“Bottled in bond” or “bonded” bourbon…what does that mean? Let’s find out the meaning of and reasons for those terms on the label

I’m a History nerd

I have always been fascinated by history (to longtime readers, this isn’t news)…why things are the way they are now are largely affected by what happened in the past and how people reacted to those circumstances. Growing up in the (largely bland) suburbs of Los Angeles, the only recognizable historical buildings were the Spanish missions that run up the state. But there are subtle bits of history that effect how the city has developed…in 1933 there was a big earthquake in Long Beach (a city just south of LA). So many brick buildings came down that there are now construction codes that restrict the use of brick, which is why when I moved to Boston I was amazed at all the brick buildings…they seemed so majestic and historic! The label bottled in bond bourbon or bonded bourbon also reflect how a reaction to a situation still affects us today. Ready for a little history lesson? Good! Buckle your seat belts…here we go!

In the late 1800s there was no quality control on spirits, and some distilleries took advantage in the name of profits…they would mix harsh, unaged bourbon with all sorts of unpleasant adulterants to improve the flavor and color of their whiskey and thus reduce their production time and costs, giving them an advantage over proper bourbon distillers. And consumers, well, they couldn’t be sure of what they were drinking. The legitimate distillers lobbied Congress to identify standards for bourbon, and the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 was passed, giving consumers government assurances of quality and leveling the playing field for all the distillers. Here’s what the law stipulated:

  • The US government is in charge of quality of whisky
  • To have the “bottled in bond” or “bonded” on the label, the bourbon must be…
    • …distilled at a single distiller during a single distilling season(there are 2 recognized distilling seasons…Spring: Jan 1 – Jun 30; Fall: Jul 1 – Dec 31)
    • …matured for a minimum of 4 yearsin a federally bonded warehouse
    • …bottled at minimum 50%ABV (100 proof)

The distillers agreed to these terms, in return for deferred the payment of excise taxes on the maturing the whiskey until it was removed from a bonded warehouse for bottling (a bonded warehouse was where a distiller posts bond guaranteeing taxes will be paid when the whiskey was bottled). In addition, the label on the bottle must name the specific distillery where the whiskey was made (we see this now as the DSP#, or Distilled Spirits Plant permit #).

So what’s the benefit of the law today? Surely distillers won’t go back to adding yucky stuff to their whiskey to undercut their competition? No, today the “bottled in bond” mark is an assurance of consistent quality at a good price, an indication of the distiller’s skill, as it were…it’s similar to the concepts of single malt whisky or small batch whisky. The craft spirits industry is embracing the labeling as a “made here, bottled here” sign for the consumer to distinguish themselves from blends.

Ok, enough with the history lesson…let’s talk about the bourbons! Early in June, Gordons DTX  held a tasting featuring all bottled in bond bourbons. Some of the expressions I had heard of, others I hadn’t, and I hadn’t tried any of them before. It was a surprise and a delight.

Bottled in Bond Bourbons

Gordon’s DTX, June, 6, 2018

Old Grand-Dad Bonded Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

  • Nose: light brown sugar, vanilla, almonds
  • Taste: thick body, sweet caramel candy, nutty, caraway, chewy, cinnamon heat
  • Finish: fades to baking spices and brown sugar
  • Comments: not rye dominant, sippable & sweet


Henry McKenna

  • Nose: spicy, cream, walnut fudge, light cinnamon
  • Taste: thick, walnuts, caramels, molasses
  • Finish: mocha, caramel, lingering cloves
  • Comments: really good! Lots of flavor, darker flavor than most bourbon


Jim Beam Bonded

  • Nose: rye nuttiness, hay, vanilla fudge
  • Taste: medium body, light cinnamon & cloves, caraway & cardamom
  • Finish: caramel, caraway, fades quickly
  • Comments: good


Early Times Bourbon Whiskey

  • Nose: sweet corn, honey, vanilla
  • Taste: thick, corn sugar, oak, caramel
  • Finish: nutmeg,caramel, fades far
  • Comments: from Ken Gordon’s collection (not available anymore), really sweet, very good

bottled in bond bourbon, Old Grand-dad, Henry McKenna, Jim Beam, Early Times

Mellow Corn

  • Nose: corn, corn, corn! Light vanilla,
  • Taste: light body, sugar, sugar, sugar
  • Finish: fades quickly
  • Comments: one note, link drinking an ear of corn, needs to be tamed in a cocktail


Rittenhouse Rye Bottle-In-Bond

  • Nose: rye hits hard
  • Taste: thick, oily, almonds, caramel, cinnamon
  • Finish: spice fades to baking spices, light apricots
  • Comments: the finish really makes it good as it coats the tongue


Old Overholt Straight Rye

  • Nose: mild nose, light vanilla fudge
  • Taste: enters soft, white pepper & cinnamon,
  • Finish: fades to caraway
  • Comments: it’s quite good

bottled in bond bourbon, Mellow Corn, Rittenhouse, Old Overholt

It’s interesting to realize that much of what we take for granted now (proper building codes, clean and unadulterated food and water) needed to be legislated, and for the most part I’m glad for that (that is, when the reasoning behind the law is still applicable and makes sense). Knowing what “bottled in bond” means not only informs me that the expression will be held to certain standards, but also tells me the distiller took the time to care about those standards. And that is a mark of quality to me!

Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!


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  1. Pingback: Knowing the path: Straight Bourbon Whiskey Rules - Scotch & Scones

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