It may be difficult for newcomers to the bourbon world to conceive of a time when Maker’s Mark was the most exciting thing happening in American whiskey.
Among the bourbon incumbents, Maker’s Mark is – for several reasons – especially likely to be overlooked. We’ve talked before about ubiquity can be its own form of invisibility, and Maker’s Mark is almost universally available. We’re also liable to take things for granted when they are in constant supply, with whiskey being no exception to this rule. Bar a short period in 2013 when the distillery toyed with reducing proof to stretch stocks, there hasn’t been a genuine concern about Maker’s Mark bourbon becoming scarce.
There’s also the question of Maker’s Mark’s product portfolio, which is rather more restrained than that of its competitors. Unlike say, Heaven Hill – which produces whiskey in all the formats that titillate bourbon freaks – Maker’s Mark doesn’t really offer the variety that seems to drive endless fascination with its Kentucky peers. Beyond the core bourbon, you’ve got the 46 expression (94 proof; $35), as well as a Cask Strength (potency variable from 108 to 114 proof; $37).
I previously reviewed a store pick of the Private Select; please consult that piece if you’re interested in the peculiarities of that format, as well as the history of the distillery itself. Beyond that we’re left with the limited-edition Wood Finishing Series (introduced in 2019) which is essentially a variation on the 10-stave finishing formula of the 46 and Private Select expressions.
Aaaaaaaand… that’s it. No single barrel. No bottled-in-bond (though a 101 proof offering is slowly making its way out of Kentucky after a limited initial release). No barrel strength small batch. No extravagant age statements, or any age statements whatsoever. Nothing in the triple-digit price tag category that has produced hits and misses for other distilleries. There’s no annual set of allocated limited editions that lend a halo to the remainder of the portfolio.
As a consequence of all the above factors, Maker’s Mark paradoxically has exceedingly high brand recognition among civilians yet flies under the radar of the hardcore bourbon nerds. One seldom sees Instagram posts bragging about “scoring” Maker’s Mark expressions; I’m not aware of any “Maker’s Monday” movement on social media. On the spectrum of “Hot” to “Not,” Maker’s Mark seems firmly stuck toward the latter end.
To get more perspective on the history of Maker’s Mark, I contacted Brian Haara, author of “Bourbon Justice.” [Available from Amazon for £13.46]. The book is a superlative history of bourbon told through the laws and regulations that the American whiskey industry helped shape and which, in turn, now shape the industry. Brian is also a longtime Maker’s fan and a member of the distillery’s Ambassador program. Our conversation has been reproduced below, condensed and edited for clarity:
Malt: Tell me about how you got your start with bourbon?
Brian: I left Michigan in ’93 for Law School at U.K. in Lexington and met a Louisville girl while I was there, and now I’m from Louisville. Been here since ’96. When I moved down, I couldn’t tell you bourbon from anything else. As a dumb college student, Southern Comfort in the freezer was the go-to for a party, and I would have told you that was bourbon, in 1992. I was totally clueless about bourbon. My first SEC football game, you sneak in as much bourbon as you can, as creatively as you can. It was Jim Beam White Label, which did not get me interested in bourbon. As I tried some others, I started to [get interested]. When you have money, as a grad student, you buy Maker’s, because that was “the good stuff.”
Malt: Talk about that evolution of Maker’s from a premium brand to the current day?
Brian: It truly was one of the first brands that made you realize that bourbon wasn’t just this rotgut, sneak-into-the-football-game type of drink. That – along with Woodford, when it launched in the mid-90’s – really, they were the premium bourbons.
I have wondered, too, how it has been passed by. It has just stayed consistent, though. It’s a hallmark of bourbon; I guess part of me is happy that they’re not trying to ride that train of $250 bottles and limited edition this, and that, and the other thing. It’s just always a consistent go-to, now, but it’s responsible – at least, in large part – for the bourbon boom.
Malt: How did you get involved with the Ambassador program?
Brian: I go all the way back to 2005. I got my bottles in 2013. It was really the only show in town. Maker’s was still – in that time frame – an absolute premium bourbon. That’s what you went for when you were getting something good. Now this is right on the cusp of the boom, maybe the early side of the boom. I remember, for example, the 2006 BTAC Weller… it was, and is, one of my favorites. And the Pappy boom was just starting to rise. I mean, it was already an expensive bottle, and in some places it was already behind glass… but you could go in and get it anytime you wanted, if you wanted to spend $90 on it.
Maker’s was still what you got for a normal occasion. It was the only one that had any sort of loyalty program: the Ambassador program. It’s marketing; don’t get me wrong. They still had advertising, print advertising was still a thing at the time. They were all over billboards locally. They had really creative advertising. I heard about the Ambassador program, and you get your name on a plaque, and you get bottles from your barrel. I don’t know that I really did get a bottle from my barrel because you just go to the gift shop and they hand you an unmarked bottle from behind the reception area.
It was the only thing, before you heard anything about Mellow Moments [Four Roses’ fan club]; it was before tours were a big thing, and you get to go down and take a tour. They, again, were at the cutting edge of bourbon marketing, going all the way back to their famous ad that really launched it all. They had creative marketing that engaged you. It just made you feel part of it.
I owe, probably, to the Ambassador program, getting more into bourbon. Once you go on a distillery tour and they tell you about the history of it… their story is probably a little bit off, you know: Bill Sr. burning the recipe, and he and Marge baking bread and liking the smell of the wheat, and all that kind of stuff. I’m sure a lot of that is embellished, but it still brings you in. I’m a history nut and being able to combine that with bourbon really made a connection for me and made me want to learn more.
Malt: You mentioned having a barrel; what are the perks that go along with the Ambassador program?
Brian: Well, what they do is: you’re on a plaque on a barrel with probably 20 other people or so. Now, they batch; it’s not a single barrel… so, really all it is, when it comes down to it, is you get to buy a bottle out of the batch that contains your barrel. You go to the distillery, you get to put the label on, it’s got your name on it, and you get to hand dip it yourself. That’s the big reward for the ambassador program.
But then, every Christmas since 2005, they’ve sent me a gift. They send everybody in the Ambassador program, I guess, the same thing. It’s always something small – we’re not looking for anything big – but it’s always quirky and fun. Some are better than others, but they continue the connection. I don’t know how many people they have in the Ambassador program; I think it must be a lot, because they don’t limit it like Mellow Moments does. But they send everybody these quirky gifts and I think it’s just fantastic. It’s a lesson in brand connection to consumers.
Malt: Maker’s doesn’t have a single barrel expression; why is that?
Brian: They have always rotated, and they’ve batched. I have not done the experiment myself, but I have wanted to take bottles from different eras, five years apart, and blind taste them, because their goal has been to be consistent throughout this entire time. People have said they’ve done a pretty good job of staying consistent on their flavor profile over even the decades, which would be remarkable if they could actually do that. I haven’t opened my Ambassador bottles yet, so those are going to be part of whenever I get around to doing that. I’ve got those, I’ll be able to get, probably, some other ones, and give that a whirl. But Maker’s whole point has been to be consistent and with the variations that you get in the single barrel, that’s not in their model. They don’t want the variations.
Malt: Is that a challenge given the way that rickhouses and locations can vary so significantly?
Brian: They’re pretty tight-lipped about any variations that come from different warehouses. Their whole plan is to not have variation at the end of the day, through their barrel rotation. You look at a place like Heaven Hill or Beam, and they can take something from the seventh floor and the first floor and maybe a little bit from the sweet spot in the middle, and they can come up with a pretty consistent Elijah Craig, or whatever their main batch brand is. I don’t know why you would go through the trouble of rotating, necessarily, for your consistency… but that’s their shtick. Sort of like the Four Roses single floor warehouse: they’re going to die on that hill and say that’s the best way to do it. So, they use that manner for getting rid of the variation between different barrels and between different warehouses.
Malt: 46 was introduced in 2010 and became the origin of the Private Select program; how was that received?
Brian: I do like how they were able to keep their primary brand and then use 46 for the private barrel and focus more on the finishing. Again, you’re starting with a bourbon that is going to be consistent across the board, and then you’re changing it with the finishing stage. They’re consistent across the board, even starting the private barrel program. I’ve got a lot of respect for being able to be consistent across the board.
As an aside, here: a lot of people wish Maker’s would release something that’s older. I think there’s hope that, with the Cask Strength release from a couple years ago, that somehow that will morph into a single barrel program that is not focused on the finishing like 46 is. Personally, I hope for that, too, because I’m a big fan of the Maker’s Cask Strength.
Malt: Is there a standard age profile for Maker’s?
Brian: Of course, there’s no age statement; they say it’s about eight years old. I don’t think they do it anymore, because there’s so many people on tours now, but back in the day when you would go on a tour, they would let you taste what they thought was an over-oaked product. They would say, “We bottle at about eight years old; we bottle to taste, not to age.” They say all those sorts of things, but, “We bottle at this age because after eight or so years it gets over-oaked.” They would share with you Maker’s that was 12 years old, or however old it was, as an example and expecting you to not like it and expecting you to think that it’s over-oaked. Us whiskey dorks who thrive on some of that oak thought it was some of the best Maker’s we’ve ever had. So, for the enthusiast, it backfired. The weekend warrior who likes the sweetness that they’re familiar with from Maker’s didn’t like the oak profile but, man, it was good.
Malt: How much do the Private Select bottles vary from one stave recipe to another?
Brian: It’s one aspect of their private barrel program that I’m a little bit iffy about. I’ve had some store picks that I just haven’t liked. You don’t know what your private barrel is going to taste like when it’s done. They’ll give you some guidance during the selection and they’ll say, “This stave gives more of a mocha flavor” and what probably should be happening, but you’re picking which staves to put in. Just like the magic that happens in a barrel: sometimes you get a good barrel, and sometimes right next to it you get a fantastic barrel, and three barrels down something’s a little bit off about it… and they were all on the same run, and they were all put in the warehouse at the same time, and they were all aged next to each other, you’re going to get some variation that you might not expect out of this barrel program with the staves that you add to it.
I’ve had some that have really come out with a strong oak flavor and astringency. I’ve had some that have been like a mocha bomb just went off in it. Maybe would have been better for a dessert than sipping. I’ve had some that I would never have guessed that they were finished; everything just totally blended together perfectly and I don’t get any sense of finishing from it. I just get pure, fantastic bourbon out of it. You just don’t know what you’re going to get when you’re selecting those.
Malt: Is Maker’s responsive to fans’ demands or do they go their own way?
Brian: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. They probably interact with the consumer better than almost any brand I can think of. That doesn’t mean they’re going to change their core products for you, but they’ll still interact, and be responsive, and they engage with you on social media. Before social media existed, they would engage with you as well.
One example of responsiveness I can think of, back in 2013, they reduced the proof from 90 proof, and they were going to dip to 84 proof. They sent that out; I remember getting that email as an Ambassador. Maybe they sent it out even before press release, or maybe at the same time as press releases, and there was an immediate buzz. Here’s maybe a predictor of things to come in the bourbon world: there was an immediate buzz and backlash for this reduction. They listened and – within a matter of a month or so – they reversed course.
Now, they do do their own thing, as far as the brand goes. They’re the only one to rotate; they only had their core brand for the longest time. You see them now with Maker’s 46 Cask Strength, regular Maker’s Cask Strength, the 101… so, within the last however many years, they’ve exploded, from their point of view. I think it’s nice to have a brand that has stuck to a core product for so long. Really the only other one I can think of that has done that is Four Roses, and I respect Four Roses for the same reason.
Malt: Was the proof reduction a publicity stunt, in retrospect?
Brian: That’s a good question and I don’t know the truthful answer. My impression was always that it was truly a way for them to stretch what they had. Maybe I’m their ideal consumer because I bought that hook, line, and sinker. What I do know is that within the years after that announcement, they doubled their still capacity by building a mirror image of their still. They continued to build warehouses and they increased their production. I take that as some evidence that it was a legitimate concern that they had that they were going to be short on whiskey if they didn’t cut the proof.
Now, I’ve also not done the math. How much more volume do you get when you add more water over how many more bottles they were producing at the time. Would that have been sufficient for the time? I don’t know. That part doesn’t seem to me like they would have gotten that many more bottles to make it worthwhile. But then building, as they have afterwards, does.
Malt: Do you think Beam drove that decision?
Brian: If it was a decision that came further from above, that would make a lot more sense to me. Maker’s, as its own company, has always been so consistent, and hasn’t wanted to change anything. I can only imagine that once they first sold out they immediately had to have regretted it in certain respects, for all their different owners after initially selling. It’s not something – from having met Bill Jr. a handful of times – he does not strike me as the type of guy that likes being told what to do by a corporate overlord, and good for him, on that. Maybe as he has transitioned out, maybe that’s what’s opened the door to Cask Strength and 46 and those other expressions. I don’t know what sort of influence they had from above on any of those decisions.
Malt: What do you think the future holds for Maker’s?
Brian: Maker’s has such an iconic bottle. They have such great trade dress with the dripping red wax. They’re going to be able to position themselves as sort of a true Kentucky bourbon and sort of a true stalwart, in contrast to all these new brands that pop up on a weekly basis, where you don’t know the provenance and you don’t know anything about it other than it’s got a fancy label and a horse on it somewhere. I think that’s where Maker’s position is. It was an innovator, and maybe this is just a cycle that a lot of products run through, and now it’s the tried and true. You can go to a bottle of Maker’s and it will be better than a lot of the Weller expressions… probably not Weller 12, but it will beat the pants off a lot of Weller brands that are allocated and flip on the secondary market. You’re not going to find a single Maker’s bottle – except from their UK bottles and their special dipped ones – you’re not going to find any of those on the secondary market.
I think they’re fine with that. I think they’re fine with the fan base that they have; you’ve got people in Kentucky who will only drink Maker’s. That is their bourbon, and they don’t mess around with Weller, and they don’t mess around with the secondary market; they don’t mess around with standing in line at Liquor Barn overnight to try to get a bottle. They like to be able to go in, see the red wax, grab it, and go.
One of my favorite stories in the book was the Maker’s lawsuit against Diageo. That dealt all with the red wax; [Diageo] had a tequila that had a dripping red wax and Maker’s won that lawsuit. That really showed the foresight that Maker’s had in identifying their trade dress and establishing their foothold, because it’s a foothold they still have. If I’m right about what their comfort level is about now being the stalwart brand: that shows a lot of thought process to go into this. They have brought every other brand along with them on the ride.
They registered their trademark in ’85; of course, they had been doing it before that, but they finally registered it in ’85, right about the time that they were going to be making that push. If we’re talking the mid-80’s: bourbon’s in the dumpster, and it’s a dumpster fire. That’s the time frame when Ancient Age had probably 70 people working for them; they were at risk. Distillers were shutting down in Louisville, and Maker’s Mark is out in the middle of nowhere getting ready to make this play that turned everything around. It’s truly a brand that the Mark Browns of the world and the Shapiras ought to be thanking.
Speaking of gratitude, thanks to Brian for sharing his time and insights. With that as a preamble, it’s time to get tasting some Maker’s!
First, we’ve got your standard Maker’s Mark. This is Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey from the famous mash bill of 70% corn, 16% red winter wheat, and 14% malted barley. Clocking in at 90 proof (45% ABV), 750 ml of this is on sale at my local for $25 (down from $28). I stole this two-ounce sample from an open bottle in my mother-in-law’s liquor cabinet (thanks, Rita). A bottle of this will cost you £24.95 (down from £28.75) via The Whisky Exchange, or £26.50 from Master of Malt, while Amazon are asking for £23 (down from £30) for a bottle.
Maker’s Mark – Review
Color: Medium-dark maize with an orangey hue.
On the nose: Corny and green to start; this smells very young. There’s a juvenile stalky note that I typically associate with young rye whiskey, which is curious given there’s no rye in the mash bill. Some vanilla cream frosting, a nip of cayenne pepper, the odd scent of fish food flakes, and a hint of lime juice round this off. After some time in the glass, I am getting sweet and sticky smells of honey and maple syrup.
In the mouth: Very sedate on the entry, this presents a rather watery texture at first. There’s a subtly cashew-like nuttiness before a beautiful floral note blooms as this passes over the top of the tongue. This has a touch of baking spice as it moves toward the back of the mouth. The finish has a gentle but persistent note of cherries that sits squarely in the center of the mouth for 15 seconds after this is swallowed.
This isn’t knock-your-socks off bourbon whiskey, but that’s hardly the point. It presents good aromas and flavors, though it retains the softness of a wheated mash bill and the gentle mouthfeel accompanying dilution down to 90 proof. Comparing this with what else is out there in the $25 to $30 range, Maker’s Mark earns its place for those seeking this particular flavor and texture profile. I am rewarding this with a score slightly above average.
For comparison, I have here another Private Select barrel, this time from Ryan’s Liquor in Spring, TX. The staves used to augment this were: three Baked American Pure 2, three Seared French Cuvée, two Roasted French Mocha, and two Toasted French Spice. This was a sample generously provided by Travis; going rate for these bottles is close to $70. This particular one is 112.1 proof (56.05% ABV).
Maker’s Mark Private Select Ryan’s Liquor – Review
Color: Nearly identical medium-dark-orangey maize, perhaps with a brownish tone.
On the nose: By way of contrast, the same sticky-sweet notes present themselves here immediately. I’m also detecting a bitterly citric note of orange peel. The influence of the mocha staves is subtle but noticeable, with a roasty aroma hovering around the background. There’s a subtly yeasty whiff of bread dough here (appropriately harkening back to the mash bill’s origin story) as well as a faint note of tomato ketchup. Overall the nose on this is rounder, plumper, and warmer than the baseline expression.
In the mouth: This starts with the momentary flavor of clods of earth and dried firewood. I get a similar bloom of flowers in the middle of the mouth, though this transitions rapidly to a tart flavor of underripe stone fruit. At the middle of the tongue this has a peppery heat, enveloping faintly roasty notes. A firm and stern mineral note emerges as this transitions into the finish; this is the lingering impression left by this whiskey, though there’s also an accent of cola at the very end. This has a better mouthfeel altogether than the prior dram, with more intense flavors and a more engaging texture from front to back.
Much more forceful than its progenitor, the combination of the flavors imparted by the staves and the higher proof work together to good effect. I like that this is a bit more angular and firm than I’d typically expect from a wheated bourbon; it leans toward bitterness in spots but never to the point of unpleasantness or discomfort. Even considering the premium price, there’s a lot of flavor for the buck here. I’m scoring this in-line with my last bottle of Private Select, and above the baseline Maker’s Mark.
To wrap this all up: Maker’s Mark is a brand that bourbon lovers, no matter their degree of sophistication, ignore at their peril. The core bourbon is a reliable standby, while there’s a galaxy of flavor and texture to explore at the higher end of the range. While it’s uncertain where Maker’s Mark will go in the future, the past and present argue persuasively for more serious consideration.
Well done. You’ve made it to the end, but before we end the credits, we’d like to point out that there are commission links within this article. These never affect our verdict. They do however help us to continue deliver original, independent and forward-thinking content such as this. In addition, the bottle photograph comes from the Whisky Exchange, while the other photos are kindly provided by Brian.