Juarez Whiskey Straight American Bourbon
Label from a bottle of Bourbon whiskey made in Mexico in the 1930s, before 'Bourbon' became a protected trade name.

Three Important Dates in American Whiskey History

A week or so ago I attended an ‘experience’ at one of the many distilleries in Kentucky now offering tours and tastings. Like many similar offerings, it included a recap of various important milestones in American whiskey history. And as happens all too often, one or more of these milestones was attributed to the wrong event and date. I guess this isn’t the biggest deal but when those of us who represent the distilling industry are asked to tell the story of Bourbon to the general public I think it’s important to get these details right.

Label showing text from an old whiskey bottle stating it's a 'straight bourbon whiskey' and has been aged for two years according to 1938 law
After 1938 a straight whiskey needed to be at least two years old to qualify as a 'straight.' Where did this requirement come from?

The Odd Modern Meaning of ‘Straight’

The Taft Decision in 1906 and then the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1909 both used the term ‘straight’ to define the manner in which a whiskey had been made, e.g. if it had been made solely from distilled grain and aged in wood, without any additives other than water, then it was ‘straight.’ But then in 1938, the definition gets modified to include a minimum term of aging (two years). What were the people who wrote this thinking? Or was it just poorly written?

19th century Mash Tubs
Small mash tubs as used in the 19th century to make 'old-fashioned sour mash' without the use of added yeast. (This place probably looks cleaner and nicer to work in than it really was!)

On the Evolution of Souring

The federal government has never defined a standard for what sour or sweet mashing means when it appears on a whiskey bottle label. But it has had a number of things to say about these techniques in publications intended for IRS employees. These may provide some insight into how these techniques evolved over time.

Advertisment for 10 BIB whiskies from Julius Kessler, 1908
Ten bottled-in-bond whiskies from Julius Kessler, 1908. None of these were even close to being the first to bear the designation. But it gives you an idea how large the category had grown by then.

In Search of the Earliest Bottled-in-Bond

The identity of the first bottled-in-bond Bourbon has eluded me since I first started researching American whiskey. I've identified two candidates but still remain a bit skeptical I've got my answer.


The Missing Outage

Karl Raitz’ book Making Bourbon (which I've mentioned here previously) is a gift which keeps on giving. A footnote in the current chapter led me to a small book entitled The American Compounder or Cross' Guide for Liquor Retail Dealers…

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