Bottled in Bond, part 3 of 4: 007 in Bourbon Country
Bourbon, like scotch, is a protected term. Anything calling itself bourbon has to adhere to a certain number of requirements. Despite what you might hear, bourbon does not have to be made in Bourbon county, Kentucky. In fact, it doesn’t have to be made in Kentucky at all. Aside from fulfilling the internationally agreed-upon rules for being whiskey, bourbon has to be made in the United States. Its “mash bill” — basically, the grains that go into the fermentation tank — can vary, but it must be at least 51% corn. The other grains are usually rye and barley, sometimes wheat, and occasionally people get fancy and try out grains like oats or rice or millet. The spirit must be aged in charred, unused, American white oak barrels (a concession to the unions back in the day, but also a way to control flavor consistency). There are other rules regarding the maximum proof at distillation, the maximum proof going into the barrel, and the minimum proof going into the bottle, but if you grasp the basics, then you’re on the right path, and as long as you don’t fall for the “bourbon County” fallacy, you’re good in my book.
Like scotch, bourbon has a few sub-divisions: bourbon, straight bourbon, Kentucky straight bourbon, and “Bottled in Bond,” all depending on how many of the various sets of rules you want to follow. For our purposes here, I don’t think we need to go into those sub-divisions in any detail. What’s more important than the legal details, at least for James Bond and Ian Fleming, is how you drink your bourbon. Water or no water? How about ice? Like many indulgences, it’s ultimately a question of personal preference; the right way to drink a whiskey — any whiskey — is the way you enjoy drinking a whiskey. So while you may break my heart if you pour such and such whiskey into a glass full of ice, many other people disagree.
As for adding water — the one thing you can’t argue is whether or not it changes the whiskey. It does, and I’m not just talking about “watering it down.” Even a couple drops can make a tremendous difference in the way a whiskey smells and tastes. A couple drops of water will dampen the burn of the alcohol, allowing the whiskey’s flavors to take front and center and allowing your mouth to and nose to enjoy the spirit without getting anesthetized by the alcohol. But sometimes the change is even more profound than that, with an entirely different set of scents and tastes appearing after you add a bit of water. As for me, personally — I like to try every whiskey I have “neat,” at least at first. That means no ice, no water. Some people will tell you this is the only “true” way to drink whiskey, but anyone who says that is sort of full of it. Once I’ve had a proper taste of the whiskey neat, I’ll decide whether or not to add water. I usually don’t — not because I’m opposed to it, and not because I think the whiskey wouldn’t taste even better with it. I usually just forget, unless I’m drinking for purely whiskey-profession related reasons. But usually I’m drinking like Bond is drinking — socially with a friend from the CIA, or because I need to calm my nerves before blowing up someone’s rocket base.
In general, James added a little water to his American whiskey or drank it on the rocks (I’m not a fan of ice in my whiskey). In fact, a goodly portion of Diamonds are Forever is obsessed with detailing the evolution and proper making of a bourbon and branch water. Bourbon and branch is, simply bourbon and water. By strictest definition, “branch” water should come from a small, pure creek or stream branching off from a river — thus the name. But I’m not sure how many of us go down to the river to get our water these days, and since the closest “branch” to me is the Gowanus Canal, I’m happy to substitute any decently filtered water. When adding water, I generally like to add my own, since I know how I want a whiskey to taste. A bourbon neat with a glass of water and a stirring straw equips you with everything you need. Use the straw to add the water — or if you want to take the advice of a friend from Laphroaig (one of the most distinctive and boldest single malt scotch whiskies), take a sip of water, then take a sip of whiskey. That way you don’t over-water your spirit without any going back. That requires a little dexterity, however, and since I need to keep a hand free to grab a gun out of my jacket, I stick with the straw and progress a few drops at a time until I get where I want to be.
Many times, Bond is referred to simply as drinking bourbon, with no brand name associated, such as when he is introduced in the first chapter of Goldfinger, titled “Reflections in a Double Bourbon.” In the same novel, henchman Oddjob impresses Bond by mixing a “solid bourbon and soda.” Strangely, for a Bond novel partially set in Kentucky, Fleming never names a brand of bourbon; he just makes sure Bond consumes a lot of it. However, based on other books, Bond is fond of two bourbons in particular — Old Grand-Dad and I.W. Harper. Harper, which for years was unavailable in the United States, the majority of it being exported to Japan, has recently been reformulated and reintroduced with a new, much higher price tag. But its roots go way back. In 1867, with nothing more than $4 in his pocket (actually, I’m sure a lot of people would have enjoyed having $4 in 1867), a German by the name of Isaac Wolfe Bernheim made the big move from Schmieheim to New York with, I assume, big dreams. Things didn’t work out quite as planned, though, and he ended up working as a traveling salesman in Pennsylvania. It was a rough time to be an American. The Civil War that ravaged the country had only ended a couple of years earlier, and much of the United States was still in a state of exhaustion. Bernheim eked out some degree of success as a peddler, at least until his horse keeled over and left him with no means to realize the “traveling” aspect of being a traveling salesman. Luckily, he’d squirreled away enough money to afford to move to Paducah, Kentucky, where he got a job as a bookkeeper for liquor wholesaler Loeb, Bloom, & Co.
After working there long enough to afford his brother’s passage to America, I.W. founded his own liquor company, Bernheim Brothers & Uri, in 1872, in partnership with his brother, Bernard, and his wife’s brother, Nathan Uri. In 1889, Bernheim was able to purchase the Pleasure Ridge Park Distillery in Louisville and renamed it Bernheim Distillery Co. One of the first products they bottled was I.W. Harper. And as with most of the whiskies we’ve discussed, so begins a long history of being handed from one owner to the next, passing first to the Schenley Distilling Corporation in 1937 and ultimately into the hands of Guinness and Diageo. Rather than distilling it themselves, Diageo bought bourbon wholesale from other, undisclosed distillers (though because it was so heavily available in Japan, many assumed it was made at Four Roses, a Kentucky-based distillery owned by Japanese beverage company Kirin) and put the I.W. Harper label on it — a fairly common practice but one that can make determining the provenance of what’s in your bottle frustrating. In 2015, after being unavailable int he United States for more than two decades, Diageo relaunched the product in America, offering a pricey 15-year-old version as well as a more inexpensive version bearing no age statement. This version of I.W. Harper is distilled at the New Bernheim Distillery in Louisville, owned and operated by Heaven Hill distillers and is aged just a little ways down the road at the Stitzel-Weller Distillery warehouses.
Harper then and now enjoys a decent reputation, though, and once again it gets the Ian Fleming seal of approval by having one of Bond’s favorite cohorts — European super criminal and father to Bond’s eventual wife, Draco, from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, stocks his bar with I.W. Harper and Pinch. As Draco drinks Pinch, Bond manages to drain much of the man’s bottle of Harper.
The current Bernheim Distillery operated by Heaven Hill has nothing to do with the original Bernheim distillery, nor does the whiskey bearing the Bernheim name. The current distillery isn’t even located in the same area. However, the current Berheim Distillery was built on the former site of two older distilleries, The Astor Distillery and the Belmont Distillery — the latter being the one-time home of the earlier iteration of I.W. Harper. Bernheim himself went on to devote much of his time and money to philanthropic pursuits, including the founding of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, which sits just a stone’s throw from the Jim Beam distillery where they make, among other things, Old Grand-Dad.
If one thing binds American whiskey to blended scotch, it’s the tendency of a brand (or at least a brand name) to pass from person to person, company to company, until tracing the origin becomes something akin to trying to find your way out of a Minotaur’s labyrinth. Old Grand-Dad started life in 1840, when a family known as the Haydens opened a distillery. Raymond Hayden created a whiskey he named Old Grand-Dad, after his grandfather and distilling legend Basil Hayden (who is also commemorated with another bourbon, Basil Hayden, part of Jim Beams “small batch” collection). In 1899, Old Grand-Dad was sold to another distilling family, the Wathens, who, during Prohibition founded the American Medicinal Spirits Company. As the name suggests, the American Medicinal Spirits Company was a purely philanthropic, scientific, and medical undertaking, producing distilled “elixirs” that had absolutely nothing at all to do with skirting the Prohibition laws.
The American Medicinal Spirits Company eventually morphed into National Distillers Group, who handled the Old Grand-Dad label until 1987, when the brand was sold to Jim Beam. As with pretty much every name that’s been passed from one hand to the next, it’s hard to say how the Old Grand-Dad James Bond drank compares to the Old Grand-Dad you can buy in stores today (actually, it’s not that hard — you just have to be willing to pay to buy a bottle from fifty years ago). More than a few people claim that under the stewardship of Beam, Old Grand-Dad has turned from a true “premium” bourbon into something of a bottom shelf trash bourbon. Others, of course, have exactly the opposite opinion, feeling that it’s become one of the tastiest and best valued whiskies around. You’ll have to make up your own mind, as usual, but I recommend trying all three current incarnations: the knock-your-socks-off 114 proof version, the 100 proof “bottled in bond” version, and the 86 proof. Bond drinks a good deal of Old Grand-Dad in both Live and Let Die and Diamonds Are Forever.
“Bottled in bond,” incidentally, means that the whiskey has been aged and bottled according to the Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, which were described in the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. Aside form any tax regulations that proved advantageous to the U.S. government, the Bottled-in-Bond Act was meant to regulate, to some degree, the quality of distilled spirits — to make sure than when you were buying whiskey, you were really buying whiskey. It is to American whiskey what the laws of the Scotch Whisky Association are to scotch. In order to label something as “bottled in bond,” the spirit (in our case, bourbon) must be the product of one season, and one distiller at one distillery. It has to be aged in a “bonded” warehouse under U.S. government supervision, and it has to stay there for at least four years. When bottled, it has to be 100 proof, and the bottle’s label has to clearly identify the distillery where it was made. Back in the day, because you knew what it was and where it came from, bottled in bond became a mark of quality during a time when there was a lot of rotgut circulating around the country.