*Sincere Thanks to LB and the Baddish Group for the sample.
When the Earth was young, full of torrents of fire and inclement weather, behemoth liquor companies sought out their marketing teams, troglodyte and dour, and entreated them with a quest that was at once high-minded and nefarious. The marketing teams’ eyes shone with fearful purpose. They emerged pallid and tottering from their caves, blinking into the conflagrant sun with their purpose-filled shining eyes. FIND US, the behemoth liquor companies bellowed, FIND US A CATCHPHRASE, AN IMPRESSIVE BIT OF TEXT FOR OUR BOTTLES, FULL OF IMPORT, A MARK OF QUALITY AND CRAFTSMANSHIP SO REEKING OF LUXURY OR AT LEAST SUPER-PREMIUM CACHÉ THAT NONE SHALL RESIST ITS SIREN CALL! Their wooly heads bowed, the marketing teams trembled and set out on their terrible quest. Decades past, the Earth was re-shaped, lives waxed and waned, until one day there strode out of the boreal forests of what would one day be Midtown Manhattan, a small band of marketers, now tanned and brawny, their hair coiffed, their eyes steady and perhaps a bit too clever. They had found it. A nubile woman clad in gauzy attire held aloft an adamant tablet which bore a phrase that would sell a million bottles and besot innumerable livers…
Heretical apocrypha aside, the term “small batch” entered into present day booze bottle jargon in either the 70’s, the 80’s, or the 90’s depending on who you ask. It almost certainly picked up a lot of steam in the early 90’s when Beam released their “Small Batch Collection” to the world. In the years between, quite a few bottles have proudly worn the small batch moniker and quite a few people, maybe a couple dozen, have asked, “what exactly is a ‘small batch?'”. It’s a pretty good question, though despite that opening paragraph, not one of vital importance. But still, you pay more for a bottle that says small batch, so the assumption is it’s a more carefully crafted product, therefore harder to make in large quantities, therefore…better. But is it? How big or small is a “small batch”? There are no legal parameters that define what a small batch is or isn’t, and while some brands and bottles have given details on the actual size of their small batch, many do not. The reality is it’s all really relative. A city a quarter of the size of Chicago is a much smaller city than Chicago…but it’s still a very big city. Here’s a handy guide to help with “How large is my small batch” question:
- If your small batch bottle came from a “craft” distillery that actually distills its own spirit, then it’s probably a pretty small batch whether it says so or not. These distilleries just don’t have the capacity to do large batch, so everything’s pretty much small batch by default.
- If your small batch bottle came from a distillery (“craft” or otherwise) that isn’t really a distillery at all, just more of a brand pretending to have a distillery, and the booze is coming from a much larger commercial distillery…then who knows. Sure, they may have bottled the relatively small amount they sourced, but the source probably produced a pretty big batch from whence that small batch came, so how small of a batch is it really?
- If your small batch bottle is a well-known brand and came from a big company and you see the stuff piled high everywhere, often on sale, that’s a pretty big small batch you’re looking at.
- If your small batch bottle came from a big company and fits into a brand’s line-up neatly between the entry-level expression and higher-priced, more exclusive/elusive ones, then, yes, the batch is smaller, relatively speaking, when compared with the huge batch that makes up its entry-level expression. But if the brand doesn’t offer up much info on how many bottles were in the batch, then it’s a little hard to say just how large or small that small batch is.
- If your small batch bottle proudly states that this booze was made with this and that and that by the time they got done bottling it all, there was only X number of bottles (with X feeling like a pretty small number in the grand scheme of things), then you’ve got yourself a known-quantity, actually small batched bottle of booze.
This helpful guide, despite its glaring lack of accuracy, probably wasn’t all that helpful. The point is, the term “small batch” is mostly a marketing term. In some cases, yes, it is an accurate and mildly helpful descriptor…but it’s still mostly a marketing term. Four Roses Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon falls somewhere between the fourth and fifth point on the above list. They make less of the Small Batch than they do of their Yellow Label, so yes, it is a smaller batch. While they don’t mention how many barrels go in to each “small batch” bottling, they do provide info on what kind of barrels make up the batch. This is especially interesting in Four Roses’ case because of their unique technique of using ten different recipes to create their bourbons. The distillery uses two different mashbills (one more heavily ryed than the other), and five different yeast strains which give the spirit five different base flavor profiles. To separate itself even further from its bourbon-making brethren, Four Roses ages its whisky not in multi-storied rickhouses, but in single story warehouses, which means all the barrels, regardless of their final destination are subject to more or less the same external influences over the course of their maturation. Four Roses, at least at the present time, blends bourbons from four of the ten available recipes to create its Small Batch expression. Two of the recipes used are the high-rye (35%) mashbill, the other two, the lower-rye (20%), and two of the yeast strains are used – one each for each mashbill.
The Nose: A softly vibrant nose packed with a heady array of sweetness. Lots of caramel, orange-tinged caramel, burnt caramel, vanilla caramel and coconut cream caramel if there is such a thing. Nice fruit notes as well – tart apple and juicy tangerine. There’s a bit of crystalized maple syrup and kettle corn around the edges. The rye is present but not as strong as I expected, showing up as warm rye bread and candied ginger. The spice notes are relatively mild, dried orange peel, cinnamon candies, and resinous wood.
The Palate: Great, creamy, almost viscous mouthfeel. Lots of sweetness carries over from the nose, with much more rye and spice joining all that caramel. Toasted, cracked rye berries and burnt rye toast join vanilla bean and spiced oranges. More corn on the palate as well, sweet corn ice cream and salted popcorn. Oaky, earthy spice notes of cinnamon stick, clove, ginger, and white pepper pick up steam heading towards the finish.
The Finish: Lengthy and mouth-watering. A few rye notes linger, but mostly nutty toffee, vanilla extract, burnt popcorn, and barrel spice.
Thoughts: Great Bourbon. The soft fullness of the nose surprised me as I was remembering and expecting something a bit more muscular, but there’s such an inviting sweetness there, it’s hard to resist. The palate manages all that sweetness well while adding more zing. The transition from the nose to the palate feels a little disjointed in that the rye and spice take such a drastic step forward. It works, though, so that’s a small complaint amongst the cheers. While I obviously like this quite a bit sipped on its own, Four Roses Small Batch is also one of my favorite bourbons over ice. I routinely see this for $25-$30, which makes it a great buy. Definitely recommended.