On the surface, “small batch bourbon” is just what it (kind of) sounds like: a run of bourbon made by mixing a relatively small number of barrels. But that relativity makes "small batch" a loaded term. Self-reported numbers from distillers put a typical small blend at 10 to 20 barrels. However, with no federal regulation on the phrase, a major whiskey label could call its latest offering “small batch” if it’s one barrel less than their standard output... or one more.
One thing’s certain, however: there are a lot of great small batch bourbons out there right now. To help you decide which should fill your liquor cabinet, we turned to whiskey bar owners Mike Raymond of Houston’s Reserve 101, and Larry Rice of Louisville's The Silver Dollar. Both carry a mental encyclopedia of oak-aged liquors, and cracked open its musty pages to pick a few of their favorite special blends.
John E. Fitzgerald 20 Year
Raymond speaks with great fondness of this deeply aged bourbon. “In 1999 the Heaven Hill distillery acquired the Old Fitzgerald line of wheated bourbon produced at the Stitzel-Weller distillery. 12 barrels were transferred to the Heaven Hill’s Warehouse Y in Bardstown, KY, where they continued to mature on the first floor. Truly beautiful bourbon if you can get your hands on some.”
Jim Beam Signature Craft 12 Year
“Last year Jim Beam launched their Signature Craft line as a response to the ever-growing ‘craft’ distilleries opening across the U.S. Although I’m a fan of the entire line, the 12 year is one of my favorite bourbons and it’s easy to find at your local store.”
Four Roses Small Batch
“Four Roses Small Batch is a no-brainer. It’s a beautiful whiskey. During the ’90s they only shipped their straight bourbon overseas. They did a light whiskey here because bourbon had fallen out of fashion.”
Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve 10 Year
Raymond succinctly makes the case for his final pick with deference to Wild Turkey’s master distiller: “It’s Jimmy Russell’s bourbon of choice -- what more do I have to say?”
Wild Turkey Russell's Reserve Small Batch Single Barrel
Rice echoes the awe for Russell, calling him an icon. He expresses a great fondness for Wild Turkey 101 as well as the rarer hatchlings in Russell’s nest.
“I’ve always been a fan,” he says. “When it was tough for bourbon distilleries to get rid of their product in the ’80s and ’90s, he just kept doing the same thing.”
Rice favors the unadulterated care Russell gives his reserve batch by foregoing the “booze up, water down” method many use to wring a bigger batch out of government labeling requirements.
“What he does and what a lot of people don’t consider is -- he puts all his whiskey in the barrel at 110 proof. One hundred and twenty-five proof is the max by law you’re allowed to put in it.
“What that means is when you’re getting 90 proof whiskey or 100 proof whiskey, this means more water is added to it. It really changes the flavors of the whiskey. So even a taste of whiskey -- heavy alcohol airs off a little bit. If you add a few drops [of water] to it, you pick up the subtle flavors. When you put it in 125 proof, compared to 110, it makes a completely different product.”
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Aged for eight to nine years, Buffalo Trace is “a great product. It’s right at the $20-25 price range. It’s high enough proof to make cocktails. It’s good enough to sip on. That’s their traditional rye mash bill.”
[Quick lesson, not that you don’t already know this: The mash bill is the list of grains by percentage, which will yield the sugary wort (and the wort, in turn, is what the yeast feeds on to excrete precious booze). Bourbon’s mash bill must be at least 51% corn by law, although it’s often closer to 75%. A rye mash bill reduces the percentage of corn, and replaces its sweetness with the kick of rye. This is not to be confused with rye whiskey, which is 51% rye.]
“[Buffalo Trace] also does a wheated mash bill -- their Weller -- which has really come into fashion lately; because people found out the recipe is very similar to their Pappy Van Winkle line, which is hard to get,” explains Rice.
In a wheated mash bill, like Weller (or Raymond’s above pick of Fitzgerald 20 Year), most or all of the rye is replaced with wheat. This gives it a gentler flavor that uplifts the corn’s sugars rather than contrasts them.
Rice adds: “It comes in at 90 proof: high enough to make your cocktails. It’s less spicy, a little more subtle. You get more of the rich notes: the caramel, vanilla.”
“It used to be age-stated at seven years. They dropped that age statement, but now I would imagine it’s still aged at six to eight years." We checked with Buffalo Trace Distillery, and they say Rice's taste buds are on point; Weller Antique is still aged for seven years.
"It’s 107 proof, which really stands up. The same wheated mash bill, just a different age, different proof on it. We do two different mint juleps at the Dollar. One of them is our Weller Antique. It’s richer and slightly sweeter. We like to use that high proof in our mint juleps.”
Henry McKenna Single Barrel Bottled-in-Bond
If you’re new to whiskey, “bottled in bond” is the most useful term you can use to gamble on a new label. It means the U.S. Treasury is watching over your whiskey to guarantee standards of quality -- although plenty of great whiskeys eschew it because they want to bottle above or below the Bottled in Bond Act of 1897’s 100 proof requirement.
McKenna BiB is “a great value, being aged 10 years, bonded, and under $30,” says Rice. In addition to its standalone virtues, he recommends it if you need to spice up your hot chocolate. Pro Tip: You do need to spice up your hot chocolate.
Heaven Hill Old Style Bourbon (White Label)
“Heaven Hill puts out a ton of great whiskeys at a very affordable price. Their White Label, six years old, is a $14-15 retail bottle in most markets.”
Heaven Hill Old Style Bourbon (Green Label)
“It comes in at a lower proof at 90, but for a $12 bottle, that’s a great whiskey. Point being, you don’t have to spend $300 on a bottle of bourbon to make a good cocktail that you can sip on.”
Editor’s note: internet rumors want you to think Green Label is an endangered species. It isn’t. We asked Heaven Hill themselves and they say it’s still in production.