The late 19th century brought big changes for American whiskey. Spirits were rapidly losing market share to beer: new industrial efficiencies made it possible to produce vast quantities of consistent-tasting beer, and German entrepreneurs like Adolphus Busch and Frederick Pabst built huge breweries that began to dominate the booze landscape. Whiskey couldn’t quite take advantage of the Industrial Revolution in the same way. The process of traditional whiskey distillation is just too complex, too time consuming. It’s as much art as science, the goal being to distill off not just ethanol, but also the various chemical compounds that gave the source grain its flavor, while leaving behind those that can cause a bitter taste or can be poisonous when overly concentrated. It’s very hard to do that and compete with the price point of a light lager.
Pretty soon, however, consumers began to see liquor hit the market that claimed to be whiskey, but was far cheaper than anything coming from the established bourbon and rye makers in Kentucky and Pennsylvania. What they were seeing was not, in fact, really whiskey. Unscrupulous distillers, known as “rectifiers”, were adding colorings and flavorings to a neutral alcohol base, skipping all the hassle of real whiskey making, and selling it for cheap.
This was both an economic issue for real whiskey distillers and—given the questionable science going into some of these rectifiers’ bottles—a public health issue. Bourbon distillers, led by Col. Edmund Taylor, Jr., lobbied Congress to put measures in place that would protect traditional whiskey distillers and give consumers confidence that what they were drinking was indeed actually whiskey. While alcohol was a very partisan issue at this time, with wet Republicans and dry Democrats, the presence of Democrats from whiskey-making regions was enough to ensure support for some kind of action.
What the distillers wanted was for the US government to guarantee the authenticity of their whiskey, in plain print on their bottles. They knew that the needed groundwork for such a guarantee already existed. Beginning in 1868, the government began allowing distillers a “bonding period,” a span of time during which a barrel of whiskey could age without being taxed. Before that, distillers had to pay the tax as soon as they distilled the stuff, long before they would actually make any money off of it. US agents monitored this bonding period—guarding warehouses, keeping track of how long barrels had been aging, measuring contents, and administering the tax. The government knew that this bonded whiskey was authentic—now the distillers just wanted them to say so.
With the Bottled In Bond Act of 1897, the government did just that. They added some other requirements as well: the whiskey had to be aged in bond at least four years, had to come from the same distilling season (similar to “single malt” scotch), and had to be 100 proof. If you did that you got to put a green strip stamp across the top of your bottle, featuring the stoic visage of John G. Carlisle, the Secretary of the Treasury at the time the act was passed (also a former Senator from, you guessed it, Kentucky). In return, Uncle Sam got to monitor every step of the distilling process, making sure that each drop was accounted for in the tax bill. Temperance activists didn’t like it—in a common refrain for anti-alcohol movements, they thought the bill amounted to tacit government support for alcohol—but in this instance, they lost out and the bill was passed.
The Bottled In Bond Act was one of the first consumer protection acts in American history. A few years later, in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act would pass, and before long there were enough general protections in place that this highly specific one was no longer really necessary. Bonding went back to being just about the taxes. Distillers kept using the label for a while, though, because although the stamp was just a guarantor of authenticity—and not of the distiller’s skill, or the fineness of the ingredients—it came to be associated with quality. Today most major brands do not label themselves bottled in bond (though a few of them qualify), but it’s not unusual to see smaller-distribution, higher-priced whiskies with that label. At this point, it’s just a nod to history, and a way to try to make your bottle stand out in a crowded market.
Government is often the bad guy from the distillers’ perspective, handing down harsh regulations and collecting an exorbitant excise tax. As I say in nearly every article I write, though: it ain’t that simple. The Bottled In Bond Act is perhaps the most obvious example of the government stepping in to help the industry, but it’s far from the only one. Thanks to Uncle Sam, good old-fashioned distillers were protected, and consumers could rest easy knowing that the only dangerous chemicals in their whiskey were the ones they were looking for. [i]