Let’s take a trip back to the good old days, a simpler time of little government regulation. It was an age when unsavory whiskey dealers ran unchecked and mixed unaged spirits with chemical adulterants, colorants and flavoring agents including wood shavings, creosote, acid, prune juice, burnt sugar, iodine and tobacco and had the gall to call them whiskeys. Some good came of that free-wheeling post-Civil War era of drinking, when Congress created a supreme standard of American whiskey purity that is having a rebirth today: Bottled-in-bond.
At the time, legitimate whiskey makers sought a distinction that would separate their products from horror-show swills, and largely through the efforts of the Bourbon distiller Col. E.H. Taylor Jr. the 1897 Bottled-in-Bond Act was enacted. What bonding guaranteed then and now is that a spirit carrying that designation came from one distillery in one distilling season, was stored for at least four years and then bottled at exactly 100 proof. (When bonds were first defined, government agents held keys to each bonded warehouse, so they could account for each barrel that went in or out. That stipulation was relaxed in the 1980s.) Nothing could be added to the product, other than water.
“Back then, a bottled-in-bond stamp on a bottle of whiskey would give you confidence that this isn’t bathtub gin, this isn’t moonshine, that this is safe to drink,” says Kris Comstock, the Bourbon marketing director for Buffalo Trace, a distillery that honors Col. Taylor with a collection of eight bonded whiskeys that bear his name. The concept so revolutionized the whiskey world that for years bonded products occupied the top shelves of liquor stores and bars. Eventually, the quality of other liquors became good enough that bonded whiskey became a quaint anachronism that many brands downplayed. But today, burgeoning whiskey and cocktail cultures have rediscovered the importance of the bonded hallmark, and upwards of two dozen products are proudly displaying the seal. And they aren’t just Bourbons. Any 100-proof spirit that meets the other stipulations can be bonded, such as ryes and even brandies.
Chris Morris, the master distiller for Brown-Forman, which markets a bonded Old Forester as well as an Early Times, says a resurgence of interest in forgotten whiskeys has made bonds “cool again.” Fred Noe, master distiller of Jim Beam, which makes both bonded Bourbon and straight rye, says the new trend was sparked by historically minded mixologists who found that many classic cocktail recipes called for bonded whiskeys. The logic is valid. If a recipe is built around a 100-proof spirit, using something weaker waters down the intended result. Servicing the requests for bonded whiskeys, Noe says, was comparatively easy. The distillery kept the same recipes and production methods, but didn’t reduce the proof as much with water at bottling. “You’re not reinventing the wheel,” he says.
Bernie Lubbers, of Heaven Hill, the leader in bonded spirits production with nine expressions, says that bonded products, having attained all the necessary merit badges, are the “Eagle Scouts” of liquor. And yet consumers remain largely unfamiliar with them. “It’s a hundred years later,” he says, “and we’re educating people about it again.”
It’s often said that the bottled-in-bond standard of purity doesn’t guarantee quality. But in practice it often delivers a superior drink, especially when comparing products that are otherwise identical except for their proof. Virtually all whiskey (save for high-octane barrel-proof versions) is diluted with water before being put into the bottle, and many are sold at less than 100 proof, with the minimum 80 proof being the most prevalent. The bonded product, which isn’t diluted as much, will generally win out. And for the consumer that is generally what sets bonds apart.
For the producer, however, proof isn’t the tallest hurdle to making a bonded spirit. “One of the more confining restrictions of bottled-in-bond is that every drop must come from that single distilling season,” says Morris. There are two distilling seasons a year, January through June and July through December. “If we take a barrel of whiskey from June we cannot batch it with a whiskey from July. Your inventory is constricted by these windows. Making a good bottled-in-bond is quite difficult.” That is also why bonded whiskey is usually the purview of distilleries with large inventories.
We drank our way through a wide selection of spirits from the bonded warehouses of America to see how they perform in the glass (see below). All are, of course, 100 proof.
To find out how bonded spirits pair with handmade cigars, click here.
1792 Bourbon ($36) First called Ridgewood Reserve, 1792 comes from Bardstown’s Barton Distillery and is named for the year Kentucky was founded. A high rye content confers spicy flavors, including clove and spearmint, on its wood and fruit notes.
Christian Bros. Sacred Bond Brandy ($18) Heaven Hill breaks the bonded brandy barrier by distilling wine in pot stills and then following the age and proof dictums usually followed by whiskeys that are bottled in bond. The two genres are reconciled with a marriage of vanilla and caramel with fruit, hard candy, grapes and licorice.
Col. E.H. Taylor Single Barrel Bourbon ($40) The man honored in the whiskey’s name was not only integral in the passage of the Bottled-in-Bond Act, but he once owned the property where Buffalo Trace distills it. Its high corn content gives it a sweetness, which is offset by a pleasing rye bite. It balances caramel and toffee with clove and anise.
Early Times Straight Bourbon ($25/liter) Don’t mistake this for Early Times Kentucky Whiskey. That spirit is made with a combination of new and used barrels. This bottled-in-bond version is matured in fresh casks. Warm, sweet smoke on the nose becomes fruity and spicy on the palate. Big and bold, it projects licorice and orange-peel notes as well as herbs and cinnamon.
Evan Williams Bourbon ($18) You may already know this white-labeled bond for its bang-for-the-buck kid brother, which sports a black label and comes in at 86 proof. This bottling has all the vanilla and caramel notes of the black label, but adds a dose of spices like clove, cinnamon and ginger and a hearty herbal note to round things out.
Henry Mckenna Bourbon ($35) McKenna bests the rest of the bonded class in terms of age at 10 years. Furthermore, it’s the product of a single barrel, not just one distillery (we tasted cask No. 4344). Despite its age, this is a Bourbon with nuance that subtly introduces vanilla, caramel and toffee notes to licorice, spearmint and cinnamon flavors.
Jim Beam Bonded Bourbon ($23) Distiller Fred Noe says that creating a bonded Jim Beam wasn’t a difficult order. Whether that’s true or he’s just being modest, the addition of 10 percent alcohol puts the whiskey in a different realm with deep flavors of hearty herbs, rich toffee, toast and leather, as well as sturdy floral notes.
Mellow Corn Corn Whiskey ($12) Heaven Hill’s Mellow Corn is a unicorn. Not only the rare corn whiskey (a mash bill of at least 80 percent corn), it is one of the few to be matured, unlike Bourbon. Still its sweetness is pronounced, with notes of vanilla, marshmallow, coconut, fruit and even brandy flavors.
Old Bardstown Bourbon ($22) The Willett Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky, was silenced for years while it bottled rye and Bourbon sourced from other facilities. In 2012, it started distilling again with a new, patented pot still. Its bonded Bourbon has a maple syrup and molasses nose with caramel, spicy pepper and anise on the palate.
Old Forester 1897 Bourbon ($50) Years before 1897 Old Forester was already the first Bourbon to bottle and seal its product. This bonded product is an intense, full-bodied Bourbon with plenty of red fruit, rich toffee, caramel and maple, as well as slighter notes of licorice and orange peel.
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon ($25) The grandfather this whiskey is named for is Basil Hayden, who founded the distillery where Old Grand-Dad was first made. Today, Jim Beam produces it alongside its Basil Hayden whiskey and they share a high-rye formula. Grand-Dad shows pepper, cinnamon and licorice layered with caramel, maple and vanilla.
Old Overholt Straight Rye ($25) This rye is Old Overholt’s first bonded whiskey in more than 50 years. Made by Jim Beam, it offers the fruit and spice of the standard release—cherries, blackberries, marzipan and cinnamon—along with Christmas spices as well as a mellow, hearty note of caramel.
Rittenhouse Straight Rye ($25) Rittenhouse is a post-Prohibition brand from Philadelphia. It was originally sold in 1934 as a two-year-old whisky. Now as a four-year-old, made by Heaven Hill, it is sublimely complex with notes of toffee, vanilla, mint, pepper, rye bread and cloves.