Considering bourbon whiskey has reached its supernova point, its all-consuming legions made up of new drinkers and hobbyists alike, it is a little surprising that so little about the spirit known. Enthusiasts have railed against the industry for a lack of transparency for decades now, pushing for information on the age, mash bill, barrel entry proof, yeast, char levels and more. But there are more fundamental questions that remain unanswered, too. Questions like: what the hell does "small batch" mean? It's stamped on thousands of American whiskeys and some Scotches and international whiskies as well. What gives?
What Is Small Batch Bourbon?
There's no one definition for Small Batch whiskey. Here's how it's defined across the board.
Technically: It means nothing. The words "small batch" do not appear on the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (commonly referred to by its abbreviation, TTB) definitions.
"Small batch has no precise, defined, legal meaning, and even in practice, it is almost meaningless," Brian Haara, author of Bourbon Justice: How Whiskey Law Shaped America, says. "Some distillers or bottlers consider two to five barrels a small batch. Others use fifteen to twenty barrels. Still others use forty barrels or more."
Technically, you could slap "small batch" on the label of whiskey made in 1,000 barrel batches. The recently rebranded Evan Williams 1783 Small Batch is made in batches of "no more than 300 barrels," while Maker's Mark's mainline small batch offering is typically made in 30 to 40 barrel batches. This is why it's unlikely we'll ever get a hard-and-fast definition. Brands that work on massive scales market small batch products as often as mid-sized and small producers; because the term has never had legal meaning, giving it meaning now could undercut business big and small.
Allegedly: Whiskey marketing loves a craftsman. The depiction of a person — typically male, possibly wearing a straw hat — toiling away over mash cookers, slipping a thief into a barrel to get a taste and furrowing their brow until they're satisfied is a hallmark of whiskey lore. Cases of small batch whiskey are sold on the idea that a person is guiding the flavor profile.
"When our 6th generation Master Distiller, Booker Noe, released Knob Creek as part of the original Small Batch Bourbon Collection, the term 'small batch' was not previously used in connection to bourbon. As the pioneer of small batch bourbon, we seek to uphold Bookers’ standards of full flavor, craftsmanship and quality that define pre-prohibition whiskey," a representative for Beam-Suntory's Knob Creek told me. Because Knob Creek fans aren't exactly allowed in the engine room, it's difficult to know how much bearing the brand's past has on the present, but we can safely assume it's founded in truth, going back to a time when the scales of whiskey making leaned more art than science.
Realistically: Small batch means whiskey that's not vatted or single barrel. In bourbon parlance, vatting happens when numerous barrels are dumped into a vat and blended up without intentionality. The number of barrels used is as vague as the term "small batch," but it's implied to be a lot. Single barrel bourbon is simply whiskey that isn't blended, vatted or batched; it comes from a solitary barrel of bourbon. Beyond this, small batch doesn't hold much meaning. What might have meaning is knowing how many barrels go into a supposed "small batch," Haara says.
"The lesson here is that the term small batch tells the consumer nothing at all, unless the actual number of barrels is disclosed. Even then, the actual number of barrels does not mean that the bourbon will be decent or that 'small batch' has any advantage whatsoever over a vatted brand. The most important thing to know is whether the barrels selected for the batch were purposefully curated for what they contribute to the ultimate intentional flavor profile."
What does this all mean to you? Small batch bourbon is made in batches that are relatively smaller than the absolute maximum size batch a whiskey maker could produce, but probably a very large amount of whiskey all the same.