Decoding the Label continued….
We discussed in the previous blog the Universal Product Code (UPC) on bottles of bourbon. As I stated, knowing the UPC will assist you in identifying the distiller for a particular bourbon but there are other indicators on the label that will also narrow down the provenance. Some bourbon is designated with a Bottled in Bond (BIB) statement on the label and this relates to the Bottled in Bond act of 1897. In short, the act in effect provided a guarantee with this designation since whiskey back then was adulterated with all types of additives primarily for purposes of greed. Coloring and flavorings were added tainting the whiskey. The Bottled in Bond act ensured to the consumer that what they were buying was genuine "straight whiskey". I mention this one, because it's interesting, but also because on each bottle of bonded whiskey, the label will indicate the Distilled Spirits Plant (DSP) number of the distillery. This is important because many distilleries in production 20, 30 or 40 years ago are no longer in operation. Knowing the DSP of a bottle of bonded whiskey tells you exactly who made the bourbon. I'll go back to my example of the Old Fitzgerald BIB which indicated DSP-KY 16. This tells me it was distilled by Stitzel Weller Distillery. Today's Old Fitzgerald BIB is designated DSP-KY 1 which is Bernheim Distillery that is now owned by Heaven Hill. Armed with this information while dusty hunting will quickly tell you whose bourbon is in the bottle. Now before you start looking for the DSP number on each dusty bottle you find, chances are good you won't find the DSP number on any non-BIB bottle. This is because distilleries are required by law to indicate the DSP on bonded whiskey. For example, a bottle of Old Grand Dad 86 proof bourbon indicates it's from the Old Grand Dad Distillery which in fact does not exist (anymore) and is distilled by Jim Beam. Likewise, Old Weller Antique is not distilled by W.L. Weller & Sons but rather Buffalo Trace Distillery.
As a general rule, I like my bourbon at higher proof. There are few types of bourbon I will drink at 80 proof just because it's not a very exciting dram for me at the lowest legal proof. The exception to this is a couple of dusty bottles I found recently that I do enjoy even at 80 proof. Early Times Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (KSBW) from early 80's and older and early 80's Old Crown and older. The reason I like these two is because I believe they contain glut whiskey. What's glut whiskey you say? Well, this would be whiskey older than what's stated on the label. Because whiskey sales had gone soft from the mid 70's and into the 80's, a lot of product sat in the warehouses aging not going to market. Because of this, bourbon was typically older than what the label stated.
Other indicators on the bottle include the proof, age statement and location of bottling or distillation. There are a number of occasions where distilleries have lowered the proof of their bourbon in order to stretch profits or maybe because they like making silly decisions, but whatever the case, understanding when a proof change happened is another key indicator of dating a bottle. Age statements on bottles are also a way to know when a bottle was produced. For instance, Old Fitzgerald's 1849 used to carry an 8 year age statement. Today, there's no age statement. Evan Williams 1783 used to be a 10 year old bourbon. In 2007 Heaven Hill dropped the 10 year age statement and now the 1783 simply says Old No. 10. Fancy huh? What's now in the bottle is a younger whiskey. Finally, knowing when the location change happened on a label is another factor in dating a bottle. Many times, the change in location (e.g. Louisville, KY vs Frankfort, KY) is a change in ownership. An example may be Old Charter 12 year Classic 90 which was produced by United Distiller showing Louisville, KY on the label. When Buffalo Trace picked up the brand, the label then indicated Frankfort, KY.
While this seems like a lot of information, it is. But, if you're serious about dusty hunting and want the ability to zero in on dusty bottles, this information is necessary in your quest. You don't want to purchase blindly as you may end up with a dusty bottle that's also a nasty bottle.
In the next blog, we'll do a wrap up and speak briefly about shopping techniques, safety and etiquette during your dusty hunting.
Next, part 5 - final post.