While remarkably simple in its necessary ingredients — typically a fermented grain mash made from barley, corn, rye, or wheat that’s then aged in wooden casks — whiskey is a remarkably complex beverage, both in regards to its potential flavor profiles and its long and storied history. And while there are a number of different types of whiskey (defined by the type of mash used), there are also a number of other defining characteristics that speak to the quality and care with which the beverage was distilled.
Most folks know some of these and how they affect the spirit. For instance, it’s generally understood that whiskeys aged for longer periods often develop deeper flavors and smoother profiles. Similarly, whiskeys with tightly controlled and monitored ingredients — like single malt scotch — are often of a higher quality than their blended brethren. There’s a lesser-known term, however, that even the most casual whiskey fan should know: bottled-in-bond. With a story that’s uniquely American, bottled-in-bond whiskeys are some of the most highly respected and sought-after by experts and aficionados around the world. In the following guide, we explore what they are, how they came to be, and offer a few examples you can pick up and try for yourself.
A Brief History Of Whiskey
A Storied Spirit
To start, let’s get something out of the way: “whiskey” and “whisky” mean the same thing. Most often looked at as a regional difference between spirits of the United States and those made around the rest of the world, there’s not actually a difference in their definitions. In fact, up until the mid-20th century and the introduction of newspaper-style guidelines, they were used interchangeably across the United States. For our purposes, we’ll be using the former spelling throughout this guide — both for consistency’s sake and because the story is distinctly American.
Whiskey dates back to before reliable historical records of alcohol distilling were being kept, but the earliest incidences can be traced back to the 15th century (and perhaps earlier) amongst the British Isles. Originally created as a medicinal elixir, the people who would later become the Irish, Scots, and English — especially monks and, later, surgeons — quickly caught onto the more enjoyable side effects of distillation, and began to craft whiskey for the purposes of enjoyment and as a means of making money.
At the beginning of the 1600s, people began colonizing the new world — what would eventually become the United States of America. Naturally, they brought their appreciation for distilled spirits with them. In fact, by the time the American Revolution was happening, whiskey was actually used as a form of barter currency. And George Washington himself operated a distillery out of his Mount Vernon estate. Eventually, over a century after the U.S.A. was established as a sovereign country, the government would pass the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 — changing the face of the whiskey industry, at least in America, forever.
What Is Bottled-In-Bond Whiskey?
Up to the mid-1800s, whiskey typically wasn’t sold in bottles. Rather, it was served up straight from taps put into barrels at pubs, general stores, pharmacies, etc. It was also highly unregulated — meaning it was exceedingly difficult to tell whether the whiskey you were buying was properly distilled with quality ingredients or if it was a hodgepodge of chemicals mixed with low-grade alcohol, like the rotgut of the Old West (low-quality grain alcohol often mixed with tobacco).
Then, in 1870, the folks at Old Forester — a renowned whiskey brand that’s still around to this day — started selling their spirits in sealed glass bottles, starting a trend that would continue up through the present. While this development did, by happenstance, function as a kind of self-regulation in the whiskey community, lawmakers (and the nobler folks engaged in the whiskey trade) were still not satisfied by the assurances of a sealed container. So, in 1897, they passed a bill that would put assurances and controls in place as a means of assuring customers that the spirits they were imbibing were of a certain quality and consistency.
The guidelines as set out by the Bottled-in-Bond Act are as follows: for whiskey to fall under the bottled-in-bond umbrella, it must be distilled in its entirety by a single distiller in a single American distillery within the course of a single year. Following its creation, that whiskey must also then go through a four-year aging process under government supervision in a federally-bonded facility (essentially a warehouse owned and operated by the State). Finally, it had to be bottled at 100-proof — or 50% alcohol by volume. Put into place to ensure distillers were producing whiskey of a certain quality suitable for public consumption, this law was a huge boon for the whiskey industry on both sides of the transaction because it guaranteed assurances and a level of control that previously didn’t exist.
What It Means Today
There are a number of reasons that bottled-in-bond whiskeys fell out of public favor and our collective lexicon, but there is also an equal number of reasons they’re beginning to resurface. In regards to the former, the Bottled-in-Bond Act was passed prior to Prohibition. As many folks know, Prohibition — the outlawing of alcohol in the United States from 1920-1933 — was a devastating blow to the whiskey industry. And most distilleries that had been open prior to Prohibition collapsed before it was repealed. Similarly, the government facilities that once functioned as storage for the required four-year period were repurposed for other goods, put out of commission, or — in some cases — demolished.
Post-Prohibition, a number of surviving distilleries continued (or revived, depending on your point of view) the tradition of bottled-in-bond whiskeys — including the likes of Jim Beam and Heaven Hill. And while this style of whiskey nearly went the way of the dodo a second time — during the vodka/gin boom of the ’70s and ’80s — the recent revival and renewed interest in whiskey as a spirit have led distilleries to begin producing bottled-in-bond varieties once again.
Today, the requirements for a bottled-in-bond whiskey are the same as they were back when the act was first passed. Interestingly, historical examples of bottled-in-bond whiskey have been relatively cheap and could be found on the bottom shelf — likely a result of their stringent guidelines that prevent distillers from overproofing their offerings or adding expensive, extraneous ingredients. However, more modern examples have been made with higher-grade ingredients (those that are organic, for instance) and, therefore, result in a higher end cost. And while these more high-end varieties are likely to continue popping up, there are still a number of bottled-in-bond whiskeys that are available at shockingly low price points.
Best Bottled-In-Bond Whiskies
Wet Your Whistle
It’s pretty likely that the world will start to see a lot more bottled-in-bond whiskeys popping up in the next few years — especially from noteworthy makers in the craft scene. But you don’t have to wait for their popularity to explode if you want to try some right now. In fact, there are a number of worthwhile options you can get your hands on at this very moment. The following ten are some of our absolute favorites.
Catoctin Creek Rabble Rouser Bottled-In-Bond Rye
With a name that harkens back to Old West barroom brawls and bootlegging, Catoctin Creek’s Rabble Rouser Bottled-in-Bond Rye is a much smoother and gentler drink than its name might suggest. As perfect in classic cocktails as it is on its own, this whiskey has a deep caramel color, both spice and sweetness on the tongue, and a finish that tapers off smoothly without lingering for too long. If you can find it, it should cost around $99 a bottle.
Colonel E.H. Taylor Bottled-In-Bond Small Batch Bourbon
One of many superb offerings from the Buffalo Trace distillery, Colonel E.H. Taylor’s Bottled-in-Bond Small Batch Borboun is a fan favorite that’s highly sought after by those who are lucky enough to have tried it at any point. It makes for an excellent Old Fashioned but, arguably, is better served neat or with just a couple cubes of ice. Regardless of how you choose to enjoy it, this is also one of the easier-to-find bottled-in-bond offerings, thanks to the fact that it is made by Buffalo Trace. Still, you’ll want to snatch it up if you ever see it on the shelf, because the demand is still quite high. Pricing is set at $40.
Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bottled-In-Bond Bourbon
This distilled spirit from Henry McKenna just made some major waves in the whiskey industry and has made a pretty excellent case for granting it the title of best whiskey of 2019. In fact, it has already garnered a number of prestigious accolades — including Best In Show Whiskey at the SF World Spirits Competition, amongst a slew of others. As an offering from the legendary Heaven Hill distillery, this should come as no surprise. What might surprise you, however, is that this bourbon will only cost you around $50 a bottle. If you can find it, that is.
Kings County Bottled-In-Bond Straight Bourbon
What we love about Kings County’s offerings is that their labeling — which harkens back to the days of Prohibition — lets the whiskey inside their bottles speak for itself. Perhaps nowhere is that truer than with their Bottled-in-Bond Straight Bourbon. Don’t let the no-fuss packaging fool you, however, this is a formidable whiskey if there ever was one. Smooth enough to sip neat, the depth of flavors might surprise you for an offering that costs just $40 a bottle.
McKenzie Bottled-In-Bond Wheated Bourbon
A bit unusual when compared to the rest of the offerings on our list, the McKenzie Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon you see before you features a wheat mash — rather than corn, barley, or rye. What that means is that this whiskey has an almost bread-like quality to it: light and drinkable but sweet and deep in its flavor. It also features a bit less spice than some of its brethren, which is excellent for those looking to avoid too much bite. This bourbon will cost you $45 a bottle.
New Riff Bottled-In-Bond Bourbon
New Riff is an interesting newer brand that operates on a unique premise: all of their offerings (save a select number of extremely limited released) are said to be bottled-in-bond. And that started with this bourbon you see before you. Distilled specifically to meet the stringent rules and regulations laid out by the Bottled-in-Bond Act, this is a supremely high-quality bourbon that is just begging to be enjoyed. And that’s made all the more enticing by the fact that it is non-chill filtered — meaning the natural oils and flavors that come from the distilling process aren’t stripped by filtration.
Old Fitzgerald Bottled-In-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Dating back to 1870, Old Fitzgerald is one of the United States’ oldest whiskey brands. What you might not know, however, is that they’re still around — and still highly renowned. And their 9-year-old Bottled-in-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon is a perfect example as to why. Smooth and drinkable by itself or in a classic cocktail — like a Sazerac or Manhattan — this relatively inexpensive offering is top-tier.
Rittenhouse Bottled-In-Bond Straight Rye
We’ve heard it said that Rittenhouse’s Bottled-in-Bond Straight Rye makes for the best Old Fashioned you’ll ever have. We’ve also heard it said, however, that putting this whiskey into a cocktail is a waste because it is so good on its own. Regardless of whichever side of the argument you fall, one thing is for certain: it’s a high-demand whiskey at a bargain bin price. In fact, you can find it on sale for as little as $22 a bottle.
Tom’s Foolery Bonded Bourbon
While whiskey is enjoyed around the world, the community that makes it is still relatively small and pretty close-knit. And sometimes that can be seen in the story of how brands came to be. Take Tom’s Foolery, for instance — this brand actually bought their first distilling equipment from David Beam of Jim Beam fame. That led them down the road to where they are today: a small, craft distillery known for superb spirits, experimental liquors, and not taking themselves too seriously. Their Bonded Bourbon, inarguably, is one of their best offerings.
Woodford Reserve Bottled-In-Bond Kentucky Straight Bourbon
Woodford Reserve is, obviously, one of the most famous whiskey-making brands in the world. In fact, they’re now the makers of the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. But they have never lost touch with what die-hard whiskey drinkers love about the industry. As an example of that, they distilled a limited-run bottled-in-bond Kentucky straight bourbon that took the whiskey world by storm in 2018. Unfortunately, it sold out rather quickly. So, if you want to get your hands on some today, you’ll have to turn to aftermarket sales spaces.
12 Best Bourbons You Can Buy
Bottled-in-bond whiskey is a distinctly American beverage, but it’s not the only highly-regulated American spirit worth your time. Check out our guide on the best bourbon whiskey to enjoy another national treasure.