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Heaven Hill’s Whiskey Ambassador Breaks Down Bottled-In-Bond Bourbon’s Importance

Bottled-in-bond whiskey is often lovingly referred to as “the good stuff.” The whiskey style was created by law in the late 1800s to, essentially, assure the quality of the whiskey going in the bottle and give consumers a little peace of mind when buying and drinking the American spirit.

As with anything whiskey-related, there’s a lot more to it than that. So, we reached out to bottled-in-bond whiskey expert Bernie Lubbers to tell us what’s so special about bottled-in-bond whiskeys — rye, bourbon, corn whiskey, or otherwise — and lay down some real knowledge.

Lubbers is the Whiskey Ambassador for Heaven Hill and probably the biggest proponent (and educator) of bottled-in-bond whiskey in the world. Lubbers was kind enough to jump on a call and answer all of our questions about the whiskey style while also diving into how a huge distillery like Heaven Hill decides what goes into what bottle. It’s an illuminating conversation so let’s jump in!

So the reason we’re speaking today is to talk very specifically about bottled-in-bond bourbons, which is a very big section for Heaven Hill. Can you give us a quick rundown on what Heaven Hill does to make your bottled-in-bond bourbons so special and beloved?

Oh, that’s easy. Conor O’Driscoll is our Master Distiller and he puts it best when he says, “we do not make brands at our distillery. At the distillery we just make distillates.” So we make five different recipes of distillates at Heaven Hill. Those are a traditional bourbon rye mash bill, a traditional bourbon wheat mash bill, a wheat whiskey mash bill, a rye whiskey mash bill, and a corn whiskey mash bill. Then the barrels go into our rickhouses and spread all around from top to bottom, left to right. Then over time, the barrels tell us what brands it’s going to be and how old it is and things like that, according to the standards that were written down by Parker Beam and everyone who’s followed because you learn things over time.

So when we started making Rittenhouse Rye (which is a bottled-in-bond), it used to be put all over the rickhouse. Well, they found that it aged better on the fourth floor and higher. So those standards change over time because you learn. You don’t know everything on day one when you first start making a new recipe. So we don’t specifically say our bottled-in-bonds are going to be in a certain place or a certain way. We put distillates in places and then the whiskey talks to us and tells us what it’s going to be.

I dig that. Who’s in there putting the whiskey thieves in these barrels and what are they looking for specifically? Are they like, ‘okay, I know Evan Williams needs to taste like this…’ so they have to seek them out one-by-one? Or do you guys have a sense of where those barrels are going to be?

We have a sense of where they need to be. Like I said, with Rittenhouse on the fourth floor and higher, and things like that. So they don’t just willy nilly put things away. But it is our sensory team that specifically, over time, tastes representation of barrels. We call it a lot. So it’s not a lot of barrels or many barrels. It’s a specific lot or section. They taste those and see where the taste profile is headed. Tawnie Gootee, I would call her a master taster, but that’s not her title, and the team there (Mike Sonne and Chris Briney), know specifically what brands are supposed to taste like.

So she knows if a barrel’s headed more towards being a, let’s say, Evan Williams Single Barrel, or if it’s going to be an Evan Williams, or if it’s going to be an Evan Williams bottled-in-bond if that makes sense to you. They all have different flavor profiles and she knows where each one is headed.

So let’s talk a little bit more about bottled-in-bond. I think, in a sense, people don’t think about what it means too deeply. A “straight” whiskey has to be aged two years while a “bottled-in-bond” needs to be aged four years. That’s doubling the time you’d have to house while, well, doubling the money you’d have to spend a warehouse a barrel of whiskey. Is that looked at as a detriment or is that looked at as an advantage down the road? Because at the end of the day, I mean, space is space, and space costs money.

Sure. Here’s the thing, at Heaven Hill we don’t have a two-year-old product. The first offering of our flagship brand is a five-year-old product. So actually bottled-in-bond is getting out quicker for us. That’s one of the youngest products that we have available in the marketplace. We do make a three-year-old product [Evan Williams Green Lable] that people use for house bourbons or well bourbons or things like that. But our initial offering is a five-year offering of our flagship brand. So four years to us is no time at all.

RIght. It’s what you’re doing anyway.

Exactly.

So what’s going to be the defining factor between, say, you ten-year bottled-in-bond Henry McKenna or the five-year-old Evan Williams white label?

Back in the day, people didn’t really want older whiskeys. The fashion in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, and ’90s was four or five or six-year-old bourbon. My dad, who drank a quart of bourbon a day — and he lived being 94 — drank six-year-old Heaven Hill which we still make in Kentucky. I told him, “Dad, when these small batches and single barrels are coming out, why don’t you step up and drink something that’s a little more age on it?” There’s Elijah Craig at 12, there’s Knob Creek at nine. He looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Son, I don’t trust a bourbon over six years old.” And I was like, “What do you mean ‘trust?'” He says, “If it’s over six years old, that’s the shit they can’t sell.”

So the mindset of the consumer was that if it’s getting older, that means that it’s not sold and it’s too old for me. So back in the day, they used to take their older whiskeys because if the bourbon’s not selling and it wasn’t for many reasons. Then in the ’60s and ’70s, you had tequila and vodka blow up on the market in the United States right after a wild overproduction of bourbon in the 1950s and ’60s. Then they had all this whiskey that kept getting older. Then you had consumers who didn’t want old whiskey. That’s not a good combination.

That’s the opposite of a win-win…

Right. Prices of bourbon fell. Then whiskey makers had to ask, “what do we do with this old whiskey that we got?” So most distilleries put that older whiskey into collectible decanters because they thought people might buy those collectible decanters with the old whiskey in them, but specifically not buying the old whiskey. That’s why you still see those old Beam bottles and different decanters and there’s still whiskey in there because people didn’t drink that whiskey in those collectible decanters for the most part.

So it wasn’t until Heaven Hill came out with a 12-year-old Elijah Craig that you then started to see the stuff got older, right? But old whiskey is kind of a new phenomenon that Heaven Hill and I have to say, Julian Van Winkle did with 15, 20, and 23-old-year old Pappy Van Winkles. So a lot of those brands just became brands because they got older. There wasn’t a whole lot of thought put into them.

For us, it was like, “We got to do something with this old whiskey… Oh, we own this brand called Henry McKenna, and it was 10 years old? Let’s put it in there!”

Right. Then is there a flip side of that in that Elijah Craig 12 is now just Elijah Craig again because — as I understood it — that rebranding made sense since you’re selling too much of the stuff to keep up with that age statement?

There was a couple of things going on there. You had a 12-year-old bourbon that was starting to explode in popularity because it was $25 and 12 years old. This is after Knob Creek, Woodford Reserve, Russell’s Reserve, and all these other small-batch or single-barrel bourbons blew up. Then, people started finding this $25 bottle of 12-year-old bourbon. Well, when I started with the company in 2012, that was a 30,000 case brand. It’s now over 300,000 cases. So there’s no way we could possibly have kept up with that explosion of 12-year-old barrels because we didn’t have 300,000 cases worth of 12-year-old bourbon. So we had to make a decision. Do we want to keep the 12-year-old age statement on it? But then you’re going to be capped at how many you can sell. You’re never going to get to 300,000 cases. You’re going to only be able to sell what you can service, which is basically 30,000 cases or less. So, then, you got to make up for that lost profit. You’ve got to double or triple the price.

Or you can grow the brand and put younger whiskeys into it. That’s what we decided to do because we thought the brand’s been around since 1986, it deserves to be the next Knob Creek or Woodford Reserve. So let’s use younger whiskeys, but, still, have a minimum age. So it’s older whiskey with eight to 12-year-old barrels that’s a small batch. Then we were able to keep the 12-year for the barrel-proof expression, which has been amazingly successful and widely coveted by the customer. So I think we did a good job at doing that.

You have to do what’s right for the brand and for your consumer. It’s not going to make 100 percent of the people happy, but it’s a good compromise, I think.

These days, you have whiskey influencers on Instagram and TikTok; you have a million different people writing about whiskey compared to even five years ago; you have people coming into the industry all the time and opening up craft distilleries and doing new things with a hundred percent heritage red corn or some random grain. How much does Heaven Hill look at the trends to inform its future? Or are you solid in what you are and where you going without all of that?

It’s both. We’re large enough to where we have to look at both. We have to look at the core brands because you just don’t know what’s going to happen ten years from now. Our main line, Elijah Craig, is eight to 12 years old whiskeys. But we also have 18-year-old Elijah Craig. So today is 2021. So that’d be 2039. So we got to look at between now and 2039 while we’re making our whiskey today. So you have to look at both because you know that the world’s going to be different 18 years from now. You know that you’re either making way too much today or not enough.

But when we look at trends, it’s so fascinating with the bourbon world. Let’s say you’re making vodka or rum and you’re looking at trends. Well, you could pivot on the day because you’re making your spirit today and selling it tonight. With whiskey, we’re making it today and selling it, at the minimum, three or four years from now. So we can’t just pivot on a dime when it comes to whiskey trends. Whiskey trends, I think, are way different than tequila trends or rum or vodka, which are unaged products for the most part.

I remember growing up, there was always this kind of slang for bottled-in-bond, that that was “the good stuff.”

Sure, that’s what my dad’s line was.

So I gotta ask, what makes it “the good stuff”?

Oh, that’s easy. That’s the restriction. This is the most restrictive spirit in the world. So there’s no spirit in the world this restricted. The restrictions were enacted on March 3rd, 1897. They have been expanded upon since Prohibition was over and they put down more laws. Then in 1964, they were all rewritten again after bourbon was made the distinctive spirit of the United States.

So first of all, there are laws to be “bourbon.” You have to be a certain percentage of corn. You have to be distilled at no more than 160 proof. You have to have a certain barrel type, things like that. Which is different than vodka and different than other spirits. So if it’s a corn whiskey, it has to be in a used barrel. If it’s a rye whiskey or a bourbon whiskey, it has to be in a brand new charred barrel. So you’ve got to pass all those laws.

Then there’s bottled-in-bond whiskey. Bottled-in-bond has a further set of restrictions. You mentioned it has to be four years old and that’s true, but it has to be at least four years old. It also has to be from one distiller, at only one distillery, and from one distilling season, which is a six-month period. We only have two distilling seasons in the United States. That’s spring, which is January through June; and it’s fall, which is July through December. It has to be aged for a minimum age of four years on the appropriate types of barrels for that spirit. So that changes if it’s corn whiskey becasue that needs a used barrel legally. If it’s bourbon whiskey, it has to be aged in a new barrel for a minimum of four years and then bottled at exactly 100 proof. So it has to be a certain strength, it has to be a certain age with a guaranteed age and guaranteed proof.

Then I can only bring it down to proof with pure water only. So I’m guaranteed a purity along with that guarantee a good age and a good strength. Then you need to put the real name of the distillery on the package. You must put the distinctive spirit’s plant number, which is a DSP, on the bottle. So with bottled-in-bond, it’s full disclosure. I don’t have to wonder who made it. I can look at the bottle for the DSP. Then, I can Google that these days.

I know it’s a minimum of four years old. I know it’s a good strength of a hundred proof or 50 percent alcohol. I know that it’s pure because of the water used. So that is why I like to equate it to sort of earning medals in the military. You can earn medals as bourbon or rye for sure. But if you’re a bottled-in-bond bourbon, you’re a Green Beret. You’re a Navy Seal. You got all the medals. That’s why I think it’s so special and why I love it so much.

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