Learn how Bernie Lubbers became Bottled-in-Bond’s biggest fan

Bernie Lubbers’ condo is a model of neatness and eclecticism. Every liquor bottle on his bar is arranged as precisely as terracotta warriors, and the trio of guitars hanging above his couch surely required measurement, if not a plumb bob for centering.

Among the random collectibles on display, a pair of cash registers are among his favorite conversation pieces. Despite having no attachment to a beloved person, his past as a comedian or his present as national brand ambassador at Heaven Hill, he simply wanted them. They caught his eye, he bought them and lugged them—one weighs more than 300 pounds—to his dining room.

“I’m not really into antiques,” he says, nodding toward his modern kitchen. “But I like things like vintage watches—this old, everyday Bulova (on his wrist)—and these cash registers.”

What Lubbers admires is those machines’ utility, not their beauty. He says most cash register collectors seek models with gilded and filigreed exteriors; he prefers glam-free “workhorses … things that aren’t ornate but do the job right every time. I see these as the Bottled-in-Bonds of cash registers.”

Those who know Lubbers get the metaphor. Those who don’t get it will when they see one of his presentations. He doesn’t merely teach about Bottled-in-Bond Whiskeys; they’re part of his home’s décor and his business persona. A sign hanging over his living room entryway reads, “BONDED WAREHOUSE.” The front license plate on his 1960 Ford Thunderbird reads, “BONDED 100.” And the admirable expanse of his right biceps is colorfully tattooed with, “Bonded Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey 100 Proof.”

Understanding his two-decade passion for such humble Whiskeys is simple: He views them as the industry’s finest brown-liquor deals: well-priced, precisely proofed, adequately aged and versatile as neat sippers, poured over rocks or stirred into cocktails. And at Heaven Hill Distillery, he has many Bottled-in-Bond products to promote—far more than any other Whiskey brand ambassador in the country.

That their raison d’être is rooted in 19th Century legislation—specifically the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, which sought to reduce Whiskey manipulation by rectifiers—is a bonus to a man with a deep appreciation for Bourbon history.

“Stories are important to me personally and professionally,” he says. “And when you look at Bottled-in-Bond, there’s no shortage of stories.”

But first, some jokes

Lubbers grew up a fan of comedy, and as a child of the 1970s, he secretly stayed up past his bedtime watching Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.” Similar shows of the era introduced him to legends like Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Bob Newhart, Flip Wilson and Phyllis Diller—satirists whose routines he memorized and recited for friends.

“I figured out how much fun it was to make people laugh,” Lubbers says. He also impersonated teachers, friends’ parents, presidents and other famous people. “I guess I had a knack for it, and I loved the feeling of hanging a great quip.”

After college, he worked in banking but loathed the work and its meager pay. On a whim, he signed up for an open mic night at a comedy club in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and won its $25 top prize—not just that night, but many nights thereafter. When the bank offered to make him a vice president, he rejected the idea to become a professional comedian.

“I made $750 the first week I was in comedy,” Lubbers recalls. “And while that doesn’t sound like a lot, I was making $750 a month in banking, which I hated. I was all in. I loved it!”

And comedy fans loved Lubbers. His 20-year career in it took him to 160 cities across the U.S. and onto “The Bob & Tom” radio show, a nationally syndicated program that highlighted up-and-coming comedians. There, some 6 million listeners heard him cut up and sing amusing songs he’d written.

“What was amazing was when I wasn’t even there, they were playing my songs to 6 million people,” Lubbers recalls. “Then I’d play those songs in clubs, and the audience would be singing them back to me.”

Unknown to him, what would lead to his future career in Whiskey was a Whiskey-centric song he wrote. “It killed every time and became the crescendo of the show,” he says. The tune even caught the attention of liquor industry types who wanted him to promote their brands. Incentivized by free T-shirts and some occasional cash, he toasted the crowd at the end of the show by encouraging them to drink whatever brand he mentioned.

Before long, industry folk recognized that Lubbers’ entertaining style would work in educating and entertaining Whiskey sales professionals and customers. He could teach people Whiskey history using facts and applicable stories, jokes and songs.

Lubbers says his affinity for Whiskey antiquity was piqued by bottle labels bearing the all-capped word, “BONDED.” Such labels stood out on back bars and he requested them in his drinks. Not only were they good, they intrigued him enough to investigate their backstories.

“My dad was a Whiskey drinker, and when I told him I was drinking Bottled-in-Bond, he said, ‘That’s the good stuff!’” he recalls. “My mom heard me say I was drinking a certain Bottled-in-Bond, and she said, ‘That’s good, but it’s no Old Fitzgerald!’”

Eventually, Lubbers was lured away from comedy to become a brand ambassador for a Whiskey distillery. There, he found coworkers who were equally smitten with Bourbon history, and they joined him on a deep dive into Bottled-in-Bond. That passion for the category became a virtual trademark for his presentations.

“When I started, I told myself that Bottled-in-Bond was going to be my thing, that something which would make me different,” says Lubbers, who along with a pair of ambassador coworkers, dubbed themselves “The Whiskey Professors.”

Their work was recognized in 2009 when all three shared the award for Global Ambassador of the Year at the Icons of Whisky Awards in London. In 2012, just before moving over to Heaven Hill Distillery, he again shared the American Whiskey Brand Ambassador award at the Icons of Whisky – America. And in 2016, the same body awarded him American Whiskey Brand Ambassador of the Year.

Upon arrival at Heaven Hill Distillery, Lubbers was thrilled to have multiple Bottled-in-Bond Whiskeys to promote. But with Bourbon only then approaching its future boom, convincing distributors, bartenders and consumers to care about arguably obscure products was challenging. Elevating Bottled-in-Bond Whiskeys’ status would take persistence and passion, and Lubbers resolved to do it.

“It took some convincing the powers that be that we had some real gems in these Bottled-in-Bonds,” Lubbers says. “Once Henry McKenna won (Whiskey of the Year at the San Francisco International Spirits Competition) in 2019, the industry as a whole took notice and started looking at our Bottled-in-Bond offerings differently.”

No surprises here

Among those in American Whiskey who know him, none is surprised by Lubbers’ success. Denny Potter, a past Heaven Hill Distillery master distiller, worked with Lubbers for many years and was amazed by his ability to connect so readily with Whiskey pros and consumers.

“That he takes such pride in something like Bottled-in-Bond, because of its full transparency, that absolutely made me appreciate the category more,” says Potter. “He takes explaining how to read and understand a Whiskey label and makes it the coolest thing out there.”

Indeed, Lubbers views that in-depth Whiskey label education as his most significant contribution to the industry. Words on labels are born of U.S. government regulations, not marketing verbiage, he says, and distilleries must earn the right to use such language by producing Whiskeys that meet those high standards.

“Those words are like medals that military people earn and wear on their uniforms: they’re not easy to achieve,” he says. “Since you can’t get around government regulations on your labels, you have to earn those awards.”

Jack Choate, Heaven Hill Distillery’s West Coast Whiskey ambassador, says Lubbers’ nonchalance makes him uniquely relatable to all audiences, whether professional or Whiskey newbies.

“When you say to someone, ‘I’ve got this new bottle,’ no one wants to talk to you,” Choate says. “But when you know how to tell stories, listen to others’ stories—and sometimes joke about yourself to start a conversation—that’s when you get to talk about Whiskey. Bernie does all that naturally.”

A Bottled-in-Bond Tasting

For those looking to try some Bottled-in-Bonds at home, Lubbers recommends starting with a tasting flight of these mashbills: Bourbon, Rye Whiskey and Corn Whiskey. His basic tasting includes Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond, Rittenhouse Rye and Mellow Corn. Because these products are all Bottled-in-Bonds, they’re all 100 proof which levels the playing field.

“These demonstrate three different styles of Whiskeys made according to the standards of Bottled-in-Bond,” he begins. “The difference between the Bourbon and Rye is obvious because of their mashbills, but Mellow Corn demonstrates the difference made by aging in used barrels versus newly charred barrels.”

For those looking to elevate this tasting experience into the premium category, our 7-year-old Heaven Hill Bottled-in-Bond can swap in as the Bourbon, and a Wheated Bourbon such as the historic Old Fitzgerald Bottled-in Bond can be added into the mix.

Asked about his favorite Heaven Hill Distillery Bottled-in-Bond, Lubbers says, “Whichever I’m drinking at that moment, honestly. I know I talk a lot about Mellow Corn, but I really enjoy them all because each is unique. You can’t go wrong with any of them.”

Discover Our American Whiskey


You've heard of Evan, Elijah, and Larceny. Now discover our entire American Whiskey portfolio.