Why Bottled-in-Bond Whiskey Is the Best Deal In Booze

What is bottled-in-bond, anyway? [Photos: Vicky Wasik]

Bottled-in-bond whiskeys have been around for almost 120 years, but today hardly anyone knows what the term means. You've probably glanced at them on the bottom shelves of your local liquor store; they're not usually in fancy packaging or crafted by hip little distilleries. But very few whiskeys get to be called bottled-in-bond, and the ones that do are very highly regarded by the whiskey cognescenti. Noah Rothbaum, author of The Art Of American Whiskey, says most people "just think it's something you slap on a label. But for people in the know, bottled-in-bond says, 'look, this is quality.'"

So what is bottled-in-bond, anyway? Throughout most of the 19th century, whiskey was generally purchased out of barrels at taverns, grocery stores, and pharmacies. It wasn't until 1870 that Old Forester (a brand that's still around today) became the first brand to put its bourbon in sealed glass bottles. And even then, there was no guarantee that what you were getting was real whiskey, rather than some sort of grain spirit with colorings and flavorings like iodine, tobacco, and turpentine added. Imbibers risked their health and even their lives with every drink.

Politicians, known for enjoying a nip or two themselves, stepped in and wrote the Bottled-in-Bond Act. The specifications were clear: bottled-in-bond whiskeys had to consist of whiskey distilled entirely by one distiller at one American distillery in the same calendar year; they had to be aged at least four years under government supervision in secured federal buildings; and they had to be bottled at 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume). Adding less water—and having to age the whiskey longer than most distillers in that era usually did—made booze-making significantly more expensive. But it also yielded a better product; the stuff distillers had been putting into whiskey made it look older, but certainly didn't make it taste better. Bottled-in-bond meant that buying whiskey was no longer a crapshoot—drinkers could look at the label and know what they were getting. And as whiskey got better in the years before Prohibition, its fanbase grew rapidly.

In the 1970s and '80s, though, American drinkers started switching from bourbon and rye to wine and vodka. Whiskey totaled 74% of all liquor sales in the US in 1960 according to Fortune magazine; by 1975 it was down to 54%. Vodka, which was almost unheard of in the '50s, became the single most popular spirit in the country in the '70s. Bottled-in-bond whiskeys in particular lost their luster; they began to seem like the stuff your parents and grandparents drank. Whiskey makers tried watering down their booze, from 100 proof to 86 or even 80 proof, to make it lighter and more palatable, not to mention cheaper. Once it wasn't 100 proof, it wasn't bottled-in-bond, and no longer subject to direct government supervision, which made it easier for less scrupulous companies to avoid declaring to the taxman every drop of whiskey they produced. Distillers were happy to keep their bottled-in-bond brands a secret to all but hardcore whiskey fans.

In the last decade or so, American whiskey has come roaring back to new heights at home, and it's more popular than ever worldwide—export sales almost tripled between 2002 and 2013, and overall sales rose close to 40% between 2008 and 2013, according to Fortune. Each new release of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon and rye brings with it a hysteria not seen this side of a Justin Bieber concert. And it seems that the time is finally right for bonded whiskeys to join the boom. You'd think that the idea of government-regulated whiskey is outdated; you don't really have to worry about getting poisoned by your whiskey today. But today's drinkers are increasingly educated (and geeky): They want to know the details about exactly what's in that bottle of booze they're buying. The problem is, there are a lot of craft distilleries being deliberately vague about how they distill and age their product, usually because they don't have enough money to let it age to full maturity. Other "non-distiller producer" brands can source their liquid from multiple distilleries, which makes figuring out exactly where the whiskey comes from like playing a game of Clue.

With bonded whiskeys, on the other hand, you know where the stuff was made, who made it (bonded whiskeys can't be made by third party distillers) and the minimum amount of time it was aged. "With bottled-in-bond," notes Bernie Lubbers, author of Bourbon Whiskey, Our Native Spirit, "you have to list the registered plant number on it so you know exactly where it came from. Some of these other products, you don't know where they came from."

Bartenders are fans of bonded whiskeys because the bold, concentrated flavor of the higher-proof spirit stands up well to mixers in cocktails, and their low price compared to fancier aged sipping whiskeys means they're great for the bottom line, too. Justin Lavenue, owner of the Roosevelt Room in Austin, says "The bartender's perspective is that you get more flavor out of the same amount of booze. It's less water [added], to dilute it less, so you're getting more flavor in the drink, using the same amount of whiskey. [From] a bar owner's perspective, you have such good products...that are also cost-effective."

And that's another great thing about bonded whiskeys. They're expensive to produce because they follow such strict regulations, but they're generally cheaper for you to buy than this week's coolest new tiny-batch rye produced by that craft distillery that can charge more based on exclusivity and hip-factor as well as quality and rarity. "I don't think you'll see a lot of craft distilleries doing bottled-in-bond," says Noah Rothbaum, "because of the expense involved, and the age." Big distilleries—Brown-Forman, Beam Suntory, Heaven Hill—have bottled-in-bond pretty much to themselves at this point, and probably will for the foreseeable future.

There aren't a whole lot of bottled-in-bond whiskeys out there—they represent the tiniest fraction of the American whiskey market overall—but these five are the best of the best. They're delicious on their own, they work wonderfully in cocktails, and they're priced to move. But they may not be such a relative bargain much longer. BiBs like Old Grand-Dad have never been hip or sexy—their target market wasn't the same as that for higher-priced premium brands. But now that more drinkers are discovering the joys of bottled-in-bond, higher prices may not be far behind. Which upsets fans like Noah Rothbaum. "I don't like to tell people about bottled-in-bond," he says. "I'd rather they not know about it so the prices stay low." Our apologies for spreading the word.

Rittenhouse 100 Bonded Rye Whiskey

Noah Rothbaum calls this "the gold standard of rye whiskey." And it's hard to find many folks who disagree. Rittenhouse is the Platonic ideal of rye—an undercurrent of sweet fruity flavors (think rich, ripe apples or pears) overlaid with pepper and cinnamon, enhanced with dry wood and leathery notes along with hints of caramel and bitter chocolate. The flavors harmonize like a classic doo wop group, but the leader of the band is the big, full rye spice that floods the palate with each sip. It's refined enough to sip neat but also holds up to water or ice, losing the alcoholic heat without diluting the flavor too much. And it's simply stellar in cocktails—a Rittenhouse Manhattan is big and bold—this stuff has plenty of kick to stand up to vermouth while offering remarkable depth and complexity. At around $25 for a 750 mL bottle, this is one of the best whiskey bargains you can find.

Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon

Old Grand-Dad has been around since 1882, before your grand-dad was born. And for a long time it was about as cool to drink it as it was to watch Gramps try to twerk. But it's always sold well, and as of late it's getting a lot of love from bartenders, thanks no doubt in part to its high quality and bargain-basement price (around $21 for a 750 mL bottle). It's a high-rye bourbon (27% of this baby's mashbill is rye), which becomes obvious as soon as it hits the palate with a burst of peppery spice. Hold it on your tongue and it grows soft and buttery, with sweet hints of citrus and caramel coming to the fore. As is the case with most bottled-in-bonds, it's a big, heavy whiskey that settles in the mouth and lingers long after you swallow, with a long, warm and woody finish. There's also an 80-proof expression of OGD, but bonded is the version you need. It's worth noting that the old grand-dad for whom the whiskey was named is none other than Basil Hayden, whose namesake small batch bourbon is apparently the same recipe as Old Grand-Dad, only with more water added and more time spent in barrels.

Jim Beam Bonded Bourbon

Jim Beam already makes Old Grand-Dad BiB, but this is distinctive and delicious in an entirely different way. It uses only about half as much rye as OGD in its mashbill (13% instead of 27%) for a sweeter bourbon, with intense vanilla, caramel, and candied orange peel notes. Mid-sip, however, it dries out quickly, as charcoal notes from the oak barrels, wisps of tobacco smoke, and the heat of the alcohol start to dominate. The finish is surprisingly smooth and clean.

This tastes pretty young to me, not much older than the minimal four years bonded whiskeys are required to age in wood. And that's part of why I love it. Before the era of high priced, small-batch, extra-aged whiskeys came along in the last couple of decades, nobody aged bourbon beyond six or eight years unless they couldn't sell it. Jim Beam Bonded (around $23 for a 750 mL bottle) is a throwback to the kind of bourbon our parents and grandparents drank, and it's a delicious throwback. Old fashioned types will love it as a sipper or on ice, but more hoity-toity palates will love it in cocktails—like the Old Fashioned, for instance. It's dry enough to accommodate the sugar, robust enough to not fade amidst the water and ice, and the bitters enhance the bourbon's flavor rather than dominating it.

Henry McKenna Bottled-in-Bond Single Barrel Bourbon

Most BiBs aren't aged much longer than the four years required by law (they're not required to post age statements, and not many do). Henry McKenna is the exception, spending a full decade in wood. It's a single barrel bourbon, which means each bottle contains whiskey from a single barrel rather than a blend. The appeal of single-barrel is that every barrel tastes slightly different, so each bottle is a unique drinking experience even though the general characteristics remain the same.

If you're an Evan Williams or Elijah Craig drinker, you might find that Henry McKenna tastes familiar. That's because they all use the same mashbill for distillation; the differences come with the wood aging. This whiskey offers drier, woodier, and more complex flavors than typical bottled-in-bonds, courtesy of those extra years in the barrel. Vanilla and toffee with undercurrents of plum precede oak and peppery rye spice, even though this is a fairly low-rye bourbon at only 13% rye. It winds up spicy without too much heat from the alcohol, and quite oaky, with a little sweetness to smooth things out. It's a great cross between younger, slightly coarser BiBs and modern-day extra-aged bourbons. And at around $35 for a 750 mL bottle, it's a steal for a single barrel bourbon.

Old Forester 1897 Bourbon

Old Forester isn't the best-known whiskey, but it's one of the oldest brands still in existence; back in 1870, it was the first bourbon to be sold in sealed glass bottles (to assure doctors who prescribed it to their patients that it hadn't been tampered with. Seriously). Old Forester is celebrating its history this year with the "Whiskey Row" series, using bourbons created in various period-authentic styles. 1897—the year the Bottled-in-Bond Act was written—is, of course, represented by a BiB. It costs a lot more than most bottled-in-bonds (around $60 for a 750 mL bottle), but if you've got some extra loot to blow, you'll get an excellent whiskey in return. It's big and a little rough around the edges, but very flavorful. Instead of the soft vanilla notes associated with modern bourbons, there's more burnt caramel up front, with baking spices and dark pruney fruits just beneath the surface. It swaggers across the palate with a fair amount of alcoholic heat, along with oaky dryness and hints of clove. The finish is long and lingering and quite smooth, almost gentlemanly, considering how uncouth it is up front. Old Forester 1897 isn't for everyone, but for whiskey buffs who like to taste history in a glass, I'd consider it essential.