You may have noticed while shopping for a bottle of whiskey, that some of the bottles have a long thin sticker over the cap that states “bottled-in-bond.” There’s a lot of American history in that phrase and sticker. So, what is bottled-in-bond whiskey?

American whiskey production is heavily regulated, if you want to call your whiskey “bourbon,” for example, you have to ensure that the contents adhere to the rules and regulations that are in place. In the case of bourbon, it has to be made from a mash of at least 51% corn and aged in new, charred oak barrels there’s a bit more to it but that’s the gist. Before regulations were put in place alcohol fraud was rampant. A guy looking for a bottle of bourbon might get home with a nice bottle of watered down paint thinner with some food coloring added to it for effect.

In the late 1800s, legitimate bourbon makers were done with cheap imitations cutting into their profits, so they took the matter to the courts. Colonel E. H. Taylor, the founder of what is now Buffalo Trace, led the effort. Defendants claimed bourbon manufacturers were setting up a monopoly and creating an insurmountable barrier to entry to the market, but in the end, President Grover Cleveland signed the Bottled-in-Bond Act into law on March 3, 1897.

The law created an avenue for government oversight on spirits distilled in America. For the most part, you’ll only ever see bottled-in-bond whiskey, but that isn’t the rule just the norm, there are other types of American spirits that are bonded.

So, that’s how it came to be, but what is bottled-in-bond? In order to call itself “bottled-in-bond,” a spirit has to follow the guidelines set forth in the Bottled-in-Bond Act:

  • Labeled with the same class of spirits it contains
  • Label has to contain name of actual distillery
  • It must be stored for at least four years in wood barrels
  • The spirit cannot have anything added to or subtracted from it before bottling
  • It has to be bottled at at least 100 proof
  • While aging bonded whiskey is stored in locked, bonded warehouses which are routinely inspected
Bottled-in-Bond whiskey
Bottled-in-Bond whiskey

If a bottle meets all those requirements, it gets a sticker over the mouth of the bottle. The bottled-in-bond sticker contains the season of production, the date of bottling, the proof of the spirit, and the district the distiller resides in.

These days, the Bottled-in-Bond Act doesn’t have a lot of impact on consumers. Illegitimate distillers have, for the most part, been driven out of business and it would be hard to pass a fake spirit in today’s market anyway. Online forums, reviewers, etc… would put the distiller and any liquor store willing to sell their fake hooch out of business really quick. Instead, the bottled-in-bond sticker has become more of a nostalgic marketing tool. But, it’s not entirely worthless.

If you’re buying a bonded bottle you know it’s been aged for 4 years and bottled at 100 proof, and that certainly counts for something. You can be reasonably sure you’re getting a good quality bottle of whiskey. In addition, bonded whiskey tends to be pretty inexpensive. There are a lot of great bottled-in-bond whiskeys to be had. A.D. Laws, J.T.S Brown and Old Grand-Dad Bonded are some great hidden gems that won’t break the bank. Sometimes it pays to shop the lower shelves, especially if you shop for stuff with bottled-in-bond stickers.