In Focus: Small Batch vs Single Barrel


The second installment of In Focus relates to bottle labeling. We all see companies advertise their bourbon or ryes as small batch or single barrel and most of the time this also means an increase in price. But what exactly is the difference between small batch and single barrel. To some it may be obvious but to others that would like a little more information and have a little more knowledge next time you’re shopping around your local liquor store then please allow me to help.

Where it seems like today that every brand has some variation of small batch or single barrel this was not the case just a few decades ago. We know that whiskey (primarily rye) has a deep rich history in this country. George Washington made sure his soldiers always had a ration a whiskey during the American Revolution. A whiskey tax helped fund the Union during the Civil War. Even prohibition didn’t eliminate whiskey completely. Medical whiskey was produced by a small number of distilleries. But in the end of the 60s and into the 70s the sales of whiskey plummeted. The counter-culture was in full swing and moving away from whiskey and gravitating towards other spirits, beer and wine. According to Chuck Cowdery (notable bourbon writer) the brands hit hardest were the ones with ‘Old’ in the name. Rebelling against the war and the ‘establishment’ people moved away from the spirits that were associated with the older generations.

Then in the 80s a shift occurred toward single malt scotch and one American distiller, Elmer T. Lee, found away to capitalize on their success, a single barrel bourbonHe remembered that Albert Blanton, a former manager of the distillery, use to bottle from one barrel containing exceptionally well whiskey and give them to notable people visiting his distillery. So the company Lee was working for (now Buffalo Trace) came up with Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon in 1984 and other companies soon caught on. What one needs to understand with a single barrel whiskey though is there will always be variances from barrel to barrel and in some cases the variance can be drastic. But for the most part distillers do their best to provide a similar profile from barrel to barrel. So Blanton was the inspiration for the single barrel bourbon but what about small batch?

Blantons         Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon

Small batch is just that, a batching from a limited number of barrels. There is no number that constitutes a small batch and it all depends on the distillery. The word small is very flexible, a distillery like Jim Beam has a small batch that might be more than another distillery’s regular output. And speaking of Beam, it was none other than Beam master distiller at the time, Booker Noe that got things going for the small batch whiskeys. Like Blanton who would bottle from a single barrel, Noe would bottle small amounts whiskey from various barrels for himself and others. This would lead to the idea of small batch whiskey and in 1992 Jim Beam launched its small batch collection: Booker’s, Basil Hayden, Baker’s and Knob Creek.

Just as with the single barrel, the small batch helped elevate bourbon and rye in the eyes of consumers and a superpremium category was created. So today we are experiencing a boom in whiskey and various brands are coming out with different expressions and we can give credit to this second wave of popularity to the ones that helped re-define the market with ideas like single barrels, small batch and today various finishes and ultra aged whiskeys.

Provided below is a list of single barrel and small batch bourbon and ryes. If I’ve missed any please feel free to add any in the comments.

Single Barrel

  • Blanton’s
  • Corner Creek
  • Eagle Rare
  • EH Taylor Single Barrel
  • Elmer T. Lee
  • Evan Williams Vintage
  • Four Roses Single Barrel
  • Henry McKenna
  • High West Double Rye
  • High West Rendezvous Rye
  • Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel
  • Knob Creek Single Barrel
  • Rock Hill Farms
  • Wathen’s
  • Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel
  • Willett Family Estate

Small Batch

  • Baker’s
  • Basil Hayden
  • Booker’s
  • Bowman Brothers Small Batch
  • Buck 8 year
  • Dickel Barrel Select
  • EH Taylor Small Batch
  • Elijah Craig
  • Four Roses Small Batch
  • Jefferson’s
  • Knob Creek
  • Michter’s US no 1
  • Noah’s Mill
  • Old Pogue
  • Rebel Reserve
  • Ridgemont Reserve 1792
  • Rowan’s Creek
  • Templeton Small Batch Rye

3 responses to “In Focus: Small Batch vs Single Barrel

  1. Pingback: Elmer T. Lee (1919 – 2013) | American Whiskey Reviews·

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