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Demystifying ‘Bottled in Bond’

This old American spirits designation has found a new audience with today’s avid whiskey drinkers. Alicia Miller finds out why.

What is ‘Bottled in Bond?’

Bottled in Bond, or BiB, is an American designation for a distilled spirit that has been produced in adherence to a very strict set of government regulations. In practice, it pertains almost exclusively to American whiskey, and even then only to a minority of bottles.

The standard dates back to the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, when – in response to a surge in dubious industry practices – a group of distillers pushed for legislation around their product. At the time whiskey was typically sold out of barrel, and some corrupt blenders were passing off adulterated spirit as genuine.

‘There was very little oversight and regulation,’ says Chris Fletcher, Master Distiller at Jack Daniel’s. ‘Sometimes there were whiskies that might not have contained much real whiskey at all – either because they had been watered down or because unsavoury additives had been used in place.’

These additives weren’t just lower-quality spirits, colourings and flavourings – but sometimes dangerous chemicals such as methanol. Bottled in Bond regulations aimed to improve transparency and protect consumers, so they knew what they were buying.

Vintage label for a bottle of 'Old Kentucky General' bourbon whiskey

Vintage label for a bottle of Old Kentucky General bourbon. Credit: Gado Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Regulations state that a Bottled in Bond whiskey must have the following characteristics:

  • Made by one distiller, at a single distillery
  • Produced within one season (spring, from January to June; or fall, from July to December)
  • Bottled at precisely 100 proof (50% abv)
  • Matured for at least four years in wood barrel at a US bonded warehouse

Why does Bottled in Bond matter today?

Bottled in Bond continued to be an important quality mark in American whiskey until the mid-20th century. ‘Even around World War II I’d say Bottled in Bond resonated because of that purity and transparency,’ says Fletcher. ‘Not only were there depleted whiskey stocks after prohibition but distillers were constrained by what kind of grains were available. Bottled in Bond was a mark of quality to the consumer.’

BiB fell out of fashion in the 1970s and 1980s, as consumers shifted to lower-abv drinks and white spirits such as vodka. As consumption of 100 proof whiskey dropped, so did the relevance of the designation.

Now in the 2020s, however, American whiskey has undergone a massive resurgence. New craft labels with higher ABV spirits are booming, and consumers are more concerned than ever with provenance. In a crowded market, BiB has re-emerged as a quality stamp that cuts through any smoke and mirrors.

‘A Bottled in Bond American whiskey, unlike some blended whiskies, won’t contain sugars, colourings or flavourings,’ says Fletcher. ‘And because it comes from one season, it won’t be – say – a very young whiskey mixed with just a small amount of older whiskey to give it character.’

Rittenhouse Straight Rye Bottled-in-Bond. Credit: new york rat / Alamy Stock Photo

What’s more, with so much competition out there, Bottled in Bond gives distillers with the means a chance to stand out. Some of the biggest names in American whiskey, from Jim Beam to Woodford Reserve, have released Bottled in Bond editions to pull in enthusiasts. With its higher abv and typically premium placement, BiB is an entry point for big brands to get in on the craft spirits scene.

The Bottled in Bond designation has gained particular traction within the bartending community, as the higher proof and more concentrated flavours really hold their own in a mixed drink. Cocktails have now become one of the most popular ways to consume BiB whiskies.

Bottled in Bond: Dos and don’ts

Do look to specialist retailers, as Bottled in Bond is still largely a niche product, particularly when purchased outside of the US

Don’t assume price is a reflection of quality. All Bottled in Bond whiskies need to meet the same strict requirements

Do try it in cocktails – especially those that benefit from higher ABV whiskies, such as a mint julep

Don’t be put off an otherwise-great whiskey just because it’s not Bottled in Bond. It may be made to superb standards, but just not fulfil one of the specific criteria – for example, the precise 50% abv

How to identify a Bottled in Bond whiskey

The only real way to identify a Bottled in Bond whiskey is to check the label. While it is not a requirement for producers to say a whiskey is BiB, most distillers won’t go through the trouble of making such a spirit and not say so. With so many constraints on the process, it’s a mark of achievement they’ll normally want to shout about.

Price point is not necessarily a reliable indicator. While BiB whiskies are typically more expensive than entry-level ones, they are not necessarily prohibitively pricey, particularly when made by larger producers.

Three Bottled in Bond whiskies to try

Catoctin Creek Rabble Rouser

An earthy, spicy craft Bottled in Bond rye made in Virginia. Alcohol 50%

Jack Daniel’s Triple Mash

A unique blend of three different BiB whiskies: malt, rye and Tennessee whiskey. Alc 50%

Wilderness Trail Small Batch Bottled in Bond Bourbon

A smooth-drinking wheated bourbon mash bill with baking spice and tobacco notes. Alc 50%

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