I pulled this old book off the shelf the other day and came across an interesting section entitled "The Quality Determinants in Whiskey". There's no new information here but the elegance and succinctness of the presentation are admirable, and it's good to be so pleasantly reminded of some of the things discussed.
The book was published in 1953 and written by S. S. Fields. Although the discussion of Bottled in Bond is dated, it's a good example of how little has changed:
There are two popular beliefs concerning whiskey which are so firmly entrenched among the voters that they amount almost to national superstitions. And at the point of sale, they usually become hypnotic. One is the belief that age is synonymous with quality. The other is a belief that the magic words, Bottled in Bond, are a downright guarantee of it.
The first of these is analogous to the proposition that any fifty-year-old man is bound to be smarter than any thirty-year-old man. The second is comparable to the proposition that all lawyers are honest men. It just ain't necessarily so.
No amount of aging can make a first rate whiskey out of a second-rate distillate, and "Bottled in Bond" is not a guarantee of quality.
A first rate whiskey begins with the grain. The finest No. 1 top-grade grain costs a great deal more than the cheapest cereals from which whiskey can be and often is made, and the whiskies they make are even further apart. The second natural essential to first rate whiskey is the right kind of water. It was not geographic accident but geologic destiny that located our greatest distilleries where they are. They follow a narrow limestone mantle which runs along western Pennsylvania, cutting across to southern Indiana and Illinois, and dropping down into Kentucky and Tennessee. There is another limestone region in Maryland. Water from springs which pass up through deep layers of limestone rock is the best of all water for whiskey making. Water with iron in it, for instance, is ruinous.
Given the finest grain and the best water, we come now to the "Four Unknowns" in whiskey making--mashing, fermenting, distilling and barreling. Despite controls, and there are plenty of them in a good distillery, many things can go wrong in any one of these processes. Often two identical runs will produce surprisingly different results, Yet whiskey, like any other mass-market commodity, is closely figured on a cost and profit basis. The expense of scrapping or reprocessing or otherwise rectifying a renegade result may not be justified. So the off-standard renegade may be bulk sold to turn up under an unknown label. It may shout at you from a liquor store window in well modulated screams, "Old Grassroots, 6 Years Old, Bottled in Bond--Only 1 Case to a Customer!"--and it may be cookin' whiskey.
Concerning that Bottled in Bond statement, the Treasury Department has this to say: "The Bottled in Bond stamp is no guarantee as to purity or quality of the spirits, and the government assumes no responsibility with respect to claims by dealers in this connection in advertising Bottled in Bond spirits."
In buying whiskey, then, there are really only two gauges of quality: The reputation of the manufacturer, and your own taste. Assuming that both of these are reliable, an age statement or a Bottled in Bond statement has meaning. So does everything else on the label.
But remember this: One of the most celebrated connoisseur's whiskies in America is neither Bottled in Bond nor is it more than four years old. It's made entirely from No. 1 grade corn, yet the process employed entitles it to be legally labeled simply "Whiskey." As the boys who make it say, "It's what happens to a whiskey before it's aged that counts." And it's what's in the bottle, not what's on it.
So the 64,000 dollar question is: What is the connoisseur's whiskey to which he refers?