Bottled In Bond
MASH BILL – 75% corn, 13% rye, 12% barley
PROOF – 100
AGE – 4 years
DISTILLERY – Jim Beam Distillery
PRICE – $17 (375ml)
BUY AGAIN? – If I were ever to pass through Kentucky, yes!
On March 3, 1897, Congress passed the Bottled in Bond Act. At a time when whiskey was being “enhanced” with anything from tobacco spit to turpentine, the Bottled in Bond Act was among the first consumer protection laws, providing buyers with assurance and distillers with a means toward indicating the authenticity of their whiskey. Distillers also benefited from a clause allowing them to delay paying the excise tax on their stored whiskeys until the given barrels were bottled.
To qualify as Bottled in Bond, a whiskey must be:
☞ The product of one distillation season—either January to June, or July to December—at one U.S. distillery.
☞ Aged in a U.S. government supervised warehouse for at least 4 years.
☞ Bottled at 50% ABV, or 100 proof.
☞ Labelled with the name of the distillery at which it was distilled, and, if different, where it was bottled.
Today this law is of little practical importance given the progress of consumer protection standards since 1897. Nevertheless, Bottled in Bond status retains a reputation among whiskey drinkers as an indicator of both authenticity and quality. It connotes a more localized, hands-on approach to whiskey making, and provides a real sense of knowing exactly what one is buying.
With so many distilleries opening across the country, and many of them mixing sourcing practices with distilling practices, it can be difficult at times for consumers to make sense of a given bottle’s contents, as well as the price in relation to those contents. What is marketing and what is truth? Who is doing what to “produce” the whiskey? What is the mash bill and other ingredients and where do they come from? These and other such questions impact a sense of value. Naturally a consumer might ask, for example, Why buy a $150 sourced bourbon, distilled by an unnamed Kentucky distillery then aged 15 years somewhere unstated and eventually bottled as a one-off “special edition” by Rando Bottler X, when Knob Creek is currently selling 15-year single barrels of their own bourbon as store-pick offerings across the country for an average of $50…?
The Bottled in Bond Act doesn’t answer that question. But its continued appeal taps into common deeply rooted values that drive the question, namely concerns around integrity, authenticity, and truth—concerns heightened beyond the relative mundanity of bourbon to nearly every aspect of life in our current “post-truth” era, brought about by the 21st Century confluence of technology, capitalism, and power ambitions.
And some people still say whiskey is a-political!
Much to be discussed there. But of course any such discussion is so much better over a good pour! So to celebrate this fine day in American whiskey history, when quality won out by law over a quick dollar, I’ve cracked a bottle of ye Old Tub!
Jacob Beam sold his first barrel of bourbon in 1795. It was called Old Jake Beam Sour Mash and customers brought their own jugs to fill straight from the barrel. Business boomed. In 1820, Jacob’s son David took over the family business and, among other substantial changes, renamed the bourbon Old Tub. After another 100 years of steady business, in 1920 Prohibition shut D. M. Beam & Company down and the rights to the Old Tub name were relinquished. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the then 70-year-old Jim Beam—son to David and grandson to Jacob—went immediately into action to revive the family business. The first new batch of bourbon was ready by 1935, and was named Colonel James B. Beam Bourbon. It would eventually be simplified to Jim Beam Bourbon. Fans now just ask for Beam.
And so here we are. The current Old Tub label is a commemorative bottling made in tribute to this history. Sharing the same DNA as the standard Jim Beam Bonded Bourbon, it is sold only in Kentucky in 375ml wax-dipped bottles. Alongside W.B. Saffell, it counts among the cutest little bottles of bourbon around.
Wax now unsealed and cork freshly popped, here are some notes in brief:
COLOR – a soft and pale copper orange
NOSE – Beam! The cinnamons, that spicy herbal funk, nice caramels, the freshness that comes with younger Beams, all easy and integrated, like a good baked apricot pie
TASTE – follows on from the nose with the herbal baking spice blend, a bit of peppery kick from the proof, an underlying soft and easy caramel
FINISH – fades fairly quickly, leaving the herbal spiciness to linger longest
OVERALL – a solid, standard Beam bottom-shelf experience, as fun as it is uneventful
I didn’t have high expectations for this bourbon, and that does help it. At $17 for a 375ml bottle, it’s a $34 bottle at the standard 750ml size. Considering that, I’d say it’s overpriced for the tasting experience. It isn’t much different than the standard Jim Beam Bonded release, which goes for around $20 tops. Had I paid $34 for a 750ml I’d likely be disappointed. But at $17 for 375ml I’m paying a little bit extra for a nod to the history of one of America’s great distilleries, and it’s totally worth it.
Jim Beam Distillery has a lot of integrity in my book. I’m sure they pull marketing tricks like any big business. Their emphasis on family, and master distiller Fred Noe’s frequent dropping of his legendary father Booker Noe’s name, seems at once sincere and strategic.
Nevertheless, what they bottle always tastes genuine. I poured some 14-year Knob Creek to compare, and the same Beam core flavors are notable, only amped up, darkened, and thickened.
Whether the label says Booker’s, Old Tub, Little Book, Knob Creek, or any other of the Jim Beam products, whether it’s a standard blend, single barrel, bottled in bond, or non-chill filtered, whether left at barrel proof or watered down into the 80s, those Beam constants—caramel, vanilla, oak, herbal funk, cinnamon baking spices—are going to show up and play ball. There is something both comforting and fun about Jim Beam whiskeys. They can warm you up or rev you up. They can help you feel cozy and settled in or get you on your feet with enthusiasm as you spin a yarn. Jim Beam whiskeys are very much storytelling whiskeys, their particular density of savory and sweet flavors compelling enthusiasm and thought.
I suppose my emphasis here on history and association rather than flavors and aromas speaks to the impact of Old Tub. It’s not a bourbon to reach for when you’re interested in focusing on a tasting experience. But the bottle makes a good prop to share the origins of the Jim Beam Distillery legend with friends. The bourbon itself is suitable for accompanying any number of social occasions where you don’t need your drink to distract you. It would be fine in cocktails, likely getting a bit lost among the other ingredients, but providing a nice little kick via its 100 proof.
Comparatively, I prefer Jim Beam’s 2018 limited edition bottom-shelfer, Repeal Batch. That bottling is also aged 4 years, but bottled without any chill filtration to tame its flavors. Even at its lower 86 proof it pops with livelier flavors than Old Tub. Plus it runs $15 on average for a 750ml bottle, if you can still find it—and, weirdly, in 2020 you still can! Repeal Batch should have sold out by the caseload. It makes an infinately better bottom-shelf party bourbon than most I’ve tasted, this Old Tub included.
But Old Tub is fun to have on hand, and I’m grateful to the fellow whiskey aficionado who muled this bottle back from Kentucky for me. He knew I was curious about it, saw it on a shelf, and stashed it in his checked luggage on my behalf. This adds to the taste. A bourbon is not only what’s in the bottle, but the circumstances around how one came to taste it. With Old Tub, stirred into the liquid itself I’m tasting our American history alongside the kindness of an acquaintance with like interests. That’s good bourbon!
What are your favorite bottled in bond bourbons? Let me know in the comments below.