Truth In Labeling

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.

As well-known bourbon writer Chuck Cowdery wrote about their bourbon:

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.

From Market Watch – Julie Soefer.

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.

124th Anniversary of Bottled In Bond Act

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.

To be qualify as bottled in bond, the distilled spirit must:

  • Be bottled at 100 proof
  • Aged for a minimum of four years
  • Distillation must be from one distillery only
  • 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.

The Whiskey Professor, Bernie Lubbers, is quite the fan of BIB bourbons and whiskies. He calls it, “the most restricted of the most restricted whiskies!”

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.