Whiskey (or whisky, if it’s Scotch) can seem like a bewildering hodgepodge of meaningless distinctions. Even once you find a distiller you like, you’ll see that they have several different types of whiskey. Some are more expensive. If you like one, should you try the other? So, you decide to try some bourbon. You pick a brand that has good reviews, then you notice that they have a bunch of different kinds of bourbon. There is a Small Batch Bourbon, and Single Barrel (or Single Batch) Bourbon. There may even be another bottle without either of these distinctions. They may all say that they are Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. What gives?
You’ll notice that the price of the bourbon tends to go from lower to higher, starting with the standard offering at the lowest amount, and ending with the single batch whiskey for the highest cost. Of course, there may be even more types to choose from. But these are the most common ones that confuse people. The best way to understand this, is to look at one brand.
Four Roses Bourbon, a legendary bourbon that went on a long hiatus but is now back is a great bourbon indeed. They have three basic bottles of bourbon: Four Roses Yellow, Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon, and Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon. However, they don’t just make 3 different bourbons and put them into bottles. They actually make 10 different recipes at any one time. Each of these bourbons are aged separately in white oak barrels. Each of these recipes has a different combination of corn and rye, and malted barley, the three main grains used to make bourbon whiskey their whiskey. As well, as they age, they will all age their own way, adding to their uniqueness.
Four Roses Yellow Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey (named for the yellow label) uses a precise blend of all 10 distinct recipes. Now, I’ve never toured the distillery but going by other distillers, I’d imagine that an expert taster (or more than one) carefully blends just the right amount of each recipe to get the signature taste they are looking for. It is a smooth and fruity bourbon without a lot of spice, but a nice mellow finish.
Notice that it is called Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. This has a legal definition. It must be made up of at least 51% corn, be distilled at no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume), barreled at no higher than 125 proof (62.5% ABV) and bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume). Most bourbon then, you will find, has a lower than maximum proof.
Now, all these requirements are true of bourbon in general. But to be called Straight Bourbon whiskey, it must be aged at least two years. If it is aged for less than four years, it must have an age statement. This means that if you don’t see an age statement the bourbon was aged for four years or more. Remember that it is a mix of different barrels. So, if you see an age listed on the bottle, it will refer to the age of the youngest barrel in the mix. It can contain no added colorings, flavorings, or additional spirits, like, perhaps, neutral grain spirits. All of Four Roses offerings are, then, Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Beyond this there is no special significance to the term, except for one.
In fact, if you look at Four Roses ten bourbon recipes, you’ll see that the code for each recipe has an “O” which designates that it was produced at the Four Roses Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. Why label the recipes with something so obvious? Because, to be called Straight Bourbon Whiskeythey all have to be produced in the same state. If these requirements are met, as many different barrels as desired can be mixed. So the word straight has nothing to do with it being a single whiskey. Contrary to popular belief, bourbon does not have to come from Kentucky, though most does.
Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon is a blend of four of the distinct recipes. The flavor is spicier and a bit richer. Still a lot of fruit and still very mellow. The Single Barrel Bourbon is just ONE of the recipes, hand selected.
But here is where the misconceptions come in, and why whiskey snobs so often give you bad advice. There is not a standard number of batches used in a “small batch” bourbon. By extension, of course, that means there is no standard number of batches at all, except for single batch, which, of course, is just a single barrel. Four Roses might use 10 for their Yellow Label, and 4 for their Small Batch, but others could use few or more. Sometimes many more. For instance, Elijah Craig Bourbon (another bourbon to try before you die) claims to use “fewer than 80 barrels mixed together.” Now, how many actual recipes that means is anybody’s guess, as each barrel is still a bit different, regardless. Like Four Roses, they call mixing the bourbons together “marrying.” This may be to get away from the negative connotation that blended sometimes has, because of whiskeys that contain blends of aged malt whiskeys and neutral grain spirits (and other fillers) that are called Blended whiskeys.
You may have been told that it is always best to go with a single batch or a single barrel. Well, as you can see, with a single batch bourbon, the distiller has one chance to bottle a whiskey you will like. The distiller is looking for that one special batch that has just the precise qualities it is looking for. When found, this can mean shear perfection. This makes sense, given that no matter how good you are, blending could never be a precise art. If you find the perfect taste, rather than trying to create it, you are finding something quite rare. This is why single barrel bourbons are so expensive. At the same time, it may be the best whiskey you ever tasted, or you may be regret that you paid the premium for it, and find that you like another standard blended or small batch better. Not all bourbon distillers make a bourbon with two different blends. Many must make a small batch and a single barrel. However, this “small batch” may actually contain whiskeys from quite a number of different barrels.
See, small batch doesn’t have any legal definition right now. As you can see, Four Roses is a bit more strict with what they call small batch. Others, not so much. They mean “relatively small.” They will tend to change a bit from year to year. It stands to reason that the more barrels that are used, the more consistent the taste can be, as the precise mixture can be tweaked until more standardization is reached. But at this point, as The Whiskey Jug points out in their Four Roses Review, small batch is more or less a marketing term. Daniel Yaffe, in Drink More Whiskey, has this to say:
[Small Batch is] A brilliant marketing term. It is a self-bestowed title on whiskey that is made or bottled in small batches. Smaller than what? The issue, of course, is that there is no measuring stick for “small.” Usually it’s a brand’s premium or special label, and considerable care goes into choosing which barrels to bottle into the small batch. The price reflects this special attention.
The best advice is to just try different bourbons and don’t worry about whether the label says “small batch.” If you like a particular brand, then you might want to spring for their single batch offering, if they have one.
Of course, there are many other terms you might encounter, but the same advice applies. You’ll like what you like. You can get a great bourbon for 15 to 20 dollars. Sometimes an exceptional one. At the same time, you might pay 40 dollars or more for a single batch and have it knock your socks off, only to try another one and wish you’d paid less. It is how the whiskey tastes that should be the determinant of whether you drink it.