Recently, I had someone ask me what it meant for something to be a bonded spirit. And while the answer has been given before in other forums, the history and story is good enough to bear repeating.

A long time ago, when you bought whiskey in a bar or saloon, you didn’t really know what you were getting. You might get the good stuff. But depending on where you were, you might be just as likely to get something really bad. Sometimes the really bad stuff just tasted lousy. Other times, it was downright dangerous. You see, unscrupulous distillers had figured out that it was more expensive to produce real whiskey than it was to simply make some cheap rotgut and then dose it with something to make it look (and maybe, but not always, taste) like something approaching whiskey. So, for example, if you ordered bourbon you might get white dog with a splash of tobacco juice. Tasty? Not exactly.

Along came the federal government to the rescue, passing the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897. Under the Act, if a distiller agreed to abide by some relatively stringent rules, the distiller could get a bit of a tax break. That made those distillers who participated a bit happier than they might otherwise have been. At the same time, if a distiller chose to abide by these new rules, it made it a bit easier for the Government to ensure that the excise tax was properly accounted for (and paid over). That made the revenuer happy as well.

The upshot of all this was that if the distiller chose to follow these rules, the distiller could label its product as having been “bottled in bond” – meaning that consumers knew when the seal was broken on that bottle that the contents were exactly what they claimed to be. If the label said bourbon, it was bourbon. That made consumers happy – which in turn made the distiller even happier since its product was better received in the market.

While all this began happening 120 years ago, bonded spirits still exist today. And just as in the late 1800s, there are specific requirements to be met in order to call your particular hooch a bonded spirit. Under the TTB’s regulations, a distiller can only use the bonded designation if the spirit is:

  • all of a single type (e.g., all the same spirit and made of the same class of materials);
  • produced entirely in the same distilling season, by the same distiller at the same distillery;
  • stored for at least four years in wooden containers where the spirit is in contact with the wood [Note: there are some exceptions for gin and vodka – which need not touch the wood];
  • unaltered (i.e., nothing added or removed other than through filtration);
  • reduced in proof only by the addition of pure water; and
  • bottled at 100 proof.

In addition to all of this, the label of any bonded spirit must include the real or trade name of the distillery where the spirits were produced, as well as the registered distillery number or numbers.

So is all of this still worth it? I guess that depends on who you ask. Certainly the extra requirements of producing a bonded spirit result in extra costs to the manufacturer. And those extra costs mean that bonded spirits are a tough sell for most craft distilleries. The market reflects this, with the vast majority (perhaps all) of the bonded spirits available today being made by large volume producers (e.g., Jim Beam and Heaven Hill).

But the extra kick afforded by bottling at 100 proof helps these spirits keep their flavor profiles when used in cocktails – and the extra mellowing given to a few of them means that they’re just that much better when sipped. Most bonded spirits are bourbons, and with the bourbon renaissance of the last few years, consumers have had the opportunity to re-learn the benefits of the bonded designation. So they’re starting to sell quite well.

Will craft distilleries follow suit and begin producing bonded spirits? I sure hope so – there’s room on my shelf for a few more bottles. In the meantime, pick up a bottle yourself and give it a try. I think you’ll like it.