You’ve read all the articles about Scotch, learned what little details make a bourbon, and figured out how to spell whisk(e)y. At last you felt like you had the knowledge to bravely face the whiskey aisle at your local spirit supplier. You reach for a bottle and something catches your eye. “Small batch,” the label proclaims. Huh? You look at the bottle next to it, from the same distiller. “Single barrel,” it promises. Hesitantly you pick it up with your other hand. Looking back and forth between the two, you are left wondering, WTF? You’re smart, you can figure this out, that is until the “bottled-in-bond” bottle falls off the shelf and conks you in the head.
Laying on the floor of Aisle 5, you curse yourself, pull out your smartie-phone, and read this article. Next time, check here first!
This one is surprisingly straight-forward. It means that all the whiskey in the bottle came from the same barrel. Often the barrel is identified on the label in a cryptic, but satisfying, numbering system. Single barrels can be an interesting experience. Other whiskeys are mixes of barrels and ages (yes, even single malt Scotch) to help create flavor and maintain consistency to a greater or lesser degree. A single barrel has none of this. That means the experience from one bottle to the next can vary greatly, as individual barrels will have been subjected to different micro-climates as it aged. Each barrel will also have its own characteristic flavor profile. Single barrels are great for those looking for a little adventure, and those who aren’t afraid to have a “favorite” fall flat on the next go-round.
Small batch is a nebulous designation. There is no official (i.e. “legal”) guidelines describing what exactly constitutes a small batch. What it means in general, though, is that the whiskeys used to create this bottle were from a localized area of the rickhouse. Sometimes this is a single floor, or a certain side, or the center. Again, unless the distiller specifically states what their small batch consists of, you really don’t know. Theoretically it will be from the “best” section or barrels.
This is a specifically American designation having its own law, the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. Originally created to ensure quality, it is more of a marketing decision today. The whiskey must be produced during a single year at a single distillery, then aged in a government-certified bond warehouse for at least four years, and be bottled at no less than 100° proof.
As an American designation, straight just means it has been aged at least two years. If it has been aged less than four years, an age statement is required as per the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (just TTB for some reason).
BARREL STRENGTH / CASK STRENGTH / UNCUT
Most whiskey winds up in the battle at around 80° proof. This is not the way it comes out of the barrel. In fact, the whiskey that comes straight out of the barrel is not entirely uniform from barrel to barrel, even at the same age. This is a result of non-uniform aging. Before bottling, whiskey is usually “cut” with water to bring it to the desired proof. These designations mean you get what came out of the barrel (or cask). It is always some high, eye-watering proof. Many times the proof is listed per bottle because of the aforementioned variation of in-cask whiskey.