Operating from the site of the old Burk’s Distillery in Loretto, KY, Maker’s Mark have been making their signature premium bourbon since 1954 under the watchful eyes of three generations of the Samuels family. Making only bourbon with red winter wheat as the flavouring grain, Maker’s Mark is steeped in modern bourbon history with their recipe and propriety yeast coming from the legendary Stitzel-Weller Distillery. Known for their iconic square-shaped bottles and dripping red wax seals, the brand is aimed at the premium bourbon market and features a small batch, non-chill filtered bourbon aged between 6-8 years. Maker’s Mark bourbon is now bottled under 4 labels: standard Maker’s Mark Small Batch, Maker’s 46, Maker’s Cask Strength, and Maker’s Private Select. Maker’s Mark also bottle a limited seasonal Mint Julep liqueur- bourbon infused with mint and added sugar for a ready-made cocktail.
In 2016 Maker’s Mark announced the addition of their Maker’s Mark Private Select Program to their already existing range of bourbon whiskies. The third addition to the Maker’s Mark line in less than a decade, Maker’s Private Select program grants customers and retailers alike the opportunity to create a custom 10-stave combination. This is then added to a mature barrel of Maker’s Cask Strength bourbon and aged a further 9 weeks in their very own limestone cave. This is similar to how Maker’s 46 is created with the exception being that Maker’s 46 is limited to just 10 Maker’s 46 French Oak staves. Altogether there are five different specially created stave types to choose from in the Private Select programme with each one imparting very different flavours on their barrel of Maker’s Mark and the finished bourbon is barrelled at barrel strength. With 1,000 different combinations of finishing staves possible, the Maker’s Private Select process has been called ‘the most customizable and interactive barrel selection program on the market.’ Allowing customers to make their own combinations allows them to enhance particular elements of the Maker’s Mark profile and thus create a barrel of Maker’s Mark to their individual taste.
How Maker’s Mark discovered the 5 different flavour enhancing stave treatments that are used in Maker’s Private Select is quite a story. After 50 years of making only one bourbon as well as they could and facing growing customer requests for something new, Bill Samuel’s son, successor Bill Samuels Jr., and then Master-Distiller Kevin Smith, decided to try and create something special. Together they set out to create a whisky that maintained the qualities that make Maker’s so approachable, intensifies the classic vanilla, caramel and spicy notes of Maker’s whilst adding complexity and richer taste, and gives a longer finish. They enlisted the Independent Stave Company and after months of experimenting with a special barrel, different wood varieties, levels of char and cooking techniques, they finally found what they were looking for. The winning combination involved searing 10 virgin French oak staves to caramelize the wood sugars and lock in the bitter tannins, inserting them into a barrel, adding fully matured Maker’s Mark back into the modified barrel, and returning it to the warehouse for further ageing. Initially this could only be accomplished during the cool winter months. Nine weeks in to the finishing process they found the bourbon noticeably bigger, bolder with the classic smoothness and drink-ability of Maker’s. The result was named Maker’s 46 and was the first new expression in the distillery’s core range since the company was founded.
Since then, further years of experiments yielded 4 more flavour enhancing stave treatments. These are: Baked American Pure 2, Seared French Cuveé, Roasted French Mocha, and Toasted French Spice. Each of these staves has been either cooked, toasted or both in unique ways to emphasize specific flavour notes already found in the Maker’s Mark flavour profile. The staves themselves are slightly shorter than standard barrel staves so that they easily fit in the barrels and are cooked on both sides to have twice the impact that standard barrel staves (which are only toasted and charred on the one side – inside) would have. By adding 10 staves that are cooked on both sides the surface area of wood in contact with the bourbon is increased by 33%, as all four sides of each stave is in contact with the whiskey. Originally, Maker’s Mark had developed 8 different flavour enhancing stave treatments but to date only offer 5 to customers. Having 8 different possibilities would lead to redundancies and over 44,000 possible stave combinations.
Today I’ll be taking a look at the 6th batch of Maker’s Mark Private Select from the folks at Cork ‘N Bottle in Crescent Springs, KY. I previously reviewed the 5th batch of Maker’s Mark Private Select from Cork ‘N Bottle which followed the same stave combination they had used the previous 3 times: 5 American Pure staves, and 5 French Cuvée staves. This 6th batch, however, is only the second batch to follow the same stave combo they used in batch #3, 8 American Pure staves, and 2 French Cuvée staves. What sets this pick aside from the 3rd batch is that batches 1-4 were aged in the Maker’s Mark rack-houses to finish once the staves were added, whereas recent picks like batch 5 and 6 were instead finished in Maker’s limestone cellar. The result gives a different flavour profile to previous batches as the temperatures during the finishing process would be a lot more stable in the subterranean limestone cellar than in the warm rack-houses. As for the particular staves that were added to this batch Maker’s describes these as follows:
Baked American Pure 2: A classic cut wood stave of American white oak that has been toasted (cooked) in a convection oven at low temperatures for a long time. The treatment enhances flavors of sweet brown sugar, vanilla, caramel and wood spices like cinnamon and cloves.
Seared French Cuvée: A ridged stave of French oak that has been toasted in an infrared oven. Ridged means that the stave has channels or ruffles cut into it after it has been cooked, exposing different layers of toasted wood. They also have 22% more surface area than a conventional stave. The top of the ridge gets significantly more heat treatment than the bottom of the ridge. Think of a sheet of corrugated steel with all those ridges. This particular treatment maximizes flavors of caramel, toasted almonds, sweet honey, buttery, spicy and toasty oak notes.
Name: Maker’s Mark Private Select
Proof: 110.6 proof (55.3% ABV)
Type: Kentucky Straight Bourbon barrel finished with oak staves
Mashbill: 70% corn, 16% red winter wheat, 14% malted barley
Producer: Maker’s Mark, KY
Nose: The nose is complex and decadent with sweet toasted oak, deep brown sugar caramel, earthy baking spices, faint charred oak and black cherries with a kick of black pepper.
Palate: The palate is thick and viscous with deep sticky caramel, bitter cloves, and charred oak straight off the bat. This is followed by a herbaceous and earthy allspice note and a dash of peppery oak spice which fades leaving a trace of honey roasted nuts and citrus peel.
Finish: The finish is long and follows from the palate with an initial taste of bitter barrel char mixed with toffee, followed by a dash of peppery and herbaceous oak spice and ending in an aftertaste of bitter cocoa and herbaceous spice that sits on the inside cheeks and under the tongue.
This is a big hitter! There’s so much depth of flavour with the toasted oak, baking spices like cinnamon, and deep caramel all dominating in an intoxicating blend. On the palate I wasn’t expecting the charred oak to dominate quite as much. It fed directly into many of the other flavours from the depth of the caramel to the herbaceous spice that flashes across the tongue. That being said, this wasn’t an over-oaked whiskey. I was simply more aware of the influence the oak imparted on to the other flavours present. In fact I’d say the palate is a very careful balance between the bitter and spicy flavours coming from the oak and the sweet caramel,cinnamon and touch of roasted nuts from the whiskey. On the third pass of this bourbon I drank it side by side with the previous batch which had a 5 and 5 stave combo of Baked American Pure 2 and Seared French Cuveé staves. Whereas the stave mix used in batch 5 resulted in there being more buttery caramel, sweet toasted oak, and nut notes, batch 6 had more brown sugar and cloves on the palate. In fact, when put side by side I prefer batch 6 for it’s flavours which are more pronounced, complex, and bolder. It’s also interesting to see the flavour variations you get by adding three more staves of one type (American Pure 2) and removing three of another type (French Cuveé).
Maker’s Mark have struck gold with this programme and the results really speak for themselves when they’re placed in competent hands. As a reminder, this product is a non-Chill Filtered, wheated bourbon using an original Stitzel-Weller mashbill and yeast with a thick layer of fine barrel char sitting at the bottom of the bottle – need I say more?
Try or Buy?
Why didn’t I buy 6 of these? I don’t know but I’m kicking myself now! If you find one of these in a store ask for a taste, however, if you’re already a Maker’s Mark fan chances are you’ll love it. If you’re still unsure maybe re-read the last paragraph of the previous section. That’s right, get buying folks!