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7 Things You Didn’t Know About Small Batch Whiskey

Small batch whiskey is, ironically, a large whiskey category in the United States. Created by blending the contents of very few selected barrels, small batch whiskey is sought after for its high quality and limited nature. 

Chicken Cock Whiskey is a notable producer of small batch whiskey. Founded in 1856 in Paris, Kentucky, Chicken Cock has been producing premium small batch whiskey for over 160 years. 

Being a National Whiskey Brand Ambassador for Grain and Barrel Spirits (owner of Chicken Cock Whiskey) I am passionate about the care and attention that goes into small batch whiskey. It is a fascinating category, in which there is more than meets the eye. So, here are 7 things that I find interesting, and that you might not know, about small batch whiskey. 

1. There are no rules for the small batch category 

The Chicken Cock range contains small batch whiskeys made from a variety of grains. Credit: Chicken Cock Whiskey

Throughout the whiskey category, there are rules and regulations that define how each is produced; from what makes a bourbon whiskey, to what makes a rye whiskey, to what makes a Bottled-in-Bond produced whiskey. These rules date back decades, or in some cases over a century. 

However, the small batch category is one that does not abide by any set parameters by the government, nor the industry itself. “Small batch” products can be made from any category of whiskey, are not regulated by grain recipe rules or aging standards, and can be made from as large, or small, of a variety of barrels as the producer would like, whether that be two or 200.

2. The category didn’t emerge until the 1990s 

The story of bourbon whiskey in the U.S. is almost as old as the country itself. However, the standards for bourbon production in the U.S. that are still used today weren’t established until 1964 (which is the same time when it also became America’s only native spirit). While the “small batch” category of whiskey is now a household name, the category itself did not become widely marketed until the early 1990s. This was done by Booker Noe of Jim Beam Distillery with his “Booker’s Bourbon” line of whiskey. 

The original intention with this new category was to create a blend of bourbon utilizing a small, hand-selected variety of barrels in the inventory that showcased the most distinct quality and flavor. Since then, many distilleries have designed their own small batch whiskey lines, and the category has now evolved into the mainstream. 

3. Small batch whiskey has stopped being small 

When the small batch category initially launched in the early 1990s, batches were made from a very small range of barrels in the rickhouse. However, as the category grew and a multitude of brands began making their own small batches, we saw producers go from using a small blend of barrels to a much bigger and broader blend of barrels to meet market demand and scale releases nationwide. 

The category that once used small numbers of barrels to make their blends were now using barrel volumes in the triple digits. While this aids in a consistent off-the-shelf product, this standard moved away from the original intention of the category. Chicken Cock’s new Small Batch Bourbon aims to get back to the roots of it all  – true small batches with big flavor.

4. Each barrel of bourbon is as unique as a fingerprint 

Small batch whiskeys are created by blending a very select number of barrels, all of which have unique characteristics.

While a variety of barrels from a producer can contain the same exact whiskey, made from the exact same grains, barreled at the exact same proof, and placed in the exact same place within the aging warehouse, they will each develop their own unique flavor, color, and quality characteristics. This is driven throughout the maturation process, where each barrel is subjected to varying temperatures and surface area interaction with the whiskey inside, making for distinct characteristics in every single barrel of whiskey.

While these differences in flavor and quality can range from negligible to discerning, no two barrels are alike. These variances are what continue to propel the popularity of the Chicken Cock Single Barrel program and are the reason why true small batch whiskey blends can create an abundance of depth, character, flavor, and quality over more mass-blended products. 

5. Each batch is as unique as the barrels it is made from 

Just as every barrel of whiskey is unique, so are the small batches they get blended into. As a prime example, our Chicken Cock Small Batch Bourbon is made from barrels that were pulled from varying floors of the rickhouse in Bardstown, KY. Barrels on the lower floors mature at a slower pace due to the cooler temperatures. Barrels on the higher floors mature at a more rapid pace due to the hotter temperatures they’re exposed to. These factors bring a multitude of varying flavors to the table for us to work from.

Our Small Batch is then blended from less than 20 barrels, with most batches being made from less than 10. While every batch we make has an ABV of 50%, or 100 proof, each batch has its own distinct traits that make them unique. While you may find similar core flavors throughout each, no two will be the same. Some batches may be higher on the citrus and oak side, while others may exhibit dessert-forward and sweeter flavors. This is what the magic of making true small batch whiskey is all about; maximized flavor, each batch shifting in its complexity and flavor from the previous, or the next. 

6. Consumer demand for small batch whiskey is high 

More and more consumers are demanding artisanal products, including their spirits. While the more mass-produced whiskeys of today will always have their place in the world, consumers in 2024 get much more enjoyment from products that are limited in production volume and were crafted by hand with great intention. Small batch whiskey meets these criteria, as it involves the curation by the master distiller/blender of hand-selected barrels that make for an exceptional blend in every bottle, with each batch being unique. 

Consumers can then select and pursue their favorite batch releases, driving demand up for specific batches for their preferred flavors and quality. This makes small batch whiskeys not only fun for consumers to taste and purchase with each new release, but fun for producers to make as well; knowing that what they are producing is special and unique.

7. Blending a small batch whiskey is an art

Blending small batch whiskey is a meticulous and vetted process.

I’ve been able to make custom whiskey blends twice in my life, and while it’s fulfilling to do it is certainly not easy. In my first experience whiskey blending, we utilized components that included everything from straight bourbon to honey barrel and Vino de Naranja (Spanish orange wine) finished bourbons. Blending straight whiskey is a challenge already, but when you add in more complex secondary finished whiskeys the job becomes even harder. It was then that I realized how much time, effort, and skill goes into blending whiskey.

Blending requires the master distiller, or blender, to pull barrel samples from dozens of barrels, and taste through each to look for the best of the best within the bunch. Typically, these barrels showcase the boldest flavor, longest finishes, and characteristics that best embody that distillery’s whiskey. Once the list of barrels is narrowed down, the distiller or blender will now have the task of identifying what makes the best blend from the barrels selected. 

Like something you’d see in science class, they will take percentages of each barrel sample and put them into a beaker, which they then blend to see if it makes for a great finished product. If it does, the operations team will begin the process of pulling those barrels, blending them together, and then bottling. If it does not, the process begins again, this time tweaking which barrels go into the blend. This process lasts for as long as it takes the master distiller or blender to create the finest whiskey possible. 

These immense skills make me view blending as an art; you start with a blank canvas and utilize a multitude of colors (or barrels) to paint your whiskey picture. It’s painstaking, challenging, and at times tedious. However, when your masterpiece is completed and you take that first sip it’s the most rewarding process of all.

When you open a bottle of Chicken Cock Small Batch Bourbon, you can now hopefully have a stronger appreciation for the hard work that goes into every bottle.

Will Woodington

Will is a National Whiskey Brand Ambassador for Grain & Barrel Spirits, the owner of Chicken Cock Whiskey. He is passionate about the long and storied almost 170-year history of the Chicken Cock brand, as well as the quality small batch whiskey produced there.

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