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Many of the terms that tend to appear on whiskey bottles aren’t immediately obvious to the consumer in terms of their definition. As a result, parsing the meaning of a phrase like “small batch” on a bottle of bourbon can be difficult, leaving the buyer with no clear idea of what they’re supposed to take away from it, other than a vague impression of “quality.” This is by intent—we’ve been raised as consumers to increasingly romanticize “artisanal” products as luxury items, and a bottle of bourbon from higher than the bottom shelf is still seen as a luxury to many. And an artisanal product isn’t one produced in bulk—it’s one produced in “small” batches, projecting more of a “made by hand” vibe.
The whiskey industry seized on this kind of imagery in the last few decades, with the term “small batch” first rising to prominence in the 1990s to describe pioneering bourbons such as Heaven Hill’s Elijah Craig or Jim Beam’s Knob Creek. Today, “small batch” releases are plentiful, and hail from many of the industry’s bigger players: George Dickel, Maker’s Mark, Four Roses, Barton 1792, Willett, Buffalo Trace and many more. But what do those words really mean? And when you see them on a label, what does the term imply about that whiskey?
The most immediately straightforward answer is that there’s no federal definition for or regulation of the term “small batch”—it is essentially a label that was created by the industry itself, and is used to imply a certain style of product that typically exists in what we’d label as the “mid-shelf” of the whiskey aisle. It is, however, distinct from “single barrel” bourbons, which I’ll explain more fully momentarily.
As used by the industry, “small batch” implies a whiskey that has been created from a relatively smaller, purposefully limited number of barrels, which have been blended together to create the liquid that goes into your bottle. This is the same process that is used for the production of mass-market flagship bourbons, albeit on a considerably smaller scale, which allows for a bit more heterogeneity and variation from batch to batch. Whereas each batch of something like Jim Beam White Label or Jack Daniels might be made from thousands of barrels, for instance, many small batch bourbons are made in batches of 20 barrels or less. That allows carefully hand-picked, prized barrels to give a greater degree of influence to the final blend, which fits in the marketing of small batch bourbons as a more premium product.
Small batch whiskeys exist across a range of styles, from traditional bourbon, to wheated bourbon, to Tennessee whiskeys.
Contrast that again with single barrel whiskeys, which are exactly what they sound like. A bourbon labeled as “single barrel” is indeed being bottled directly from a single oak cask, which means that one barrel likely produced roughly 125-200 bottles of whiskey, depending on proof and evaporation. Single barrels unsurprisingly have far more variation—every barrel has the capacity to taste vastly different depending on how the liquid inside fared during aging. In small batch bourbons, the greater number of barrels in play makes the eventual product more consistent, without sacrificing every bit of subtle variation. Therefore, they sit between the homogeneity of the flagship products and the wild variation of single barrels.
However, the industry idea of what connotes “small batch” varies wildly from distillery to distillery, as each company is essentially free to define the term to their own preference. At George Dickel, for instance, only 10 barrels are used in the blending of each batch of their small batch Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey. Willett similarly defines the term as 12 barrels or less per batch, while Maker’s Mark sets the level at 1,000 gallons, which equates to about 19 barrels. However, the numbers can go far higher as well: Heaven Hill originally made Elijah Craig Small Batch by dumping 100 barrels per batch, but increased that number to 200 back in 2016 when the brand lost its 12-year age statement. The point is, a larger number doesn’t necessarily imply a product that is in any way inferior … it’s just more likely to be more consistent, as the number continues to climb.
The lack of a concrete definition doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t know what to expect in reaching for a “small batch” bourbon on the shelf, and this is thanks to the industry eventually coalescing some general practices that are present in almost all bourbons labeled as “small batch.”
If you’re buying a small batch bourbon, then, you can likely expect the following:
— It may not carry an age statement—because there’s no federal need for it to have one, to be labeled “small batch”—but it’s likely a more well-aged product than the rank and file basic bourbons that are found on the bottom shelf. Even after losing its age statement, for instance, Elijah Craig Small Batch has been made from barrels that range from 8-12 years in age, which is still fairly senior as far as bourbon is concerned—especially when bourbons need only two years in oak to be called “straight.” Other small batch brands typically follow suit: Four Roses Small Batch, for instance, is at least 6 years in age, despite the fact that the company doesn’t advertise with age statements at all. And Knob Creek Small Batch recently regained its 9-year age statement after losing it in 2016.
— Many small batch bourbons are found at noticeably higher strengths than the baseline of 80 proof (40% ABV) that is the federal standard for bourbon. They may be only a scooch higher, in the 84 or 86 range, but many are found between 90 and 100, where the difference is felt more strongly. In addition to the higher age points, these higher strengths also denote most small batch bourbons as a more premium product than flagship bourbons.
— The last two bullets, in conjunction, translate to a higher price point than the biggest budget bourbon brands, which put most small batch bourbons solidly into the middle shelf. I’m talking price points roughly between $25-50 here. In that range, you can find the likes of Elijah Craig Small Batch, 1792 Small Batch, Four Roses Small Batch, Knob Creek, Russell’s Reserve 10 Year, and many others. These are all quality brands marked by their versatility—they’re nice enough for neat drinking, but not so expensive that you feel bad using them for cocktails or mixed drinks as well. They make up the essence of what the “mid-shelf” is all about, before you start getting into more rarefied air.
And that’s really all there is to it, when it comes to small batch whiskeys. Many of these brands have become beloved workhorses of the bourbon industry, and function as gateways for aspiring whiskey geeks to cut their teeth on more flavorful spirits before truly going off the deep end and exploring limited releases and barrel proof offerings. Ultimately, they’re likely to end up as some of your old friends in whiskey—the bottle you turn to at the end of a long weekday when it’s time to unwind.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.