The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 was the result of a struggle between straight whiskey producers and rectifiers, who purchased bulk whiskey and/or neutral spirits to make whiskey. It was a long struggle with an economic impact on the distilling industry that is still felt today. In today’s whiskey industry, it is very helpful to understand what was involved in this struggle between two branches of the whiskey industry of the 19th century.

In the first two decades of the 19th century, whiskey was an unaged spirit. The unaged spirits were often rectified, or improved in flavor, by various means such as filtering it through a barrel of sugar maple charcoal and wool blankets. This process eventually became known as the Lincoln County process that makes Tennessee whiskey different from Bourbon. 

Other methods of rectifying the whiskey included adding fruits such as cherries to make cherry bounce or blackberries to make what was known at the time as blackberry cordial. This practice of rectifying led to a second branch of the whiskey industry –business that “improved” the whiskey’s flavor without making the whiskey themselves.

Aging in charred barrels became known as a way to improve the whiskey by the 1820s and Bourbon was created. The first reference to Bourbon for sale in a Kentucky newspaper is in 1821. People liked this whiskey and distillers started to age their whiskey in charred barrels

Not long after aged whiskey became popular, people started to look for ways to create a similar whiskey without the long process of aging it in charred barrels . The invention of the column still allowed the inexpensive production of neutral spirits and spurred the growth of the rectifying industry. Some of the rectifiers were simply mixing barrels of aged whiskey with neutral spirits and adding burnt sugar for flavor and coloring, strong tea for the tannins and coloring, and maybe some prune or cherry juice to add flavor and coloring. Others were relying solely upon the burnt sugar, strong tea, and fruit juice to flavor their products with no aged spirits at all in their “whiskey”. I have seen a recipe that called for neutral spirits to be colored with tobacco juice from a spittoon, a little sulfuric acid to give it a “burn” and glycerin to give it a bead. There was a wide variety of qualities in rectified whiskey.

After the American Civil War, the rectifying industry became a major concern to straight whiskey distillers. Even distillers who owned column stills and were making more whiskey, at a more affordable cost than ever before, were having trouble with competing with the rectifiers on price. Distilleries that didn’t make money went out of business and to make money, they had to convince consumers that it was worth the extra money for a bottle of straight whiskey compared to a rectified whiskey.  By the late 1890s, distillers started to feel the pain of this loss in the market and distilleries had warehouses of aged whiskey they were having trouble selling at a profit. They began to unite and to form a plan.

The straight whiskey distillers saw their chance when a Kentuckian, John G. Carlisle, became Secretary of Treasury for President Grover Cleveland. He helped them put together the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897  to be introduced in Congress. This was a controversial piece of legislation opposed by many rectifiers. The two sides of the argument included E.H.Taylor Jr., and James E. Pepper, who argued on the side of the straight whiskey producers and George Garvin Brown and Isaac Wolfe Bernheim, who argued on the side of the rectifiers. On the rectifier’s side, they argued that this was government interfering with business. The act would give straight whiskey producers an unfair edge in the market. That there was no need for this legislation. The straight whiskey distillers argued that they needed this legislation to help consumers understand why their products were more expensive to produce and why these whiskeys cost more to purchase. 

They also argued, foreshadowing future debates for the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, that many rectified whiskeys had additives in them that could be harmful to the health of the drinker. The government was already allowing for bonded warehouses for aging whiskey before the distillers had to pay their taxes, with government gaugers on site, so there would not be any extra cost to the government. If this act gave the straight whiskey producers an advantage in the market, then it was only because it guaranteed the purity of the whiskey, which was good for consumers. 

In the end the Bottled-in-Bond Act was passed. It stated that all of the whiskey in that bottle was 1) the product of a single distillery, 2) made in the same season, 3) at least four years old, and 4) bottled at 100 proof with nothing but water added to adjust the proof. It took another decade before consumers began to appreciate the fact that bonded whiskey was special and to be willing to pay the extra cost for a good bonded whiskey. However, many rectifiers saw that this growth in the market was inevitable and after 1898, started to purchase distilleries so they too could have a Bottled-in-Bond whiskey to sell. 

The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 helped save the straight whiskey distillers. Without it, many of them would either have been forced out of business or reduced to simply making whiskey for those rectifiers using aged whiskey in their brands. Straight whiskey is the whiskey of choice today and this in part because of the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller