Asking us to choose between whiskey (we’re talking bourbon here, made primarily with corn and aged in charred oak barrels) and whisky (single malt scotch) is like posing the question, “Would you prefer to drive a C2 Corvette Split Window or a Jaguar E-Type?” The answer is always “both and yes”. But if you’re a single malt devotee, you’d do right to expand your taste horizons, and the best way to experiment with bourbon is to go small batch — the complexities are pleasing, and you’ll find yourself a worshiper in many different temples. Small batch bourbons are, essentially, the cream of the crop, having emerged from a relatively low number of oak aging barrels. Though there’s no hard and fast rule about what that number is, small batch bourbons typically consist of no more than about 10-20 barrels and are aged for as few as 5 years and as many as 23.
Of course, age doesn’t always equate to great — our individual palates respond differently. But cue the ceremonial horns when a good small batch with rich amber hues and fragrant notes makes it to your glass. You’re getting something exclusive, something doted over by loving makers. The variety available now is impressive, and the flavors and drinking experiences (mixed, as well as straight) run the gamut. There’s a lot to love. Here are tasting notes on five small batch bourbons we recommend to warm your palate (and maybe a share with a few lucky friends).
Blanton’s Single Barrel
Best Bourbon for the Traditionalist: Considered the first real single barrel bourbon ever made, Blanton’s is a wonderful experience — visually, as well as by way of mouth. The bottle is unlike anything we’ve ever seen; it’s an angular orb with Blanton’s signature horse and jockey stopper (collect all eight types to spell “BLANTONS”, even more motivation to consume). You’ll be distracted by both the bottle and the rich amber coloring, but that delay is only temporary. Once you crack it open, you’ll get vanilla, orange, chocolate and a faint nutty scent on the nose. It’s a pleasurable whiff. Not as impactful as others on this list at 93 proof, Blanton’s is nevertheless a cornucopia of various flavors — sugar, orange peel, caramel, vanilla and even some cloves. The initial palate is medium- to full-bodied and the finish tapers off in enjoyable mildness. We even conducted our own mini horse race after several “samples”.
Four Roses Single Barrel
Best Bourbon for the Outdoorsman: Four Roses’ array of bourbons seems to know no limits, and their Single Barrel iteration sits at the top of the heap for full-bodied flavor and potency. Even more than the complex nose filled with spice, fruit, chocolate and a slight floral air, the initial hit to the palate is huge, warm, and rich, welcoming you to the spirit with big open arms full of spice and fruit. You can surely cut it, but we’d recommend taking it neat first: the long, mellow finish belies its bold start. Four Roses Single Barrel is 100 proof but imparts power like it’s a few rungs up. Imagine a bitter cold day doing all manner of manly stuff in the frozen outdoors, capped off with this soothing elixir in a heavy lowball glass. The thought is almost reward enough.
Best Bourbon for the Elder Statesman: The gorgeous bottle looks like it was pulled from a soldier’s war chest, with its wide and flat shape topped off by a nice wooden stopper. Pop the stopper and you’ll smell brown sugar, some cinnamon and apples. It parks on the tongue with many of the same notes — brown sugar, cinnamon, maple syrup and even a bit of vanilla and mild black pepper. Just picking out the individual flavors slows life’s pace a bit — and, of course, the alcohol helps in the unwinding process, too.
The finish directly reflects the hint of traditional charred wood pulled from the casks, along with some dry spiciness. At 90 proof, it’s not full-bodied and quite drinkable as a result. How do we know? Well, let’s just say a good portion of it was consumed on one fine summer evening with a few ice cubes as happy casualties to our arduous taste test.
Best Bourbon for the Daily Imbiber: This one surprised us. It’s bottled in, of all places, San Francisco using Kentucky bourbon. But unlike traditional bourbons, it’s not aged in charred oak casks, instead using white oak to lend to a milder and sweeter bourbon. Its bottle isn’t unique, but we were blown away by the gentle yet complex flavors of caramel, vanilla, apples and spice, with some of the smoothest mouthfeel of the bunch coming at 90 proof. This is a bourbon that’s pleasurable from start to finish — and extremely consistent. We could sip our way through bottle after bottle (over a long period of time, mind you) without growing tired of it. It made for a particularly delicious Manhattan, going toe-to-toe with our favorite ryes in that department. Even though it’s quite affordable, you’ll find yourself going back for more substantial reasons.
Best Bourbon for the Connoisseur: If you’re just getting started with whiskey, this might be one you save for later when your manhood quotient climbs a few notches. Noah’s Mill is a cask strength bourbon, likely aged at 15 years, though the label doesn’t indicate it. Though not for the faint of heart, it is truly rewarding.
For nearly $50, the bottle isn’t especially fancy, with a rustic label that looks rudimentary but still attractive, as if this should be consumed in a chunky wood cabin next to a roaring fire. Break the wax seal and you’ll be exposed to bourbon richness of the highest order. The initial nose is full of very noticeable brown sugar, with hints of leather and caramel, but it’s easily overwhelmed when it wallops your tongue with potency. At first the 114.3 proof was almost hard to take, frankly. But then it quickly warmed — and the flavors started to appear. The brown sugar is right there, followed by leather and wood dryness, which take over pleasantly. It could have been the cigar we enjoyed while drinking it, but we swear we got a bit of tobacco flavor in the mix, too. The finish is long, like a high proof liquor should have. Let it linger and think about the finer things in life.