There is some really expensive Bourbon on the top shelf at the liquor store these days. Most of it has a story, something about some old guy back in the 1800’s who made whiskey, “and we still do it that way today.” Bullshit.
Five big distillers using a handful of slightly different mash recipes to fill 40,000 gallon industrial fermenters that feed into giant steam distillation towers make virtually all the Bourbon whiskey in the world. There are some newbies starting up whiskey distilleries, but most of them buy made whiskey from one of the big boys. That’s not all bad. Copper pot distillation in small batches is a sure fire strategy for extreme variability of product. Ethyl alcohol boils at around 78 degrees Celsius. If you vary from that you get a bunch of other organic chemicals you don’t want. That’s why moonshine has a reputation for terrible hangovers.
Notice that your Bourbon was distilled in one place and aged and bottled in another. Hmm. The distiller buys white oak barrels with mild, medium, or heavy charring inside from a handful of cooperages in Missouri and Kentucky, fills them with raw whiskey and ships them to the warehouses. They must age for 3 years; most age longer. Some over 10 years. I think Bourbon that old tastes like creosote, and it is really expensive. Bottlers blend whiskey from different years and mash recipes to achieve a desired taste. They can even add plain alcohol and who knows what else. But, not if it’s bonded.
Bonded Bourbon is an anachronism; put in place by the federal government before prohibition to have a standard of quality. It must be distilled in the same distillery, by the same distiller, in the same year. It must age under government supervision in a bonded warehouse for four years, and it must be bottled at 100 proof. That’s a challenge for the distiller and bottler to maintain quality year to year without blending.
Before the “story” Bourbons were created by ad agencies, bonded was the discriminator of top shelf whiskey. Now a tidal wave of fresh whiskey comes into the warehouses and the market decides what will become of it. Some sits for four years and is bottled in bond under one of the old brands. They are now bottom shelf; cheaper; lower margin. Bottlers age, move barrels around in the warehouse, bottle at barrel proof, bottle single barrel, blend, and do who knows what else to add perceived value to whiskey. Higher margin, more profit. OK.
I drink Manhattans. You don’t want to put $70 Bourbon in a Manhattan, but you do want 100 proof. Buy bonded. I drink Bourbon on the rocks. I don’t want a story, I want whiskey. I want to sip my Old Grand-Dad and then refill with some J.T.S. Brown and compare, knowing that any differences would be from mash bill or what they did with the barrels in the warehouse. I think J.W. Dant is a bit harsh, Old Forester is wonderful, but the bottle I found in a liquor store in Kentucky for $22 may be the last of the breed. It’s now called Old Forester 1897 Bottled in Bond, and it’s $50. Jim Beam, the ultimate bottom shelf Bourbon just came out with a bottled in bond. It’s been in the same warehouse with the Old Grand-Dad, but it costs $7 more. J.T.S. Brown rested with J.W. Dant, Evan Williams, Old Fitzgerald, and Henry McKenna in the Heaven Hill warehouse. I haven’t gotten through taste testing them all, but I will. You have to look to find bottom shelf bonded Bourbon. In my opinion, it’s still the good stuff.