Small wonders

Small wonders

What does smal batch whiskey actually mean? The explanation is far from simple Gary Regan and Mardee Haidin Regan discovered.

Production | 16 Jun 2000 | Issue 10 | By Gary Regan

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n 1989 Booker’s, the first small-batch bourbon, hit the American market place and, rightly so, it was a great success. But it also created a mystery. Issued at cask strength (usually over 60 per cent abv) and completely unfiltered, it’s a giant of a whiskey. The Jim Beam Brands Company, which makes Booker’s, followed up quickly with Knob Creek, Baker’s, and Basil Hayden – all small-batch bottlings and all of good quality. The press, critics, and the public were suitably impressed. But what, they all asked, does ‘small batch’ mean?Early reports in newspapers and magazines suggested the obvious, that the whiskey was distilled in small batches. Untrue, says Beam Brands, and here is their official explanation, “Small-batch bourbons are rare and exceptional bourbons married from select barrels from a cross section of barrels in the rackhouse [warehouse]. This ensures quality and consistency of flavour and character. Each small-batch bourbon has a unique aroma and taste which is credited to its unique recipe, ageing, and proof. We do not rotate because the small-batch process is based on marrying barrels from select levels where they can pick up distinct characteristics depending on location in the rackhouse.”So what does that mean? Any bourbon distiller will tell you that because their warehouses are so tall – some as high as 12 storeys – the temperature variations from floor to floor will alter the way in which whiskeys sleeping on various levels mature. And they also generally agree that each warehouse has a ‘honey spot’ or two where the whiskeys mature particularly well. But even that does not quite explain the small batch whiskey.The success of this category caused other distilleries to start using the term, but not all of them agree with Beam’s definition. The Maker’s Mark distillery actually distills in small quantities – just 19 barrels of new make at a time, and although its labels don’t use the term ‘small-batch’, Bill Samuels Jr, president of the company, has often been heard to say that his bourbon is the real thing. You should also note that Samuels rotates his barrels regularly, so the ‘honey spot’ theory becomes a moot point.And then there is Woodford Reserve, a darned good bottling issued by the newly restored Labrot & Graham distillery in Versailles, Kentucky. It is also touted as small-batch. The whiskey in the bottle was chosen in much the same way as the Beam method. Master Distiller Lincoln Henderson selected some of his best whiskeys made at the Louisville plant (the Versailles whiskey is not mature enough to bottle yet) and, using only 20 to 25 barrels at a time, mingled them together to achieve a certain style.Keep an eye on Labrot & Graham. This plant is the only Kentucky bourbon distillery that uses pot stills, but since it didn’t go into production until 1996, you won’t be sipping that whiskey for another couple or three years. When the true Labrot & Graham whiskeys are released though, you should be very happy. Triple-distilled in towering copper pots at about 20 barrels per batch, the wash still was modified to allow mash, as opposed to wort, to be used. Henderson has been experimenting with different mashbills (grain recipes), and we soon should see a variety of bottlings of small-batch pot-still bourbons on the shelves.The Wild Turkey distillery issues some spectacular bottlings, but only one is designated as small-batch: Wild Turkey Rare Breed. Bottled at barrel proof, usually around 55 per cent abv, the label on this sturdy whiskey actually informs the date and time of bottling. And master distiller Jimmy Russell has a very distinct way of selecting the barrels for his Rare Breed. Because Russell rotates his barrels, there’s no real ‘honey spot’ in his warehouse – the whiskeys mature, more or less, evenly. However, even though they mature at a constant rate, some barrels, and only God knows why, will develop into distinct styles. It’s Russell’s job, therefore, to sample a whole lot of whiskeys until he finds enough, (but no more than 100), that bear the flavour profile that he needs for Rare Breed. These are mingled together, and sometimes Russell still isn’t satisfied so he has to find, maybe, yet one more barrel to add to the batch to make it ‘just right’.At Heaven Hill, the only family-owned bourbon distillery left in Kentucky, they issue just one small-batch bottling, Elijah Craig 12-year-old. Using similar methods to Beam’s, they select barrels from a specific area of the warehouse and mingle them together for consistency. Only 70 or fewer barrels are dumped at once.Then there’s a company that shuns the term small-batch altogether: The Buffalo Trace distillery. This company was the first to issue single-barrel bourbons – Blanton’s, Rock Hill Farms, Hancock’s Reserve, and Elmer T. Lee among them. But the powers that be at this plant feel that since there is no clear-cut definition of the term, they would rather stay away from it altogether. A spokesman for Buffalo Trace says, “Without a uniform definition, such as [the one] we created with single barrel bourbons, to get into that fight is pointless. We have too much good bourbon to sell!”So the bottom line is that there is no real bottom line when it comes to defining the term small-batch. Each distillery has its own definition, and each one is legitimate in its own right. Given the parameters above, you can see that everyone goes to a lot of effort to make sure that these whiskeys are special. Therefore you can count on quality in a bottle of small-batch whiskey, but where quality is concerned it is as every bit as useful to look for an age statement as well.
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