Back in the late ’90s and early aughts, “small batch” bourbon felt special, unique, and maybe even a little scarce. In 2023, small batch bourbon is just an entry point for most folks exploring the increasingly vast bourbon scene. It’s a jumping-off place for brands to introduce you to their vibe and it’s a cheap-ish mixer for decent cocktail bars.
Still, some small batch bourbons rise above their humble station and truly transcend as great sippers. That’s why I’m conducting a blind taste test of some killer small batch bourbon whiskeys. One reason the shine has worn off “small batch” bourbon over the last 20-odd years is that there’s no real law or rule for defining the bourbon sub-genre. The industry’s unwritten rule is that to be labeled a “small batch” bourbon, the expression has to have one less barrel in the blend than a standard expression from that brand.
As. You. Might. Notice… That could mean anything.
Case in point, a standard batch of Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey — the biggest and most ubiquitous American whiskey in the world — has 375 barrels in each batch. There are “small batch” bourbons on this list with more barrels in their batch. That said, bottles like Michter’s Small Batch Bourbon only have 21 barrels in the mix because that’s how many barrels their batching tank holds. Taking a global view of the term “small batch” in 2023, it’s easy to see it as a marketing ploy from a bygone generation when the industry was just a fundamentally different beast.
All of that aside, I grabbed 12 bourbons from my shelf that have “Small Batch” on the label for a blind taste test. Our lineup today includes the following bottles:
- Four Roses Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- RD One Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Bib & Tucker Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey Aged 6 Years
- George Dickel Handcrafted Small Batch Bourbon Whisky Aged 8 Years
- Knob Creek Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 9 Years
- McAfee Brothers Benchmark Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea Voyage 25 Straight Bourbon Whiskey Very Small Batch
- Rabbit Hole Heigold Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey High Rye Small Batch
- Michter’s US*1 Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch Bottled In Bond Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey
- Great Jones Straight Bourbon Whiskey Crafted in Small Batches
- Elijah Craig Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
I tried to touch on bottles that are generally available around the country and generally all mid-range. The most expensive bottle on this list is around $70-$80 depending on where you live. The average is much closer to $40.
When it comes to ranking these after the blind tasting, I’m looking at the taste alone. This is about the depth of flavor and how great that flavor registers on my palate as an expert whiskey judge, critic, and consultant. Let’s dive in!
Part 1: The Tasting
Nose: Soft and sweet apple and cherry woods greet with a good dose of sour red berries dusted with brown winter spices, especially clove and nutmeg.
Palate: The palate leans into soft and salted caramel with a hint of those berries underneath while the spices get woodier and a thin line of green sweetgrass sneaks in.
Finish: The finish is silky and boils down to blackberry jam with a good dose of winter spice, old wood, and a hint of vanilla tobacco.
This was fine. It’s clearly built as a cocktail base with a thinner vibe on the finish.
Nose: This has a sweet and leathery nose with dark cherry, maple syrup, and wet brown sugar with just a pinch of winter spices.
Palate: The palate largely follows a standard bourbon palate (cherry, vanilla, oaky spice) with a slight grainy sweetness kind of like brown sugar in a bowl of grits.
Finish: There’s an eggnog spice on the end with a touch of clove and allspice next to apple fritters and subtle warmth.
This was fine too. The sweet grains and classic bourbon feel of this didn’t quite balance out, but that’s me really reaching for something to nitpick.
Nose: Raw leather and wet cedar mix with vanilla cream and a sense of black licorice protein powder.
Palate: The palate leans into ginger spiciness with yellow masa and cinnamon-heavy apple cider and vanilla wafers rounding things out.
Finish: The finish is light and has a black Necco Wafer vibe next to winter spices and apple tobacco warmth on the end.
I dig the nose on this one, it’s unique and deep. The profile is nice and clearly a Tennessee whiskey thanks wafer vibe.
Nose: The nose opens with creamy vanilla next to spiced tobacco with plenty of apple pie vibe and winter spices with a butter underbelly.
Palate: The palate has a light bran muffin with a molasses vibe next to vanilla/nougat wafers that then leads to peach skins and gingerbread.
Finish: The end leans into the nutty chocolate and vanilla wafer with a touch of orange zest, marzipan, and mint tobacco with a hint of garden store earthiness.
Two Tennessee whiskeys back to back! This is pretty nice too. It’s well-rounded but I’m not 100% sold on the finish with that earthiness.
Nose: The nose on this feels classic with a bold sense of rich vanilla pods, cinnamon sharpness, buttered and salted popcorn, and a good dose of cherry syrup with a hint of cotton candy.
Palate: The palate mixes almond, orange, and vanilla into cinnamon sticky buns with a hint of sour cherry soda that leads to a nice Kentucky hug on the mid-palate.
Finish: That warm hug fades toward black cherry root beer, old leather boots, porch wicker, and a sense of dried cherry/cinnamon tobacco packed into an old pine box.
This is pretty classic from top to bottom. It’s bourbon-y bourbon with a nice sweet and spicy balance. This is a good one.
Nose: This opens with hints of old vanilla beans, fresh leather, and old wicker porch furniture with a hint of black mold.
Palate: The palate leans into the apple and honey while adding rich caramel with a nice dose of sweet cinnamon with dried corn husks.
Finish: The end sweetens toward a corn mush cut with maple syrup and raisins next to vanilla pods and a touch of apple pies.
This is good but feels a lot cheaper than the last pours. It’s not bad by any stretch, just very shallow. It’s clearly a mixing whiskey that doesn’t cost much.
Nose: There’s a thin, proofed vibe on the nose with fresh honey, mulled wine spices, dark sugars, burnt orange, and a hint of white pepper peeking in.
Palate: The palate leans into woody cinnamon bark next to ripe orchard fruits wrapped in old tobacco and stacked with old porch wicker.
Finish: The end leans into the orchard fruit and wood more than the spice with a hint of salted caramel next to pear skins and apple tobacco.
This is the opposite of the last pour. This starts off thin but ends super strong. It’s a fun ride and has a pretty decent profile overall.
Nose: This nose is classic bourbon with deep and dark cherry, burnt orange, old vanilla pods, and a hint of licorice layered into cream soda with a sprig of fresh mint.
Palate: There’s a sense of fancy Almond Joy next to clove-studded oranges, vanilla cake with caramel frosting, and a light mint tobacco in a cedar humidor with a twinge of leather.
Finish: The cedar, dark cherry, singe orange, and bold woody spice all pop in the finish and fade slowly away, leaving you with a well-rounded “bourbon” experience.
This is just good bourbon. It’s well-balanced, full-bodied, and lush.
Nose: 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.
Palate: The sweetness ebbs on the palate as vanilla frosting leads to grilled peaches with a crack of black pepper next to singed marshmallows.
Finish: The end is plummy and full of rich toffee next to a dash of cedar bark and vanilla tobacco.
Damn, this is another luxurious sip of bourbon. It’s a fun journey on the senses and leaves you will a lavish sense of well-crated bourbon vibes.
Nose: 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.
Palate: 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.
Finish: 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.
Another killer pour! This is bourbon at its best. I want more of this in my life.
Nose: The nose opens with a hint of dry cornmeal that leads to soft but worn leather and a throughline of rubber fishing lure (in a good way… I think) with a soft and sweet citrus fruit underneath it all.
Palate: The palate is light but hits on vanilla cream, toffee, and cinnamon with a dash of white pepper and more citrus.
Finish: The end leans into vanilla and spiced tobacco leaves and a twinge of soft lemon pepper.
This is pretty light from beginning to end. It wasn’t overly complex or that interesting. It just… was.
Nose: There’s a light sense of rickhouse wood beams next to that mild taco seasoning on the nose with caramel apples, vanilla ice cream scoops, and a hint of fresh mint with a sweet/spicy edge.
Palate: The palate opens with a seriously smooth vanilla base with some winter spice (especially cinnamon and allspice) next to a hint of grain and apple pie filling.
Finish: The end leans towards the woodiness with a hint of broom bristle and minty tobacco lead undercut by that smooth vanilla.
This is a pretty damn good, classic bourbon. There’s no “wow” factor, but it certainly delivers on being a tasty bourbon that feels like it’d make a good cocktail or two.
Part 2: The Ranking
12. Great Jones Straight Bourbon Whiskey Crafted in Small Batches — Taste 11
Average Price: $51
This is a grain-to-glass New York craft bourbon. The grains in the mash bill — corn, rye, and malted barley — are all grown locally in New York state. The juice is then left for at least four years to age before it’s blended in small batches, proofed down, and bottled.
This is just too young. It’s citrusy and feels like it needs another year or two in the barrel to take off the rougher edges. I’d wait.
11. McAfee Brothers Benchmark Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 6
Average Price: $18
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 fine but really tasted “cheap” compared to the other pours. That said, I could see shooting this with a beer back and not being mad about it.
10. RD One Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 2
Average Price: $49
This new branding from RD1 Distillery in Lexington, Kentucky, is replacing their Old WM. Tarr line. The bourbon is made from Kentucky corn in Kentucky, but only bottled by RD1, so it’s sourced.
This was perfectly fine bourbon. I can see mixing highballs and cocktails with this and it’s being, again, perfectly fine.
9. Four Roses Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 1
Average Price: $27
Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon is a blend of four whiskeys. The blend is split evenly between the high and mid-ryes with a focus on “slight spice” and “rich fruit” yeasts. The whiskey is then blended, cut with soft Kentucky water, and bottled.
This had a tad too much thinness compared to the other pours today. That said, you can cover up that thinness in a nice cocktail.
8. Elijah Craig Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 12
Average Price: $24
This is Elijah Craig’s entry-point bottle. The mash is corn-focused, with more malted barley than rye. The whiskey is then rendered from “small batches” of barrels to create this proofed-down version of the iconic brand.
This was good classic bourbon and nothing more. Use it in cocktails, that’s what it’s for.
7. Bib & Tucker Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey Aged 6 Years — Taste 3
Average Price: $53
Bib & Tucker pulls barrels of Tennessee whiskey from an old and quiet valley in the state. They then blend those barrels to meet their brand’s flavor notes. While they are distilling their own whiskey now, this is still all about the blending of those barrels in small batches.
This was a Tennessee whiskey that felt like it wanted to be a Kentucky bourbon (full-on Pinnochio vibes). That said, it was still a solid pour that’s well-suited to mixing cocktails.
6. George Dickel Handcrafted Small Batch Bourbon Whisky Aged 8 Years — Taste 4
Average Price: $34
The whisky in the bottle is the same Dickel Tennessee whiskey but pulled from barrels that leaned more into classic bourbon flavor notes instead of Dickel’s iconic Tennessee whisky notes. The barrels are a minimum of eight years old before they’re vatted. The whiskey is then cut down to a manageable 90-proof and bottled.
This was classic and funky. It’s clearly Tenneessee-made thanks to the powdery wafer vibes. Still, this had a unique finish that it owned and balanced nicely with the rest of the pour. That all said, I’d use this for a cocktail before drinking it as a sipper.
5. Jefferson’s Ocean Aged at Sea Voyage 25 Straight Bourbon Whiskey Very Small Batch — Taste 7
Average Price: $79
This expression is Jefferson’s sourced wheated bourbon from Indiana. The barrels were loaded onto an Ocearch vessel in Savannah, Georgia, and then sailed through the Caribbean, Panama Canal, around the Pacific, into the Indian Ocean, and back along the Pacific Coast, through the Panama Canal again, and back to Savannah — all that rocking around the ocean means more extraction of sugars into the spirit. Once the barrels were back in Kentucky, they were vatted, proofed, and bottled in very small batches.
This was pretty damn good overall. It wasn’t perfect, there was some thinness but the profile overcame that for a solid pour of whiskey. I can see this making a good old fashioned.
4. Knob Creek Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Aged 9 Years — Taste 5
Buy Here: $45 (one-liter)
This is Jim Beam’s small batch entry point into the wider world of Knob Creek. The juice is the low-rye mash aged for nine years in new oak in Beam’s vast warehouses. The right barrels are then mingled and cut down to 100 proof before being bottled in new, wavy bottles.
If you’re looking for a quintessential Kentucky bourbon that’ll put a smile on your face, this is it. No less. No more. That’s especially true if you’re looking for a great, standard bourbon mixer for cocktails.
3. Rabbit Hole Heigold Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey High Rye Small Batch — Taste 8
Average Price: $59
This Louisville whiskey is made with a “double malted” mash bill. The recipe calls for 70% corn, 25% malted German rye, and 5% malted barley. The hot juice goes into the barrels at a lower entry proof and rests for just over three years in toasted and charred Kelvin barrels. Only 15 of those barrels go into the final batch.
This is where we get into the good stuff. This is a nice pour of whiskey that’s both classic and deep. It’s a fun sipper and it makes one hell of a Manhattan.
2. Michter’s US*1 Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 9
Average Price: $46
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 whiskey is then proofed with Kentucky’s famously soft limestone water and bottled.
This was fun while still holding onto those classic bourbon moods. It’s deep and light — almost bright — on the senses. I can see sipping this over one large ice cube or mixing it into a simple, whiskey-forward cocktail.
1. Colonel E.H. Taylor Small Batch Bottled In Bond Straight Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey — Taste 10
Average Price: $87
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.
This is that bottle that transcends the label “small batch” bourbon. This is good f*cking whiskey. Sip it neat, over a large rock, or in your favorite cocktail. You win no matter how you drink it.
Part 3: Final Thoughts
I like to say at the end of these that “all the bourbons” had their merits, and so forth. This time I can’t. The top three bourbons on this list were far and away better whiskeys and it wasn’t even close. The other nine really felt like standard bar back bourbons you mix batch cocktails with or serve as cheap-ish shots.
Each one of those top three bottles at the top had its own aura, profile, and depth. The throughline was that they were all 100% all-in on their nose, palate, and finish. You could taste the confidence and years of expertise behind those whiskeys in every f*cking molecule in that glass. They were simply better made every single step of the way and it showed in the end product. I would argue that the Knob Creek 9 was close to hitting that but still felt like a mixer (a very good one).
If you’re going to get any of these bottles, make it the top three for an all-around great bourbon, and number four if you’re looking for an essential bourbon cocktail mixer.