Five Maker’s Mark bourbons in front of me, and the Master Distiller on the phone
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:
- A pleasant, sweet, toasted oak aroma
- Full of flavor, creamy, and delicous. Strong, but flavorful.
- Soft enough to hold on the mouth at 94 proof (the intended bottle proof) without too much alcohol burn
- 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.
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.