A Visit to Maker’s Mark
Recently, I had the privilege to visit the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, KY. In this post, I’d like to share my experience, what I saw, what I learned, and what I tasted. In the interest of full disclosure though, I’d like to tell you right up front that the folks at Maker’s Mark did pay for the travel expenses for my visit (my airfare and hotel for one night). I was not financially compensated in any other way.
With that out of the way, I hope you’ll indulge me. I’m about to geek out about whisky.
If you’ve never been to a whisky distillery, stop what you’re doing (well, finish reading this post, then stop what you’re doing) and book a trip. The greatest concentration of distilleries in the US is in Kentucky, along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. The process of making whisky is fascinating, and while not everyone enjoys it the way I do, I find the smell of a distillery intoxicating (even before I’ve had anything to drink!)
The distillery at Maker’s Mark is no different. And it has quite a history! I was able to spend most of my day with Victoria MacRae-Samuels, the Director of Operations, and Dave Pudlo, the Distillery Education Director. I took about 20 pages of notes, but I’ll try to distill it down to the essentials. (I know – awful, awful pun.)
The distillery itself was first established in 1805 as Burks’ Gristmill and Distillery. It was purchased in 1953 by T.W. (Bill) Samuels Sr. and his wife Marjorie. The Samuels family had been distillers for generations, but they had recently sold their family distillery and trademarks. They purchased the Burks property simply to have an already-established location (which happened to have a reliable water source on-site) where they could continue to produce whisky in small batches, mostly for family and friends.
They started to develop their recipe from scratch. The main criteria that Bill Samuels Sr. had laid out was a desire for a very “drinkable” bourbon – one that was smooth and round, without too much burn. Rather than produce a variety of different batches that would then need to be aged for years, Bill and Marjorie settled on their proportions of corn, wheat, and malted barley by baking batches of bread.
I was always curious about the Maker’s Mark name (and symbol). Victoria educated me on this one. Marjorie Samuels was apparently quite a collector of pewter objects. And apparently, the highest quality pewter always had a “maker’s mark” to identify its creator. Inspired by this tradition, Maker’s Mark got its name, and its symbol (which you’ll see embossed on every bottle). Being a fairly creative person, Marjorie played quite a role in the bottle design, as well. They used hand-torn labels, and dipped each bottle in wax to evoke the style of quality cognac. Marjorie even hand-lettered the first bottles (and her lettering design is still used today).
The first barrel of Maker’s Mark was bottled in 1958, and the recipe hasn’t changed since. It’s clear from talking to the staff at Maker’s Mark that the heritage of the brand is very important to them. Much of my conversation with the staff centered around ensuring that Maker’s lived up to “the way Bill wanted it.”
We actually have two different bourbons to talk about today. First – the classic Maker’s Mark. As we talked about earlier, Bill Samuels was aiming for a very round, “drinkable” bourbon. One of the ways that goal is achieved is through the proportional blend of corn, malted barley, and red winter wheat. The attention paid to the sourcing and quality of the ingredients at Maker’s genuinely surprised me. Not that I expected them not to care, but for an operation of their size, I was surprised to still see the degree of hands-on individual attention that was paid, including actual people physically inspecting the ingredients upon their arrival. The staff are well educated about the sourcing of the ingredients, and they’re given broad latitude to refuse a shipment from a supplier if it doesn’t meet strict quality standards. And of course, careful attention is paid to the water, which comes directly from a lake on the property.
We won’t go through the whole distillation process here, but I’ll say again, if you’ve never had the opportunity to watch whisky being made, find a way to make that happen. Most major distilleries offer tours – take one. It’s a fascinating process.
Once the cooking, fermentation, and distillation is complete, the raw whisky (what we’ve come to call “white dog”) is put into new American oak barrels to be aged. It spends between 6 and 7 1/2 years in one of the 24 warehouses on the Maker’s property, each of which holds upwards of 20,000 barrels. Each warehouse is 6 stories. Barrels enter on the top floors, where the temperature is highest, and where they’ll generally spend three summers. Over the remaining years, the barrels will be rotated down to cooler temperatures as new barrels come in.
Tasting the original Maker’s Mark, you’ll find, I think, that it lives up to the spec that Bill Samuels established back in 1953 – a smooth nose, and a smooth taste, very drinkable, with hints of vanilla, caramel, and baking spices, followed by a nice round finish (a little quick for my normal taste, but in general, a very good quality in bourbon.) It makes for a great introduction to bourbon for those who insist they don’t drink whisky (in other words, those who just don’t know any better yet.) And given how well rounded it is, I think it also makes a great palette for building cocktails.
Now we come to the real reason for my trip – to taste Maker’s 46. A key fact worth underscoring is that this is the first new expression from Maker’s Mark since they started producing bourbon over 50 years ago. Maker’s has become a classic recipe – a “known good” quantity – and the general philosophy at the distillery has been “don’t screw it up.” But after half a century or so, it was time for something new.
What I found most surprising about Maker’s 46 was that it begins as fully-matured Maker’s Mark. Rather than start from the very beginning, the Maker’s team were seeking a new expression of a classic recipe. To achieve this, they worked closely with Brad Boswell – a 4th generation cooper from the Independent Stave Company of Kentucky. They evaluated a variety of different wood profiles, landing finally on the 46th choice (yup… 46) – French white oak staves that are seared on each side very quickly, at very high temperatures. Ten or so of these staves are then added to a barrel of fully matured Maker’s Mark, which is then aged for an additional two or three months.
The result is a bourbon vaguely reminiscent of Maker’s Mark, but bolder in every way. The aroma is more intense, with more apparent spiciness and caramel. The flavor follows suit – with a very similar profile of vanilla, caramel, and baking spices like cinnamon, but expressed in a much more complex way. I particularly appreciate the spiciness, and the much longer finish – a lingering sweet and spicy mix that I much prefer, especially when sipping a bourbon neat (which I will tend to do occasion.)
I think Maker’s has once again achieved their goal – a drinkable, accessible bourbon that lives up to the values set forth by their founder, but at the same time, presents a bolder, modern choice.
In reading this, I know I sound gushy. All I can do is assure you that my sentiments are sincere. I don’t do “reviews” very often because I won’t write about things that I don’t enjoy (I leave the bashing to others). When I do enjoy something, I’m happy to share it with you. Though my bottle of Maker’s 46 is off limits. Get your own.
Thanks again to Victoria and Dave for showing me the ropes and giving me the history I so appreciate (I love a good story). Thanks as well to Natalie Stone, Herb Stucker, and the rest of the staff at Maker’s Mark who took time out of their day to indulge my inner whisky geek.