A few weeks ago, I was invited on a tour to visit Maker’s Mark in Kentucky, and to learn more about their latest product Maker’s 46. Since I have long been interested in Kentucky Straight Bourbon (see our Bourbon Guide) I was delighted to take a tour of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Before we actually visited the scenic distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, we toured the Independent Stave Company that makes almost all the barrels for bourbon whiskey production in the U.S. As such, I enjoyed a true Bourbon start-to-finish experience. In addition, we visited former Maker’s Mark CEO and now Chairman Emeritus Bill Samuels at home, where I he shared many insights into the Bourbon industry and Maker’s Mark. Before I share our travel report, I’d like to present a bit of history about Maker’s Mark.
Maker’s Mark History
Before Maker’s Mark, the Samuels family produced bourbon under the T.W. Samuels label, which was founded in 1844 by Robert Samuels in Kentucky. After returning from WWII, T. William Samuels Sr. (a.k.a. Bill Samuels) worked for a couple of years in the business until he realized that it was time for a change. So, with his children looking on, he burned the old family recipe and created his own, substituting the usual rye in the corn-malted-barley-rye sour mash mixture with more expensive soft red winter wheat, providing a full bodied yet smooth flavor. As such, Maker’s Mark can be considered to be one of the first of the premium Straight Bourbon Whiskeys.
While Bill Samuels Sr. was responsible for the whiskey, his wife Margie Mattingly Samuels had to come up with everything else before the first batch could be bottled on May 8, 1958. She had neither a background in marketing nor graphic design, yet she helped in coming up with the name, the distinctive hand-dipped red wax top, the typeface and the hand-torn label for Maker’s Mark herself, which remains unchanged today. The name Maker’s Mark materialized during a discussion at the Samuels’ Bardstown home, when an advertising executive noticed a craftsman’s sign on the bottom of a pewter mug. Mrs. Samuels then gave it its distinctive name. All bottles feature a S IV logo with a star, which stands for Samuels, 4th generation distillers from Star Hill Farm, the distillery property. For the first 22 years, Maker’s Mark produced about 16,000 cases a year (one case has 6 regular 0.75 l bottles), 99% of which were consumed in Kentucky. Chances are, it would have remained a local phenomenon if David P. Garino hadn’t paid them a visit in 1980. He was a staff reporter from The Wall Street Journal who wrote a piece titled “Maker’s Mark Goes Against the Grain To Make Its Mark : Bourbon Distiller Is a Model Of Inefficiency by Choice; No Case for Fidel Castro”. It appeared on August 1 that year and highlighted the slow process of whiskey making at Maker’s Mark. The mash was cooked longer and the barrels were turned and moved during maturation, which is important because a barrel at the top of the warehouse ages differently than those at the bottom. All that made it more expensive, and some say tastier. As a result, people from all over the country wanted to buy Maker’s Mark and they sold out instantly.
Independent Stave Company – It All Starts with the Barrel
The Independent Stave Company is a 4th generation family business with over 1000 employees that exports its barrels to over 20 countries. They make barrels for almost all of the Bourbon producers in Kentucky. They are very protective of their processes, which is why I don’t have many photos or specific details to share with you. That being said, it was still an interesting experience to see how to process of barrel-making works. Here is what I can share.
At the main hall of the cooperage, the individual wood pieces are assembled into a barrel shape. Each barrel holds 53 gallons / 200 liters and throughout production each barrel undergoes various stages of steaming and toasting / charring. While there are a number of char options, Maker’s Mark uses char #4, which is the heaviest traditional char that will extract the most vanilla flavors and color. Interestingly, most of the barrels being made at the time of my visit were char #4 or #3. Once charred, the lids are applied, and the barrel is filled to see if it has any defects. They check the barrels along the way to minimize repairs at the end. Surprisingly, ISC makes a lot of barrels at a time and then stores them so they are ready to go when the customer needs them. If you would like your own barrel, you can even order it here. They are open for tours to the public. Here is a great video that illustrates the process. Kentucky Cooperage 712 East Main St. Lebanon, KY https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkc6VzuQKco&t=20s
Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky
Once we toured the cooperage, we drove to the Marker’s Mark distillery in Loretto, KY, which is about 25 mins away by car. Our group actually took a Mint Julep tour bus, who provides rides all over the Kentucky Bourbon trail. Our driver was very nice and friendly but the bus was covered with a foil from the outside making it difficult to look outside. While I generally think the bus tour is a good idea, I really much preferred to tour the rest of the trail by car for better flexibility and sightseeing. At the Maker’s Mark Distillery we were served a Southern lunch at the former home of the Samuels family, which is located on a hill overlooking the scenic distillery property. Just as Margie intended it, the grounds turned out to be a beautiful place people want to experience.
How Maker’s Mark is Made
First of all, you can only call something Bourbon Whiskey if it is:
- Made in the U.S.
- Composed of a grain mixture with at least 51% corn (Maker’s Mark sour mash is made of 70% corn, 16% soft red winter wheat, 14% malted barley)
- Aged in new charred oak barrels
- Distilled up to 160 proof / 80% vol
- Barreled at no more than 125 proof / 62.5% vol
- Bottled at 80 proof / 40% vol or more
Note that there is no age requirement for bourbon whiskey. To call something Straight Bourbon Whiskey, it must be:
- Aged for at least 2 years
- No coloring of flavoring can be added
- If aged less that 4 years, it must be labeled with the duration of its aging
- Age-labeled based on the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle
Whiskey making at Maker’s Mark always starts with the sour mash, which is a blend of water, corn, wheat, malt and yeast. So many distilleries were founded in Kentucky because the limestone filtered water reduces the iron and makes it ideal for Whiskey production. The exact blend at Maker’s Mark is of course proprietary, just like the yeast cultures. Our tour was guided by the enthusiastic Master Distiller Greg Davis, who had us taste the yeast first, which is an heirloom culture breed; every distillery has their little secret. Unexpectedly, it tastes like a wheat beer rather than whiskey, but in the beginning that’s what sour mash basically is: beer.
Maker’s simmers its mash in vintage cypress tubs for hours in addition to larger stainless steel tubs that are just as good, with less maintenance. In the beginning, the mixture is actually rather sweet, but over the course of the process the yeast consumes the sugar, creating alcohol, which will render the mash sour after a few hours, hence the name sour mash. The other “waste” product of the yeast is carbon dioxide, which is why these areas are heavily ventilated with gigantic fans. In fact, if you would fall into one of these mash tubs, you’d die when you come to the surface because of all the carbon dioxide.
Distilling White Dog
Once all the sugar is gone and the fermentation has stopped, it is time to distill the alcohol. At Maker’s it is distilled to about 140 proof / 70 % vol. and generally called White Dog because it is a clear spirit that is unaged with a hint of corn sweetness.
At this point, the whiskey is ready for the barrel. Initially the barrel is filled to it’s 53 gallon /200 liters capacity and stored in archaic looking warehouse that smelled absolutely heavenly – whiskey and wood intermingled. Over time, the whiskey evaporates (about 30% in 6 years), which is also known as Angel’s Share, hence the smell. During the maturation process the changes in temperature and climate force the spirit in and out of the charred wood, extracting flavor and color along the way. Surprisingly, the position in the warehouse is of the utmost importance, and if you would just let the barrels sit for 4 – 6 years, the bourbon from the top floor would taste very different from the barrels stored on the first floor. Most distilleries solve that issue by blending the different barrels from the warehouse together. Maker’s Mark actually turns the barrels by hand to allow for the best outcome. During the ageing process, samples are taken to ensure consistency and quality. Maker’s Mark not only has a tasting panel, but also hires chemists to analyze the spirit with High Pressure Liquid Chromatography to ensure a consistency.
When the whiskey comes out of the barrel, it has between 115 and 124 proof and so water is added until it reaches 90 proof. However, most conaisseurs add some water to the whiskey before they drink it so they get a different flavor. I was amazed to see how a few drops of water can really open up a whiskey and make it taste more intense and flavorful. With the latest increase in popularity in Bourbon, the industry is booming and Maker’s Mark extended their facilities by 50% not too long ago, and is in the process of expanding once again – but it is still not enough to meet demand. At high proofs, adding water adds more flavor to the whiskey, and after a lot of testing, Master Distiller Greg Davis said that nobody could taste the difference between a 86 proof Maker’s Mark and a 90 proof Maker’s Mark.
They had an huge testing panel and conduct 2:1 blind tests. Certain that it tasted the same, Maker’s Mark decided to offer Maker’s Mark at 86 proof and once they released this information to the public, they received over 210,000 emails within four hours from mostly angry and outraged consumers. Subsequently, people stormed to liquor stores and bought the remaining 90 proof bottles, so everybody was sold out, although that’s exactly what Maker’ Mark wanted to prevent. No matter the testing panel’s results, the message was clear. In the words of Bill Samuels Jr., “Don’t fuck with our whiskey”, and so after just a week, Maker’s Mark was bottled at 90 proof again, and the company made another announcement, explaining that they’d go back to 90 proof. Again, people rushed to the liquor store to buy what they now considered to be rare collector’s items of Maker’s Mark 86 proof… In the end, everything is back to normal and consumers are happy.
Difference between Maker’s Mark and Maker’s 46
Unlike many other manufacturers of Bourbon Whiskey, Maker’s Mark does not age their bourbon by time but by taste. A particularly hot or cool year can have a big impact on the taste, and so on average Maker’s Mark matures about 5½ years. Master Distiller Greg Davis is always concerned about getting the most flavor without adding tannins because they leave a somewhat bitter aftertaste. In our taste testing, we had white dog whiskey, undermatured Maker’s, regular Maker’s, overaged Maker’s as well as Maker’s 46. 1. White Dog – Maker’s White Personally, I found it unexciting although it gives you a coated mouthfeel. They sell this product exclusively at the distillery but I believe most buy it because it is unique. The lack of oak maturation renders it bland. 2. Undermatured Maker’s Mark It was visibly lighter in color, lacking in complexity and more boozy in taste. The vanilla notes were existent but not strong. 3. Regular Maker’s Mark A smooth, front of palette bourbon in a lovely copper color. Mouth-warming vanilla and caramel notes that is easy to drink neat. 4. Overaged Maker’s Mark The overaged Bourbon was darker with a bolder vanilla and caramel flavor but at the back of your palate, it had a distinctly bitter note. The extra time in the barrels not only gave the bourbon more flavor but also more tannins. Some people like a lot of tannins but Maker’s always tried to reduce the bitterness in their whiskey, which is why they used wheat rather than rye for their bourbon in the first place.
Generally, older whiskeys or spirits are more expensive because the Angel’s Share increases, but it is not necessarily a better tasting product. Do yourself a favor and go for flavor, not exclusivity. 5. Maker’s Mark 46 In 2008, Maker’s Mark appointed Kevin Smith as the new Master Distiller at Maker’s Mark and from the get-go Bill Samuels Jr. wanted to create a new bourbon that matched the house tradition. Smith suggested to give it a different finish but after 18 months had gone by and more than 120 experiments had failed, Maker’s decided it was time for a change and brought in Mr. Brad Boswell, the president and owner of ISC. He suggested adding pieces of toasted seared french oak to the bourbon. This method had the profile number 46, which is how Maker’s 46 got its name. Although this French wood is naturally very rich in flavor and tannins, the sear was enough to release vanilla and caramel flavors while keeping the tannins inside the wood. Subsequently, Maker’s Mark continued the experiments until they realized that it took only a few weeks for the French oak staves to have the desired affect. In practice, the bourbon comes out of the barrel, the French oak staves are then installed and the Bourbon goes back into the barrel to gain extra flavor. While this procedure is more time and labor intensive and hence costly, you get the best of both worlds: the bold vanilla and caramel flavors of the overaged Maker’s Mark as well as the smooth ending of the regular Maker’s Mark without bitter tannins. Of course, this process is now protected so nobody else can use it – but that’s the secret about Maker’s 46. Maker’s 46 taste notes
- Smell– delicious, sweet nose with toasty oak and caramel but not boozy
- Taste – rich and creamy with some seared oak, bold caramel and vanilla flavors at the front of the palate. Adding some water enhances the flavor on the tongue.
- Finish – bold mouth-watering oak-y finish without bitterness
Bourbon & Kentucky
At the end of our day, we stopped for cocktails at the house of Bill & Nancy Samuels, which was highly informative as well as very entertaining. Bill was the oldest son of the founder of Maker’s Mark. They lived in a mansion in Bardstown right next to Jim Beam and John Shaunty at was became known as ‘Whiskey Row’. With such proximity, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Jim Beam was actually Bill Jr.’s godfather. The Jim Beam’s whiskey glass is now part of the Samuels’ bar collection, which contains a number of rare vintage bottles including the first Maker’ Mark and Maker’s 46 bottles.
At the beginning of Bill’s career, he went to aeronautical engineering school and although he wasn’t particularly good at it, he landed a big job with lots of responsibilities due to government demand. Under his reign, a huge building blew up and so he found himself without a job. At this point he was interested in joining the company, but his dad thought it better to send him to law school. Bill Jr. wasn’t so good at that either and so finally, with the help of Jim Beam, he was able to convince his father to let him join the company.
Even when he was a little boy, Beam had told him stories of his ancestors who had invested in a bank just a few days before Black Friday and another relative who had invested in motor carriages that competed with Ford. Hence he believed that he could never succeed at anything but whiskey. So when his father wanted to sell some of the shares to Jim Beam, Bill Jr. bought out his sister and managed the company as a CEO until his son took over. At their home, various items such as picture frames and statues had been dipped in the Maker’s Mark wax, which is quite characteristic. He took over business in 1975 and under his direction, the company experienced double digit growth year over year and although he did not introduce any new products, he perfected their marketing and grew from 16,000 cases a year to over 1 million cases in 2012! Now his son Rob (8th generation) is in charge of the operations and apart from Maker’s 46 they have no plans to create other Whiskey variations. The few exceptions are the Mint Julep edition, which is always released during the Kentucky Derby and the Maker’s White, which is sold exclusively on site. If you’re ever in Kentucky, Maker’s Mark is a must see!