The Good Life: What’s in a label? Sometimes, quite a bit

Steve Palec on Bourbon

Steve Palec

Last updated on May 22nd, 2023 at 02:06 pm

Three words: Bottled in Bond.

Keep those words in mind and look for them on a label if you are unsure of taking a chance in buying a new bourbon. Because the rules that come with obtaining that title are pretty close to a guarantee that you’re grabbing a great bottle.

The Bottled in Bond Act, signed into law on March 3, 1897, literally provided U.S. government guarantees of whiskey authenticity.

Prior to the legislation, there were nefarious peddlers of whiskey who added items such as tobacco, wood, turpentine, formaldehyde, glycerine, iodine and Oreo cookies to alter taste and coloring.

Actually, I threw Oreo cookies in there just to make sure you were paying attention.

The rules are so stringent to obtain the bond that it gives the consumer enormous confidence, tantamount to the boost an author gets from Oprah’s Book Club, the bump Michelin stars give a restaurant or the assurance that Taylor Swift will write a song about you if you break up with her.

So, what are the rules that the U.S. government requires to ensure bourbon quality, the way the FDIC tries to keep banks from gambling with your deposits?

To obtain the Bottled in Bond label, the bourbon must be aged a minimum of four years. That aging must take place in a federally bonded warehouse that is regularly inspected. Only pure water can be used to get the proof down to 100. By the way, not “at least 100 proof,” but exactly 100 proof. Also, the distiller’s name must be on the bottle. And most importantly, the bourbon must be produced by one distillery during one six-month distilling season. That final requirement is the one that limits the playing field.

While the popularity of bourbon has ebbed and flowed, it is hard to believe that something conceived in the 1800s provides a benefit to this day. BIB bourbons are expensive to produce but they are not unreasonably priced, offering an excellent alternative to the hard-to-find unicorns. You don’t need to feel like you’re purchasing the bourbon equivalent of Garanimals by simply looking at the label. You may not be Bond, James Bond, when scanning labels, but the suave sophistication of the bottle you pick will be proven in the pour.

A few suggestions: You can’t go wrong if you see “Bottled in Bond” on Evan Williams, Henry McKenna, Jim Beam’s Old Tub, New Riff, Oregon Spirit, Chestnut Farms, Old Fitzgerald, Very Old Barton, 1792, J.W. Dant and Heaven Hill, the number one producer of BIB.

Prior to the Bottled in Bond Act, there were a number of cases of problematic contamination in alcohol in the United States, and not just from backyard stills. To this day there are stories of questionable contents consumed in Mexico, Russia, China and India. It may be hard to fathom it was only 13 years between Sam Elliot leading Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and German settlers out west in the show “1883” and Congress enacting that milestone 1897 legislation. Today, the U.S. still won’t allow any import of liquor that uses the label “bond” or “bonded” unless it meets the same criteria used here.

When the Bottled in Bond Act passed, one of its champions was Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. That’s why, all these years later, Colonel E.H. Taylor’s wonderful bourbon is enjoyed, sought after and trusted. Oh, yeah, and bottled in bond.

Steve Palec is chief marketing officer of Wauwatosa-based commercial real estate development firm Irgens. ‘The Good Life: Steve Palec on Bourbon’ lifestyle feature appears regularly at

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