Over the past decade, whiskey has reached new heights in its meteoric rise on the international stage.
Legions of new drinkers and aficionados are on the lookout for more and more whiskey varieties to try.
Along the way, there's one question that often crops up. What is the definition of "small batch" anyway? And where is "small" compared to "artisanal or craft"?
They want to know details about where these whiskeys come from, how they are made, and where their special names come from.
However, there are two major challenges that most people face when they first try to learn more about whiskey.
First, there were so many brands of whiskey on the market that we could not possibly taste them all and choose one that we liked best.
Second, with so many brands on the market, it was almost impossible to get good, detailed information about them all.
We read the labels and tried to piece together clues, but the information on the internet often leaves us even more confused than we were before.
In this post, we will try to tackle the second problem. For the first, unfortunately, there is nothing better than direct experience.
So, keep sampling that whiskey! To help you along, read Gentleman’s Guide to Drinking Whiskey Etiquette
Is There a Legal Definition of Small Batch?
According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (commonly abbreviated TTB), the words "Small Batch" dare not defined in their regulations or standards.
However, the TTB does not penalize distilleries that use the term.
In fact, the TTB says it does not crack down on every whiskey label because of its content; it only cares that the label complies with regulations about what can and can not appear.
As a result, "small batch" has no precise, defined, legal meaning. Even in practice, the term is almost meaningless.
Some distillers or bottlers consider two to five barrels to be a small batch. Others use fifteen to twenty barrels. Still, others use forty barrels or more.
So What is Small Batch Whiskey Then?
What exactly a "small batch" brand could mean is anyone's guess, but people have been guessing about it ever since they started lining up in stores to buy a bottle.
What people think they know is that smaller batches require more care than larger batches and that the distiller takes more time to write descriptions and come up with names.
Maybe that's what "small batch" really means: he wrote the name on a piece of paper, stared at it for a few moments, and sighed before tossing it in the trash can with the others.
Then he took another piece of paper, wrote something down, and thought about it for a moment before throwing it away.
Eventually, he found what he was looking for and decided on a name that he felt was fitting for his product.
Small Batch has no real meaning beyond implying that the distiller cares about what he is making.
However, there have been attempts to give meaning to Small Batch.
For example, some brands state that they use only 10 to 60 barrels or less for their brand (rather than just saying it's a small batch), so potential customers can infer that those few barrels were carefully selected from the many barrels available to them.
This information is meant to give the buyer a sense of value that they may not have with other small-batch brands or with whiskey in general.
Although many people believe that Small Batch means better quality, there is no real reason to assume that.
Further, many people believe that a single barrel implies better quality, there's no real reason to assume that either.
Different companies use different methods to select barrels for their small batches or single barrels.
Methods range from manual selection of barrels by the master distiller to even selection of barrels by throwing darts at the barrels in the warehouse!
What Does This All Mean to You?
Much like terms like "Craft Distilling" and "Artisanal," "Small Batch" is mostly used as a marketing term.
That said, in the spirit of supporting the little guy (most small batch whiskeys are produced by small distilleries, but that's not always the case), I certainly do not want to discourage you from buying whiskeys labeled "Small Batch."
As matter of fact, some of the best whiskeys you can find today are "small batch" whiskeys.
This is thanks to the ever-growing number of passionate industry experts who are willing to break from mould and experiment with new recipes and whiskey-making techniques.
Their goal is to create a whiskey that tastes like whiskey used to taste.
Attention is paid to every detail, from how the grain is grown and how it is malted to fermentation, distillation, and the effects of the maturation process on the whiskey.
That's a good thing. It means that there are distillers who are paying attention to every detail of whiskey making.
These new whiskey makers are starting to create spirits that are unique in flavor and distinctive in character.
They are working hard to bring back some of the flavor and complexity that the big brands have stripped away.
This innovation is a breath of fresh air in an industry where more effort goes into hiring the best marketing teams than improving the product line itself.
In the introduction, I highlighted two of the biggest challenges whiskey connoisseurs and beginners alike face.
1. There are so many brands of whiskey on the market that we couldn't taste them all in one lifetime.
2. It's hard to get good, detailed information about the whiskeys that pique our interest.
Well, the very same exact issues plague this corner of the whiskey industry known as "small batch" whiskey.
Nevertheless, the lack of concrete definitions and classifications of "small batch" should in no way prevent you from enjoying whiskey.
Good whiskey is good whiskey whether it's labeled small batch or it’s a mainstream brand.
While we are not going to make any specific recommendations on the "best" small-batch whiskeys, if you were looking for some actual recommendations, take a minute and check out this post by Inside Hook.
It features some respected whiskey experts sharing their definition of "small batch" whiskey as well as their recommendations on specific small batch and craft whiskeys.