By Richard Thomas
Although most headlines about the American micro-distilling movement tend to focus on its explosive growth, a boom that now has well over 1,000 small distilleries in operation with more on the way, as a serious observer of the whiskey part of that movement I prefer to monitor a different aspect: the gaining maturity of craft whiskey.
Seven years ago, critics could complain about the poor, immature quality of most craft whiskeys, and scoff at blanket use of tiny barrels. Nowadays it is the norm for “small barrel” to mean a 25-or 30-gallon cask, rather than a 5-gallon job, and many producers have some 53-gallon American Standard Barrels (ASBs) socked away in the warehouse as well. Moreover, some micro-distilleries have now been in operation for long enough to make proper use of these larger barrels, releasing more mature whiskeys.
Nothing reflects this rising maturity than the growing list of Bottled in Bond (BiB) whiskeys coming from small distillers. This status was defined under the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897, whereby a whiskey could lay claim to this standard rated above being merely “straight whiskey” if it: 1) is at least four years old; 2) is made from a single distillery in a single distilling season; 3) is aged in a bonded warehouse, under government supervision; 3) and is bottled at 100 proof.
Several BiB craft whiskeys were released during the course of the last year, both lengthening the list of BiBs and creating a new landmark for the craft whiskey movement. While most were intended as initial one-shot limited releases, these are only the first wave of craft BiB whiskeys, and they point as much to where the sector is going as to what it has already achieved.
A.D. Laws Four Grain Bottled in Bond Bourbon ($75)
This whiskey from Colorado’s A.D. Laws Distillery is a 60% corn, 20% wheat, 10% rye and 10% malted barley sour mash and aged in 53-gallon ASBs. The four grain mash bill is what makes it special, but otherwise it’s a thoroughly traditional whiskey, and that is more or less the point in making a BiB in the first place. A.D. Laws also makes a BiB Rye whiskey, using a 95% rye, 5% malted barley whiskey.
Dad’s Hat Bottled in Bond Rye (Sold Out)
Located outside of Philadelphia, Dad’s Hat is a major actor in the revival of the Pennsylvania style of Rye whiskey, which is a no-corn approach that relies heavily on rye and malted rye as mash grains. When the distillery released their Dad’s Hat BiB last year, they didn’t just put out a new and novel craft BiB, but also put out the first new whiskey of sufficient maturity to give enthusiasts a clear idea of what the Keystone State’s whiskey must have been like before it became defunct (or at least as clear as they’ll get without buying a pricey collectable bottle from yesteryear!). Dad’s Hat BiB Rye was released as a distillery-only whiskey and is reportedly sold out now, but more may be in the pipeline.
Kings County Bottled in Bond Bourbon ($60)
Made by the first distillery to open in New York City since Prohibition, the Bourbon of Kings County is essentially an aged version of its corn whiskey, made from 80% corn and 20% malted barley. The initial release of 2016 was, in fact, a de facto single barrel, since the entire release came from just one cask. Kings County is releasing this one as a distillery-only, limited edition, but it may see expanded distribution in the future as the stock base expands past the one barrel.
Old Maysville Club Bottled In Bond Rye ($65)
Old Pogue has been quietly resting rye stock from its initial production batch back in 2012. When that stock was two years old, they dumped some and released it as Five Fathers, which was not especially well received. Old Maysville Club is a creature of a very different complexion. Another noteworthy feature is that, in this era when some fret that the prevalence of sourced and bottled brands based on MGP’s 95% Rye stock, is that this is made from 100% malted rye.
Rocktown 5th Anniversary Bourbon ($70 for a 375 ml bottle)
What better way to mark your 5th anniversary than by releasing a BiB Bourbon? Rocktown in Arkansas clearly got the right idea. Their whiskey is a wheated Bourbon, but with the unusual aspect of being low on wheat and heavy on malted barley: 9% wheat, 18% malt and 73% corn. Otherwise this is a traditional Bourbon whiskey, aged on the same latitudinal band as Kentucky and Tennessee and in 53-gallon ASBs.
Tom’s Foolery Bonded Bourbon ($50)
This craft whiskey from Ohio was made using the original, Pennsylvania Michter’s tourist demonstration pot stills, from a mash bill of 72% corn, 12% rye and 16% malted barley. It’s a special item because it’s an all-pot still, BiB Bourbon made using some pretty historic copper.
Tom’s Foolery Distillery no longer owns those old Michter’s stills, having sold them and some vintage fermenters to the new, Louisville-based incarnation of Michter’s. Reportedly he has picked up an even more historic copper alembic still that was formerly used to make brandy, and what impact that will have on Tom’s BiB Bourbon down the road is anyone’s guess.
And finally one could add Willett’s Old Bardstown Bottled In Bond Bourbon to the list, depending on whether you define them as a craft distillery. I don’t, so I won’t, but it’s certainly worth mentioning nonetheless.