Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Bail Bond

It'd be pretty easy to assume that I am though. I don't Tweet much anymore. I haven't posted on here in a hot minute. But, despite life's best efforts, I'm still here. I flit and float around through the industry like the Ghost of Distilling Past. I inquire here and there. I email this and that. I am quietly recuperating, rebuilding, and reaffirming my life in the wings of the regal stage that is the alcohol industry. But, like a sleeping bear, it is wise to not poke me. And poke me someone has. Bear in mind (heh, pun), I have no-ill will for my fellow chroniclers of the Carousing Cup. I love them all and, frankly, they're all far smarter and far more educated than I. But I know what I think and what I believe in. And for this transgression, I will not stand.

Sku, of Sku's Recent Eats, shuttered his website on May 15th, 2017. I was sad to see him go as I truly enjoyed his work and admired his dedication to sifting through the absolutely chaotic morass that is the TTB filings. He managed to pry out a lot of interesting and, most of all, shocking labels for products coming down the pipeline. He still does it on his Twitter account, I believe. But little did I know did that whiskey weasel start writing for a major online (and physical) wine and spirits vendor, K&L Wines. And this little blasphemer, this unholy utterer of unfathomable unpleasantries...has recently posted on the K&L Spirits Journal a post so abhorrent to me that it shakes me to the core.

The heresy can be found here, though I am loathe to give exposure to a document that so clearly goes against the goodwill of the gods above us. But...I will brings up an interesting point. The Bottled-In-Bond Act of 1897 was necessary for a time when you could huck just about anything into a bottle and call it whiskey. As long as it got you inebriated (I'd say drunk but that'd be glossing over the Jamaican Ginger / Jake "patent medicine"), most people didn't care...until they got sick. It's all fun and drinks until you get organophosphate poisoning and can't walk or your thyroid stops working due to iodine poisoning. So the Bottled-in-Bond Act made sense at the time to preserve the safety of the American population when they tipped back a shot or two. But now that we have the FDA and the TTB...Bottled In Bond doesn't make much sense to carry on.

Sku does make some good points on the antiquated requirements of Bottled-in-Bond. In case you didn't know, the legal definition of a bottled-in-bond whiskey is (taken from the TTB whisky webinar):
  • Composed only of the same class and type of spirits
  • Produced in the same distilling season by the same distiller at the same distillery
  • Must be stored in oak containers in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least 4 years
  • Unaltered from the original condition or character as required under 27 CFR 5.42(b)(3)(iv)
  • Reduced in proof only by the addition of water to not less than 100 proof
  • Label must identify the distillery DSP number where distilled and if different must state where bottled
  • Must be bottled at 100 proof
It's true that all distilleries have to be bonded now so that's an antiquated portion. The "same class/type of spirit" is well regulated these days as well. And the proof, these days, seems relatively arbitrary (at least from my research). But the rest of it...the rest of it is still pretty useful. Let's break it down.

"Produced in the same distilling season by the same distiller at the same distillery"

This one is pretty important and ties in with the 4 year requirement as well. In distilling, especially small distillers, you have a decent stock of whiskey in different states of readiness. Sometimes this varies because of the barrels its stored in (a 5 gallon will have more "whiskey" flavor than a 52 gallon at 6 months), heat and humidity fluctuations, warehousing style, and barrel rotation. Every bottle you pick up at a store that doesn't specifically state "single barrel" on it is a blend of whiskies that fit the overarching flavor profile of that specific brand of whiskey. Bar. None. The age statement on a bottle is the YOUNGEST whiskey in it so your 12 year old may have 21 year old whiskey in it that helps round out the flavor. But with the industry trend of removing the age statement from bottlings...then there is no stopgap ensuring what you're getting is an aged product. It might be a 52 gallon barrel that's sat for two years with a dozen or so 5, 10, or 15 gallon barrels added in that have been in the warehouse for only six months. So you'd be buying a whiskey that, were it labeled with an age statement, would be something like "Bacchus' Reserve 6 month". But since age statements on bottles are disappearing faster than bottles of Pappy at a chef's conference, you'd never know that. By having this specification, it means that the whiskey in your bottle came from the same year, from the same TIME of year, from the same distillery. It's not a blend of whiskies with varying ages. What you see is what you get.

"Must be stored in oak containers in a federally bonded warehouse under U.S. government supervision for at least 4 years"First off, 4 years is fine for bourbon. I know that people always want older whiskies but 4 years is a serviceable bourbon. And the fact that you KNOW that its 4 years old is great. What it ALSO forces is "oak containers". This means barrels. Unless they've finally come out with the Whiskey Crate in which case barrel rolling competitions in Kentucky are gonna be...real interesting now. What this DOESN'T mean is: stainless steel tanks with oak chips, stainless steel tanks with oak spirals, stainless steel tanks with oak honeycombs, stainless steel tanks with staves in them, any other weird, new-fangled aging processes that don't involve barrels. So that means that every bottle of BIB is aged for four years at a distillery in a barrel. And...frankly...with the demand for whiskey still kinda soaring...that might come at a premium soon.

"Unaltered from the original condition of character as required under 27 CFR 5.42(b)(3)(iv)"
"27 CFR 5.42(b)(3)(iv): Unaltered from their original condition or character by the addition or subtraction of any substance other than by filtration, chill proofing, or other physical treatments (which do not involve the addition of any substance which will remain incorporated in the finished product or result in a change in class or type)"
This one is an interesting one because of how it could be argued. Let's say that a craft distillery puts out a bottled-in-bond bourbon. It's aged for four years in an oak barrel with new make from the same distillery, season, and year. At the very end, they start ultrasounding the barrel. Or they use any of the other patent medicines for making your whiskey taste old. That, in theory...could be altering it from the original condition of character by adding substances which remain incorporated in the finished product. Some of the processes out there (as I've discussed before) could potentially chemically alter the whiskey in a way that isn't seen in traditionally aging practices and, thus, add something above and beyond standard characteristics. I don't think anyone's fought it yet (mainly because I haven't seen a craft distillery put out a BIB offering) but the fact remains that it COULD be fought. So who knows?

"Label must identify the distillery DSP number where distilled and if different must state where bottled" 

Ahhhhh, this one is my favorite. With a massive trend towards outsourcing distillation to someone else, this is a breath of fresh air. Don't get me wrong here, I don't mind it. Well, I don't mind it as long as I'm told. I can taste an MGP aged product from a mile away these days but 9 out of 10 bottles have some long-winded story about how their grandpappy discovered this recipe after finding a magical bushel of corn and wheat that had fermented in the jungles of Peru and he brought the recipe back to turn into white lightning that he bootlegged through all of Alaska. I know it's bullshit. Most whiskey nerds know it's bullshit. But for people that are just getting into whiskey...who knows what they know? Do they know that they're paying ludicrous prices for whiskey made at a huge distillery in Illinois? Do they know that grandpappy never found a recipe because "grandpappy" was actually a meeting in a meeting room at an industrial distillery where they picked one of the four stock recipes and maybe changed it up a little? I don't know. But it's not fair to the consumer to hide behind a facade of nostalgia, Americana, and lies. I'd prefer to see distiller DSPs on bottles rather than back-country wisdom and the verbal equivalent to the smell of hot rod fumes
As you may have been able to guess from my barely coherent litany, I'm all for keeping Bottled In Bond. Sure, I don't want to part with my Old Grand Dad or my J.W. Dant or any of the other table bourbons that have been mentioned. But it's also something that I think craft distilleries should take heed of and add to their roster. The craft distilling industry, even though it has been going strong for so long and has a lot of damn good stuff coming out of it, is still very much where whiskey was in the late 19th century. A lot of the whiskey is young, is tampered with, is of unknown providence. For every good, solid distiller out there making quality product there's a hundred hucksters trying to sell America a liquid fairy tale. There's no mandatory aging period for any whiskey that isn't straight or bottled-in-bond. There isn't any laws demanding that the source of whiskey be revealed to the consumers. There's nothing on the books preventing people from snake oil aging spirits and selling them as vintage bourbon. None of the marketing lynch-pins like "small batch" or "reserve" have any legal definitions or demands on the spirit in the bottle. But a craft distillery that puts out a bottled-in-bond product...that's a way to earn trust. It's a way to say to the consumer that this bottle isn't bullshit; what you see is what you get and you can read it right on the back without any flowery prose to spit-shine it. It's a way to protect the consumer, just like the Bottled-In-Bond Act was from the get-go. Only this time, instead of tobacco juice, or iodine, prune juice or "extracts", it's misinformation and obfuscation it will shield us from.

And I'd like that shield.