Editor’s Note: The Whiskey Wash welcomes noted bourbon history and writer Michael Veach as a contributor to our writing team.
Maker’s Mark takes great pride in the fact that they’re willing to go against the norm and set new standards. They did this in the 1950’s when they opened a distillery to make a single brand of premium bourbon, and recently they did it again with their new single barrel selection of Maker’s Mark 46. I had the honor of being part of the selection team for a barrel for the Party Mart stores in Louisville, Kentucky.
The day starts with coffee and bagels at Party Mart as the van picks up the team to make the selection. The team consists of Susan Reigler, Carla Carlton, and myself as Party Mart’s “Bourbon Board of Directors.” We routinely select private barrels for the store together. Joining us on this trip is Renae D. Price filling in for Jerry Rogers. Adam Mendoza from Beam Suntory is our driver and Rick Gibbins from Southern Wine and Spirits is also along for the tasting.
This brand-new single barrel program is more than a simple pick-a-barrel-of-good-bourbon exercise. Traditionally, multiple barrels are pulled and a panel tastes the contents of each to decide what they want. The purpose of this new program at Maker’s Mark is to allow participants to actually build their own flavor profile for a barrel of Maker’s 46 by choosing among five different types of staves used as inserts in a finishing barrel.
Maker’s Mark is the farthest major distillery from Louisville, and we arrive around 10:30. We’re taken to the new visitor’s center and shown to a private tasting room on the second floor. Here Jane Conner and Scott Mooney have the room set up for the tastings.
In front of each taster is a mat with five glasses of bourbon, with three additional empty glasses for later. The glasses are cryptically marked: P2, Cu, 46, Mo, Sp. Next to the mat and glasses is a booklet titled “Maker’s Mark Private Select,” as well as a Maker’s Mark pen. The booklet begins with an introduction from Rob Samuels, which is followed by 11 pages of information about oak, how it is cured for coopering, and the flavors found in the wood. It’s great information before you even start getting into specifics.
On the mat, there is a glass of cask strength Maker’s Mark (what will enter the customized barrel) to taste as a baseline. The other five glasses contain bourbon finished with each of the different wood options. All are barrel proof, as the final product will also be barrel proof.
Baked American Pure 2 (P2)
- Stave: Classic cut American oak toasted in a convection oven.
- Flavor description: “Sweet brown sugar, vanilla, caramel, and brown spice.”
- My tasting experience: Vanilla and honeysuckle on the nose and vanilla and marshmallow with nutmeg and cinnamon spices in the mouth, as well as some nice dry oak on the finish.
- Consensus: I liked this whiskey as a flavor component, but Carla hated it. Susan and Renae were more middle ground.
Seared French Cuvee (Cu)
- Stave: French oak cut with ridges for more surface area and toasted with infrared heat.
- Flavor description: “Oaky, caramel, roasted/toasted.”
- My tasting experience: I found the bourbon to have corn and leather on the nose, sweet corn and vanilla in the mouth, and an astringent finish.
- Consensus: I did not care for it, but the others found it better than I did.
Makers 46 (46)
- Stave: French oak with a classic cut stave and seared, infrared toasting.
- Flavor description: “Dried fruit, vanilla, spice.”
- My tasting experience: I found the bourbon to have strong oak and vanilla on the nose with some vanilla and caramel in the mouth, but also a bitter tannic flavor, leading to a long and bitter finish.
- Consensus: Needless to say, I have never been a fan of Maker’s 46. The others were neutral on the bourbon, but it was not the favorite of anyone on the panel.
Roasted French Mocha (Mo)
- Stave: Classic cut French oak cooked in a high heat convection oven to toast the wood.
- Flavor description: “Char, maple, cacao.”
- My tasting experience: I found caramel, vanilla, and a hint of chocolate on the nose, with some vanilla and oak in the mouth. The finish was sweet, with some chocolate and coffee flavors.
- Consensus: I liked this one but found it a bit one dimensional. The others rather liked it.
Toasted French Spice (Sp)
- Stave: Classic cut French oak with a mixture of high and low temperatures in a convection oven for the toasting.
- Flavor description: “Smoke, coumarin, spice.”
- My tasting experience: I found the bourbon to have vanilla and nutmeg on the nose. The taste was citrus fruit and sweet spices, with oak and spice dominating the finish.
- Consensus: I liked this one, as did everyone else.
After careful tasting, our next object was to blend these different woods to come up with our own custom version of Maker’s 46.
Look for the next part of this story soon on The Whiskey Wash where I finish describing the lengthy process of choosing the finish for a private barrel of Maker’s 46. Until then you can read my blog at bourbonveach.com or find me on Twitter @bourbonveach.
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Michael Veach was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2006. He’s written and contributed to five books and is the foremost authority on bourbon history. In addition to this he is the Filson Historical Society‘s Bourbon Historian. Michael has provided bourbon history education in many different forms...