Tour and Tasting: Maker's Mark
A few years back, my youngest daughter turned 21. As her birthday drew near, I asked, “Are you planning on getting together to celebrate with your friends? Perhaps a fishbowl?” She replied, “actually, I was hoping we could celebrate as a family – in Kentucky – and take in a distillery or two? After beginning in Versailles, KY at Woodford Reserve, we settled on Maker’s Mark in Loretto, KY for the following day.
Don’t Google Maps Your Visit
We loaded up the car and headed out. I asked our oldest daughter to have Siri guide us. Big mistake. What started out as interstate, narrowed to a two-line state highway, followed by a tight-twisting, hill-climbing, barely one-lane road with steep drop-offs on either side of the road, and signs indicating “Road washes out when it rains”. As we slowly crawled past an oncoming truck, my wife insisted we stop to ask for directions. This quickly prompted the birthday girl to scream, “That’s how the plot to Deliverance starts!” We broke through the thickly-forested grove and nestled between trees in front of us was the Maker’s Mark Distillery.
A word to the wise – next time, we’ll take the directions from the Maker’s Mark website. There was more than once on our adventure that our cell phones spun trying to find a connection.
The Proof is in the Bread
Maker’s Mark hearkens its birth to 1953, when T. William “Bill” Samuels Sr. purchased the old Burks’ Distillery – the current site we were visiting. Bill had an old family recipe for bourbon, but chose to come up with his own flavor profile. As he experimented with various mash bills, he chose to speed up the flavor profile by using the mash bills and baking bread. It was during this experimentation that he discovered the sweetness of replacing rye with soft winter wheat, imparting smoothness to the bread, and ultimately, to the finished spirit.
Maker’s remained independent for nearly 30 years until being sold to Hiram Walker (of Peoria, IL fame) in 1981. Fortune Brands subsequently purchased the brand in 2005 and held it under the Beam name until Beam merged with Beam Suntory in 2014. Today, if you’re making a visit to Maker’s, you’re “just over the hill” from its former parent – the Jim Beam Distillery – in nearby Clermont.
Maker’s signature wax-dipped bottles are easily recognizable on retailer shelves. But how did that trademark begin? Margie Samuels – Bill’s wife – was quite the marketer.
Square Bottle and Red Wax: Margie wanted the bottles to stand out on the shelves. She carried her concept from her large collection of old cognac bottles – that were also square – and typically used wax as a sealer.
S IV & Star: On the label, you’ll note a round S IV with a star logo. Margie was inspired by the “maker’s marks” that pewtersmiths would put on their work. The star represents her birthplace – Star Hill Farm in Bardstown. The “S” is for Samuels. The Roman numeral IV represents Bill’s status as a 4th generation distiller.
We arrived late-morning on a beautiful Saturday, and the first tour groups were just wrapping up. The grounds are beautifully manicured and everything had been freshly painted. My daughter remarked that it almost appeared Disney-like – almost too perfect-looking.
We were quickly whisked off to the main distillation area that looked more like a farm than an industrial manufacturing area. We snuck a peek into several mash tubs and the massive 45-foot column stills for a view of the spirit safe flowing with white dog. While there’s a small storage area on site for selected barrels, the main rickhouses reside about 20 minutes from the main facility.
There’s also a fanciful bottling and labeling area. All of the labels are printed onsite from a pair of printing presses that appear to come straight from the Gutenberg era. The labels are hand applied and each bottle top is dipped by hand into the signature, red wax. As our tour continued, we saw a final amazing sight – a Daniel Chihuly colored glass ceiling adorning a special storage area. Installed in 2014 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of distilling operations, the 36×6 foot ceiling is formed from over 1,300 individual pieces of glass – blue for water, amber and green for corn and wheat, and red for the distillery’s signature wax. Our jaws dropped in amazement, and we quickly took advantage of this often-photographed sight.
Daniel Chihuly colored glass ceiling
All of this walking was making me thirsty – and we arrived at the tasting room just in time. In front of us was a 4-pour flight: Maker’s White (whitedog), Maker’s Mark, Maker’s 46, and Maker’s Mark Private Select.
The mash bill for the Maker’s Mark flagship product is 70% corn, 14% malted barley, and 16% soft red winter wheat. Maker’s is one of a limited number of wheated bourbons, including Pappy Van Winkle and W.L. Weller (both from Buffalo Trace), and Old Fitzgerald and Larceny (both from Heaven Hill). Maker’s Mark is aged around 6 years and is bottled at 90 proof. One other uniqueness to this brand is that the barrels are rotated during the aging process – moving barrels from the lower levels to the upper levels – to ensure a consistent quality and taste.
Tasting – Maker’s White, Maker’s Mark, Maker’s 46, Maker’s Mark Private Select
Color: Medium copper
Nose: Oak, caramel, vanilla with a touch of alcohol that quickly dissipates
Palate: More caramel, vanilla with a splash of baking spice on the tip of my tongue, with some light fruit essences
Finish: Medium-long, dry oaky finish with a final dose of spice
Overall: Not a bad drinker. Nicely balanced and a solid pour. It’s a standard at most bars and events. As a wheated bourbon, it’s one that I always feel I should like more than I do. There are others that I gravitate to first that have more pronounced flavors or have more layers of complexity.
Color: Dark copper
Nose: Loads of caramel and sweet butterscotch notes, with a dose of rich, rickhouse. While some “woody” bourbons smell like the raw wood, this smells like the gentle, long-aging barrels stacked in the rickhouse.
Palate: A very creamy, rich, and silky smooth mouthfeel with intense caramel. There’s plenty of wood, but it’s well-balanced with the caramel and butterscotch notes.
Finish: Long, sweet, oaky-finish. I was really expecting more spice and alcohol burn, but this is very smooth and subtle.
Overall: While I often keep a bottle of Maker’s Mark on hand (I have a very cool jockey-silk that decorates my square bottle), I confess I like the Maker’s 46 better and I wish I remembered that! 46 isn’t a bottle I always have on hand, and after this tasting, I think I need to keep a bottle around more often.