Small-batch bourbon is often found next to single-barrel bourbon in most liquor stores. It is very easy to confuse the two as both are premium bourbons and are admired for their taste and quality. Small batch evidently points to the bourbon coming from a smaller selection of barrels, but what benchmark is used to determine that?
Small-batch bourbon is bourbon made from 10 to 15 barrels on average. When a distillery has less than 50 barrels, it is considered a small batch producer. Sometimes, distilleries with up to 200 barrels are considered small batch, but the general consensus is that over 50 barrels is too high a number.
In this article, you will learn what it means for bourbon to be bottled from a small batch. You will find its strong points as well as its drawbacks, so you can decide objectively if small-batch bourbon is good for you. But before we get into the merits and demerits of a small batch, let’s differentiate it from a single barrel.
What Is The Difference Between Single Barrel And Small Batch Bourbon?
Because the small batch label and the single barrel label are indicative of premium quality, they are confused with each other. Small Batch and Single barrel are two different categorizations, though.
Single barrel bourbon refers to bourbon aged in a single barrel, while small batch bourbon refers to bourbon made in just over ten barrels. Single barrel bourbon can be made in a small batch distillery, while small batch bourbon can contain a single barrel’s contents.
In other words, the two types of bourbon are not mutually exclusive. Any bourbon made on a small scale is considered a small batch. If the liquor is aged in individual barrels and is not blended, it is considered a single barrel.
Single barrel bourbon can be made in 5,000-barrel facilities, while a small batch bourbon can feature vattings from a dozen barrels. The two categories are neither mutually exclusive nor correlated. While single barrel bourbon is considered “premium,” small batch single barrel bourbon is the true premium liquor.
Why Is Small Batch Better?
Small batch bourbon is better because of the attention and quality implications of distilling on a small scale. Bourbon made in large warehouses is not aged with as much attention. Often, rickhouses are designed to automate aging with little to no barrel rotation or movement.
In contrast, small batch bourbon is aged in smaller facilities where more attention is paid to each cask. This produces better quality bourbon. The element of authenticity comes from the fact that smaller businesses produce small batch whiskeys, which adds a human element to the liquor. On the other hand, large corporate labels are slapped on mass-produced bourbon, and many seasoned drinkers avoid supermarket-tier bourbon made on such a scale.
While the quality and authenticity aspects can ring true, they are not objective. Rickhouse bourbon made in a well-designed facility that houses thousands of barrels is likely to age homogenously compared to a small batch where the barrels are rotated by hand.
The addition of human element also introduces the potential for human error. Small batch bourbon can be inconsistently aged, and its taste can vary from barrel to barrel. Most often, the quality control department of the distillery filters out bad batches and inconsistent liquor so the consumer doesn’t have to worry about poor barrel rotation and bad aging practices.
Generally, warehouses with 50 to 100 barrels where the casks need to be moved by hand have the highest chance of human error. Truly small batches have far too much attention paid to them to have such issues.
How Many Barrels Are In A Small Batch Bourbon?
There are 10 to 15 barrels in a small batch, though facilities housing up to 50 barrels also label their liquor as small batch too. Some distilleries with 200 barrels consider their whiskeys to be products of a small batch.
Because there is no hard-and-fast regulation around the term, some distilleries can push it. Genuine small batch whiskey is made in less than 20 barrels. Liquor aficionados argue that if a facility cannot be managed by one worker, it is not a small-batch establishment.
Generally, 6 to 12 people work on small batch distillation so a batch of 50 barrels can be given the right amount of attention. But for top-shelf quality and authenticity, the batch needs to have around 10 barrels.
Are 50 Barrels Small Batch?
Many seasoned whiskey drinkers would dismiss 50-barrel distilleries as medium batch products and reserve the small batch label for a dozen barrels or less. That, however, isn’t how the broader whiskey market categorizes small batch whiskey.
50 barrels is considered a small batch by most whiskey and bourbon producers. It is relative to their operation, though. A distillery that usually ages its bourbon in a 2000-barrel rickhouse would consider a 200-barrel warehouse a small batch.
On the other hand, a family-run distillery where the 200-barrel warehouse is the largest aging facility, a 20-barrel shed would be a small batch.
Small batch whiskey or bourbon is admired for the care and attention involved in its distillation. Most liquor drinkers have misconceptions regarding the smallness of the small batch of whiskey they buy. The fact that a small batch might feature 10 barrels makes one think of each bottle as carefully aged by hand.
By actually understanding how many bottles can be in a small batch, one can rationally recognize the extent of care involved in the process.
How Many Bottles Are In A Small Batch?
On the high end, a small batch of bourbon can produce 14,000 bottles, while on the low end, it can produce 2,530 bottles. Either way, a small batch produces more bottles than an individual can count. So if you’re under the assumption that each bottle is produced with extreme attention and care in a small batch, you need to understand that a barrel can house 253 to 271 bottles.
So, even when a small batch has only 10 barrels, the care involved doesn’t extend past the barrel. Bottles are filled like regular tap filling, but the actual yield of the small batch is prepared with more attention. The table below shows how barrels translate to bottles in different iterations of a “small batch.”
|Number of Barrels in a Small Batch||Number of Bottles Per Barrel||Total Bottles in a Small Batch|
As you can see, “small batch,” isn’t that small after all with a minimum of 2000 bottles coming out of a standard small batch label. This disputes the overall assumption of bespoke distillation. So, is small batch bourbon worth it when a bottle is one of tens of thousands it produces? Let’s see.
Pros Of Small Batch Bourbon
Small Batch Bourbon is made from an average of 10 to 20 barrels. There are a few advantages associated with small-scale distillation, but whether they justify the price of a small batch liquor is up to the customer. Many small batch lovers swear by the quality of their bourbon, while others are happy with single barrel bourbon from larger facilities. To decide whether a small batch liquor is right for you, you must know its following advantages.
Individuality Of Flavor
When it comes to small batch bourbon that is blended in-house, the resulting flavors can be interesting. Whether a small batch bourbon is a single barrel or a blend of a small batch, the drink’s flavor is unlike mass-produced liquor. That said, taste is quite subjective and you might dislike how a small barrel bourbon tastes. But most bourbon consumers agree that small batch generally tastes better.
Attention In Aging
Small batch bourbon has the advantage of attention associated with small-scale operations. This is particularly true for 10-barrel batches, as they are taken care of and paid attention to on a level that isn’t possible with hundred-barrel batches. The attention to aging ties into the next major advantage as it affects the liquor’s quality.
Quality Of Liquor
Generally, a small batch bourbon is a better quality product than its mass-produced equivalent. A single-barrel bourbon produced in a 500-barrel facility is inferior in quality to a single barrel bourbon produced in a 10-barrel facility. The same also holds true for blended liquors.
Authenticity Of Liquor
This aspect is highly subjective and not always valid. But generally, small-batch distilleries aren’t faceless corporations and can be family-owned businesses. A distillery with a family legacy and hands-on-deck distillation is bound to produce a whiskey that tastes more authentic. That said, any corporation can create a small-batch subsidiary, so the batch size cannot be seen as representative of authenticity.
Cons Of Small Batch Bourbon
Now that you know the advantages of small batch bourbon, it is time to look at its drawbacks so you can make an informed decision regarding buying a small batch liquor. Here are the main disadvantages of small batch bourbon.
It Costs More
The main drawback of small batch is the cost drawback. The economy of scale that allows you to pay less for regular bourbon is absent in a small operation. As a result, you end up paying more per bottle when buying it. If the taste advantage is worth it, then you would be happy to pay the premium. But if you don’t like its taste, its higher price would sting more. This brings us to the taste-related disadvantage.
Its Taste Can Vary From Batch To Batch
While many bourbon lovers pay the premium for small batch bottles, even they would admit that not all bourbon that comes from a small-batch facility tastes the same. The human aspect of aging and blending does add an air of authenticity to the bourbon, but it also removes the mechanized consistency that comes from set-and-forget distillation.
One batch of a specific bourbon might taste really good, but the next time you buy a bottle, you cannot get the exact same taste if it belongs to the next batch. Some like the slight variation, and others get used to it. But they wouldn’t have to learn to be okay with slight flavor shifts if they got a mass-produced liquor.
Its Flavor Might Not Be Subtle
Small batch bourbon has a raw feel, which some consumers admire. But if you’ve consumed whiskey made in large-scale distilleries, you will be shocked at how over-the-top and non-complex small batch bourbon can taste.
This is particularly true for blended bourbon made from a small batch. Larger facility has the ability to blend bourbon from a wider range of age profiles, which isn’t a luxury that small batch producers do.
How To Pick Small Batch Bourbon?
Now that you understand what to expect from a small batch bourbon, it is time to establish the best practices that will help you pick out the best boubon that entails all the advantages and side steps the potential drawbacks of a small batch liquor. Follow these practices to select a small batch bourbon.
- Consider its origin – Generally, you should disregard bourbon not made in the US. Given that bourbon is an American drink, no distillery abroad is likely to do a better job than the ones at home.
- Check out the online reviews – From American distilleries, you can narrow down the best ones making small batch liquor by going through online reviews. While individual reviews feature subjective conclusions regarding taste and flavor, the aggregate of multiple reviews is usually pretty reliable.
- Smell and sample the liquor – After assessing online reviews and picking out a handful of bourbons, it is time to sample the liquor. Remember to smell and slowly taste each bourbon to establish the one that tastes the best to you.
- Read up on the production practice of the facility – It also helps to read up on how many barrels there are in a “small batch” of the brands you plan to buy.
- Go small with your first purchase – No matter how much you like the taste of a specific brand of small batch bourbon, you’d be better off buying a smaller bottle in the beginning. You can always buy more if you genuinely enjoy the bourbon over the long run.
Final Thoughts on Small Batch Bourbon
Small Batch bourbon is bourbon distilled from a small batch of barrels. These could be aged individually or blended for flavor.
Small Batch liquors are admired for the attention and care they receive throughout the aging process but are also disliked for tasting different from batch to batch.
Consider the pros and cons covered in this article before buying a small batch bourbon. And if you choose to buy one, make sure to follow the best practices listed above.