Small Batch Bourbon

Thursday May 16, 2024

What is ‘small batch’ bourbon?

You’ll see the term ‘small batch’ banded around a lot these days. It’s a term that conjures images of ‘overall clad’ distillers, feverishly working over a tiny pot still, to lovingly fill a few casks. Images of artisan distillers selecting their very finest casks to blend into their very best releases. While this certainly is true for a lot of the craft distilleries, it’s definitely not the case for others.

It should firstly be stated, that the term ‘small batch’ has no official designation and therefore is wide open to interpretation. It could be argued that the term ‘small batch’ simply means a batch that is smaller than the norm, as much as it means a small overall batch.

Of late, the influence of the craft distillery movement in the US, has been increasingly felt by the big conglomerate distilleries. Although the actual overall output of the US craft sector is only a small percentage of the overall market share, their overall influence on the industry has been huge and cannot be denied. It has been said that this is why we now see small distilleries being bought out by the big brands, to identify their brands with boutique and craft, in an attempt to make their whole image seem more ‘wholesome.

The ‘small batch’ phenomenon was created by Booker Noe, master distiller at the Jim Beam distillery. He reportedly brought home samples from his favourite barrels and blended them at his kitchen table as gifts for family and friends. This in turn led to the creation of Bookers ‘small batch’ bourbon. Undeniably, a fantastic cask strength bourbon, it is however, blended in batches of 1000 barrels at a time and some might argue, that there is nothing small about the size of these batches. In reality, 1000 barrels is considerably more than most small scale craft producers could hope to produce in 10 years, so perhaps this puts the scale into perspective. However, considering that 1000 barrels is no more than one mornings production for Jim Beam, it’s undeniably far less than their usual blending, so is in fact ‘small’ for them.

Of course, the argument can be turned on it’s head. The big guys can make legitimate claim that this was their creation in the first place and the craft sector have hijacked their term because they are small. They could also say that every batch of a craft producer can be classified as ‘small batch’ by virtue of the volume they produce.

So, is the argument that the term means a small percentage of overall production output, or does it merely mean it’s a small total quantity? Both arguments have merit.

The term isn’t just applied to bourbon or even whiskey. Rum and other spirits are classified in this way too. And why not, if there is no official classification.

At Penrock, I classify my rum as small batch releases because that is exactly what they are. Although I don’t have to classify at all, I feel it is legitimate to call my releases just that, as our batches are no more than one hundred or one hundred and fifty 50cl bottles. I would confidently say that any one of the big distilleries spill more in an hour than the total volume of one of our batches.

So in conclusion, all I can say, is that you should buy what you like to drink. However, maybe next time you’re selecting your favourite tipple, take a moment to consider whether your favourite bottle is a small batch by ‘percentage of total output’ or small batch by ‘overall size of batch’ or if it even makes any difference to what you purchase.

Other articles about our Whiskey, Rum and Spirits

Our jounal about Whiskey, Rum and our process and how we do it the old fashioned Tennessee way

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