Is it Time to Retire Bottled in Bond?
The designation of Bottled in Bond has been many things through the years – a guarantee of quality, a protection against taint, a sign of good budget booze...but does it really stand for any of those things anymore? And is it worth keeping around or is it time to retire the whole concept?
The concept of Bottled in Bond, or BIB, came about to address a real and serious problem: the adulteration of whiskey with all kinds of things from juice to tobacco to much worse. In the nineteenth century, there was no TTB, no FDA and very minimal, if any, state oversight of food and beverage production. In 1897, Congress passed the Bottled in Bond act, one of the first consumer protection laws, to promote truth in advertising in whiskey.
The Act created the classification of Bottled in Bond sprits. A spirit labeled Bottled in Bond or Bonded had to be :
1. Produced in a federally monitored bonded warehouse;
2. Produced in the same distilling season by the same distiller at the same distillery (which had to be listed on the label);
3. At least 4 years old;
4. Bottled at 100 proof (50% abv); and
The Act was repealed in 1979 but was incorporated into the federal regulations, according to the TTB, “because consumers continued to place value on these terms on labels.” The TTB’s proposed new regulations actually expand the concept of Bottled in Bond, allowing imported spirits to use the designation if they meet the criteria, but the TTB also asks for comments regarding whether the designation is still necessary.
The BIB Act was an important piece of legislation in protecting consumers, but I would argue that the designation doesn’t make much sense anymore. Let’s look at each of the original requirements (and while any spirit can be bonded, the vast majority of bonded spirits are whiskey, so that’s mostly what we’re talking about here).
1. Bonded Warehouse: This isn’t part of the requirement anymore since all distilleries are now bonded.
2. Produced by the same distiller in the same season at the same distillery. This is nice to know, but is it a sign of quality? If it’s what you want, there are plenty of single barrel options out there that meet this requirement. I do like having the distillery disclosed on each bottle, but instead of limiting that to bonded whiskey, I would just make that a requirement for all spirits, as is done with Tequila in Mexico.
3. At least 4 years old. Is this really what anyone thinks of as the ultimate sign of quality in American spirits? I think of 4 years old as too young for most spirits.
4. Bottled at 100 proof. This is another oddity – a BIB spirit cannot be bottled at cask strength. Why not? Why is the addition of water required as a sign of quality?
5. Unadulterated. Sure, this is important, but liquor is much more regulated than it used to be, so we don’t really have to worry about dangerous additives anymore, and bourbon and straight whiskeys aren’t allowed to have any additives whether they are bonded or not.
So what’s special about Bottled in Bond? Most people I know would rather drink higher proof, older whiskey. In recent times, BIB was a sign of good budget booze, largely because Heaven Hill had a line of cheap BIB products, though they were mostly available in and around Kentucky. Want some 100 proof Evan Williams or Old Heaven Hill – plop down $13 and you could have some really tasty bourbon. But that’s changing too. Sazerac’s E.H. Taylor was one of the first examples of a company promoting a high-end BIB whiskey, and that trend seems to be catching on with Heaven Hill, the source of so much cheap bonded whiskey, releasing a $110 bonded Old Fitzgerald earlier this year. Lately, craft distillers have been utilizing the designation as well and selling at craft whiskey prices (although in that case, the four year old designation does seem to serve a purpose of encouraging those distillers, many of whom market very young whiskey, to age their spirit longer).
And these days, how many consumers out there actually know what BIB means or see it as a sign of quality? Outside of the whiskey geek world, I would venture to guess few if any. There are certainly still some upsides to the BIB rule, but on balance, it seems like a relic that long ago outlived its purpose.