Whisky Advocate

Five Maker’s Mark bourbons in front of me, and the Master Distiller on the phone

January 27th, 2010

Yes, you read that correctly. There’s only one Maker’s Mark bourbon on the market, but today I tasted five different ones side-by-side, along with Maker’s Mark Master Distiller Kevin Smith. He was on the other end of the phone, tasting along with me.

(Scotch drinkers: don’t leave. You will find this interesting too!)

As I posted here and here last week, Maker’s Mark will be introducing a new bourbon, probably around June. This is BIG news, considering that there has been only one Maker’s Mark bourbon on the market for many years. 

While enjoyable, I sometimes feel that Maker’s Mark is too smooth–too easy to drink. (This is partly because it is a bourbon made with wheat instead of the rye you will find in most bourbons.)

I have been trying to get them to introduce a new bourbon. I know they can make a great bourbon to complement the existing “Red Wax” Maker’s, because they already did! It was their (now extinct) “Black Wax” Maker’s Mark called Maker’s Mark “Select”, which was sold in Duty Free and certain export markets. I really enjoyed that bourbon. In fact, I still have a bottle. (See picture below.)

So, I was thrilled when Kevin called me up and told me they’re coming out with a new product and that he wanted me to taste a sample of it together with him. (He sounded pretty thrilled too!) As I mentioned in my previous post, he told me that this new bourbon is essentially the current Maker’s Mark  that has been aged several more months in barrels with toasted/seared staves inserted into the barrels. (They took the whiskey out, put the staves in, and then put the whiskey back in.)

He sent me a sample last week. This past Saturday afternoon, we tasted it together, next to the current Maker’s Mark. I was in my “tasting room”, he was on the other end of the phone at the distillery.

Before we tasted the whiskey, he said he was looking for four things in this new Maker’s:

  1. A pleasant, sweet, toasted oak aroma
  2. Full of flavor, creamy, and delicous. Strong, but flavorful.
  3. Soft enough to hold on the mouth at 94 proof (the intended bottle proof) without too much alcohol burn
  4. A long finish that’s not bitter.

Was there an noticeable impact on the whiskey from the additional aging in barrels containing seared oak staves? Absolutely! The aroma was rich with layered sweetness (honey, vanilla, caramel, and light toffee), along with more traditional Maker’s aromas.

The palate also was much fuller–those seared staves were once again coming through. Everything was progressing nicely until about midway through the palate all the way to the finish. That’s when I noticed the oak really begin to kick in, to the point where I felt it began to dominate the entire flavor profile, becoming quite dry, spicy, and resinous.

In my opinion, the experiment went too far. The oak impact on the finish was too much.

So, what did I tell Kevin? The truth. I said that I though he succeeded on his first three objectives but, in my opinion, not on the fourth one.

I reminded Kevin that I was just one person and that he should get other opinions. I felt badly and, being the great guy that he is, he took my constructive criticism graciously.

I was about to blog about this the next day when he called me up and asked me to hold off. He said he realized that the sample he sent me was not a “finished” product. It was only rough-filtered to remove the chunks. He wanted to send me a “polished” (carbon-filtered) version, along with a different experiment (one with fewer staves) and also a sample of the old Black Wax release for comparison.

Fast forward to this afternooon, and the five Maker’s samples, and Kevin on the other end of the phone. (I was in New York on business Monday and Tuesday.)  In front of me I had the current Red Wax Maker’s Mark, the previous sample he sent me, and the three new ones. (He wouldn’t tell me which ones were which. They were identified by the letters A, B, and C.)

My thoughts on the three new ones? It was easy to pick the Black Wax sample. It’s flavor profile is very different than the rest. It’s been several years since I last tasted it, but I remember it well.

Of the remaining two, one was almost as intense on the finish as the first sample he sent me the week before. Kevin disclosed afterwards that it was another “rough-filtered” experiment–this time with fewer staves. 

But with the last one, the oak influence was scaled back, which I though was an improvement. There was better balance, and the oak wasn’t so intense on the finish. Interestingly, this was the same whiskey as the first sample he sent last week. The only difference is that it was carbon-filtered (or as Kevin says, “polished”). The filtering actually mellowed out the intensity of the oak.

How about that for a change? These days, when everyone is talking about not chill-filtering their whiskey to allow more flavor to come through, here’s an example where it actually helps.

I suspect Kevin will be tinkering a lot with the whiskey during the coming weeks (especially with the “polishing”). And I am certain that he’ll be getting feedback from more people too.

To be honest, of the five Maker’s Mark bourbons that I sampled, I still liked the extinct Black Wax whiskey the best. It’s a richer, deeper, more mature version of the current Red Wax Maker’s, and the oak–and the other flavors–are nicely balanced from beginning to end. But that “polished” sample I tasted today was gaining ground.

Tinker away, Kevin. Tinker away. I’m looking foward to tasting the final product. And I’m not alone.

41 Responses to “Five Maker’s Mark bourbons in front of me, and the Master Distiller on the phone”

  1. Kevin says:

    Very interesting – now I want to try both! Looking forward to this hitting the market – and here’s to more experiments / whiskies coming from Maker’s Mark!

  2. Greg G. says:

    This is a move in the right direction for Makers Mark. I love the fact that Four Roses has 10 different recipes allowing them to offer a broad range of bourbons. Not that Makers needs to replicate that but offering a another product next to the red wax is terrific. I like Makers but as you said John, it’s too soft and to me lacks the complexity I’ve grown to love in other bourbons. I hope this new release ratchets up the flavor profile with higher proof and maybe a little extra age.

  3. sam k says:

    Good (and as always, honest) review here, John. Can you tell me more about the black wax version of Maker’s? You describe it as “more mature.” Is it older than the red wax? Different mashbill? Proof? What is it that makes it more different than the regular offering?

    This is also a good example of why any distillery chooses to offer new and innovative expressions…it gets the buzz going!!

    • John Hansell says:

      Sam, it was basically an older expression of the standard Maker’s Red Wax–at 95 proof. Same mash bill.

      Allow me to humor you with what is written on the side label:

      “Our 95 proof Maker’s Mark Select reflects my own individual preference in the Maker’s Mark style. While I’d never alter the soft, clean, and gentle taste Dad achieved with his original creation of Maker’s Mark, my tastes have always leaned towards a slightly more robust, more full-flavored whisky, a perfect compliment to our 90 proof red wax Maker’s Mark. I hope you enjoy Meker’s Mark Select as much as I do.”

      — Bill Samuels Jr. , President”

      Need I say more?

  4. Red_Arremer says:

    Not too surprised– I was concerned about an oak overdose on this one from the get go. Maybe longer maturing of a more standard variety in the right part of the warehouse would be a better bet.

    Your comment about filtering improving this whisky is intriguing. There are many varieties of filtering. I wonder if anything interesting could be done with any of them.

  5. JWC says:

    congrats for passing the “test” john!

    everything you’ve written has me looking forward to their new product when it comes out – it seems to address the shortcomings i find in the current mm red wax which is not surprising since their 4 point goal would be what i would want. based on what i’ve read, i am now intrigued by the mm black wax (i’ve never had it). simple question: why not just produce the black wax again?

  6. Alex says:

    Great post. Glad that the won’t let the oak dominate and like the sound of the higher ABV.

    • Red_Arremer says:

      You’re right to note that this is an excellent post, Alex. The kind of thing you won’t get on other blogs. Keep it up, John.

      • John Hansell says:

        Red, Alex: Thanks. I think I spent more time on this blog post than any of my previous posts. If you include my phone call and tasting with Kevin, I probably spent close to three hours on this yesterday.

  7. Louis says:

    At Whiskyfest several years ago, I attended the Makers Mark seminar. There was one sample that was aged longer than the standard ‘red wax’ version. Everybody agreed with Bill Samuels that the aging didn’t help. So it’s interesting to see how the different variations evolve, and which ones actually are better, and not just different. it’s also nice to see a distillery responding to the customer.

  8. Although the carbon filtering seems to improve this experimental whisky, I am not really happy with the concept. Removing something that was put in before means that it shouldn’t have been in there in the first place.

    The best would certainly be to tweak the maturation process until the final product can be enjoyed without further manipulation. But this would take a couple of years, I’m afraid.

    That said, I quite like Red Seal as it is now, but I am also looking forward to a more “robust” expression.

    • John Hansell says:

      You make a good point, Oliver. Why take out something that, perhaps, you didn’t need to put in.

      • Red_Arremer says:

        I see where you and John are coming from, Oliver. At present, distillers do aim to create a product that is as close as possible to finished when it comes out the barrel. This being the case, it’s hard to imagine filtering as anything but smoothing out or fixing a whisky. However, alternative production strategies are always popping up.

        Many of us are familiar with the idea that complicated scotches might come from rougher, less drinkable new make. Allegedly, once the flaws are ironed out during maturation you get something that both has a lot going on and is very drinkable. Then there’s also tenessee whisky, which gets some characteristics taken away and some added to it by being filtered through charcoal. Between the two of these ideas, I see room in the future for a whisky production strategy, which makes great use of filtering. I have no idea what that strategy would be or why it would arise, but I have a sense that it might make something interesting.

        • Red, I should point out that I don’t want to cling religiously to this position. If filtering benfits the final product, I don’t have a problem with it at all. It only is the second best option in my opinion. I wouldn’t even be opposed to chill-filtering scotch, would it in fact improve the taste of the whisky (which it doesn’t as most of you would agree).

          • Red_Arremer says:

            I do agree that it chill filtering certainly doesn’t improve scotch, Oliver. I’m just speaking hypothetically.

    • sam k says:

      Red, the difference here is that for the most part (Gentleman Jack excluded), Tennessee whiskeys are only filtered before barreling. I get the impression that this MM expression is only filtered just before bottling. Big difference, in my opinion.

  9. Mr Manhattan says:

    I have to wonder if the marketing folks at Maker’s have a sense of what proportion of their whiskey is mixed into cocktails (like Manhattans) and how much is consumed ‘neat’ and how that data will factor into what they decide they want out of this new product. Actually, I would be very surprised if they didn’t know this. It would certainly be an interesting question to put to Kevin Smith.


    • John Hansell says:

      Mr. Manhattan, one thing we DID discuss was the fact that most Maker’s drinkers drink it on the rocks, which would also tone down the intensity of the whisky. In fact, I forgot to mention it in my original post, but he specifically asked me to taste the whiskey on the rocks, in addition to tasting it neat.

  10. Vince says:


    Great Post! I know it must have been hard to be so Honest with Kevin but I am glad you were (with him and with us). As mentioned previously, I agree with your assessment of the red wax version. I enjoy a more robust bourbon. I am anxiously awaiting this new version, but I cant help but think why dont they jsut put out the black label again. It seems to be the formula that would be well received for those looking for the MM profile with a little more flavor

  11. brian bradley (brian47126) says:

    Makers Mark is one of the few whiskey’s that I am ok with. As a scotch drinker, I always find the heavy sweet finish of bourbons to be more than off-putting. So, I have always been thankful for this wheated bottle.

    I am intrigued to try a new product, and hope for a finish with even less sweetness. will take a little too much oak over syrupy sweetness any day.

  12. JD says:

    Great post, John, we appreciate your efforts and your honesty. I’m looking forward to trying this new Maker’s when Kevin gets it right and it hits the shelves.

    That said, your post does beg JWC’s question (above) of why they don’t do another release of the MM Select/Black Wax. Perhaps you could put this question to Kevin? I’m sure a lot of us would like to know!

    • Red_Arremer says:

      The likely reason is that the stave toasting method takes less time and therefore is more cost efficient than the extra-maturing. R&D with the staves would also take less time and be more cost efficient.

      • JWC says:

        Red, your answer is probably (unfortunately) is correct. However, if cost efficiency is a major driver behind a “premium” bourbon, then in my opinion, it really isn’t a “premium” bourbon. If they could replicate, more cost efficiently, what appears to have been a great product (again, I’ve never had the black wax), I wouldn’t have an issue with it. But based on John’s blind taste test, it doesn’t appear to be the case. I don’t know what the price difference would be or the schedule that they are shooting for but I believe most of us would be willing to pay a little bit extra. However, in their defense, the majority of the consumers are not as obsessed as we are (I guess).

  13. […] It’s not scotch, but John Hansell has a really interesting post in which he samples a potential new release from Maker’s Mark distillery. […]

  14. Neil Fusillo says:

    What I take away from this is a feeling of elation more than anything else. I’m positively THRILLED to hear about such creative experimentation going on in the bourbon industry. That Kevin Smith is not only willing to try new things, but is also willing to accept feedback so graciously and alter things accordingly to try and see how his experiments work… that’s just great news.

    I’m really looking forward to buying a bottle of whatever comes out, if nothing else, to support the ideals behind it.

  15. H.Diaz says:

    Makers Mark is long over due for something new, more robust, maybe barrel strength (see Buffalo Trace). Their red wax is great, but its like getting the same Christmas gift year after year.

  16. Scotch drinkers: don’t leave. You will find this interesting too! I love to hear this. It can be very hard to turn a stubborn Scotch drinker onto Scotch and vice-versa. I love to point to this comment as a reference. Great post John. All these posts on the subject is just making me more interest in it!

  17. Whiskeyminis says:

    I would love to taste a new version of Maker’s Mark. I hope that they present it worldwide and not just to certain countries as they did with the black label which was meant for the japanese market.
    Why do they do that anyway? Why are some bottles only available in the states or just available in selected countries. Perhaps a new subject for your blog.–Bas

  18. Joe says:

    Mr. Hansell,

    How I wish that Maker’s Mark would simply introduce the old gold-wax (Japan-only) bottling to the U.S.A. It was either 100 or 101 proof, and the one time that I tried it, I enjoyed it immensely.

    How hard could that be? Call it “Maker’s Mark Reserve” or some such and just charge more money for it. It would be immensely well-received here!

  19. John Hansell says:

    Joe, it was 101 proof. I had two bottles of it, and enjoyed both. It was basically the same as the Red Wax. but a higher proof. The Black Wax was 95 proof, and it is an older Maker’s. They didn’t mention anything to me about brinkging back the Gold or Black Wax.

  20. Alex says:

    I can see the plinth in the store now – red, black and gold – wait, that’s Johnnie Walker 🙂

  21. Makers Mark was one of the first Bourbons that I really got to like and now usually have a bottle at hand. I was lucky enough to source a bottle of black seal in 2005 and it did not last long. The Black I found at times a bit woody but that was also it’s appeal at other times (I suppose it depends on form). It had a brilliant burst of spice with the sweet brown sugar and Liquorice which was wonderful. Really looking forward to a new Marker Mark too … well done on the pressure.

  22. John Hansell says:

    Taking some time to reflect on the whiskey samples I tasted, I think that the best whiskey wasn’t there. Like I just said to Kevin Smith in an email, rather than filtering a whiskey that I though was perhaps too intense, I think that perhaps the best plan of action would be to just make an unfiltered, less intense whiskey. I think that Oliver already touched on this @8 above.

    This could be accomplished in three ways:
    1) Blend in some regular Maker’s to tone it down
    2) Use fewer staves
    3) Age on the staves for less time.

    I think any of these options would be superior to using filtering as a mechanism to tone down the intensity of a whiskey.

  23. Brett says:

    Just had the Makers Black at the Vox Bar in Potsdamer Platz, Berlin.

    It was (very) expensive, and worth every penny. Maker’s, please bring this back per the old formula.

  24. […] Distiller Kevin Smith since he made this project public. (Follow the my posting history on it here. And there’s a video of Kevin Smith and Bill Samuels talking about it here.) You may also […]

  25. John-

    I just got back from tasting Maker’s 46 at the distillery and had a very favorable response to its flavor. For my own amusement and reference I also rate whiskies and gave this an 85-90, tending towards the high end. When I was at the distillery I also had a chance to taste what the distillery considered an over-matured Maker’s Mark (10 years?) in one of their warehouses and thought it was quite good and very intense with the berry flavors of the regular bottling getting a huge boost. it was a bit woody but rather like a super sherry aged cask strength Highland Park. I wondered if you had the opportunity to taste this version too? Victoria Macrae-Samuels, Director of Operations and my guide said that Scotch drinkers often liked this version though she thought it too tanic.

  26. […] They haven’t even come up with a name yet. I heard rumor of a June release but John Hansell said that Master Distiller Kevin Smith is still tinkering with the final iteration so who […]

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