March 3, 2017 will be the 120th anniversary of the signing of the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. To understand the future of this style of whiskey, we must first understand its past.
In the late 19th century there was a thriving rectifier industry in the United States. Many of these companies were putting out good products that we would call a blended whiskey today, but many were making artificial whiskey from neutral spirits and flavorings with no aged whiskey in the product at all. The big problem for the straight whiskey distillers was that it became more difficult to sell their aged product at a profit because the rectifiers were making age claims on their blended or artificial whiskeys and selling them very cheap. The answer was to get the government to pass the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. This Act would separate straight whiskey from all of the others and the distillers could then make their points why it cost more than the blended or artificial whiskey on the market.
What the Bottled-in-Bond Act says is that 1) All of the whiskey in the bottle comes from the same distillery, 2) made in the same season, 3) aged for at least four years in a government bonded warehouse, 4) and bottled at 100 proof with nothing other than water added to the whiskey. The bottles would be sealed with a tax stamp giving the consumer information about the whiskey. These regulations made sure it was only straight whiskey bottled-in-bond. So what do these regulations mean? The first is that all of the whiskey had to be made at the same distillery. Many rectifiers were purchasing whiskey from multiple distilleries to blend together to create their flavor profile. In many cases that was all they did and they had excellent products in most cases, however the straight whiskey producers wanted the consumer to know where the whiskey was made.
Every bonded whiskey had on the tax stamp seal the DSP number of the distillery which made the whiskey. The second regulation gave the consumer the approximate date of the whiskey within a 6 month period. There are two seasons in the distillery year: spring and fall. Spring is from January 1 to the end of June. Fall is from July 1 to the end of December. The tax stamp would then have printed on it the season and year the whiskey was made and the season and year the whiskey was bottled. For example: Made spring 1960, Bottled Fall 1965 would tell the consumer that the whiskey was about 5 ½ years old. All whiskey is stored in a government bonded warehouse until the distiller is ready to pay the excise tax on the whiskey. At the time the law was passed the bonding period was 8 years, but the period has been 20 years since 1958. Bonded whiskey has to be stored for at least 4 years to be bottled-in-bond. Finally the whiskey had to be bottled at 100 proof and only water could be added to the whiskey to adjust this proof. No flavoring agent or colorings can be added to bonded whiskey. It is always a straight whiskey.
Bottled-in-Bond whiskey achieved its goal and separated straight whiskey from blended and artificial whiskeys. It was the standard of quality for whiskey for over five decades but as whiskey fell out of favor with the generation of the 60s and 70s, bonded whiskey sales slipped. In 1984 when the government de-regulated the industry one of the things they eliminated was the bonded tax stamp. They continued to require the distillery be listed on the label, but the seasonal information was lost to the consumer.
Today it must be assumed that the bonded whiskeys are four years old unless the brand puts an age statement on the label. Bottled-in-Bond whiskey was unpopular with the distillers because it was harder to make a consistent product without being able to mix whiskey from multiple ages. It also was cheaper to not have 100 proof bottles. The distillery could also get more bottles per barrel at lower proof. Eliminating the tax stamp saved some money on the production line but at the cost of taking away the most attractive feature of bonded whiskey – the production information.
So the question is why should a distiller make a bonded product in the 21st century? They make good products and have had a century of educating the consumer as to what straight whiskey is and how it differs from blended whiskey. Why bother?
The answer is for the same reasons the act was passed in 1897. There are more and more products on the market that are blurring the lines of Bourbon regulations. They are adding flavorings and making a blended whiskey but still calling it “Bourbon,” against the regulations set for Bourbon. They are leaving age statements off the label of whiskey under 4 years old, against the regulations for all whiskey. They are cheapening the image of Bourbon at the expense of the distillers who are doing it right.
Bonded whiskey would help bring back consumer knowledge of good aged whiskey. But to do this properly the distillers need to also bring back the tax stamp information lost in 1984. Let the consumer know not only the distillery where the whiskey was made, but also seasonal information so they know the age of the whiskey. Education is the key to keeping the Bourbon growth alive and bonded whiskey will be a big step in educating the consumers.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl