Small batch bourbon tends to be most people’s “next step” into bourbon after they get the bourbon bug. The juice in a “small batch” bottle tends to be more exclusive and, theoretically, “better” than your average bottle. While that’s not always true (more on that in a moment), small batch offerings do tend to lean toward a more refined flavor profile than the average bottle from any brand. To figure out which small batch bottles actually have the best flavor profiles, I’m stacking ten of them up against each other in a blind taste test.
Before we dive in, there’s no real law or rule for what makes a “small batch.” In fact, the number of barrels varies wildly from brand to brand — that means quality will too. The general rule is that a small batch expression is at least one barrel smaller than a standard batch of bourbon from any given brand. That can mean anything, as some standard expressions have over 1,000 barrels in each batch whereas other standard expressions have closer to 350 barrels or far less. That in turn means that there is no “x” number for making a small batch of bourbon “small batch.” In reality, we’re talking about a marketing term that denotes a slightly different/more refined flavor profile than an entry-level expression from any given brand.
Knowing that we’re really talking about flavor profile when we’re talking about small batch bourbon whiskey, a blind tasting is a great way to differentiate them. To do so, I grabbed ten small batch bourbons from my shelf. I specifically grabbed bottles that say “small batch” on them instead since going by how many barrels are in a particular whiskey would be pointless (I have plenty of bourbons that don’t call themselves “small batch” that I know have fewer barrels in the mix than some of the small batch whiskeys below).
After blindly tasting them, I’ll rank them by… what tastes best, of course. Spoiler alert, it did not shake out how I expected. A super cheap small batch expression damn near stole the whole show.
Our lineup today is:
- Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. Small Batch Bottled In Bond
- Michter’s US *1 Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- 1792 Small Batch
- Knob Creek Small Batch Aged 12 Years
- Kirkland Signature Small Batch by Barton 1792 Master Distillers
- Booker’s Small Batch Collection “The Lumberyard Batch”
- Wyoming Whiskey National Parks No. 2 Small Batch Aged 5 Years
- Bib & Tucker Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey Aged 6 Years
- Bomberger’s Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Benchmark Small Batch
Okay, let’s get into it!
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Part 1: The Tasting
The nose opens with a sense of soft corn mush with maple syrup, Saigon cinnamon (a little sweet), orchard tree bark, and the black mildew that grows on all the whiskey warehouses in Kentucky. The palate leans into buttery toffee with a twinge of black licorice next to cinnamon-spiced dark chocolate tobacco and a hint of huckleberry pie with vanilla ice cream. The end has a salted caramel sweetness that leads back to a hint of sweet cinnamon and dark tobacco with a light sense of the fermentation room with a hint of sweet gruel.
This smells like walking into Buffalo Trace on the nose, it’s unbelievably specific. The mix of softly sweetened mash turning into distiller’s beer and then spirit is hard to miss.
The nose on this is very fruity with a mix of bruised peach, red berries (almost like in a cream soda), and apple wood next to a plate of waffles with brown butter and a good pour of maple syrup that leads to a hint of cotton candy. The sweetness ebbs on the palate as vanilla frosting leads to grilled peaches with a crack of black pepper next to singed marshmallows. The end is plummy and full of rich toffee next to a dash of cedar bark and vanilla tobacco.
This was pretty nice. Very fruity but that worked with the overall sweet vibe. It kind of ended up feeling like a bunch of fresh fruit piled into a vanilla pound cake with a boozy edge.
This is very cherry/vanilla forward on the nose with a hint of sour apple fritter next to a mash of fermented/sweet grains (again with that distillery vibe). Sweet and lush caramel mingles with vanilla cookies as winter spice leads to a Cherry Coke vibe. The end holds onto that feeling with a bit more caramel next to spiced tobacco but ultimately thins out on the finish.
This is really classic but just doesn’t quite land the finish. It gets a little too thin and washes out a tad.
The nose on this one is thick and juicy with notes of dark cherries dipped in dark chocolate next to sourdough fritters with plenty of brown sugar, spicy cinnamon, and apple mush with this fleeting sense of dried mint way in the background. On the palate, there’s a sense of those dark cherries swimming in brandy next to blackberry pie with a big scoop of rich vanilla ice cream that’s countered by dried ancho chili flakes, a hint of pecan, and a whisper of espresso cream. The end has a spiced holiday cake vibe with some dried figs and plums next to a hint of marzipan and salted sour cherry.
This is f*cking delicious. It feels like you’re drinking the best from the nose to the finish. It’s luxurious yet never overpowering on the palate or the senses. There’s a balance that’s just right and plenty of great dark notes to dig into.
This opens with a cherry/vanilla vibe that drives toward peach candies, a touch of black licorice, and some nutty dark chocolate. The palate leans into the rich vanilla while a box of Hot Tamales adds some heat before a sense of apricot jam and buttermilk biscuits arrive. The end has a creamed honey feel with plenty of salted caramel, spicy cherry tobacco, and a hint of oak before fading pretty quickly.
This was nice. It felt classic. The end sort of petered out, but that’s not the end of the world.
Sour mash, dry pecans, old leather boots, dusty cellars, and dry tobacco mix with dark cherry, salted caramel, and vanilla cake on the nose. The palate starts off creamy and lush with that vanilla before hitting a moment of moist chocolate chip cookie with walnut and then serious heat (this is a barn burner). That heat pops through the mid-palate until a sense of sharp cinnamon and black pepper fade toward caramel apples, broom bristles, and dark chocolate laced spicy tobacco braided with old cedar bark and used wicker.
This really needed a rock to calm it down.
The nose is hearty and full of holiday spices, old boot leather, very dark salted chocolate sauce, dry cedar, and a hint of an orange creamsicle. The palate has an old back porch vibe before hitting on fresh-baked zucchini bread with walnuts and nutmeg, rich toffee creaminess, and a subtle sense of Earl Grey. That creaminess drives the mid-palate to the finish with more walnuts, more old leather, and a whisper of dark chocolate creaminess layered into creamy orange sauce.
Well, I think that’s the most I’ve ever used some version of “creamy” in a review. But it’s apt. This was lush and silky with a real depth to it. It didn’t blow me away, but that’s going to be hard with the whiskeys that have already come and gone on this panel.
There’s a light sense of sour mash with a hint of leather, wet cedar, old grain mills, and warm apple pies with plenty of brown spice and sugar. The palate leans into the graininess with a sweet edge (Hell, Tennessee) before vanilla Necco Wafers counter fresh ginger snaps, apple tobacco leaves, and a hint of dry cedar kindling. The end leans into the apple pie filling with a bit of vanilla bean and sweet oak before fading out pretty quickly.
This is a nice pour overall but didn’t really stand out.
A dash of sweet mashed grains with a hint of sourdough leads on the nose next to rich sticky toffee pudding, old leather tobacco pouches, dry cellar beams, plenty of sweet cinnamon, and a hint of orange dark chocolate cut with nutmeg and salt. The palate is creamy and soft like a crème brûlée before hitting an easy warmth tied to winter spices (nutmeg, clove, allspice, star anise, etc.) with a nice balance of dry cedar and that orange/dark chocolate vibe now tied to marzipan and creamed honey. The end blends figs and prunes with spices and spreads the paste across chewy fresh tobacco leaves and rolls it all up with a few specks of salt and dark chocolate.
This was great. It’s so rich and approachable (no “too much heat” here). It’s just really good and I want to go back to this one.
There’s that Buffalo Trace distillery vibe again with hints of old vanilla beans, fresh leather, old wicker porch furniture with a hint of black mold, and a hint of apple blossom next to honey. The palate leans into the apple and honey while adding rich caramel with a nice dose of sweet cinnamon, allspice, and freshly ground nutmeg with a hint of dark chocolate-covered espresso beans and dried corn husks. The end sweetens toward a corn mush cut with maple syrup and raisins next to vanilla pods and a hint of old leather tobacco pouches with a whisper of cherry wood in the background.
This is really nice. I can’t decide if it’s the Taylor or the Benchmark though. Either way, this is a winner through and through.
Part 2: The Ranking
10. Bib & Tucker Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey Aged 6 Years — Taste 8
Average Price: $60
Bib & Tucker pulls barrels of Tennessee whiskey from an (undisclosed) old and quiet valley in the state. They then blend those barrels to meet their brand’s flavor notes. While they are laying down their own whiskey now, this is still all about the blending of those barrels in small batches.
This was fine. It felt like a great cocktail base bourbon but that’s about it.
9. 1792 Small Batch — Taste 3
Average Price: $28
This whiskey from Barton 1792 Distillery is a no-age-statement release made in “small batches.” The mash is unknown but Sazerac does mention that it’s a “high rye” mash bill, which could mean anything, really. The juice is batched from select barrels and then proofed down and bottled as-is.
Again, this was fine but really petered out in the end. That basically means that you can build a good cocktail with this to cover up that soft finish.
8. Kirkland Signature Small Batch by Barton 1792 Master Distillers — Taste 5
Average Price: $19 (1 liter)
This is the entry point to Costco’s new lineup of Kentucky bourbons (along with a Bottled-in-Bond and Single Barrel release). The whiskey in the bottle is from Sazerac’s Barton 1792 Distillery in Bardstown with a mash bill of 74% corn, 18% rye, and 8% barley. That juice is left to age for four to five years before being blended, proofed, and bottled for Costco.
This had a bit more refinement than the last two and a stronger finish overall. That said, this felt more like a cocktail base that works as an on the rocks sipper in a pinch.
7. Booker’s Small Batch Collection “The Lumberyard Batch” — Taste 6
Average Price: $200
The second Booker’s release of 2022 is a masterful blend of barrels from seven locations around Jim Beam’s rickhouses. Those barrels are mostly from the seventh floor of those rickhouses, with one coming from the ninth floor. All of them averaged out to this whiskey being seven years, one month, and seven days old before it was batched and bottled as-is.
This was just a little too hot today. And that might not be fair to this whiskey. It’s really good but overwhelmed next to a lot of 45-55% ABV whiskeys. Aside from that, pour this over ice and you’ll be fine.
6. Michter’s US *1 Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 2
Average Price: $40
Michter’s really means the phrase “small batch” here. The tank they use to marry their hand-selected eight-year-old bourbons can only hold 20 barrels, so that’s how many go into each small-batch bottling. The blended juice is then proofed with Kentucky’s famously soft limestone water and bottled.
There’s a nice sense of classic, fruity bourbon on this sip. I think I’d lean more toward using this for cocktails based on that, hence it placing a little lower on this list.
5. Wyoming Whiskey National Parks No. 2 Small Batch Aged 5 Years — Taste 7
Average Price: $83
This bottle celebrates our National Parks with each limited edition release. In this case, the release celebrates Yellowstone’s 150th anniversary with part of the proceeds from each bottle sold going to Yellowstone Forever, which helps protect the park. The whiskey in the bottle is a special release from Wyoming grains — 68% corn, 20% wheat, and 12% malted barley — and water. After five years, the barrels are small-batch blended and bottled with a drop of proofing water.
This was lush and just really nice to drink. This is a clear winner as a sipper with or without ice.
4. Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. Small Batch Bottled In Bond — Taste 1
Average Price: $129
Buffalo Trace’s Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr. Small Batch is an entry point to the other 12 expressions released under the E.H. Taylor, Jr. label. The whiskey is a blend of barrels that meet the exact right flavor profiles Buffalo Trace’s blenders are looking for in a classic bottled-in-bond bourbon for Taylor.
I had to go back to this whiskey a couple of times to figure out where to rank it. It was good but wasn’t quite as full-bodied as the next three. That said, this is a really tasty whiskey when you’re not looking at it under a microscope while trying to rank it blind. Pour it over some ice or neat or mix an amazing cocktail with it, you will not be disappointed.
3. Benchmark Small Batch — Taste 10
Average Price: $19
This is a one-step-up “small batch” from Buffalo Trace’s budget brand, Benchmark. There’s not a whole lot of information on what this is exactly when it comes to the mash bill or aging. The “batch” could be 20 barrels or 200. We do know that the bourbon is cut down to 90-proof before bottling.
This was a great pour and came out of left field. If I had been guessing these, I would have pegged this as the E.H. Taylor and been wrong. That said, this punches way above its weight class and is in contention for the best value-per-dollar whiskeys of 2022.
2. Bomberger’s Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 9
Average Price: $150
This whiskey heralds back to Michter’s historical roots in the 19th century before the brand was even called “Michter’s.” The juice on the bottle is rendered from a very small batch of bourbons that were aged in Chinquapin oak which was air-dried for three years before charring and filling. The Kentucky bourbon was then bottled in an extremely small batch that only yielded 2005 bottles this year.
This was dam near perfect. I toyed with this and the next both in the number one slot. So, basically, these are tied. I guess the next pour just had that little something extra.
1. Knob Creek Small Batch Aged 12 Years — Taste 4
Average Price: $67
This is classic Beam whiskey. The low-rye juice is left alone in the Beam warehouses in Clermont, Kentucky, for 12 long years. The barrels are chosen according to a specific taste and mingled to create this aged expression with a drop or two of that soft Kentucky limestone water.
This was a clear winner the moment it hit my senses today. It’s luxurious and unique while still feeling like a nostalgic pour of bourbon. It’s a great journey to go on in a glass.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
Well, look at that! The cheapest bottles didn’t all fall to the bottom, nor did the lower ABV ones. This ended up being far more of a mix than I would have expected with seriously great-priced bottles beating out the expensive and very hyped ones.
In the end though, grab that Knob Creek 12. You can find it, it’s cheap, and it’s delicious. The Bomberger’s is great as well, but it’s going to be far and few between. Benchmark Small Batch is another great option, but might not be in your neck of the woods — though I’m still shocked how highly I ended up ranking it. Which leads us all back to Knob Creek. It’s unbeatable and findable.