How small is small?

We’ve talked before about how whiskey seems to zig where others zag. For example: whereas most products aim at newness and freshness, whiskey is unique in its embrace of the term “old.” Similarly, in a world that seems otherwise fixated on size as a benchmark of success, whiskey is going the other direction in emphasizing the miniscule proportions of its products.

“Craft,” synonymous with small-scale distilling, is the fashionable neighborhood in whiskey at the moment. The term is being used and, in some cases, abused by those looking to borrow the prestige of the plucky upstart distilleries that have arrived to great fanfare. Even the 800-pound gorillas are trying to get in on the game; Jim Beam recently announced the construction of the Fred B. Noe Craft Distillery, for the price of $60 million. You know, only $60 million because it’s just a little craft distillery, right? I wonder if this project has been undertaken partly in order to put the “craft” distillery’s name on the company’s “Small Batch” collection, of which Booker’s and Knob Creek have been reviewed here.

Like “craft,” “small batch” is a term which gets more frequent use than is probably warranted. In both cases, there is no legally specified definition to regulate the use of these words. Whereas, for example, something labeled “Straight Bourbon Whiskey” is obliged to meet stipulated requirements, there’s no statutory governor of who may call what a “craft” or “small batch” whiskey.

The result of this is a heightened degree of skepticism from the whiskey-drinking public. I heard from multiple consumers who dismissed the term “small batch” as meaningless, akin to “limited edition.” In an ironic bit of turnabout, labeling a whiskey as “small batch” seemed to decrease the perceived desirability of said whiskey; those two words marked it as likely being produced by a huge concern trying to make a few extra bucks. Some even expressed support for regulations around labeling, a proposal that would likely meet with fierce opposition from the industry heavyweights who benefit from playing fast and loose with this terminology.

Speaking of heavyweights, I put the question of what exactly comprises a “small batch” to some of the most prominent users of the term, including Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, Four Roses, and – most germane to today’s review – Sazerac. I also put the question on Twitter for comment and was pleasantly surprised when a few craft distillers reached out to offer their own takes on what constituted a “small batch” to them. I’ve summarized the feedback below, using publicly available resources in cases where the companies didn’t get back to me.

The true craft distilleries, not surprisingly, came in at the low end. Our friends at J. Henry & Sons specified that their small batches are 10 to 16 barrels. Far North Spirits volunteered a batch size of 10 to 18 barrels. Another craft distiller said (off the record) that it ranged from a selection of four to six barrels or, at maximum, the actual “batch” size of 1,200 pounds of grain. So, we’ve got a few data points from proper craft distillers, coalescing in the 10-to-20 barrel range mostly.

Let’s compare that with what we’ve heard and/or read from the big boys:

Heaven Hill’s website for the Elijah Craig brand specifies “200 barrels or less” in a “small batch.” Jim Beam’s website for Booker’s doesn’t provide consistent information about batch sizes, though they did let slip that batch #2019-03 was made up of 364 barrels. Though I didn’t hear back from Four Roses, I’ll reserve this space for updates. Regardless, averaging the two data points I was able to collect, you’re looking at a batch size of roughly 280 barrels, or nearly 18 times what you’d expect from the real craft distillers.

As for Sazerac’s answers, they were customarily taciturn:
Malt: What quantity of whiskey (barrels or gallons or liters) comprises a “Small Batch” for 1792?
Sazerac: Sorry, we consider that information proprietary.
Malt: Is this definition consistent across the other brands in the portfolio labeled “Small Batch?” (e.g. EH Taylor Jr.?)
Sazerac: Our small batch quantities vary by brand.

So, there you have it. We’ll just have to see for ourselves what this proprietary number of barrels (I’ll take the over) can yield in terms of flavor, considering the 1792 Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey in this instance.

We’ve previously considered the Full Proof expression from this distillery, which was anointed “World Whisky of the Year” by you-know-who. You’ll need to consult my review of the Very Old Barton Bottled in Bond if you’re concerned with the history of the distillery that produces the range of 1792 whiskeys.

As for this 1792 expression (which arrives with none of the award-heavy baggage of my former foray), we are left with but a handful of specifics: this is Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, carrying no age statement (it was included in the “Small Batch Bourbon – Up to Five Years” category in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, however), and bottled at 93.7 proof (46.85% ABV). 750 ml of this fetches about $30 in my neck of the woods. If you shop at the Whisky Exchange it’ll cost £39.25, or Master of Malt for £35.90, with Amazon charging the same.

1792 Small Batch – Review

Color: Shiny new copper

On the nose: This has a delightful mix of warm vanilla scents with all manner of balancing elemental accents: steel, stone, and wood. Deep inhalation yields more complex notes of iodine, charcoal briquette, cinnamon-raisin bread, crunchy peanut butter, Betty Crocker fudge brownies, and some crushed red pepper, but mostly my nose is kept enthralled by the four-way interplay between these very simple yet profound essential aromas. Overarching all this is a fresh floral note.

In the mouth: At first, this blooms with an overtly sweet note of candied cherry. Moving toward the center of the mouth, this thins out a bit into a shrilly woody note that makes a prickly walk across the tongue. Performing a disappearing act, only the residual wisp of floral perfume and the lingering salty-creamy note of peanut butter is left as this makes its abrupt exit.

Conclusions

Considered in isolation: this is interesting enough, with plenty of variety across both the nose and the mouth to keep an astute taster engaged. It doesn’t meet its full potential at points, particularly at midpalate, where this has less heft and intensity than would be indicated by the nose. However, it all works out in the end, resulting in a bourbon that is satisfying and challenging in proportionate measures.

Compared with other entry-level “small batch” expressions like Elijah Craig and Four Roses, this has an added layer of complexity and so much more intensity and depth of aromatic and gustatory character. This tastes a little like a Stagg Jr. with the volume dialed down as a consequence of dilution. At $30, it outperforms comparable options on the shelf and, as such, warrants an above-average score. I’d be a repeat customer.

Score: 6/10

There are commission links within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement. And the lead image is via the Whisky Exchange.

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Taylor
Taylor

Taylor's a native of Chicago. After heading to university in Scotland, he graduated from drinking Whyte & Mackay and Coke to neat single malts. He's also a keen fan of Japanese whisky, having visited the country regularly over the last several years, where he was able to assemble a decent collection before prices went batty.

  1. Avatar
    PBMichiganWolverine says:

    Was this the one that was awarded “best” by a certain self described whiskey critic? Personally, I hate the “best” nomenclature, because taste is individualistic. All it accomplishes is an artificial price increase.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      PB, thanks for checking in! The award went to the Full Proof, which I reviewed last month (spoiler: it was not the best). I agree with you; these superlatives are meaningless except in that they generate hype and sales. No wonder there’s increasing consumer skepticism of them… at least, among those in the know. Hopefully that group is expanded by calling out this silliness on this site and others. As always, cheers and GO BLUE!

  2. Avatar
    Menno says:

    Cheers Taylor. Only ever had one of this. It was nice, balancing on the edge what I would date call ‘goodk, although I did find it opened up nicely with a drop of water.

    1. Taylor
      Taylor says:

      Cheers Menno, thanks for commenting. I concur with your assessment and tried to reflect this in my score, which is always the trickiest part of the review for me.

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