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Sagamore Spirit Distillery, Maryland’s biggest distiller, released “Bottled in Bond” 100-proof Maryland Distilled Straight Rye Whiskey, on November 13, 2021. It was big deal for rye whiskey fans. Sagamore’s first whiskey was made entirely in Maryland.
Until then, Sagamore has been selling “straight whiskey,” “cask strength” and “reserve series.”
When paying $70 and up for a bottle of rye whiskey, it pays to know the label because label creativity can get costly.
Government Rules for Whiskey Labels
To keep whiskey distillers honest with the buyer, the U.S. government requires certain words on the label with very specific meanings.
Let’s break down that one name, “Sagamore Spirit Bottled in Bond Straight Rye Whiskey.” You’ll notice the words are scattered around the label, and each of those words is information that’s important to you, the consumer.
Bottled in Bond
To whiskey fans, “Bottled in Bond” is like saying “Made in America.” It’s 100-proof bottled whiskey from one distiller, created in a single season and in the cask for at least four years at a “federally bonded” warehouse (where barrels of whiskey are stored under U.S. government supervision, for tax purposes).
This is considered the real proof of whether a distiller’s whiskey is good. It’s entirely their recipe and process.
Maryland Distilled or Distilled in Maryland
Similar to “Bottled in Bond” for smaller distilleries that haven’t gone through all the steps to warrant a government tax revenuer to keep watch. Bottled-in-Bond is a term in U.S. law and a complicated legal process. “Distilled in Maryland” or “Maryland Distilled” is a distiller’s proclamation.
Distilled in Maryland – all of the whiskey in this bottle was made in Maryland.
Why “Distilled in Maryland” is an Issue
To get up and running quickly, many young distilleries across the country will buy mash or distilled pre-barreled whiskey from other companies, then make their distinctive changes to it before and during barreling. There’s a big one, Midwest Grain Products (MGP), in Indiana and smaller providers in Kentucky and Tennessee.
Some whiskey drinkers look down on this. Sagamore has been very open about using “Indiana whiskey.” It is considered a very good whiskey base to use so they can make money until the distillery’s product is ready. This happens even in new Kentucky distilleries.
Must be made with at least 51% of one type of grain. Sagamore chooses rye for its primary grain. The whiskey needs to be aged at least two years in a new oak barrel that’s been charred inside, and not blended with whiskey from outside the state. No additives, such as coloring or flavoring, are allowed.
Blending allows big distilleries to mix casks of the same batch of mash or distilled product in an attempt to maintain a consistent taste. The barrels are in huge warehouses, and casks closer to the warm ceiling will develop a slightly different taste than those on the cooler floor, so they blend them.
Mixing in barrels of whiskey from other states is not allowed in “straight” whiskey
Non-Government Terms on Whiskey Labels
Batch, Bottle & By
These are not government-regulated terms. They’re a labeling flourish. They make the bottle seem more special.
Batch is the number of times they’ve made the whiskey. A batch can be thousands of gallons or a few hundred. Each batch can be slightly different and if one is considered especially good, fans will buy up as many bottles as they can of that batch.
Bottle is that bottle’s number in the line of the many filled using that batch. For this number to be significant, you need to know how many bottles were used with that batch.
Some believe that early or later bottles will have a different taste than the middle bottles. But that depends on whether the batch was blended, and if not, how they emptied the barrel when filling the bottles. Later bottles may have some sediment from the barrel, giving them a charred flavor edge. Whether or not that’s a preferred flavor depends on the drinker.
In Sagamore’s case are the initials of the person who filled the bottle.
This is different than “Bottled By” on the back label on whiskey labels, which states who bottled the whiskey and shows whether it was bottled by Sagamore or off-site by someone else. That label requirement is laid out in U.S. Code.
Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon Whiskey is famous for its hand-written labels. Blanton’s is also expensive and difficult to get right now. Their hand-written label includes a batch number, warehouse number, and rick number; that’s the rack that the barrel rests on inside the warehouse.
Reportedly some fans buy bottles only from specific locations in the warehouse believing that those have superior barrel aging. Think of all the Blantons they would need to drink to be able to tell the difference.
Other label terms that are important to know:
Cask Strength / Barrel-Proof
The alcohol level in the bottle is the same as what came out of the barrel. While whiskey is aging, it’s also slowly evaporating, raising the alcohol content. A lot of distillers reduce the alcohol before bottling to a consistent 80 proof by adding water.
“Cask strength” lets you decide how much water is needed to make it smooth. The high alcohol level in cask strength can also be “bitey,” but some whiskey lovers enjoy that.
All the bottles of that particular whiskey are from the same cask. The label will tell you the number of the cask and when it was bottled. You’ll find this a lot in regional whiskeys since they have smaller batches.
A combination of whiskeys from the same or different distilleries. That can also include coloring or other additives needed to improve the look and taste of the whiskey. “Blended” is strictly controlled in the Bottled in Bond Act (section 5.42 & 5.46).
As shown in the Tobacco Barn bottle above, bourbon can be made in any state of the U.S., not just Kentucky. U.S. Code requires that it be made with 51% corn and put into “charred new oak containers.” So, yes, Maryland distillers make bourbon. And some are very good.
Wild Turkey’s Master Distiller for 60 years, Jimmy Russell, is reported to have proclaimed several times that he could pour un-aged corn whiskey into a charred oak cup, toss it into a glass and legally call it Bourbon, as long as it is between 80 and 125 proof. Jimmy Russell is legendary for fighting bourbon pomposity.
Creativity’s Impact on Whiskey Bottle Labels
After getting through government label rules, you’ll notice several other terms used to describe the whiskey that you’re buying. These are unofficial and often have ambiguous meanings. Simply put, it’s marketing.
A nice way to say that the whiskey is a different sort, usually an experiment of different barrels first used for wine, port, or beer. It can also be added to natural flavors, such as herbs or spices. Distillers are interested in how the change-up impacts creative cocktails tend to do that.
Another variation of the theme on that distiller’s whiskey. The whiskey maker gets creative with the product.
Special Reserve & Distillers Reserve
Supposedly it’s whiskey set aside in the barrels for special bottling, but it’s a marketing technique. There’s no formal definition of it.
Distillers generally use this term for whiskey blended from fewer barrels than their basic whiskey, but for the really big companies that can mean 50 or hundreds of barrels. Regional distillers believe it’s a way for the large companies to seem smaller than they are.
The whiskey has been in an oak barrel longer than required. How much longer varies. There are no criteria for this. It can continue in the same barrel, or be put in a different new or used oak barrel. Longer in the barrel means bigger flavor from the oak, usually a sweet flavor. However, that varies on how charred the barrel is.
Marketing terms on whiskey labels also include “Old,” “Rare,” “Double Aged,” “Hand Crafted.” The list goes on.