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How Bluegrass distillers saved bourbon: Bernie Lubbers' sung history


Occasionally, when you pull out a bottle of quality bourbon, you might notice the words “Bottled in Bond” printed on the label, sometimes with the number 100. So what does that mean? It’s the distinctly American designation for bourbon produced under the watchful, protective lock and key of the US Government in US-bonded warehouses with two locks—to which there is only one key each, in the hands of two different officers, of course.

The Heaven Hill distillery in Kentucky makes over 11 varieties of bonded bourbon, and Thunderbird in Fountain Square is bringing Heaven Hill’s leading expert on bourbon and whiskey, Bernie “The Whiskey Professor” Lubbers, to town to do a tasting—well, sort of a tasting. Lubbers’ style of “education” is far from a white-board-and-powerpoint kind of affair. But before we get to that, some background on bonded bourbon:

The Bottled in Bond act of 1897 was really championed by a few Kentucky distillers who were tired of seeing the spirits being sold as bourbon that were anything but. In the late 1800s, concurrent with the massive influx of immigrants flooding in through Ellis Island, demand for the brown stuff was being met mostly by hucksters. They’d take grain alcohol, basically Everclear, and make it brown through all sorts of dubious methods (One popular way was to soak tobacco in it. Yum!) and sell it as bourbon. The Bottled in Bond Act, for the distillers who made it law, was a means to set their product apart from all the garbage being peddled as “bourbon.”

Of course, for those familiar with the deadly consequences of drinking impure alcohol, the law also ensured that, at the very least, you weren’t going to go blind in the process of getting totally hammered. At the time, there was little regulatory oversight of any ingredients in either food, spirits, or medicine. So dire was the straightening out of this problem to the public health that the Bottled in Bond act preceded the Pure Food and Drug Act (aka the rain on everyone’s cocaine-as-medicine parade that made soda and deodorant a lot less fun and/or radioactive), which wasn’t passed for nine more years in 1906.

The Bottled in Bond Act was envisioned and brought to life by Secretary of the Treasury John G. Carlisle, a fellow Bluegrass State native. That contingent of passionate Kentucky distillers is what set the bourbon market on the path to success it enjoys today. In fact, according to Thunderbird co-owner Josh Gonzales, it’s the fastest growing niche in the spirits market, enjoying the same foreign and domestic attention from collectors previously enjoyed by red wine and Scotch. 

What “bottled in bond” actually means in practice is that the bourbon in question is to be produced from one distiller in one distilling season and aged for at least four years in a government-bonded warehouse, barrelled at 100 proof (50% alcohol) . The secondary part of being “bottled in bond” is that the excise tax, which, in the 1800s, was enforced with a somewhat scattershot method whenever a war needed to be funded, starting with the war of 1812, was collected on only the finished product at the end of the set period of time. Prior to this law change, distillers would often get taxed on whatever they happened to have in their warehouse at the time, and collectors could come and tax the whiskey at any point. That meant they were paying taxes on bourbon that they’d never get to drink—the portion that evaporates during the aging process.

Other parts of this history are intertwined with US history, pop culture and bluegrass. Bernie Lubbers’ job is to recall that history; how he chooses to do it is through a combination of song, storytelling and sipping.
Lubbers describes his show as “a Ken Burns documentary with a bourbon tasting.” He brings along bluegrass musician Hickory Vaught, who sometimes picks lightly as Lubbers talks, and joins Lubbers on some old Kentucky bluegrass tunes. Meanwhile, the audience tastes bourbons made in the style of the time Lubbers’ is describing. Have you ever been on a great educational tour and thought, “This is cool, but I just want to learn while sitting down and drinking”? It’s that dream realized, plus bluegrass. While Thunderbird has often lead the path in terms of bartender education, this time, we get a shot from the font of liquor knowledge, and a great show at the same time. If you can’t stand to be separated from this bourbon knowledge and a lot of other really cool, well-written liquor history, pick up Lubbers’ excellent book, Bourbon Whiskey, Our Native Spirit.


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