Happy Birthday Bottled-in-Bond Act
Some days are turning points in history, from whence all other days are measured. Whether it's April 19, 1775 when the "shot was heard round the world", or December 7, 1941, or ... March 3, 1897. What happened that day, you ask? The Bottled-in-Bond Act became law. But, is it still relevant? Is it still needed? Those are great questions. To see where we're at, it's important to learn how we got here.
Don't Make Faces
In my hometown, it is illegal to make faces at dogs. Yep. Cannot make that one up. We've all seen the lists of weird laws still on the books. Using false names at a hotel, swearing at sports events (seriously?), and no hunting in cemeteries (what exactly are you hunting?). I've shared in articles the phrase “bottled in bond”. What exactly does that mean? Why was it needed?
America's First Consumer Protection Law
Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. was the driving force behind America's first consumer protection law - yes - that E.H. Taylor of the Old Taylor Distillery (now Castle & Key). Nearly a decade before Americans were protected from impure drugs or food (remember Upton Sinclair and "The Jungle" that exposed the meatpacking industry in 1906?) Americans wanted to ensure that their whiskey was pure.
While Taylor and others in Kentucky were offering true, straight bourbon whiskey, rectifiers, blenders and charlatans were passing off grain neutral spirits with additives and passing these off as bourbons. Similar to those, today, in the industry that are rapidly aging product, these scoundrels were adding a variety of items, including molasses, prune juice, kerosene, and even tobacco spit to give the illusion of an aged whiskey,
Reputable distillers wanted to protect their brands. Taylor - a well-connected politician - worked with U.S. Secretary of the Treasury John Carlisle to create and pass an act to provide assurances to the public that what he and other distillers were producing were pure and of the highest quality.
The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897
The Bottled-in-Bond Act that we know today was signed into law on March 3rd, 1897. It contained a number of provisions:
It must be "produced at the same distillery by the same distiller" (so no blending from different locations)
Mingling of different products, or even "the same products of different distilling seasons" was prohibited. Distilling seasons are defined as January - June and July - December.
The addition or subtraction of any substance or material, or alteration of the "original condition or character of the product" is prohibited.
It must be aged in a federally bonded warehouse under federal governmental supervision for at least 4 years. Even today, on distillery tours, you can see signs on warehouses that read "Federally Bonded Warehouse" or "Bonded Warehouse" ensuring that there are always eyes on the facility.
Producers must affix an engraved tax stamp over the bottle closure and must label all cases, both of which identifying "the proof of the spirits, the registered distillery number, the State and district in which the distillery is located, the real name of the actual bona fide distiller, the year and distilling season, whether spring or fall, of original inspection or entry into bond, and the date of bottling.
Since this time, the laws have loosened up a bit, but it did take more than 80 years to do so. In the 1980s, bottled-in-bond was determined to no longer require a tax stamp with the season and year made and bottled (so brands today don't have to disclose this). The current regulations state that the bourbon must be:
A single type of spirit
Produced in the same distilling season by the same distiller at the same distillery
Aged at least 4 years
Unadulterated (except that filtration and proofing is allowed)
Proofed with pure water to exactly 100-proof
And labeled with the registered distillery number and either with the real name of the distillery or a trade name.
Is Bottled-in-Bond Still Relevant?
In short, yes, and perhaps even more so than in years past. While, certainly, we're not experiencing the introduction of hazardous (and even deadly) additions to our bourbon, if nothing more, the 4-year age statement ensures an adequately aged product.
As you wander down the aisle of large, regional chains, consumers face a myriad of bottles with half-truths about "passed down family recipes" or an eye-catching label. I recall speaking at a nearby micro-distillery (now defunct) where the owners shared that they had created spirits by "watching Youtube videos and aging the product 6 months". And did I mention they were selling the spirits for $60?
Today, as consumers face a myriad of products, both from large and small, national and regional distillers, few carry age-statements. The bottled-in-bond notation, for me, makes sure that the product I'm purchasing won't be little more than unaged corn whiskey. On a recent shopping trip, I noticed a regional distiller that had been receiving a lot of interest (and has subsequently been purchased by Heaven Hill). On the shelf, I noticed their straight bourbon (typically a 2-year product) and a special release bottled-in-bond product for a few dollars more. You can guess which one I purchased, and was very happy to do so.
If you're thinking that maybe this topic has struck a chord, there are actually plenty of bourbons today that carry the bottled-in-bond label. Here are a few of my favorites that are readily available:
Hats off and a tip of the glass to New Riff and Wilderness Trail as both have been determined to deliver bottled-in-bond products to the market.
So, today, raise a glass to Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr and be thankful that your bourbon is pure and unadulterated. Better yet, stop by the store today and grab a bottle carrying the bottled-in-bond moniker and enjoy the 125th anniversary of America's first consumer safety law.