed in the US.
Following the introduction of the Act, any spirit that wanted to qualify as a Bottled-in-Bond spirit had to meet specific criteria. It had to be:
- The product of one distillation season
- Made by one distiller at one distillery
- Aged in a federally bonded warehouse for at least 4 years under U.S. government supervision
- Bottled at 100 proof with nothing but water added to adjust the proof (no colouring allowed), and,
- The label had to identify the distillery, where the spirit had been bottled, and the distilling season in which it was produced and bottled in.
As this legislation had no precedence, the government were incredibly careful to clarify that they were not meddling in private matters or prohibiting anything. Instead, by labelling whiskey as ‘Bottled-in Bond’ and sealing each bottle with a tax strip featuring the likeness of John G. Carlisle, they had created a means by which distillers could distance their quality straight whiskies from the inferior concoctions peddled by rectifiers and also protect consumers.
The Act was a massive step towards battling the problem the industry faced with rectified whiskey. Suddenly the government became guarantor for the authenticity, quality, and traceability of any spirits labelled as ‘Bottled-in-Bond’, consumers were protected from rectified spirits, and distilleries received a tax incentive for producing bonded whiskies as taxes didn’t have to be paid until spirits were bottled and removed from the bonded warehouse for sale –inadvertently making the collecting of taxes more accurate for the Treasury. Tax strips were also helpful as they provided consumers with an approximate age of the whiskey within a 6 month period as each distilling season was 6 months long (spring season covering January to June, fall covering July to December) and distillers were required to state the distilling season and year that the whiskey was made and bottled on the tax strip.
For almost 100 years afterward the Bottled-in-Bond Act served its purpose and protected the medicinal whiskey market by helping to separate quality straight whiskey from badly blended or artificial whiskies (remember whiskey was treated as a medicine). However, as the laws defining the categories, production methods, and labelling requirements for American whiskies and spirits improved, the need, consumer demand, and desire for producers to produce Bottled-in-Bond spirits decreased as we came into the lean 1980s. At this time, producing Bottled-in-Bond whiskey prevented distilleries from blending whiskies of different ages to create a consistent flavour profile, resulted in more expenses as whiskey had to be 100 proof (thus less yield per barrel), and tax stamps had to be hand-affixed to bottles making bottling very cost- and labour-intensive. So, in 1987, after the US government updated their regulations and also removed the need for the bonded tax strip many producers dropped Bottled-in-Bond entirely and as a result the BIB category almost completely faded into obscurity with very few distilleries continuing to produce bonded products.
In modern times, with the market awash once again with vast amounts of sourced whiskies, there have been numerous occasions where producers blurred the lines with regards to whiskey regulations. Examples where age statements were being left off from labels of whiskies less than 4 years old, producers deceiving consumers as to the source of their whiskies, misleading labels aimed to confuse consumers as to the true age and background history of a whiskey, and whiskies with added flavourings being passed off as bourbon, have all been seen in recent years and have begun to tarnish the reputation of honest whiskies yet again. Thankfully, the past decade has also seen a return by many producers towards producing Bottled-in-Bond whiskies in direct response. In fact, a return to following the strict laws set down in the original Bottled-in-Bond Act has been argued by many producers and consumers to be a sure-fire way to both restore consumer confidence and once again distinguish the quality straight whiskies from those that are vague and misleading. Combine this with the advent of modern production, maturation monitoring, and bottling technology, and many of the cost factors which caused Bottled-in-Bond whiskies to be phased out by producers in the 80s are no longer as costly either.
In my opinion, Bottled-in-Bond whiskies offer some of the finest value-for-money whiskies on the market with many selling at a price and offering a level of quality that is second to none. As we see more big producers like Heaven Hill (who have produced Bonded whiskies from the start), and now Jim Beam and Wild Turkey with Bonded whiskies on the market I hope that others will catch on sooner rather than later. Sure, I’d also like to see more producers join the growing trend of stating what distilling season the whiskey was distilled and bottled in, such as with Heaven Hill’s popular Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in-Bond series, however, as the popularity of Bottled-in-Bond continues growing due to consumer demand I have no doubt that this is coming down the line as more producers catch on and begin producing bonded whiskies. It’s also encouraging that in recent years we’ve seen Bottled-in-Bond whiskies like Col. E.H. Taylor Jr. Four Grain, and Henry McKenna 10 year old Single Barrel bourbon being named as some of the best bourbons in the world for their categories.
Overall, the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 played a key role in shaping bourbon and the laws that govern its production and labelling. Hopefully, it will continue to play a major role in the future where it may once again become the hallmark of quality unadulterated straight whiskey in a market where such things have become hard to find.