Small-batch bourbon is one of those things you either know about or you don’t. They’re made in small amounts, rarely advertised and targeted directly at whiskey drinkers looking for something a little different. While there’s no consensus (or regulation) on what can be sold as small-batch whiskeys, they are generally distilled in anywhere from 10 to 100 barrels. The resulting whiskey is often a singular experience, unlikely ever to be captured again in exactly the same way. The best of them can be sublime.
But that lack of regulation has led to a loophole many bottlers have exploited. There’s a factory in Indiana that mass produces grain alcohol. It’s generally used is mass-produced spirits (nothing wrong with that), but some less scrupulous companies will buy some, put it in a few bottles and call it their own “small-batch.” They’re not breaking any laws, but they might break your heart.
To stay safe, check the label. If it says “distilled by” the name on the label, it’s real, but if it says “bottled by” or “produced by,” you’re taking your chances. Alternatively, you could just stick to these – our picks for the 10 best small-batch bourbons on the market. We’re sure enjoy each and every one.
Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey
This first bourbon from New York since Prohibition was originally met with skepticism, but now has turned many cautious connaisseurs into excited fanboys. Of course, since it’s from New York, it has to be different, and it is aged in minute two-gallon barrels that are agitated by deep bass from huge speakers. The distiller, Tuthilltown Spirits, calls the result “sonically matured.” Whether the music has any effect or not can be debated, but the greatness of the whiskey can not. Think of fine old-school bourbon, but with a thick, velvety carpet of vanilla and caramel and not a hint of rye sharpness.
Rock Hill Farms Single Barrel Bourbon
Reactions to this whiskey are mixed — they range from very, very good to absolute heaven. Some might balk at the price, but they shouldn’t. The reason this whiskey is held in such high esteem is its complexity. Different tasters might find any combination of vanilla, cherry, figs, rye, cinnamon, cream and citrus in every sip. It’s a great whiskey to start a conversation with, especially with scotch drinkers who normally wouldn’t consider bourbon. We take ours with a splash, just to lengthen the process.
Blanton’s Single Barrel Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
As soon as it’s open, this whiskey announces its presence. While others in this group might have alluring noses, this one’s is positively intoxicating. And it follows it up with a considerable depth of flavor. While many of the overtones remind the taster of sweets like butterscotch, the whiskey itself is quite dry. This is another one that can change the minds of dyed-in-the-wool single-malt types. Some have complained that it lacks a powerful finish, but it would be hard to follow the opening notes with anything bigger.
Angel’s Envy Cask Strength
While many on this list could appeal to scotch drinkers, this one is loudly and clearly a bourbon drinker’s bourbon. Just look at it. Its deep mahogany color and its 119 to 123 proof rating indicate that nothing about this whiskey will be timid or weak, and it isn’t. The nose is deep and with a the fruitiness of a fine port, the whiskey itself is thick and creamy with flavors that include toffee, cherries and pepper, while the finish is like dark chocolate and tobacco smoke. Share this one with good friends who are not easily intimidated.
Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon
If the Angel’s Envy is remarkable for its overwhelming power, this one is special for its subtlety, restraint and elegance. Consider it Holyfield to Angel’s Envy’s Tyson. It’s smooth, smoky and complex, but never at all coming close to being overpowering. And that smoothness never comes at a cost. Try this as a conversational sipper, rather than an after-dinner relaxer.
Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon 12 Year Old
Named after the good reverend who came up with the idea of aging whiskey in charred barrels, this bourbon is another big character that does not mind throwing its considerable weight around. From the opening nose, you know this is almost like a meal in a glass. Strong flavors and combination compete with the smoke. The finish is the best part with hint of rum, butter and apricots.
Baker’s 7 Year Old
If you’re a scotch drinker who’s used to holding out for 12- to 18-year-old bottles, don’t be put off by the fact that this whiskey is just seven. Bourbon, especially small-batch, matures quickly and most of the ones on this list are between two and four. Named after Jim Beam’s beloved grand-nephew, this whiskey does him proud. Made with a Beam family jug yeast, this bourbon is deep and full-bodied. The tastes are those that you’ll never get with a less ambitious bourbon, and include, but are not limited to: toffee, vanilla, smoke and plum. Consider this after your next dinner party instead of cognac or armagnac.
Knob Creek 9 Year Old
This is another Southern dandy from the benevolent Beam family. But instead of being big and bold like Baker’s, it’s more understated and sophisticated. You’ll find lots of tastes here, but none of them sweet or in the least bit cloying. This is a grown-up’s whiskey. straightforward and uncompromising. It’s woody, though not necessarily oaky, and has strong rye overtones. Try this one when you would normally have scotch.
This is a dangerous whiskey. It’s delicious, incomparably smooth and, although high in alcohol, has none of the nose or sharpness one associates with higher proof drinks. Because of that, and it’s surprisingly low price for an aged small-batch bourbon, it can be easy to drink a lot of this stuff in one sitting without noticing how much you’ve put away. Still, enjoy the sumptuous nose and varied tastes on its way to a refined finish.
Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon 20 Year Old
Grab this, hoard this, and only ever serve it to people who you know will appreciate it. From it’s beautiful copper color to its sophisticated nose, it starts strong and then never lets you down. It’s silky mouthfeel reveals dark chocolate, cinnamon and walnut under a cloud of elegant smoke. And the finish is a surprisingly full mixture of pepper and honey, Preston Van Winkle likens it to a cognac, but you can really drink it any time. Just don’t ever mix it with Coke.