Thu 17 Jan 2013
The term “small batch” originated in Kentucky’s bourbon industry as a way of indicating that a particular item was limited in production and generally received some sort of special treatment in the way of types of barrels, length of aging and selection of ingredients. Perhaps the classic or best-known roster of small batch bourbons consists of the quartet of Booker’s, Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s and Knob Creek (my favorite), from Beam Global Spirits and Wines Inc.; equally well-regarded are Blanton’s from Eagle Trace Distillery and Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve, but mentioning these products doesn’t begin to indicate the number of small batch and single-barrel bourbons and other limited edition whiskeys available, a number that increases every year. The success of these products — for which no real or official definition exists — seems to be fueled by clever marketing toward male and female Millennial consumers and their abiding interest in all things handmade, artisan-like and privileged or for older spirits devotees for whom single-malt Scotch has become too expensive. Not that small batch bourbon is cheap.
So popular is the notion of “small batch” and its implications of craft and care and specialness that the term has spread into or been hijacked by products in many other areas. As My Readers can see in the accompanying images, “small batch” now applies to soy sauce, tonic and fish sauce, and these are only the items that we happen to have on hand. The problem with the nomenclature of exclusivity, including “small batch,” “artisan,” “craft,” “green” and others, is that they are defined in the most nebulous manner or not at all and that their use has become so widespread as to render them meaningless. Such labels have become mere counters or status indicators in our vast marketplace’s tyranny of choice.
The situation is similar in the American wine industry, in which labeling lingo like “reserve,” “old vines,” “limited production” and a variety of other terms proliferate and are entirely unregulated; I mean, what does “Vintner’s Reserve” mean? No producers in California, of course, want more federal interference with labeling or vineyard and winery practices, yet wouldn’t consumers benefit if they knew that for a particular Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon meant 1,000 cases as opposed to a “regular” bottling of 20,000 cases or that “Old Vines” actually meant that a wine was produced from a vineyard where the vines were planted in 1919? Without some sort of indication, terms like “reserve” and “old vines” are as meaningless as “green” or “artisan” on a box of “gourmet” crackers.
Not that, as in Europe, such notions as “reserve” such be regulated precisely, but neither is it sufficient that labels offer such vague reassurance as “Our Reserve Cabernet is strictly limited in production” or “Our Old Vine Zinfandel was made from our historic and heritage vineyards in Sonoma Valley.” Posh! Just tell us how limited that production was or how old those vines are. It’s that simple. I don’t think we need state or federal rulings that a reserve wine must be limited to a certain number of cases and aged according to a determined regimen or that “old vine” must mean older than 50 years, as long as producers tell us what the details are. And that goes for “small batch” bourbon, soy sauce and tonic too. Any term that’s imprecise or used as esthetic, ethical or moral coding is just a marketing tool intended to impress, coerce or confuse the consumer.
So, how “small batch” is a small batch bourbon? Beam’s Knob Creek is produced in about 200,000 cases annually, compared to Jim Beam, which totals about 6 million cases. Some 160,000 cases of Woodford Reserve were made in 2010; Jack Daniels comes in at nearly 10 million cases. It took a considerable amount of time on Google to find these figures. Small batch whiskeys made by smaller distilleries may be much more limited.
You’ll notice that the soy sauce pictured above, made in Louisville by the Bluegrass Soy Sauce Co., is not only “small batch” but “microbrewed” and “single barrel.” The wraparound label indicates that the bottle sitting on the desk next to me is No. 89 from batch 340-10. In terms of soy sauce, this attention to minutiae is either inspiring or precious, but we still don’t know how small this “small batch” is.