The simplest answer to this question is that small-batch bourbon is a very clever form of marketing. There is no federal regulation that defines what makes a bourbon “small-batch,” or a batch small, for that matter. Therefore, the only proven use of the term is to sell bourbon — a good amount of bourbon.
Labeling select bourbons as small-batch started in the 1990s and took off in the early aughts as the craft movement was growing. Producers, both large and small, were looking for a way to signify that the liquid inside their bottles was “craft.” Small-batch came to signify artisanal, and gave labels the crafty appeal many consumers were looking for.
Some producers will tell you that their small-batch bourbon does have a true meaning. For example, the liquid inside the bottle was blended from only a very limited amount of barrels. Although this is true in certain cases, for bigger brands that have small-batch offerings, those limited amounts of barrels could number in the thousands — a small batch for them, maybe, but not what a whiskey drinker might think when they read “small” on the label. In other words, it’s all relative.