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 not only pick a barrel of Maker’s Mark bourbon but to also add their own personal touch to the taste of the bottled product.
Click here to read more about the process behind the Maker’s Mark Private Select program.
The process behind creating your own barrel of Maker’s Mark Private Select is as follows:
First, the customer chooses a custom 10-stave combination. These are then added to a mature barrel of Maker’s Cask Strength bourbon, and aged a further 9 weeks in their own custom limestone cave. This process is similar to how Maker’s 46 is created with the exception being that Maker’s 46 is made exclusively using 10 “46 French Oak” staves. Altogether there are five different specially created stave types to choose from in the Private Select program with each one highlighting different flavours in their barrel of Maker’s Mark and the finished bourbon is barreled at cask strength. With 1,001 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.’
How Maker’s Mark discovered the 5 different flavour enhancing stave treatments is quite a story.
After 50 years of making and mastering a single bourbon expression facing down growing customer requests for something new, Bill Samuel’s son and successor, Bill Samuels Jr., and then Master-Distiller Kevin Smith, decided to try and create something special. Together they wanted to create a whisky that: maintained the qualities that make Maker’s so approachable; intensifies its classic vanilla, caramel and spicy notes; and adds complexity, richer taste, and a longer finish. They enlisted the Independent Stave Company and after months of experimenting with special barrels, 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 caramelise the wood sugars and lock in the bitter tannins, then 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. 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 experiments yielded 4 additional flavour enhancing stave treatments. These are: Baked American Pure 2, Seared French Cuvée, 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 flavour impact of standard barrel staves (which are only toasted and charred on the inside). 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 because having 8 different possibilities would lead to redundancies and over 44,000 possible stave combinations.
Another important development for both the Maker’s Private Select line and the Maker’s 46 line (made using the same process) has been the addition of their limestone cave on the distillery grounds in 2016. With a natural all year-round temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 C), Maker’s cave provides the perfect cold environment for the 9-week finishing period these barrels go through. Having previously relied upon ageing the barrels in their unheated rick houses during winter, Maker’s dream of losing as little of the whiskey as possible to evaporation during this finishing period has been achieved providing year-round availability of this program to many more customers.
In this review I will be looking at a very special bottling of Maker’s Mark Private Select. Crafted using a stave combination chosen by the Whisky Shop in Manchester, UK. The Whisky Shop was responsible for some of the very first Maker’s Private Select picks to land in the UK and are currently on their fourth batch. The staves used in this Private Select were  Baked American Pure 2,  Toasted French Spice, and  Roasted French Mocha staves. These are described 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.
Toasted French Spice: A classic cut stave of French oak that has been cooked at both high and then low temperatures in a convection oven. This treatment enhances flavors of smoke, wood spice and coumarin (cinnamon and smoky spice).
Roasted French Mocha: A classic cut stave of French oak that has been cooked at temperatures of over 500 degrees Fahrenheit in a convection oven for approximately a day. That higher heat is used to unlock dark chocolate and roasted coffee flavours and heavier char flavours. It’s also supposed to produce a longer dryer finish than what’s found in the regular Cask Strength. From a cooper’s perspective, this is the highest temperature that oak can be treated at before it starts to burn.
Name: Maker’s Mark Private Select – The Whisky Shop Batch 004
Proof: 108.8 proof (54.4% 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 opens with deep caramel, a touch of white pepper, earthy baking spices, dried red fruit, faint char as you nose deeper, and cacao powder with toasted oak.
Palate: The palate opens sweet with maple syrup, lush red fruit, a touch of sweet tannins, faint earthy nuts, baking spices, wheat grain, white pepper, faint dark chocolate. As you keep chewing it gets a touch herbaceous, toast heavy, and faintly bitter as more oak notes emerge from the added staves.
Finish: The finish opens with lingering spice and toasted oak before a touch of maple syrup yields to a warm aftertaste of charred oak, white pepper, and wheat.
I went into this review like I go into any review of a private barrel pick, slowly and with great hesitation. Sure, one of the guys behind this batch is a well-respected whiskey friend, however, I have been stung in the past by mediocre (yet quite expensive!) barrel picks that were chosen by some of the best palates one would expect to find. This time, however, I am glad to have had all my concerns washed away with the first sip. This is a really good pick! There’s an incredible depth of flavour that I can only put down to a winning stave combination which skillfully combines the best characteristics of several staves types to produce something that’s robust, maple syrup heavy, and delicious through and through. There’s no denying that this still has its Maker’s Mark wheated bourbon core profile, but it’s the flavours layered on top of that profile that really makes it as good as it is for me with plenty of oak-driven notes complimented and balanced perfectly by the sweet notes of Maker’s Mark core profile.
The Maker’s Mark Private Select programme continues to be a massive success and having tried several stave combinations at this stage I have yet to find one that I did not like. The thing I like the most is that even though there are 1001 possible combinations, if you were to use the same stave combination twice you wouldn’t get the same bourbon profile twice. It also really helps to have the right kind of people doing the pick and here we have a delicious bourbon that no doubt took a long time to blend and perfect, but the people at the Whisky Shop were willing to spend that time and not just rush out a “whatever, I’m bored” pick.
Try or Buy?
With a sell price of £85 and a very finite number of bottles you really won’t find anything as limited, delicious, or as easily available – whilst stocks last of course! These guys have really outdone themselves with this stave selection, I’m very impressed and delighted that we’re getting such high-quality barrel picks this side of the pond! Easy buy for me!
Thanks to whiskey friend Phil Dwyer for getting a sample of this whiskey to me and for sending on the featured image in this review.