Adding to the growing body of work emerging on this site around bourbon store picks, today I’ll be looking at a bottle from the Maker’s Mark Private Select program, chosen by Warehouse Liquors of Chicago.
First, though, a bit of background on the distillery, which has yet to come in for the full MALT treatment.
Maker’s Mark as we know it was started in 1953 by T. William “Bill” Samuels, Sr., who purchased the Loretto, KY distillery originally constructed by the Burks family in the 1880’s.
Rejecting his family’s heirloom recipe (he is said to have actually burned it, setting alight some drapes in the process), Bill Sr. dropped rye from the mash bill and added wheat to create the softer and sweeter profile for which Maker’s Mark is known. The current mash bill is comprised of 70% corn, 16% red winter wheat, and 14% malted barley.
Another tweak to prevailing bourbon practices was the use of air-dried (rather than kiln-dried) staves for barrels, which results in lower tannin levels and, again, a gentler whisky compared to the majority of circa-1953 bourbon.
Point of order: Maker’s dropped the “e” from “whiskey” in order to further differentiate itself from the pack, as well as being a nod to the family’s Scottish and Irish heritage. It continues to be labeled as such. The company also emphasized presentation at the behest of Bill Sr.’s wife, Marge, who designed the labels and the square bottle, and also insisted on the distinctive hand-dipped red wax closure which has become the brand’s hallmark. While none of this affects the contents of the bottle, the hand-crafted look is indicative of the ethos of the company.
Bill Samuels Jr. took over from his father in 1975. The company was sold to Hiram Walker in 1981. A slew of successive mergers and acquisitions resulted in current parent Beam Suntory owning the brand in 2005, shortly after a second 45-foot still was added to double the original production capacity.
Long bottled at 45%, 2013 saw the announcement that the strength of the core Maker’s Mark expression would be reduced to 42% in order to stretch supplies. After a short but intense period of public outcry, this decision was walked back only five days later. The following year saw a $67 million expansion of the warehousing facilities and the addition of still #3.
In 2010, the company’s second product, “Maker’s 46,” was introduced. So named for being the 46th entry in a log book of experimentations, this expression is finished for nine weeks in a barrel with 10 seared French oak staves to add additional flavor. Released at higher strength (94 proof), it quickly found love among the Maker’s diehards and has become a staple of the range ever since. It is relevant to our discussion as the inaugural entry in the company’s wood-finishing series, which extends to the Private Select label.
This latter group is the brainchild of third-generation family member Rob Samuels, the current Chief Distillery Officer. Unlike other store pick programs, which offer up a handful of barrels for tasting, Maker’s actually allows the selector to choose the finishing staves from among the following choices: Baked American Pure 2, Seared French Cuvée, Maker’s 46, Roasted French Mocha, and Toasted French Spice.
At this point we’ll shift our focus over to the selection process, and the man who himself did the selecting. Gene Charness kindly sat down for an interview, which is reproduced here, condensed and edited for clarity:
MALT: Tell me about your barrel selections in general?
Gene: I think of what I am doing as an educator. I buy somewhere in the realm of 50 barrels of product a year. Largely American whiskey, but I’ve got three barrels of rum coming in, three barrels of tequila, a couple barrels of Scotch. Kind of all over the place.
MALT: When did you first get into picking individual barrels?
Gene: In the early 2000’s. Part of the reason why I have such broad access is I’ve been doing this longer. I’m kind of grandfathered into the process. In turn, it’s given me opportunities. I have strong relationships with most of the major companies.
MALT: Tell me about your selection process?
Gene: The selection process for me, in picking a whisky, is watching the flavors unfold. I think that picking whisky requires a patience. I try to wait over a period of time: tasting, re-tasting. Typically, I think this would represent the better part of 5 to 7 passes, trying it over and over again.
MALT: What was the process of selecting the staves like?
Gene: I spent three hours doing this in Kentucky some years back. [The creator of the program] had a whole series of beakers and ways to scientifically measure how you made your own whisky. I did it by eyeball. Eventually they brought me out two trays of glasses and let me pour for myself. After an hour of me doing my own experiments, I started working with stave recipes. I did that for the better part of two hours: trying things that started off as a good idea, building on it, then it kind of went funky and we decided against it, and trying again.
I kind of thought that I was frustrating them. They had their own program, and everybody followed the convention of the design of the program. But I don’t really follow rules; I had my own idea, and they let me do what I wanted to. They [later] asked me to do [a promotional video]; I was honored by that, but the idea that they would include me when I thought I was just being annoying, I found to be somewhat humorous.
I worked out two recipes that I really liked: the first one was lighter and a little bit more fruity. I thought that would be more engaging to a less sophisticated population. At the time, it worked exceedingly well. And then I did a second iteration that had more depth of flavor, but I was afraid that it was too bold for the general public to be comfortable with. It ended up becoming more successful.
I gave it a pause for 2018, but then gave this (the 2019 edition) a re-iteration of that same stave recipe. It’s a wholly different whisky – because it’s a different whisky. Each time you do distillation, you’ve got different grain, a different distillation, and the barrel is different. You’ve got seven years of aging before you do nine weeks of the stave. The stave is just a finish. So, you’re augmenting a whisky that you’ve never tried, that you’re just hoping is good.
MALT: What did you think when you first tasted it?
Gene: When I first opened this, I was mortified. All I could do was see all the complications of what wasn’t acceptable to me. I watched over a three day process as the things that I found to be the most offensive became the most interesting as it relaxed. It’s why you take your time. Patience is often rewarded. When you find new and interesting notes, that’s the engaging part.
MALT: What made you choose the staves?
Gene: I have the staves somewhere in the back [of the store]. You can see the difference between charring, toasting; baking is a gradual process, toasting is heat in the concentrated form. They all make a difference. Some of these are undulated. Everything has an impact.
I tried to augment different flavors that I liked and emphasize that, but nuance it. The majority of this is the original Maker’s 46. It’s nuanced by some of the other flavors, but hopefully with respect and subtlety instead of overwhelming. I know some people who have done as many as six staves of mocha. You can’t taste Maker’s anymore! You’re not trying to re-create whisky, you’re trying to influence it. Less is more.
I wanted to augment the chocolate. You have only one stave, but I thought that chocolate was a dominant flavor. By adding the baked spices to that, I think that you’re supplementing a component of that, that I found to be interesting, and sort of a counterpoint to the sweetness of the wheat and the corn. I’m looking for dimension, I’m looking for an interesting finish that had a chewy quality, both sweet and savory at the same time. There’s chocolate, leather, some of the spice notes, cardamom. It reminds me of a dark chocolate with just a hint of milk mixed in… it’s a wheated whisky, but there’s a lot of richness and malt flavor.
MALT: Anything you’d like the MALT readership to know about your philosophical approach to tasting and whisky more broadly?
Gene: I represent myself as a flavor guy. I just want to connect people to “delicious.” I buy flavors that I like. Did it taste good? Why did it taste good? You like it, you don’t like it – don’t obsess over a label. People are afraid, they’re intimidated, they need someone else’s approval to tell them that it’s OK. You know what? If it tastes good, it is good. Just relax, trust yourself, trust your friends. Whisky is for drinking, it’s not for collecting! It’s not a weapon, it’s a sharing device. I’m trying to make this as inclusive as I can.
With Gene’s advice in mind, I proceeded to taste this whisky over the course of two weeks. As Gene promised, an initially awkward impression gave way to a more harmonious integration of elements. More on that in a moment.
This particular batch was finished in a barrel with two baked American Pure 2 staves, two seared French Cuvée staves, five Maker’s 46 staves, and one Roasted French Mocha stave. This is Kentucky Bourbon Whisky, bottled at 109 proof (54.5% ABV). I paid $80 for 750 ml.
Maker’s Mark Private Select Warehouse Liquors 2019 Batch – Review
Color: medium-dark burnt amber
On the nose: bracing at first, dominated by acetone and vanilla. Ground cinnamon, crushed mint, cardamom, cracked black peppercorns, walnut wood, sourdough bread, and Necco wafers emerge after some prolonged sniffing.
After a long time, the nose yields more notes of cardamom, some underripe cherries, mocha, grilled Velveeta cheese sandwich, and the sweet smokiness of barbecued chicken breast, all more comprehensively integrated.
In the mouth: first impressions are sweetly pert at the front of the mouth,with a sunny and citric woodiness accented by a dusting of confectioner’s sugar. This becomes meatier at midpalate, with a note of beef broth. Turns sour at the back of the mouth, with a persistent tingly heat numbing the back of the tongue and gums. Adding some water releases some more creamy vanilla nuances, but there is always an almost chemical sickly-sweet woodiness lingering.
Left open for nearly two weeks, this settled down into a plump and pleasant mouthfeel with fulsome red fruit. There’s additional yeasty nuances of wheat bread, followed by lingering salinity and persistent stone fruit and tropical flavors. There’s still a steely nip to close, but without any of the artificial awkwardness that marred my initial impressions
I’m struggling to remember a more comprehensive metamorphosis. Like Gene, I saw problems galore at first, with the unbalanced notes sticking out against a rather sedate underlying whisky. Given time, though, this began to taste more like the better examples of craft bourbon, with the salutary touches of wood playing nicely against the sweet corn, soft wheat, and grainy barley notes of the mash bill.
I was initially prepared to give this a score near the middle of the range, but patience was rewarded with a bourbon that more convincingly argues for the price premium over de riguer Maker’s. It’s one man’s painstakingly executed vision and is a compelling argument for the merits of the store pick format generally, and specifically Maker’s Mark’s highly specialized version thereof.
Sincere thanks to Gene for sharing his time and insights with me.