To quote a fellow chronic malcontent, “Please, please, please, let me get what I want.”
And what is that, exactly? In whiskey terms: it’s a single barrel, bottled without dilution or filtration. For those of us who don’t get to roam rickhouses using a whiskey thief to sample this or that barrel, being able to taste the liquid as close to the way it came out of the cask allows us to live that dream in a microcosmic way. There’s also the added bonus of potential “off-profile” barrels, those weird and wonderful oddities that take on aromas and flavors not typically associated with their respective distilleries.
I’m not alone in my preference for this format, based on the voracious hunger for this type of whiskey and the associated scarcity of such bottles when they do become available. Despite this clear demand (at least from our hyper-enthusiastic niche of the audience), widely available retail releases of barrel proof single barrels are rare among the large Kentucky bourbon distilleries. We get cask strength, and we get single barrels, but (outside of store picks) we seldom see the overlap of those two circles in the Venn diagram.
Running down the list: Jim Beam has the Jim Beam Single Barrel, diluted down to 95 proof (47.5% ABV), Booker’s small batch at barrel proof, and Baker’s Single Barrel at a standard 107 proof, but not a barrel proof single barrel expression.
From Buffalo Trace we’ve got Blanton’s single barrel releases, at a standard 93 proof (46.5%). Those fortunate to live overseas may find the Blanton’s Straight From the Barrel, though this is not a standard offering here in the U.S. (yet). There’s E.H. Taylor Single Barrel (bottled-in-bond at 100 proof) and E.H. Taylor Barrel Proof, which is a small batch. Sazerac sibling Barton 1792 gives us a Single Barrel, and a “Full Proof,” but not a full proof single barrel.
Heaven Hill offers us Henry McKenna Single Barrel, though this is at the stipulated Bottled-in-Bond strength of 100 proof (50% ABV). There’s also the Evan Williams Single Barrel, coming to us at the even lower strength of 86.6 proof (43.3% ABV). On the barrel proof side, both Elijah Craig and Larceny have entrants in the category. Though they’re solid quality products, they are once again presented in batch format.
Four Roses has the retail Single Barrel offering at a standard 100 proof (50% ABV). While store picks of the Single Barrel expression are bottled at full strength, these are increasingly difficult to lay hands on for those of us unable to constantly monitor social media for news of these releases.
Wild Turkey gives us Russell’s Reserve Single Barrels at a standard 55%, as well as a batched cask strength release in the form of Rare Breed. Only Single Cask Nation has been able to bottle undiluted single barrel Wild Turkey.
Brown-Forman pleased fans early this year when they announced that they’d be relaunching the Old Forester single barrel program to include a barrel strength option (in addition to 100 proof) to replace the prior 90 proof offering. I’ve yet to lay hands on one of the new format bottlings, but it’s right up toward the top of the shopping list.
I ruminated on all this as I pondered the subject of today’s review. This is partly because this distillery has always eschewed the single barrel format with a conviction bordering on religiosity. However, a recent thaw has resulted in green shoots of hope that good things could be in store. I’m speaking, of course, about Maker’s Mark.
After nearly seven decades of being essentially a single-product brand, 2010 saw the release of an innovative new finished bourbon. Dubbed “46,” this became the basis for the Maker’s Mark Private Select program (kindly refer to that review for a potted history of the distillery and brand).
My recent chat with Brian Haara about all things Maker’s turned up a few recurring themes: the distillery’s emphasis on consistency (resulting in policies of rickhouse rotation and batching), the relatively restrained portfolio (in terms of number of expressions therein), and their fans’ cravings for previously-unavailable styles of Maker’s including, naturally, a single barrel variant.
Another thing that continued to echo in my head was how the brand has fallen out of favor with the whiskey “cool kids.” The Insta-folks who accessorize their bourbon with sports cars and Rolexes and automatic weapons seem to studiously avoid Maker’s Mark in comparison with hysterically-hyped bottles from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection and Weller. Could the release of a single barrel at full strength reinvigorate this brand?
Until parent company Jim Beam finds a way to Make Maker’s Fashionable Again™, we’ll be left enjoying the current range of whiskey from the distillery which is – just between us – consistently very good. Hoping to keep a streak of highly enjoyable whiskey going, today I’ll be sampling a recent batch of the Cask Strength expression.
Maker’s Cask Strength is bottled at 108 to 114 proof, given the barrel entry proof of 110 and the natural rises and falls that occur depending on temperature and humidity. The mash bill is the Maker’s standard 70% corn, 16% red winter wheat, 14% barley. This particular bottle is from is batch # 20-02, brought to us at 110.4 proof (55.2% ABV). Retail price for this is $40, but I picked up a bottle for $37.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength – Review
Color: Orange-hued copper.
On the nose: Immediately expressive, with a balanced but forceful mix of fruit and wood. On the fruit side, there is an exuberant cherry note as well as the piquant, oily aroma of orange peel. More sniffing reveals this is actually packed with citrus: key lime and grapefruit make appearances, as does a tart aroma of gooseberries. The wood is not a flabby vanilla overlay, but rather a tannic, sharp, yet sweet and well-integrated note of oak. With some time in the glass, this takes on spicy notes of anise as well as a mineralic nuance of limestone.
In the mouth: Starts with a reprise of the nose’s pert limestone note, as well as some elements of the astringent wood. This calms down as it moves towards the top of the tongue, where some creamily nutty flavors yield suddenly to the tannic oaky notes singing out once again. Before this lapses over into woody bitterness, though, there are the perfect balancing notes of citrus and stone fruit, as well as the light sweetness of confectioners’ sugar. A subtle, understated finish is marked by earthy flavors of dried tobacco leaf, some dry old leather, and a radiant heat, evidence of the higher bottling proof of this expression.
Outstanding bourbon, and even more so for the money, especially compared with the competition. This brings all the aromas, textures, and flavors that accompany the other full proof bottlings above, yet it sits on the shelves at a moderate discount to the SRP for those expressions, and a meaningful discount for the marked-up prices at which they’re more frequently found.
Going back to the initial conceit of this review: while this isn’t my platonic ideal, it offers excellent value for the money and has earned its place in my regular rotation of go-to bourbons. I’m happy to have found it, and just as happy to have found another rebuke to anyone who sleeps on Maker’s Mark.
Great insight, Taylor. Maker’s Mark seem to be the… most stubborn of the brands? I’m pretty sure they have enough stock to bottle releases with age statements but they never do. Though I think the small market of Maker’s Mark collectors is often forgotten. I used to see a lot of collectible bottles such as ones with sports and seasonal themes.
John, thanks much. Indeed, compared with the slavish devotion of fans to brands like Weller, Maker’s seems to languish. While it feels slightly unfair, in practice it means we can enjoy it any time we please, rather than having to hunt it down or pay a premium. For that, at least, I’ll raise a glass and say “Cheers!”
Glad to see Maker’s receiving some attention. For several reasons (still design, yeast strain, distillation and barrel-entry proofs), they are the closest thing to a Stitzel-Weller product on the market today.
Thanks Carlton, and well-noted. All those who chase ersatz Stitzel-Weller substitutes (which, as you point out, have little in common with their forebears beyond the mash bill) would do well to open their eyes to the gems hidden in plain sight. Cheers!
I got a bottle of the 19-02 batch and was not impressed at first. The nose and palate seemed completely shut down. I waited a couple weeks and still hoped for the best, but there was no improvement. Even a friend who loves Maker’s picked it as his least favorite from McKenna SiB, Larceny BP, and Elijah Craig BP. But then I added a few drops of water and the Maker’s totally blossomed and really turned out to be wonderful. I’m not sure I ever had a whiskey transform so dramatically, especially a bourbon.
Thanks for another informative review!
Apple Wino, thanks for the comments! So many factors at play here: batch variation, high proof, and even the subtle changes that happen as a bottle is open for a while. As always, I counsel patience, and am glad to hear that it paid off in your case. Cheers!
Interesting review, Taylor, and I enjoyed the video portion as well as your written thoughts. I take it that there is no age statement associated with this? Do we know what age other Maker’s expressions are bottled at?
I found your comments on how Maker’s has fallen out of fashion both interesting and on the mark (pardon the pun). I know that I have had it several times on my shelf but find myself overlooking it now when I am in the market for a new bottle of something. It seems not so much to have a poor image as it does to have not much image at all. Strange. Perhaps this will help rebuild that. Hopefully it will reach my area soon.
As an aside, I noticed in the video when you were nosing it that it seemed you had your mouth tightly shut. Years ago a wine and spirits I respected – perhaps the best one I ever encountered – advised me to open my mouth for part of a nosing and to gently breathe in through the mouth as well. When I did that, I detected different things from when the mouth was closed. I’m sure you were likely already aware of this but if not, it might be worth trying.
Thanks for this. I always look forward to your contributions here.
Greg, I’ll refer you to my interview with Brian Haara, who mentioned that Maker’s has said the whiskey is bottled at around eight years of age. I appreciate your kind words and continued support. Cheers!
Great article, but you mistakenly said that 100 proof is 55% abv in the paragraph talking about Heaven Hill’s offerings.
The fat finger strikes again! Appreciate you pointing that out; fixed now. Cheers!
Such a thoughtful review Taylor, and it shines a light on what is simultaneously one of the best-selling & oft-overlooked brands.
Is Maker’s turning a corner? To my count they’ve gone from essentially having one core expression a little over a decade ago to having 7(?) limited editions, and two brand extensions on top of their core offering in the intervening years. That on top of private label offerings as well.
They’ve been moving quickly (and naming them poorly) but if this is what the future of Maker’s Mark holds, count me in. Cheers!
Frank, I’ve had a good few discussions with folks about this recently. I think it’s fair to say that there’s more positivity and enthusiasm around Maker’s right now than there has been for several years. As I wrote, I think people would go nuts for a Maker’s single barrel at full strength, but it’s at odds with the distillery’s history and philosophy. In the meantime, it seems like folks are waking up to the fact that Maker’s provides a good variety of reasonably-priced and very flavorful bourbon that remains widely available, and that in itself is something to be grateful for. Cheers!
Visiting a friend and he got me a bottle of this. Felt compelled to pop it open and give it a taste after watching your review. And yes it is very tasty. Couple of sips neat and then a chip of ice to wet the drink and release more bouquet. Usually a single malt guy (Macallan 10,12, Oban etc.). This will be a nice addition to share with guests. Cheers and Happy New Year 2021
Well done, Rodolfo! Cheers and enjoy the rest of that bottle. Best wishes for 2021 to you and yours.
Great review. Looks like I’m going to have to sample this against one of my new (surprising) favorites of MM101. I’m not a fan of regular MM but was convinced to buy a bottle of the 101 at my local store and am very happy with it. The price point on CS is right there with the 101 so I’m curious if you’ve had a chance to review that or how they would compare?
Thanks Tony. I haven’t yet gotten around to Maker’s 101 but have heard good things. To me, it’s kind of an in-between-er, sitting just above the midpoint of the 45% standard Maker’s and the 55-odd-% that the Cask Strength expression comes in at. As you point out, it’s the same price (near me) as the Cask Strength offering, and nearly double the price of the Wild Turkey 101. So, it’s not immediately clear why this would be an appealing option? Still, I’ll keep an open mind and I’m sure someone will pass me a sample in the near future. Cheers!
I think this is a perfectly good whiskey, but strangely, I think it also is what finally showed me that I am not really a “bourbon guy,” which I’ve suspected since I started exploring entry level single malts over the past year. I think it’s “solid,” and a great value objectively (CS for (one cent) under $40) but all I can think about when I drink it is that I could have spent $5 – $10 more to try a 10 or 12 year that I haven’t had yet.
I think those tannic, hot, heavily oaked notes in bourbon can be interesting, but are not something I really care to seek out, and are kind of the definitive qualities of American whiskey, especially at the higher proofs. I have tried really hard to convince myself that I could prefer American stuff over Scotch, since it’s kind of cool to have the ability drive to the epicenter of the industry in a few hours, but I’m realizing that if I’m honest, my heart’s not in it. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll get equally disillusioned with Scotch and gravitate back to bourbon/rye etc. All I can be sure of is that I’ll continue to overthink the dichotomy.
Dwayne, part of the journey is learning what you don’t like, as well as what you do like. Some folks like to drink broadly across regions and whiskey types; others specialize on a single style, country, region, or even distillery. Sounds like you’re keeping an open mind, which is the best anyone can ask for. All that to say: trust yourself to find and enjoy the whiskey you like. Cheers!