The next time you’re at your favorite restaurant or bottle shoppe, take a cursory look at the back bar and the store shelves and you’re bound to see a large selection of whiskey. America’s favorite brown liquor is experiencing rapid growth in the consumer market thanks to aging Millennials with plenty of disposable income and a thirst for luxury, or craft consumables. Bourbon in particular has become a darling of whiskey aficionados over the past 10 years. Whiskey sales in general increased over 8% in 2017 with a large portion of that growth attributed to Bourbon sales in particular.
With this increased interest in Bourbon whiskey and resulting “whiskey rush” as more and more entrepreneurs enter the distilling game, the alcohol beverage market can be somewhat confusing for consumers. Labels which carry terms like “Bourbon,” “Bottled-in-Bond,” “Distilled and Bottled by…,” “Hand-bottled by….” and others keep whiskey drinkers guessing as to what, exactly, they are consuming. We’ve prepared a very short overview of the Bourbon Whiskey market as it pertains to labelling with the intent in helping ease some of the confusion surrounding this historic distilled spirit.
A Short History
Whiskey is a type of distilled spirit made from a grain mash and aged for a period of time in oak casks. The earliest record of distillation is attributed to the ancient Greeks in Alexandria in the 1st century AD, although at the time they were not yet distilling alcohol. Medieval Arabs adopted the distillation methods of the Greeks and passed that information onto medieval Latins. The art of distillation became more prolific in the ancient world as communities shared information, a sort of ancient globalization. The Celtic islands off the north coast of Europe adopted the practice of alcohol distillation in the 15th century where it became codified through licenses awarded to subjects of the crown. Alcohol distillation then spread like wildfire around the globe and became increasing popular, especially in the new American colonies.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and numerous examples of whiskey exist from all corners of the globe. With this explosion of whiskey comes several styles and examples which can sometimes cause confusion. In this piece we’d like to drill down into the Bourbon segment of the whiskey market and decipher some of the labels you’ll see on store shelves and define what those labels actually mean.
Bourbon is a type of barrel-aged American whiskey distilled from a grain mash made with a majority of corn. There is some dispute as to the inspiration for the term “Bourbon.” The name itself hails from the French Bourbon dynasty of the 1700s, however there is debate regarding how the term came to be associated with whiskey. Some suggest the term was attached from Bourbon County, Kentucky, or from Bourbon Street in New Orleans. A consistent theme has emerged with usage of the term “Bourbon” beginning in the American state of Kentucky starting in the 1870s. Since that time Bourbon has been universally accepted as a truly distinctive American product.
The term “Bourbon” has evolved over the past century, with a specific definition created by Congress in 1964. Originally, the term itself was used only within the distilling community and could mean various different things to different distillers. As the product gained in popularity and continued to monopolize more and more market share, consumers wanted something they could count on; they wanted to know exactly what they were drinking. Bourbon, in a nutshell, is a distilled spirit made from a grain mash of at least 51% corn. It can feature no other additive or flavor enhancer besides water. It must be distilled at 160 proof or less and barreled at 125 proof or less in new charred oak barrels. It must also be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof. If it doesn’t meet all those requirements, then it’s not a Bourbon. Contrary to popular belief, Bourbon does NOT have to be produced in Kentucky.
Great, we’ve defined Bourbon. But why are there so many other labels out there? What’s “Bottled-in-Bond?” What’s “Small Batch Bourbon?” Why do some bottles say “Single Barrel?” These are just a few topics we’d like to address here.
In the 1800s distillers were putting just about any type of spirit into bottles and flavoring it with all kinds of different elements such as tobacco, iodine, and licorice. Needless to say, this lack of oversight ended up killing people. In 1897 The United States government stepped in and created the bottled-in-bond act to protect consumers from unscrupulous distillers. Currently, bottled-in-bond is a government standard which lays down a few specific criteria. To be labelled as “Bottled-in-Bond,” whiskey must be aged at least four years and produced by only one distiller – that sounds crazy, but some whiskey producers will actually blend whiskies from several distilleries. It will always be bottled at 100 proof and it must contain whiskey from only one season of distilling – from January to December of the same year. Needless to say, the bottled-in-bond monicker guarantees a product of the highest quality and specific standards.
Small Batch is a vague term used in the whiskey world to identify relatively high quality based on a limited selection of distinct barrels. Let’s review the whiskey aging and bottling process for a moment. A Bourbon distiller will create a clear spirit from a grain mash of at least 51% corn. This spirit will then be placed into a series of charred new oak casks for several years until it reaches the appropriate level of maturation. Charring, or toasting, the inside of the new oak cask allows the wood to interact fully with the spirit and impart certain characteristics such as color and flavor. You’ll often find woodsy characteristics in whiskey such as vanilla, caramel, burnt sugar, cinnamon, and other spices.
Charred new oak casks are very expensive and an integral part of crafting high quality Bourbon. Although distillers may strive for consistency among their casks, each cask will be slightly different from other casks due to the inconsistent nature of the wood itself. The level of char may also be slightly different from barrel to barrel. To level out this inconsistency and create a homogenous product, distillers will blend several barrels of whiskey together before bottling.
Small Batch refers to a limited, or small selection of barrels the distiller deems to be superior to other barrels. The whiskey from this small selection of barrels will then be bottled and sold as “Small Batch.” There is no legal requirement on the number of barrels used to create a small batch – it is completely up to the distiller to make that determination. You’ll typically pay a slightly higher price for a small-batch Bourbon whiskey. The offset in price reflects the time and skill required to select whiskey from only the best casks.
As mentioned above, each barrel used for the maturation process can be slightly different from other barrels in the process. To capture this unique characteristic, distillers created the “Single-Barrel” or “Single-Cask” category. A single barrel whiskey is a distilled spirit made from a grain mash that has been aged to maturation in one specific barrel. It has NOT been blended with whiskies from other barrels, as is the typical process. This procedure gives the distiller the ability to identify specific, unique, and high-quality barrels and craft a whiskey which reflects that uniqueness. Certain barrels may have a darker char, or may offer more vanilla aromas, or may impart more, or less, oak characteristics to the whiskey. Whiskies from a single barrel are typically marked with the number of the barrel as to identify the whiskey from other single barrels. Single Barrel whiskies are very limited in quantity and can never be duplicated, hence the higher price you’ll pay at the checkout counter.
Cask strength whiskey can also be known as barrel-strength or barrel-proof. Quite simply, cask strength refers to the level of alcohol the whiskey maintains when it is extracted from the barrel and ready for bottling. As whiskey matures in barrel over time, it will evaporate slightly through the wood (known as the “angel’s share”) resulting in an increased level of alcohol by volume (ABV). Normally, when distillers extract whiskey from the barrel for bottling, they will add water back to the blend and decrease the ABV bringing it to a level that is seen on most store shelves (80-90 proof, or 40-45% ABV). Cask strength whiskey skips that process of dilution and bottles the whiskey at the full alcohol level the whiskey achieved while in barrel. Cask strength whiskies tend to reflect a much higher ABV in the range of 58 – 66% ABV, or 116 – 132 proof.
Cask strength whiskies tend to fetch a higher retail price than non-cask strength whiskey. A 750 milliliter bottle of cask strength Bourbon will contain more alcohol by volume than a typical bottle of Bourbon, hence the higher price. Consumers will often serve cask-strength Bourbon by adding a little water in the glass, thus reducing the “heat,” or the ABV. When active Colorado shoppers come in looking for whiskey to take backpacking, we always suggest buying cask strength. You get more alcohol per volume, making your backpack lighter. When you get to your campsite, you can just add a little Rocky Mountain water and VIOLA!
Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Straight Bourbon Whiskey is a term defined by the U.S. government for whiskies sold and consumed within the United States. To be considered “Straight,” a Bourbon whiskey must be created by fermenting and distilling a cereal grain mash (with a majority corn) to create a spirit not exceeding 80% ABV. That spirit must then be aged for a minimum of 2 years in charred new oak barrels at a concentration of no more than 62.5% ABV at the start of the aging process. Straight Bourbon whiskey from single barrels can be blended with whiskey from other barrels, filtered, and diluted with only water while maintaining a minimum of 40% ABV. The term “Straight” whiskey gives consumers a strong and consistent definition of what they are drinking.
The state of Kentucky is the undisputed birthplace of Bourbon whiskey and is therefore the only state in the Union that can legally appear on Bourbon labels. 95% of the world’s Bourbon originates from the state of Kentucky and to be considered “Kentucky Bourbon,” 100% of the whiskey must originate from distilleries located inside Kentucky.
Bottled by, Hand-bottled by, Produced by, Distilled and Bottled by….
Now we enter an area of true consumer confusion. As consumers peruse store shelves and scrupulously read the back labels from their favorite bottles of whiskey, they’ll come across several terms which give them an impression of the provenance of their Bourbon whiskey. With the advent of “craft” products, consumers today want to know where their whiskey is actually produced. We retailers hear the same question over and over: is it local? In the whiskey world, it can be tricky to determine who actually makes a particular whiskey and where it was produced.
Essentially, if the bottle of Bourbon whiskey in your hand says “Distilled and Bottled by….” you can rest assured the whiskey has been distilled and produced by the distillery which appears on the label, and ONLY that distillery. It means you can get into your car, drive to the distillery, and find a physical location which produces that whiskey. Hell, someone might even be willing to give you a tour of the facility! If your bottle says anything else besides “Distilled and Bottled by…,” then you are likely purchasing a “sourced” Bourbon.
What’s a sourced Bourbon? Firstly, just because a product is sourced does not necessarily mean it’s of an inferior quality. It simply means the spirit inside the bottle has been selected by the owners of the brand, purchased from a distillery, or from several distilleries, possibly blended by the brand owners, possibly aged by the brand owners, labeled and sold.
Why would anyone do something like that? With the popularity of Bourbon over the past years and the increasing demand along with the age requirements needed to produce quality Bourbon, it’s very difficult for new whiskey start-ups to produce their own whiskey and release to market in a timely manner. Just imagine, if you wanted to start a Bourbon whiskey distillery tomorrow, it would be at least two years before you can sell your Bourbon to consumers. Most entrepreneurs want to see a return on their investment well before two years.
In this situation, a start-up distillery will create a brand, create a label, purchase whiskey from a large distiller (typically found in the midwest United States) and bottle that spirit under their proprietary brand. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this process and it’s completely legal. Brands that source their whiskey are not legally obliged to inform consumers of where the Bourbon originated from, however they DO have to use specific terminology on the label which can give consumers the proper clues to understand where the Bourbon comes from. Discerning Bourbon drinkers will scrupulously scour labels looking for those clues.
If you see a bottle of whiskey with the terms “Bottled by..,” “Hand-bottled by….,” “Selected by….,” “Blended by…,” “Produced by….,” you can assume that whiskey has been sourced from another distillery. The only term which can guarantee the provenance of your bottle of whiskey at this point in American labelling law is “Distilled and Bottled by….” If the provenance of your Bourbon whiskey is of utmost importance to you, then keep your eyes out for “Distilled and Bottled by…”
We hope this information has been useful. Good luck Bourbon hunting!