Maker's Mark Ambassador Tour
My oldest daughter gave me one of the best free gifts out there - a Maker's Mark Ambassador Membership. While the program has recently changed to be a little more stringent on membership, a key feature still remains. As an Ambassador, your name, along with other Ambassadors, is tagged to a given barrel. When your barrel matures - in about 7 years - you are notified and are able to take a special Maker's Mark Ambassador Tour.
Burks' Distillery and the Samuels Family
A visit to Maker's Mark can often be an adventure. Located in the hills and hollows of Laretto, Kentucky, it is off the beaten path. On our first visit, we learned the hard way to follow the directions on the website and not the GPS on our phones. This time, we were better prepared and didn't take "the scenic route".
The Maker's Mark brand was born in 1953 when the Burks' Distillery was purchased by William "Bill" Samuels Sr. Bill wanted to put a spin on the old family recipe and chose to substitute wheat for the more typical rye as the flavoring grain. The finished product was sweeter and smoother than many of its competitors.
Makers changed hands a few times over the years and is now part of the Beam Suntory franchise. Bill's wife, Margie, played a key role in the marketing of the premium product, beginning with the brand name down to its iconic square-shaped bottle sealed in red wax. You can learn more about "the why" behind some of these features in our earlier tour post.
My Barrel Matures
Several weeks ahead of our tour, I received a large envelope from Maker's Mark. Inside, in almost Willy Wonka-fashion, was a golden ticket announcing that my barrel had matured and was provided a window of several months when I could visit the distillery, select bottles from "my barrel" (note the quotes), and even hand-dip the bottles.
To be clear, as an ambassador, one is "tagged" with a barrel. Through the ambassador portal and website, I'm able to check-in on my barrel and see how it is aging. When it's ready, it, along with hundreds of other barrels, is dumped to fill thousands of bottles. This is not like a single-barrel product where I can see my exact barrel and taste "my barrel". Rather, it's more symbolic and figurative, rather than literal.
Through the website, you and a guest can select a date and time for your visit. Ambassadors and one guest are granted lifetime free tours and tastings. Upon check-in, we were able to pre-pay for several 1-liter bottles. These were available at the conclusion of the tour - with custom labels bearing my name - for dipping in the gift shop.
The tour is small and intimate - perhaps 5 or 6 couples - all of whom are Ambassadors. We begin with a short walk from the visitor's center to view the 45-foot column stills and spirit safe, followed by the wonderful aroma of the mash tubs.
We stop for a few moments in the labeling area, where the original labeling presses of the distillery's earliest days are still used. A number of commemorative bottles are on display that represent charitable causes and signature events. We then slip into one of the small rickhouses on the site to take in some of the angels' share (Note that most of Maker's rickhouses are not on the distillery site). A new addition, along with a cocktail area in the visitor's center and a restaurant at the old, onsite firehouse, is the Maker's 46 and Private Select cave. Yes, you heard that right - a cave.
When we last visited, this area was under construction. Bill Samuels Jr. pioneered the use of wood finishing with bourbon. You may recall that Maker's 46 and its Private Selection line use the flagship Maker's mash bill of 70% corn, 16% wheat, and 14% malted barley - and finish it with a mix of staves resulting in a unique spirit. Several types of wood staves are used, allowing, literally, over 1,000 unique combinations. While I knew the staves were added, how they're added is captivating.
The cave we're in has been dug into the hillside with modern equipment. Bill recognized that the whiskey that was being finished with wood staves couldn't be exposed to the typical heating and cooling offered by Kentucky weather in a traditional rickhouse, as the resulting whiskey was too "wood heavy" and oaky.
As a result, barrels of traditional Maker's whiskey are dumped and partially deconstructed. That allows several wood staves, based on the desired flavor profile, to be placed into the cavity of the empty barrel. The barrel is then re-assembled and refilled. Inside the cave, the temperature is a near-constant 54 degrees where the wood additions are allowed to "do their work" over the next several months without overpowering the bourbon. After viewing the cave rick house, we entered an exclusive bar area in the side of the hill. It is here that clubs, restaurants, and stores can taste whiskeys with various stave profiles to arrive at their unique blend. Be on the lookout, not only for Maker's 46 (which utilizes this process), but also the hundreds of Private Select bottlings.
After hanging out in the cave, it's time to step back outside on this Fall day and warm up. We head over to the bottling area. But before we do so, we pass through another new addition - a tribute to Margie Samuels that has been added to the front of the bottling building. Margie had a love for glass art and her collection adorns the interior entrance. Following a quick walk-through of the bottling line, it's time for our tasting and dipping. As we leave the tasting area, we walk through a final aging area and look up in awe at the Chihuly colored glass ceiling, and head into the gift shop for our dipping experience.
The Ambassador Tour provided a flight of five bourbons to sample: Maker’s Mark, Maker's Mark 101, Maker's 46, Maker's Cask Strength, and an undisclosed future Maker's Private Select release. All of these products share a single mash bill: 70% corn, 14% malted barley, and 16% soft red winter wheat. Along with Pappy Van Winkle and W.L. Weller (both from Buffalo Trace) and Old Fitzgerald and Larceny (both from Heaven Hill), wheat replaces rye as the flavoring grain.
Maker's Mark: I ebb and flow on enjoying the traditional Maker's product. I often feel that for the smoothness offered by the wheat, I should enjoy it more. But this is traditional bourbon, with caramel, vanilla, oak and spice. Nicely balanced and very consistent. If I'm traveling and the selections are limited, this can be a staple where I always know what I'm getting.
Maker's Mark 101: This one hits solidly with caramel, vanilla, and light baking spices, leaving a medium-long finish that is warm and spicy. Overall, this is very good.
Maker's 46: Why do I always forget how much I like this one? My spouse agrees with me, as she found the 101 "hot" and this one exceptionally smooth. There are loads of caramel balanced nicely with dark fruit notes in a creamy sensation. A solid "thumbs up".
Maker's Mark Cask Strength: Ok, so truth be told, the last time I sampled this at a traveling Maker's event, it took two months for my nose hairs to grow back. All right, maybe not two months, but wow! Even my bourbon buddy who was with me had remarked at the heat that tasting packed. This bottle, though, was surprisingly drinkable. Balanced with sweet and savory notes, I would not have picked this one out of a lineup as cask strength. I actually gave spicier notes to the 101.
Undisclosed Private Select: At the front of our tasting area, a barrel stood with the five bottles, including this one, with a plain white label carrying a sample number. Our host shared that this was a sneak peek at an upcoming distillery select finished series. This was delicious. The notes were rich and layered, including chocolate, stone fruits, and marzipan. Incredible. I will be on the lookout for this upcoming release.