What Is Bottled-in-Bond Whiskey?

Occasionally, a new whiskey drinker will notice something unusual with select bottles of bourbon or American rye: There are occasional bottles that seem to share a long thin sticker over the cap of a bottle, that states that the whiskey is “bottled-in-bond.” What does the phrase mean, and what does it mean in practice for the whiskey itself? There’s a lot of history in those words, so sit back and enjoy a dive into the strange world of American alcohol production pre-Prohibition, where a Wild-West mentality prevailed and regulations were a whole lot looser than they are today.

As you may know, American whiskey production is heavily regulated, and if you put certain things — such as, say, the word “bourbon” — on the bottle’s label, that means that the contents of the bottle are adhering to said regulations; in the case of bourbon, that it’s made from a mash of at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred-oak barrels, among other things. Whiskey aficionados might be surprised to know that this wasn’t always the case. Especially before the turn of the 20th century, alcohol fraud was rampant. Bottlers could — and occasionally did — add water to paint thinner, pour in some coloring to turn it brown, and sell it as a bottle of bourbon to unsuspecting consumers. Less-sinister bottlers might merely add flavoring or coloring to their product, or water it down to stretch their alcohol supply a little longer.

In the 1890s the makers of legitimate bourbon had had enough of cheap imitations cutting into their profit margins and they took the matter to the courts, led by a name that those who appreciate fine American whiskey might recognize: Colonel E. H. Taylor, founder of what is now Buffalo Trace. The fight was bitter, with the defendants claiming that Taylor and his friends were just out to create a monopoly, but President Grover Cleveland took Taylor’s side when, on March 3, 1897, he signed the Bottled-in-Bond Act into law.

So that’s the history, but what does bottled-in-bond actually mean? Basically, it creates an avenue for government oversight on spirits distilled in America. We’ve been talking exclusively about whiskey, and for the most part you’ll only see bottled-in-bond whiskey, but there’s no hard and fast rule about that, and there are other types of American spirits that are bonded: Christian Brothers now makes a bonded brandy, for example.

In order to be able to call itself “bottled-in-bond,” a spirit has to follow the strict guidelines contained in the Bottled-in-Bond Act: It needs to be labelled with the same class of spirits that it actually contains within, the label has to contain the name of the actual distillery or the trade name the distillery uses for the spirits, it has to have been stored for at least four years in wood barrels, it can’t have anything added to or subtracted from it, and it has to be bottled at at least 100 proof. If a bottle meets what’s expected of them under the Act, it’s adorned with a sticker over the mouth of the bottle that states the season of production, the date of bottling, the proof of the spirit, and the district the distiller resides in. While it is aging, bonded whiskey is actually stored in locked, bonded warehouses which are routinely inspected by the government to ensure the rules are being followed.

So what’s the big deal about bottled-in-bond? Well these days, not much. In the age of bourbon fanatics who can learn everything there is to know about their favorite spirit online, not much is hidden from the consumer anymore (except perhaps for the actual distillery a sourced whiskey came from). To be honest, the Bottled-in-Bond Act, as well as the subsequent Pure Food and Drug Act, may have been so successful as to drive most illegitimate bottlers out of business. These days, the bottled-in-bond sticker is more of a marketing tool, a nostalgic throwback to pre-Prohibition spirits production.

That’s not to say that bottled-in-bond is meaningless, of course; because a bonded whiskey has to be aged for 4 years and bottled at 100 proof, when picking one up you can be reasonably sure you’re getting a solid bottle, and bonded whiskey tends to be fairly inexpensive. Old Grand-Dad Bonded and J.T.S. Brown are hidden gems for those in the know, both great 100 proof bourbons for under $30. Rittenhouse Rye is a wonderful and inexpensive bonded rye that makes a great manhattan, and even Jim Beam has a worthwhile bonded offering. Next time you find yourself deciding on a bottle of whiskey, don’t be afraid of the lower shelves, and if you see that bonded sticker on any of them, pick one up and savor a taste of whiskey history. It might become your new favorite bottle.

The Debate Over Whiskey Age Statements: A Drinkhacker Conversation

The age statement — the practice of putting the amount of time a spirit spends in the barrel — continues to be one of the most talked-about issues in the booze business. Long a staple of the whiskey world, where age statements have been a badge of honor and a matter of distillers’ pride for decades, the practice of putting a number on the label is rapidly falling out of favor. Why? Mainly because distilleries are short on old stock, so producing age-statemented whisky is harder and harder. This has led to the discontinuation of many longtime whiskeys with an age statement and their replacement with a No Age Statement (NAS) alternative… usually at a similar price.

Is the rise of NAS a good thing or a bad? Writer Robert Lublin and Editor in Chief Christopher Null engage in a debate over the issue as they attempt to suss out what’s really going on in the wild world of NAS, and whether or not “age matters” after all.

RL: Should whiskeys list their age on the bottle? I don’t think this is a simple question. When you pick up a single malt scotch, for instance, the age statement lets you know that the whisky you are about to drink spent at least that many years in the barrel after distillation. This might seem like a reasonable request to make of distilleries that are asking consumers to pay a high price for old scotch, but remember that age statements do not actually tell you the age of the whisky you are about to drink. They only tell you the minimum age of the whisky. An excellent Glendronach 15 Years Old includes older whisky inside.

The problem? Due to lack of stock, the whisky has been discontinued for the next three years until stocks can age appropriately. Will it be the same whisky when it is re-released? Not likely. The age statement on the new scotch will be identical to the old, but one can guess that the whisky in the bottle won’t have older stock in it and will ultimately taste very different. My conclusion? Age statements can be misleading.

CN: Age statements can be misleading, but not having an age statement can be even more misleading, can’t it? Taking your example even further, if we remove all age statements from that Glendronach, we don’t even have the safeguard of knowing the whisky in the bottle is at least 15 years old. NAS Glendronach would surely taste much different than whatever the new Glendronach 15 tastes like, wouldn’t it? Doesn’t the age statement provide some level of assurance that the consumer is getting what he expects?

RL: Yes, but sometimes having age statements would be even more misleading than excluding them. Consider some of the best NAS whiskies on the market today. One of my favorite peated drams is Ardbeg’s Uigeadail, which blends Ardbeg aged in sherry casks for extended periods of time with Ardbeg 10 Years Old. With an age statement, this is simply 10 year old scotch, a detail that does no justice to the whisky’s complex, smoky, fruity flavor profile. If age statements were required on bottles, this excellent dram would simply, and confusingly, tout a 10 year old statement. Uigeadail costs more for good reason.

CN: That is actually my point. My biggest problem with the removal of age statements is less about flavor profiles and more about the way whisky is sold. Age statements originally came into vogue mainly as a marketing tool, to convince consumers that, in no uncertain terms, “older was better” and better was more expensive. Until recently, Ballentine’s slogan was “Age matters.”

Now the industry has done a 180. Age abruptly doesn’t matter any more. Taste matters. To some extent that’s true, but modern food science can make anything taste good, can’t it? “Age doesn’t matter” encourages shortcuts. It rejects tradition and chases after the lowest common denominator at the highest possible price, and it shrouds the whisky in the bottle in a veil of secrecy.

RL: It is frustrating to be reminded that for all of its history and artisan craftsmanship, scotch is an industry driven by a bottom line. The marketing slogan “Age matters” did more to drive up prices and demand for older stock than it did to make a statement regarding taste or quality. The whole issue is made more complicated by the amazing, high end whiskies that are being produced today in far less time than previously was needed. Bruichladdich’s Octomore series demonstrates that outstanding scotch can be made in roughly 6 years. As one who appreciates the time and artistry that goes into making great whisky, I want as much information as possible, but times are changing and age statements will probably never again carry the importance they once did.

CN: I think whiskies like Octomore are the exception, not the rule. In fact, one could argue that Octomore is a shining example of the gimmickry I mentioned: Ultra-peated whisky can be released young because the peat overpowers anything the barrel can do. The last thing I would hope for is that distilleries will start boosting the amount of peated malt they use simply because they know that if they do they can release an even younger spirit. Alas, I worry that is a calculus that is being carefully undertaken across Islay right now.

I am happy at least, as you allude, that Bruichladdich is at least somewhat transparent about what’s in the bottle. Octomore doesn’t have an age statement, but they aren’t hiding the fact that what’s inside is pretty young. I’m less thrilled about whiskies like Talisker Storm and Macallan Rare Cask, a $300 NAS whisky. What goes into these whiskies is not just unstated, it is purposefully opaque so as to make a consumer value calculation much more difficult. I like the way Macallan Rare tastes, but I just can’t justify spending $300 for it without knowing what’s inside. It would be like buying a car without knowing what kind of engine it has. I just want to know. I’m not alone in feeling that if that kind of information isn’t made available, then the whisky is less valuable to me.

RL: I find Talisker Storm to be very reasonably priced (roughly the same as Talisker 10 Years Old) and do not mind the absence of an age statement as the quality of the product speaks for itself. But I take your point regarding Macallan Rare Cask, which, I must admit, I have not yet tried specifically because it costs too much to purchase without some idea of what I am buying. One of the problems regarding age statements lies in EU regulations which state that a whisky must either (a) list the age of the youngest whiskey appearing in the bottle, or (b) post no age statement at all. There is good reason for these regulations. If distilleries were free to list the age of all of the whiskies appearing in a bottle, they could choose to include a negligible amount of very old whiskey and list it as an ingredient, thereby misleading the consumer. The downside is a pair of options that may be well intentioned but limit the information available to the consumer. In the current system, it makes sense to exclude an age statement if one of the components is considerably younger than the others.

A third choice has been recommended by the people at Compass Box who blend whiskies to create their scotch. They would like to be able to provide “Full Disclosure” — and have actually been penalized by regulators when they have provided it. This option, should it become law, would permit bottles and advertising to list the age of all of the whiskies included in a scotch, but would require that they list the exact percentage (to a decimal point!) of each and every component. I would like to see Full Disclosure become a legal option for scotch, but I am very curious to know how many distillers and blenders would choose it.

CN: Perhaps more than you’d think. “Transparency” as a business concept has legs, and companies that embrace it (whether in spirits or otherwise) are gaining traction. For example, when restaurants use open kitchen layouts, where cooks and customers can see each other, customer satisfaction is 17% higher. Look at the rise of companies making it easy to talk to the brand via social media, disclosing where they source their products, or even revealing everyone’s salary. All of these have been associated with higher satisfaction — and bigger sales. For its part, Compass Box sells out of seemingly everything!

My prediction is that eventually the market will swing back the other way, particularly as stocks of older whiskies become more available once again and age statements are less of a hardship. Consumers — particularly Millennials hitting their 30s in the next decade and who are branching out from bourbon to scotch — will want more information about their booze, and that in turn may get marketers thinking the same way they did decades ago: Put an age statement on the label and we distinguish ourselves from the rest of the market, which by then will probably be fully embracing NAS. Age statements will again become a point of differentiation. And suddenly, age might matter again. I mean, until it doesn’t anymore.

Five Wives Vodka Approved in Utah, Banned in Idaho

But Mormons don’t drink, so…

Five Wives Vodka has been sold in Mormon-dominated Utah since December without creating too much of a stir, according to the distillery. But the brand — and its not-so-subtle reference to polygamy — is too much for liquor regulators in neighboring Idaho.

“We feel Five Wives Vodka concept is offensive to a prominent segment of our population and will not be carried,” according to a letter from the Idaho State Liquor Division to an Idaho distributor wishing to carry it. (Brand owner Ogden’s Own Distillery posted the letter.)

Maker’s Mark Granted Trademark Protection for Red, Dripping Wax

Maker’s Mark’s red wax seals are so iconic that if you visit the distillery, you’ll find a massive line of people paying to dip their own bottle of Maker’s into a vat of bubbling wax — a unique keepsake from Bourbon Country, to be sure.

In 1985, Maker’s trademarked the red wax seal, much to the consternation of the rest of the industry, which also tends to enjoy dipping bottles in wax from time to time. In 1997 Jose Cuervo released its own red-wax-dipped tequila, and the lawsuits started flying. Now, an appeals court has upheld Maker’s sole claim to the look — litigation has been going on for the last nine years — giving the Bourbon-maker sole claim to the sealant system.

AP has the story:

In a 19-page opinion affirming that decision, Judge Boyce F. Martin waxed poetic about the history of Kentucky’s most famous distilled spirit. Martin, who noted at oral arguments in December that “Maker’s Mark is not cheap,” displayed a detailed knowledge of the history and manufacture of bourbon, writing that “corn-based mash and aging in charred new oak barrels impart a distinct mellow flavor and caramel color.”

“Distillers compete intensely on flavor, but also through branding and marketing; the history of bourbon, in particular, illustrates why strong branding and differentiation is important in the distilled spirits market,” Martin wrote.

He even cited the bourbon brands preferred by 19th century statesmen such as Ulysses S. Grant and Daniel Webster.

The Samuels family, which created Maker’s Mark in 1958, trademarked the distinctive seal in 1985. The seal, perfected by Margie Samuels in the family’s deep fryer, doesn’t serve any practical purpose in keeping the bottle closed.

The trademark held by Maker’s Mark describes the seal as a “wax-like coating covering the cap of the bottle and trickling down the neck of the bottle in a freeform irregular pattern.” The trademark application doesn’t refer to a specific color, but Maker’s Mark told the court it has sought to enforce the trademark only as it applied to the red dripping wax seal.

AlcoHAWK Personal Breathalyzer Roundup

How drunk are you? No, really? How do you know?

If you’re a regular imbiber, it’s a good idea to test yourself once in awhile to make sure you’re OK to drive. 0.08 percent blood alcohol content (BAC) is the maximum legal level in most states, but knowing if you’re over that threshold can be difficult (particularly as you get closer and closer to it).

Portable blood alcohol testers can be helpful, but many require patience and luck to get them to work properly. Here’s a look at two very different models from AlcoHAWK, one of the leaders in personal breath analyzers.

AlcoHAWK Slim Ultra fits in a pocket and is about the size of a cell phone. The unit works well… when it works. Making that happen requires blowing into the unit for five seconds, turning it on, then waiting for it to count down from 100 to zero, a process that can take several minutes. Then, more often than not, the unit signals that it has an error. You have to repeat the entire process from scratch, then hope for the best. Sometimes you need one reboot, sometimes four. We never got it to work right on the first try, but when we did finally get it going, it offered results exactly in line with the more professional tester (accurate to three decimal places) that we had to compare with. B / $50 [BUY IT HERE] (pictured)

AlcoHAWK One Test is a single-use breath alcohol tester that has pretty limited value no matter what you’ve been up to that evening. It’s a slim tube the size of a cigarette that works only once. To use it, you puncture both ends, then blow into it like a straw. You then wait basically wait until the yellow crystals inside turn green. If the level of greenness crosses the line and red dot on the tube, you’re over 0.05% BAC — and presumably you shouldn’t drive. The accuracy is questionable, and I imagine if you are drunk enough to see a lot of green crystals in here, you know you shouldn’t be driving anywhere. But at least it’s portable. C / $20 for five [BUY IT HERE]

More on Duty Free Shopping

My post “Is Duty Free Ever a Good Deal?” generated a bit of discussion, and quite by coincidence, I just found that this quarter’s Malt Advocate magazine has a lengthy look at duty free (aka “travel retail”) shopping, too.

The story can be found here on page 52 (registration required if you view too many pages), and it does back up my key point: That (at least in regard to whiskey and Europe) prices aren’t very good in duty free shops. The magazine actually has a good explanation as to why this is the case: Leasing retail space in an airport is ghastly expensive, so you can’t expect great deals in most places.

As many readers have also noted, the story notes that duty free shops are best used for shopping for products that aren’t sold anywhere else. Many distilleries offer “travel retail only” products that never make it to BevMo.

The story also has some good advice: Check the website for the airport you’ll be flying out of and you might very well find the products offered and the prices for those products right there, so you can plan on what you want to buy before you ever leave for your trip. (Oh, and the best travel retail shop for the whiskey drinker: World of Whiskies, found in various UK airports, with three outlets alone in Heathrow.)

Check out the summer 2010 issue for the full scoop!

Is Duty Free Ever a Good Deal?

International travelers, you know the drill: You can bring in up to one liter of booze without paying the duty on it. And if they have a special name for it (“the duty!”), that must be a lot of cash, right? Hence the existence of duty free shops in every international airport on earth.

But how much is the duty on wine and spirits anyway?

This took some research to uncover and I finally dug it up: Not much. About $2 to $3 per liter for most alcoholic products, after your first liter (which is automatically duty free).

Duty free shops promise to take the duty and any taxes out of the price for you, making your shopping theoretically cheaper. The catch, though, is that if you overshoot your one-liter limit, you still have to pay the duty yourself when you arrive home.

The bigger issue, though, isn’t the duty, it’s the prices. Just because a shop is duty free, doesn’t mean it will be cheap, and anyone who’s bought a hamburger at the airport knows how pricey everything can get. Duty free is no exception, and during my recent overseas jaunt I spot-checked several airports looking for deals. I found literally no wine or spirits on sale anywhere that were cheaper than I knew I could get them back home, even after taxes. And I’d have to lug a bottle halfway around the world. In some cases, the prices were much higher (like 50 euros (about $62) for a 1-liter bottle of Ron Zacapa 23 (about $40 for 750ml in the states, or $53 pre-tax for a liter).

Bottom line: Browse those Duty Free aisles to your heart’s content, but you’re probably better off shopping locally once you return home.

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