June 14th is not only the birthday of the US Army and Flag Day, it is also National Bourbon Day. I don’t know who came up with it but I certainly approve of a day to celebrate America’s native spirit.
Lest you think that bourbon can only come from Kentucky, it can come from any state. I have had very good bourbons from Texas, Virginia, and Indiana among other states. Despite being a lifelong Tar Heel, what I’ve had from North Carolina was sadly not quite in the same league.
In my own celebration this afternoon (after 5pm), I had a Boulevardier. I made mine from Four Roses Small Batch, Dolin Rouge vermouth, and Campari. I didn’t have any fancy ice nor did I put a twist of orange peel in it but it was still good.
This is a story about Texas. It doesn’t have anything to do with the recent NRA Annual Meeting, Uvalde, or gun control. Rather it is about a product coming from Texas for which they are building a good reputation. That product is whiskey.
In my past trips to the Houston area, I have come home with whiskey produced by Balcones (Waco) and Rio Brazos (College Station). The former is actually distilled in Texas while the latter is a blend of Texas and non-Texas bourbons. Both were purchased at Spec’s which is a Houston-area chain of liquor stores. If I remember correctly, Spec’s was recommended to me as the go-to place by Mark Gillespie of the WhiskyCast Podcast.
Thus, on this trip to Houston for the NRA Annual Meeting I was determined to come home with some more great Texas bourbon. I bought two bottles of bourbon from two different Spec’s locations
The first bottle was purchased at Spec’s near the Alameda Mall in South Houston. I was approached by a young clerk who offered to help as I was studying the selection. I explained that I was looking for Texas whiskey. He highly recommended the Lone Star 1835 Limited Release Single Barrel bourbon. I deferred to his advice and bought it. In retrospect, I should have examined the bottle just a little closer.
Looking at the front of the bottle it has the Lone Star, a cannon, and 1835 which is when the citizens of Gonzales told the Mexican Army who wanted their cannon to come and take it. Doesn’t that just scream Texas to you!
The back of the bottle continues the Texas imagery. It says, “each sip offers a boldness reminiscent of the independence Texas is known for. Come and take it.” Then the three little words which follow dash that image all to pieces: Distilled in Kentucky. WTF?! It seems Spec’s has a history of hawking this bourbon heavily.
I was pissed when I saw that. I was pissed at the cluelessness of the young clerk and I was pissed at myself for not reading the label. I know what sourced bourbon is and oft time it is good. That said, this is not Texas bourbon distilled from Texas corn and aged in the heat of Texas. I’m sipping a sample of it now and it is OK. The finish is not that great. I find it a bit metallic.
But that’s not what Texans care about, I reckon. They don’t much care what some government regulators in Washington think either. They care about Texas grains, Texas yeast, and Texas water. They care about Texas-distilled whiskey maturing in the Texas heat. They care about Texas jobs. And they don’t buy whiskey that says “Made in Texas’ when it’s not.
Just like they don’t buy salsa made in New York City.
Since I had decided attending the NRA Board meeting would have been a waste, I had some time before I had to return my rental car. I decided to give Spec’s another chance. This time I drove into downtown Houston to their flagship store on Smith Street.
This time I was very specific with the clerk that the whiskey had to be distilled in Texas. We discussed Balcones, Still Austin, and Shire Oak among others.
Shire Distilling is out of Brookshire, Texas which is west of Houston. As you can see on the back of the bottle, it is “certified Texas whiskey“. This certification comes from the Texas Whiskey Association and means that everything from “grain to glass” was done in Texas. In other words, the grain was grown in Texas, the fermentation of the mash was in Texas, the distilling was done in Texas, the aging was done in Texas, and the bottling was done in Texas.
The difference between the two bourbons is like night and day. The Shire Oak is barrel strength and has a lot of flavor. It might not be as old as the Lone Star 1835 but the aging in the heat of Texas really pulls something out of the charred oak. The real kicker is that they were priced within a few bucks of one another.
My point in this post is that you have to study the label and look for the clues. If the whiskey is distilled in a state other than that of the producer or bottler, it must be disclosed. The Treasury’s Tax and Trade Bureau approves all labels for alcoholic beverages and has specific requirements. I’m OK with sourced whiskey as many are excellent. My point is that is not cool to confuse the origin of a whiskey with a lot of verbiage and that is especially true of Texas whiskey.
June 14th is, in addition to Flag Day, National Bourbon Day. It is a celebration of a distinctly American spirit which actually can be distilled in any US state – not just Kentucky.
That said, Kentucky still produces the overwhelming majority of bourbon distilled. This infographic from the Kentucky Distillers Association shows just how much bourbon has boomed from 2009 to 2019. I’m sure it would be even more if not for the pandemic.
Each spring day resembled a weekend, and the rush at times left him without some brands, he said. But customers unable to find their favorite spirits didn’t leave empty handed. “They ended up buying something else,” he said.
To get an idea of the growth in offerings since January 1, 2020, I checked thelabel approvals by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. There were 1,457 labels approved for straight bourbon meaning it was aged for at least two years in a new, charred oak barrel and was not blended with neutral spirits. In addition, another 19 labels were approved for bottled in bond bourbon. The latter is one of my favorites as it is at least four years old, 100 proof, from a single distillery, and distilled in one distilling season.
Bernie Lubbers, the Whiskey Professor, explains why he is such an advocate of bottled in bond bourbon.
March 3rd marks the 124th anniversary of Congress passing the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897. It was one of the first consumer protection laws passed and preceded the Pure Drug and Food Act by almost a decade.
When the 54th Congress passed this act, they set standards for distilled spirits that had to be met in order to qualify as “bottled in bond”. While we tend to think of bottled in bond as it refers to bourbon, there are rye, corn whiskey, and apple brandy bottled in bond spirits as well.
It was distilled in one distilling season (fall or spring) only
The name of the distiller must be on the label
Must identify the bottling location if different from the location of the distiller or distillery
Only pure water could be added
If a distilled spirit met those qualifications, a green stamp was put on the bottle as a measure of its quality. The law had very strict penalties for counterfeiting these stamps. This law in now codified in the Code of Federal Regulations under Title 27 CFR 5.42.
So, for that matter, am I! At last count, and I could be wrong on this, I think I have 10 or 11 different bottles of bottled in bond bourbon and corn whiskey. To the great consternation of the Complementary Spouse, I’m always on the lookout for a new one – even though it would take me years to finish the bourbon I have on hand.
Probably the most famous, at least in the movies, is J.T.S. Brown BIB. It was the bourbon that Fast Eddie Felson wanted in the The Hustler.
So on this, the 124th anniversary of the Bottled in Bond Act, let us lift a glass filled preferably with something bottled in bond to Congress actually getting something right for once.
It is fitting that both Bourbon Day and Flag Day are being celebrated on June 14th this year. What distilled spirit is more identified with America than bourbon? If you said rye, I would point out that most Canadian whiskey is called rye.
One of the most significant legal developments in the history of bourbon was the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897. It said that only domestic distilled spirits that met certain qualifications could use the terms “bond”, “bonded”, “bottled in bond”, “aged in bond” or similar phrases. This told the consumer that the whiskey, bourbon, or other spirit that they were buying was what it said on the label. They weren’t getting some neutral spirit with added coloring and tobacco juice added for “flavor”.
(3) The words “bond”, “bonded”, “bottled in bond”, “aged in bond”, or phrases containing these or synonymous terms, shall not be used on any label or as part of the brand name of domestic distilled spirits unless the distilled spirits are:
(i) Composed of the same kind of spirits produced from the same class of materials;
(ii) Produced in the same distilling season by the same distiller at the same distillery;
(iii) Stored for at least four years in wooden containers wherein the spirits have been in contact with the wood surface except for gin and vodka which must be stored for at least four years in wooden containers coated or lined with paraffin or other substance which will preclude contact of the spirits with the wood surface;
(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);
(v) Reduced in proof by the addition of pure water only to 100 degrees of proof; and
(vi)Bottles at 100 degrees of proof.
In addition to the requirements of § 5.36(a) (1) or (2), the label shall bear the real name of the distillery or the trade name under which the distillery produced and warehoused the spirits, and the plant (or registered distillery) number in which produced; and the plant number in which bottled. The label may also bear the name or trade name of the bottler.
Kentucky Educational Television created a documentary featuring interviews with many of the first families of bourbon. These include the Beams, the Noes, the Samuels, the Russells, and the list goes on. To make this documentary KET took over 30 hours of interviews and distilled (no pun intended) it down to about 56 minutes.
If you ever wanted a short history of bourbon and its makers, this is it. I imagine that the Kentucky Distillers Association played a large role in assembling the interviewees as there is one major distillery missing. That would be Buffalo Trace which is owned by Sazerac and which is not a member of the KDA. Nonetheless, this is a good documentary to sit back and watch while sipping on your favorite bourbon. It makes more sense to do this than to brave all the traffic and crowds on Black Friday!
If you would like to hear more interviews in greater depth, the Louis B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky has a page devoted to strictly to bourbon and its history.
The company is called Endless West and was founded by Mardonn Chua. Originally their intent was to recreate expensive wines. The problem was that they couldn’t market them as wine under Federal law. However, due to a loophole in the regulations, they could create “spirit whiskey” so long as it contained 5% on a proof gallon whiskey.
In the spring the company raised an additional $10 million and hired a small staff of food scientists and analytical chemists, then outfitted its lab with equipment that allows them to intricately sequence the molecular makeup of spirits (the machines are also used in food science and life science research). Though they keep the exact makes and models of these machines under wraps—going so far as to cover up their names with stickers reading “Bonnie” and “Clyde”—Lee let me tour freely throughout the lab. He showed me one machine that he described as “an electronic nose,” which inserts needles into half-filled vials of commercial wines and whiskeys, absorbs the gas trapped above the liquid, then “de-absorbs” the compounds to identify and quantify them.
Endless West can then source these compounds, mixing and matching them to taste (and smell). To satisfy the Tax and Trade Bureau, Glyph contains some traditionally made whiskey. The bureau defines spirit whiskey as “produced by blending neutral spirits and not less than 5% on a proof gallon basis whiskey.” About 5% of Glyph consists of “distilled clean whiskey” that, according to Lee, isn’t noticeably distinguishable in flavor from pure ethanol.
“Distilled clean whiskey” is, in other words, vodka to which they are adding flavoring to make “spirit whiskey”.
Eric Simanek of Texas Christian University has this to say about synthesized whiskey:
But technology—and that ineffable, essential whiskey quality—may still be a limiting factor. “Science knows most of the components of whiskey, and most of the relative concentrations, but not all of them,” says Eric Simanek, the co-author of “Shots of Knowledge: The Science of Whiskey” and the chairman of the chemistry and biochemistry department at Texas Christian University. “It’s very much like a cocktail party. You have a guest list. The folks show up. But the outcome of a party isn’t necessarily predictable. And it may be one guest, whom you’ve discounted, who changes the entire tenor of the assembly. This is the challenge that Endless West has.”
You may remember seeing pictures and video of the collapsed rickhouse at Barton’s 1792 Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. Initially it was only half of the rickhouse and then, before it could be safely shored up, the other half collapsed. However, all that good bourbon is not lost.
The distillery has begun the process of recovering as many intact barrels as possible, repairing the leaking ones, and discarding the ones that can’t be saved. According to gobourbon.com, the Sazerac subsidiary is sorting the barrels into three categories:
Barrels that don’t need repair are recorded and removed from the pile to continue aging.
Barrels that are leaky or damaged are moved to a coopering area to be repaired.
Barrels that are beyond repair are dumped into a holding tank and discarded.
The distillery has not released any information on how much has been saved.
The following two videos show the recovery process. The first video was provided by Barton’s 1792 Distillery.
There is no word whether or not the distillery is going to release the bourbon from the collapsed rickhouse, Warehouse 30, as a special release similar to what their sister company Buffalo Trace did after a tornado took the roof off of Warehouse C. That release, E. H. Taylor Warehouse C Tornado Surviving bourbon, now goes for over $1,000 per bottle on the secondary market.
It pays to have friends. I am very fortunate to be friends with David Yamane ( of the great blog Gun Culture 2.0). He was recently in Kentucky touring the Bourbon Trail. Seeing his posts about the trip on Facebook, I messaged him to see if he might find me a bottle of Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond.
As you can see, David came through for me. I had tried to find it when I was in Kentucky earlier this year at the NRA Annual Meeting to no avail. From what I understand, most of the production of bourbon that had been going to the Old Fitzgerald brand is now being saved for Larceny bourbon.
Having read Bernie Lubbers’ book Bourbon Whiskey: Our Native Spirit, I have been paying attention to bourbons that are bottled in bond. This tells me that the bourbon is at least four years old, it was distilled in a single season at a single distillery, and that it is 100 proof. As Bernie writes, “In short, the good stuff.”
Old Fitzgerald BIB is a wheated bourbon from Heaven Hill. It was originally a Stitzel-Weller brand and the tall chimney at that distillery still says “Old Fitzgerald”. While not a top shelf bourbon, it is still considered one of the best values in the wheated bourbon category. I can’t wait to give it a try.
Again, my thanks to David for finding this for me.
If you are an investor in the stock market, the last few days including today have been a little unnerving. At one point this morning, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down by 1,100 points. As I write this, the DJIA is down by over 450 points after recovering earlier to about 150 points down.
I suggest a deep breath and a glass of bourbon or a libation of your choice is in order. To go along with that glass of bourbon is this trailer for a new documentary on bourbon entitled NEAT.