If I had to pick one distillery in Kentucky that I thought offered the complete Bourbon experience from front to back, it would be Maker's Mark. That often comes as a surprise to younger whiskey drinkers who think the Bourbon world begins and ends with Buffalo Trace, Four Roses, and Heaven Hill, especially because Maker's Mark is just so.....available. While we in the industry are constantly forced to deal in current whiskey fashion and trends, we don't ever let a brand's enormous success and popularity put us off of a good product. Maker's Mark isn't only one of the best whiskies in America, it's also one of the most beautiful and hands-on distilleries. I was excited to fly out to Louisville this past Sunday to take part in their new Maker's 46 private cask program, one that lets retailers like myself customize a unique recipe using specially seasoned oak staves. The weather was cool and the holiday spirit was definitely in the air. I felt like I was in a Hallmark movie looking at the red ribbons from the wreathes on each window.
Maker's Mark is unique in the Bourbon world in that it's one of the few distilleries that uses absolutely zero rye in any of its recipes (and they only have one recipe). Rye is traditionally used in a standard Bourbon mash bill as a balancing act against the sweetness of the corn. The peppery character it imparts on the flavor acts as a ballast against the corn creaminess. When Maker's Mark founder Bill Samuels originally set out to create his own Bourbon, he wanted the sweetest, most front palate-loaded Bourbon possible. That's part of the reason he eventually chose a wheated recipe, opting for 16% winter wheat in place of rye as the flavor grain in the mash bill. He also dialed up the malted barley to 14% for extra creaminess (if you've ever wondered why people love Pappy Van Winkle so much, there are two main reasons: it's big and it's sweet. That's what wheated Bourbon is supposed to taste like). On top of that, he had the distillery season its barrels for nine months to a year before using them. What does "seasoning" wood actually mean? Basically, you leave the wood outside and let nature take its course. Through exposure to the elements, the wood begins to breakdown and dry out.
During that process the natural tannins in the wood will soften, which is why Bill wanted his barrels seasoned for an extended period. He didn't want wood tannins harshening his mellow, sweet, creamy wheated Bourbon. You know those bold, drying, astringent, and bitter notes you sometimes get in a real woody Bourbon? That's the wood tannins doing a number on your taste buds. Maker's Mark doesn't have any of that tannic character because they use heavily-seasoned casks. From 1954 to 2010, the distillery made only that one formula, but six years ago they added a twist to the portfolio: the Maker's 46, a French oak-enhanced formula that stimulates additional spice and richness by the addition of seasoned staves into the barrel during maturation. Ten expressive French oak planks are hooked on to a ring and inserted vertically into an empty Bourbon barrel, which is then refilled with mature, cask-strength Maker's Mark and aged for an additional nine weeks. The result is a richer, thicker, darker Maker's Mark that still accentuates the creaminess of the wheated recipe.
It wasn't until 2015 that I really understood the potential of the Maker's 46 seasoned-stave process or how far one could take it. I was visiting the distillery on business and my guide that day happened to have a sample of a Maker's 46 variation they had been working on at full proof. "Would you like to taste it?" he asked with a grin. I nodded, tasted, and rejoiced. The increased complexity in the whiskey was equally as drastic as the gulf that exists between the standard Maker's Mark and the cask strength edition—one of my personal favorites. "We're hoping to do a barrel program with this concept in the future," he continued. "Retailers like yourself can come out, pick your own staves, and make your own formula." A year later, I was back at Maker's Mark, ready to finally participate in the program I had been eagerly anticipating. It was finally happening. I flew out to Louisville with my Beam-Suntory rep Glen and we met up with Scott Mooney, who has been appointed to oversee the program. We met in the old Samuels house to put together a K&L custom recipe.
How did I do? Really well, I think! I had a plan—a goal in mind—and a good idea of what would get me there, so I didn't need too much time in the blending room. Before beginning, however, Scott asked me about my vision. "Well," I began, "I don't want to create some Frankensteinian version of Maker's Mark that no longer tastes like Maker's Mark. I want to keep the core elements intact."
He nodded and jotted down a few notes.
"This is a wheated Bourbon. I want it to still taste like a wheated Bourbon because that's what I like about it. Maybe we can somehow accentuate the sweetness; make it pop somehow in a way it didn't before. That would be nice."
I think we got there. After selecting my staves, filling my barrel, and rolling it into the rickhouse, I called it a day. Let's cross our fingers and hope our K&L cask tastes as good as the sample blend! We'll find out next Spring.