What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago bourbon was just about the only brown spirit in town. It was – and still is – a bartender’s dream; stylish, oozing heritage, free of the stuffy image that goes with many other brown spirits, and easy to mix in a host of classics including the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned and the Julep.
But the last year has seen a seismic change in the world of spirits. Rum has started to seriously challenge bourbon’s lofty position, the premium vodka sector is flourishing and perhaps most surprisingly of all, Scotch whisky, both single malt and blended, has posted its best ever sales figures worldwide. So where does this leave bourbon?
Frankly, with something of a headache. But the answer, some bourbon distillers believe, lies in the super-premium ‘small batch’ and ‘single barrel’ category. Rather unhelpfully ‘small batch’ bourbon has no legal definition, so there are lots of different interpretations of what it is – and some say it doesn’t exist at all. Oh, and now you can get ‘very small batch’ bourbon, which is presumably even smaller than small batch.
How small is small?
The distillery that comes the closest to defining it properly is Four Roses, which makes its whiskey by marrying 10 distinct bourbons that are created only on its premises. From these casks four of the best whiskeys are chosen for its small batch.
Elsewhere, though, the term covers a range of styles. Beam Global, which owns the largest portfolio of small batch bourbons including Maker’s Mark, was the company that actually invented the term.
‘To some, the term is quantity driven, a way to separate small boutique brands from large behemoth brands and to suggest the value of the brand is its rarity,’ says Keith Neumann, vice-president of bourbons for Beam Global. ‘To others the term is quality driven, with the common interpretation for small batch being synonymous with age, process and ultimately quality.’
Neumann explains that first of all, there are four components to a small batch bourbon: individual recipe or grain and the subsequent mash, yeast, and distillation of the recipe. ‘Secondly, small batch bourbons are typically aged for longer than regular bourbons. Third, barrels must be hand-selected from specific areas of the rack warehouse. And fourth, barrels must be dumped in batches of less than 200 to 300 at a time.’
But are small batch bourbons actually better than other bourbons? Again, this is far from black and white.
In Kentucky, bourbon matures in large warehouses with several floors. During the scorching summers the temperature on the top floor can be as much as 20°C higher than the bottom, and can hit 50°C or more. Heat both speeds up the maturation process and intensifies it, so that the spirit produced in certain places bears all the characteristics of the distillery, but with the volume turned up to maximum. These ‘honey barrels’ are bourbon elixir, and if bottled as small batch, fully justify a higher price tag.
The trouble is, there is no sure way of knowing if this has been done. And some commentators are very cynical, pointing out that it’s a meaningless gesture to produce large quantities of whiskey on a column still then dump a relatively small number of barrels from the bigger amount.
New kids on the block
Adding to the confusion is the fact that there are a growing number of releases claiming heritage and provenance where in reality no distillery exists – the best-known of these is Bulleit bourbon.
Jerry Flavell, who runs a large liquor store in Louisville, Kentucky, and is an authority on bourbon, says you should go for the established names. ‘There is a lot of smoke and mirrors with bourbon,’ he says. ‘I see new small batch bourbons coming out and I don’t know where the whiskey has come from. My advice is to go for premium bourbon from the names you know. For me the only true small batch bourbon is Maker’s Mark because the distillery is so small that all its output falls in to that premium category. You could say the same for Woodford too.’
Unsurprisingly the people behind Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark agree. Chris Morris, master distiller at the former, believes that the whole small batch argument becomes redundant if bourbons are assessed on quality.
‘We only produce 21 barrels a day; Maker’s less,’ he says. ‘That’s real small batch. And if you take our bourbon and point out its qualities, the spiciness from the rye, and compare it with the softer flavour of Maker’s because of the wheat they use, then the bartender can make his choice and point this out to the customer.’
Mark Jordan, brand manager for Woodford Reserve, which runs an annual global cocktail challenge in its hometown of Louisville, argues that the issue of small batch is misleading. ‘It’s not about small batch on its own, it’s about the premium and super-premium bourbon category,’ he says. ‘We’re trying to focus on top quality. If companies select the best casks then that’s fine – and we would welcome such bourbons from other companies because it helps grow the sector overall.’
Strangely, price isn’t particularly the issue here. Unlike scotch, good quality bourbons can cost under £30 in the UK. Many bourbons in the States cost the equivalent of well under £10 and even the very finest special release bourbons such as George T Stagg and Eagle Rare 17 cost only $60 – about £30 – if you can find them. Those rarer bottles will set you back about £100 in the UK for the short time that stock exists. After that you’re looking at shelling out £200 on eBay.
So what is the way forward? Bar consultant Alex Turner believes that the established super-premium bourbons tick all the right boxes for cocktail making, whether they’re small batch or not. ‘The likes of Woodford and Maker’s Mark bourbon add to the quality and standing of a cocktail and provide a definite step up from Jack Daniel’s,’ he says. ‘If you want to encourage a customer to move into the premium sector, then those bourbons will allow you to do so. The next step up from that is to encourage people to drink the special bourbons such as George T Stagg on their own and with ice.
‘Those bourbons wouldn’t be right for a cocktail. I think we can get there – but there’s a long way to go yet.’
So much for the theory, what do you guys think? Imbibe talks to participants in the fifth Woodford Reserve Bartenders’ Challenge in Kentucky…
Nidal Ramini, PM Bars
‘In the future people will seek out simpler drinks. They will definitely go for quality over quantity and bourbon can benefit from that. There’s also the opportunity to talk about the way they drink it straight over ice in Kentucky and start talking about flavours of the various bourbons themselves.’
Jamie Stephenson, The Bar Academy
‘With a product such as bourbon, the story behind the drink is so strong that it can’t help but sell it. And the other aspect of this is that when people understand what went into creating the drink, and how special a small batch or premium whiskey is, they’re more prepared to pay for it.’
Alex Turner, IP Bartenders
‘While bourbon remains a great drink to mix, there is also the opportunity to serve a quality bourbon such as Woodford Reserve as a straight drink, over ice, perhaps after dinner. It undoubtedly offers a pleasant alternative to a cognac.’