There is no legal definition of “small batch.”
Nor are there industry standards, best practice guidelines, or even widely accepted definitions. Yet, in American whiskey especially, no term is as widely used and misunderstood. A given small-batch bottling could be five to 10 barrels; it could just as easily be 500.
The term originated out of Jim Beam in the 1980s, used to market a then-innovative cask-strength release called Booker’s Bourbon. Today, it’s used by dozens — perhaps even hundreds — of distilleries of all sizes to imply whiskeys released in smaller volumes than their normal expressions. But as the term has become nearly omnipresent in American whiskey, even that implication is tenuous at best. Without clear disclosures, some of today’s small-batch releases could very well number in the tens of thousands of bottles.
A handful of producers go so far as to make their small-batch sizes publicly available through barrel count, bottle numbers, or both. Without regulation, there’s no pressure on brands to release that information; accordingly, the vast majority do not.
“The problem is that across the spectrum, all brands are using the same term,” says Jacob Kiper, founder of Coming Whiskey, an online bottle shop that first became known on social media for curating and publishing upcoming TTB label filings. “But they’re definitely not speaking the same language.”
While the term was originally meant to differentiate a special type of expression, for today’s consumers, it’s creating an added level of confusion. Among distillers and blenders, it’s also sparked differing opinions as to whether regulation would help or harm craft producers.
Like many common practices in today’s whiskey market, “small batch” began with a legendary figure. Starting around the late 1970s, Booker Noe — sixth generation master distiller at Jim Beam — began gifting bottles from select barrels to friends, family, and business associates. The cask- strength Booker’s Bourbon was a hit, so much so that in 1988 Beam began releasing a batched version to the open market, which was soon thereafter marketed as “small batch.”
Booker’s son Fred Noe — who followed in his footsteps as Beam master distiller — says that even at the time, small batch had a relatively loose meaning.
“There was no set definition behind the phrase — and there still isn’t,” he says. “But to Booker, it meant exactly what it sounds like — a bourbon made from a smaller batch of barrels compared to other whiskies we were producing at the time, namely Jim Beam White Label.”
“The fact is that they’re really doing nothing different than what they’ve been doing since the 1990s. They haven’t changed much regarding the use of ‘small batch,’ but the industry has changed around them.”
“For Dad, using the term ‘small batch’ wasn’t about a technicality or starting a trend,” Noe says. “He set out to open folks’ eyes to the fact that bourbon could be high quality and full flavored by mingling a specially selected set of barrels.”
Kiper agrees that Booker’s innovation helped usher in a new era of appreciation among whiskey drinkers, particularly for the movement to higher-proof offerings. “In modern times, cask-strength bourbon is extremely common and expected,” he says. “At the time, Booker was doing something revolutionary as 80 and 86 proof was largely the industry standard.”
Small Batch Today
Beam found early success marketing brands under the small batch designation, but by the early 2000s, the term caught on like wildfire industry-wide. Another example from a major Kentucky bourbon producer is Four Roses Small Batch, first released in 2006; the higher-proof Small Batch Select product launched in 2019 and features a more complex blend of the distillery’s recipes.
“From the beginning, our designation for Small Batch has been reserved for products that use hand-selected batches that most perfectly match the desired flavor profiles,” says Four Roses master distiller Brent Elliott. “We also take extra time to test blending these selected batches to ensure a consistent flavor profile.”
When asked for this article, neither Beam nor Four Roses disclosed any ranges or specifics regarding how many barrels go into their respective small batch products.
“I like the idea of requiring brands to clearly list the number of barrels in the batch if they choose to put ‘small batch’ on the label. I don’t think there is a good way to get a universal industry definition of small batch, but if a brand wants to use the term, tell consumers exactly what it means to them.”
Kiper cautions that for major distilleries, a lack of batch-to-batch info doesn’t equate with trying to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes. “The fact is that they’re really doing nothing different than what they’ve been doing since the 1990s,” he says. “They haven’t changed much regarding the use of ‘small batch,’ but the industry has changed around them.”
That changing industry has opened the door for more brands than ever, paving the way for nearly exponential growth in the number of operational U.S. distilleries (most of them small, craft operations). For some producers, most notably small distilleries, blenders, and independent bottlers, disclosing batch size is a way to stand out from the now crowded small-batch category.
“If you know your whiskey producer, the term can be positive — it is largely a signifier to say ‘smaller production than we normally do and not a single barrel,’” says Heather Greene, a spirits writer and CEO of Milam & Greene Whiskies, who has made small-batch releases with as few as two or three barrels.
“I know my fellow whiskey geeks love information, so I actually detail the number of barrels, cases, and bottle count, then express that as a percentage of the population that is able to get their hands on it,” she says.
For example, the brand’s first “very small batch” offering contained a blend of 75 barrels, a fact the company highlights on its website. “I’ve actually been thanked personally for that information by many whiskey fans,” says Greene.
To Regulate or Not to Regulate?
Comparing a nationwide bottling with a craft distiller’s five-barrel blend highlights exactly how wide the small-batch spectrum has grown. A common question is whether industry-wide regulation — or some codification of the term — would provide a net benefit for both brands and consumers. And opinions seem to vary almost as widely as the term small batch itself.
“I absolutely think it should be regulated, and I believe that the maximum should be 50 barrels … regardless of barrel volume,” says Marianne Eaves, founder of Kentucky-based Forbidden Bourbon. Eaves is a distiller and blender who has worked with nearly a dozen brands on small- batch products ranging from two to 48 barrels each.
Kiper agrees that regulation could help clarify information for consumers, potentially leading to more informed purchasing decisions.
“I like the idea of requiring brands to clearly list the number of barrels in the batch if they choose to put ‘small batch’ on the label,” he says. “I don’t think there is a good way to get a universal industry definition of small batch, but if a brand wants to use the term, tell consumers exactly what it means to them.”
Kiper says listing small batches as a percentage of the distiller’s total inventory could be one workaround.
For others in the industry, top-down regulation is less appealing than an industry-wide shift in best practices around disclosure.
“For folks who are blenders, or who really appreciate the art of blending, it is known that a small batch is more difficult to create successfully than a large batch.”
“I don’t think regulations are the way to go,” says spirits author and New York Times journalist Clay Risen. “[N]o one is harmed if their ‘small batch’ isn’t so small. I think it’s up to the industry to set models and expectations. That means clear statements about how many barrels went into a ‘small batch’; giving the barrel numbers and rickhouse locations for single barrels; and explaining what they mean by ‘cask strength’ (or whatever).”
Greene is also against regulating the term and thinks doing so could actually backfire on smaller producers like herself.
“I work on such a small scale that this would damage the specialness of what we do,” she says. “I don’t want my ‘Small Batch’ ever being confused with, say, a regulation that says a small batch could be 20,000 cases. Our Very Small Batch 2.0 release will be about 700 cases!”
Blending It Together
When prompted, most of the people interviewed for this article referenced numerous other loosely defined terms in American whiskey. Kiper and Risen both raised suspicions about “single barrel” designations, especially when it comes to whiskey that is batched and then finished in additional casks. Some raised similar concerns around “barrel proof” and “cask strength,” which can in theory be worked around by adding water (a.k.a. slow proofing) to liquid while it ages in a barrel.
But from a marketing perspective, perhaps no undefined American whiskey term has become so widespread — and raised confused eyebrows — as much as small batch. For Eaves, widespread frustration with the term also obfuscates how difficult it is to actually create a delicious, palate-pleasing blend.
“For folks who are blenders, or who really appreciate the art of blending, it is known that a small batch is more difficult to create successfully than a large batch,” she says. “The higher the quantity of barrels that are added together, the less you taste the unique nuances of any individual barrel, which makes it possible to ‘blend out’ barrel imperfections and even defects to a degree.”
“So ‘small batch’ is a term that should be revered,” Eaves continues.
Regardless of what — if anything — happens to the term “small batch,” Risen seems to have had enough of it for a lifetime.
“If I die tomorrow, at least I’ll never have to hear some joker ask a bartender if he has anything ‘small batch,’” he says.