It’s Bottled In Bond Day in the whiskey world — that means that it’s time to drink some good BiB whiskeys, folks! If you’re deep enough into American whiskey, you know that “bottled in bond” is often code for “the good stuff” from a brand. In short, a “bottled in bond” expression — either of bourbon or rye — is the expression that you want to be sipping and mixing with all of the time.
Today, I’m going to break down what “bottled in bond” whiskey is and then conduct a blind taste test battle between the two biggest distilleries producing iconic bottled in bond whiskeys — Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill. Let’s get the lesson out of the way first. To be called a “bottled in bond” rye or bourbon whiskey, the following parameters have to be met:
- 100% of the liquid has to be distilled in the same distilling season (spring or fall) at a single distillery.
- The whiskey has to age for a minimum of four years in a federally bonded warehouse.
- The whiskey must be bottled at 100 proof (50% ABV).
- The label must clearly state the distillery that made it.
- If it was bottled at a location other than the distillery where it was made, the label must also clearly state the bottling location.
- The final product cannot have anything besides water added to the liquid.
Those rules are in addition to the already strict guidelines that both rye and bourbon whiskey have to adhere to be called “straight rye” or “straight bourbon”. That includes having a specific mash bill (recipe) that includes at least 51% rye or 51% corn respectively. Legal guidelines also inform the proof the liquid comes off the stills at, is barreled at, and is bottled at. Along with a minimum of two years of aging.
So by the time you add the additional “bottled in bond” rules, you’re dealing with a whiskey that has a lot of parameters. And that’s what makes it “the good stuff” … in most whiskey drinkers’ estimation anyway. Why though? Is it that much better? Well… yes, I think so. And so does Harlen Wheatley, the Master Distiller of Buffalo Trace, who I was chatting with about bottled in bond whiskeys recently. He had some plain-spoken wisdom about them.
“‘Bottled in bond’ expressions showcase the producer and the whiskey and is probably the best way to guarantee the quality,” Wheatley says. “The flavor of a ‘bottled in bond’ whiskey has more impact than normal, due to the 100-proof.”
Basically, “bottled in bond” is just another expression from a brand where the ABV or proof is a little higher, allowing for the whiskey’s natural flavor notes to shine through a little more in the glass. And that’s what makes it feel like “the good stuff” from any given brand because, well, it is made to be exactly that. All of that leads me to the fun part, tasting some whiskeys labeled “bottled in bond.” For this exercise, I had my wife line up three bottles each from the two biggest and finest producers of bottled in bond whiskey in the whole game — Buffalo Trace and Heaven Hill.
The point of the blind tasting and ranking was super simple: Find the absolute best-tasting bottled in bond whiskey to drink right now. That makes our lineup today the following bottles:
- Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey Bottled In Bond (Buffalo Trace)
- Heaven Hill Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Bottled-In-Bond (Heaven Hill)
- Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whisky Bottled-In-Bond (Heaven Hill)
- Colonel E.H. Taylor Single Barrel Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey Bottled In Bond (Buffalo Trace)
- Henry McKenna Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Bottled-In-Bond Aged 10 Years (Heaven Hill)
- Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey Bottled In Bond (Buffalo Trace)
Let’s dive in!
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Part 1 — The Whiskey Tasting
Nose: The nose opens with a sense of soft corn mush with a hint of fresh green chili, Saigon cinnamon (a little sweet), orchard tree bark, and the black mildew that grows on all the whiskey warehouses in Kentucky.
Palate: The palate leans into buttery toffee with a twinge of black licorice next to cinnamon-spiced dark chocolate tobacco and a hint of huckleberry pie with vanilla ice cream.
Finish: The end has a salted caramel sweetness that leads back to a hint of sweet cinnamon and dark tobacco with a light sense of the fermentation room with a hint of sweet gruel.
Well, this is delicious. It’s a good start but there are some big hitters in this lineup. Let’s see how it goes from here.
Nose: The nose draws you in with this rich and creamy vanilla ice cream (you know the kind that’s likely labeled “Tahitian”) that’s drizzled with a buttery and salty caramel sauce next to soft leather and dried apple blossoms with a hint of old cedar bark braids.
Palate: A floral honey vibe melds with Graham Crackers on the palate as creamy toffee covered in crushed almonds mingles with vanilla-laced pipe tobacco and old leather-bound books.
Finish: There’s a bit of freshly ground nutmeg near the end that leads to a light cherry tobacco note with whispers of old cellar beams and winter spices on the finish.
This was a tiny bit thinner than the last pour but had more depth. I know that shouldn’t make sense but it does. There were more flavor notes in the actual nose and sip but they didn’t run as deep and long. It was more like a tease almost.
Nose: The nose on this one is bold with layers of cherry, vanilla, winter spices, and old oak staves.
Palate: The palate is classic rye with a sprinkling of black pepper next to cinnamon sticks and cloves with a lush underbelly of vanilla cream that’s nearly eggnog.
Finish: There’s a hint of orange that leads back to the cherry with a touch of old wicker and woody spice rounding things out.
This is pretty cheap whiskey. It has a very good flavor profile but it feels very shallow.
Nose: Dried dark fruits and a hint of vanilla wafers mingle with fig fruit leather, a touch of orchard wood, and a deep caramel on the nose.
Palate: The palate holds onto those notes while layering in dark berry tobacco with sharp winter spices, new leather, and a singed cotton candy next to a cedar box filled with that tobacco.
Finish: The finish lingers on your senses for a while and leaves the spice behind for that dark, almost savory fruit note with an echo of blackberry Hostess pies next to soft leather pouches that have held chewy tobacco for decades and a final hint of old porch wicker in the middle of summer.
There’s zero shallowness in this pour. This is classic bourbon from top to bottom with a serious, expansive profile. It’s also really f*cking delicious.
Nose: The nose opens slightly tannic with rich orange zest and vanilla cream next to woody winter spice, fresh mint, and wet cedar with a hint of gingerbread and burnt cherry.
Palate: The palate hits on soft vanilla white cake with a salted caramel drizzle and burnt orange zest vibe next to apple/pear tobacco leaves dipped in toffee and almond.
Finish: The end has a sour cherry sensation that leads to wintery woody spices, cedar bark, and old cellar beams with a lush vanilla pod and cherry stem finish.
This is also a spectacularly well-rounded whiskey. It’s so deeply hewn that it kind of just keeps going down beautiful bourbon-y paths. It’s also very clearly rendered and distinct in every note from the nose to the finish.
Nose: This nose is vibrant with hints of freshly plucked pears next to black peppercorns, soft cedar, winter spice barks and berries, and a hint of fresh mint chopped up with fresh dill that leads to a minor key of spearmint and maybe some fresh chili pepper on the vine.
Palate: The palate holds onto the fresh green chili pepper as the pear gets stewed with those winter spices and drizzled with a salted toffee syrup cut with sharp burnt orange and bitter chinotto leaves.
Finish: That sweet and citrus bitter vibe leads back to dark and woody clove and anise with a dash of sasparilla and salted black licorice before some fresh mint and dill return to calm everything down.
This is magical.
Part 2 — The Whiskey Ranking
6. Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whisky Bottled-In-Bond — Taste 3
Average Price: $28
This rye is very much a bourbon drinker’s rye. The mash bill is only 51% rye with 37% corn, and 12% malted barley. The juice then matures under the federal regulations allowing it to be “bottled-in-bond” and is barely proofed down to 100 proof with that soft Kentucky limestone water before bottling.
This was the easiest slot to rank on this panel. This was clearly a cheaper whiskey that just didn’t have the same depth as the rest of the pours. To be clear, this is good whiskey. It’s just also cheap whiskey. There are no faults at all. It’s just a cocktail base and nowhere near the heights of the rest of this list.
5. Heaven Hill Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Bottled-In-Bond — Taste 2
Average Price: $56
This expression has been a touchstone “bottled-in-bond” since 1939 and remains a go-to for many bourbon lovers. The whiskey is the classic Heaven Hill bourbon mash bill that’s left to age for an extra three years compared to Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond (also from Heaven Hill and the same base spirit).
This is really good. But it was just that tad shallower than the Taylor Bottled In Bond Small Batch. And when I say a “tad,” I really mean that. I’m splitting serious hairs to rank these whiskeys. That all said, I’d reach for this as a great cocktail base. It’s a quintessential bourbon from top to bottom.
4. Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey Bottled In Bond — Taste 1
Average Price: $149
Buffalo Trace’s Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. Small Batch is an entry point to the other 12 expressions released under the E.H. Taylor, Jr. label. The whiskey is a blend of barrels that meet the exact right flavor profiles Buffalo Trace’s blenders are looking for in a classic bottled-in-bond bourbon for Taylor.
This had that little more depth to it that helped it stand out. It’s superlative bourbon through and through. Again though, I usually reach for this when I want to make a really good bourbon-forward cocktail. That’s not to say you can’t pour this over a big ol’ rock (please do). It’s more that it works better as a deep foundational block to build a great cocktail.
3. Colonel E.H. Taylor Single Barrel Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey Bottled In Bond — Taste 4
Average Price: $299
These whiskeys for E.H. Taylor, Jr. are aged in the famed Warehouse C at Buffalo Trace from their mash bill no. 1. While the exact parameters of that bill are undisclosed, this is the same recipe as Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace Bourbon, and Stagg. In this case, the barrels are picked for their Taylor flavor profile and bottled one at a time with a slight touch of water to bring them down to bottled-in-bond proof.
I was shocked this didn’t win. This is excellent whiskey. If you can find it, buy a case. You won’t be disappointed.
2. Henry McKenna Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Bottled-In-Bond Aged 10 Years — Taste 5
Average Price: $99
This classic offering from Heaven Hill is actually getting easier to find again (after years of being nearly impossible to find thanks to hype). The juice utilizes a touch of rye in the mash bill and is then aged for ten long years in a bonded rickhouse. The best barrels are chosen by hand and the whiskey is bottled with just a touch of water to bring it down to bottled-in-bond proof.
This was the most well-rounded whiskey on the list. This was the one that I wanted to go back to immediately as a sipper. It’s a classic super-hyped whiskey for a reason. It lives up to it (and I often don’t rank it this high when I know what is because of that). But tasting it blind — it’s just exemplary whiskey.
1. Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey Bottled In Bond — Taste 6
Average Price: $349
This rye from Buffalo Trace is a beloved bottle. As with all Buffalo Trace whiskeys, the mash bill and exact aging are not known. It’s likely this is made from a mash of very high rye mixed with just malted barley, maybe. We do know that it is not the same mash bill as Buffalo Trace’s other rye, Sazerac.
This was a “wow” whiskey. It’s so complicated and complex while still being the most engaging and wonderful whiskey on this panel. I’m going to say, if you track down only one bottle, make it this. It’s that good and worth the effort to find. When you do snag a bottle or pour, take your time with it. It’s worth really diving deep into the nose and palate to find all the nooks and crannies hiding in this whiskey’s flavor profile.
Part 3 — Final Thoughts
If I had to skip one of these whiskeys, I’d skip the Rittenhouse Rye. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just not that exciting (or interesting, really).
But when it comes to finding a great “bottled in bond” expression, any of the other five is going to be great. There is such a tiny distance between each of the top five that it’s damn near microscopic. That said, if you’re looking for the best damn rye whiskey to drink right now, then you need to track down a bottle of that E.H. Taylor Bottled In Bond Straight Rye. It’s next level.