What’s your dirty little secret?
Whiskey secret, I mean. I’m not interested in other types of skeletons in your closet. If you feel the need to come clean about malfeasance or infidelity, I’d encourage you to save it for your favorite attorney or member of clergy. However, if you’ve got a confession to make about whiskey: I can grant you an ear to bend, if not absolution.
To earn your trust, it seems only fair that I start with an admission of my own: despite this whiskey being from one of my favorite distilleries, and despite it being a member of that distillery’s core range, and despite it being widely available and reasonably priced, I have never tasted it.
Phew, what a load off my chest!
On my whiskey journey, I have tried to stay as honest and as humble as possible. In practice, this entails knowing what I don’t know, and also being frank about that. One of the most enjoyable parts of this hobby is that it is a continual process of education, and it’s hard to learn anything when you’re pretending to be an expert.
Part of that learning process entails tasting as many different whiskeys as possible. Some folks go deep on a single distillery, grabbing every new release and hunting down bottles from the distant past. Widening the aperture, others become expert in a given style or region. The broadest approach encapsulates all of the above methods, in an attempt to assemble an encyclopedic global library of tasting notes.
I started in the latter category but have focused more as time goes on: an interest in global whisky shifted toward American whiskey, which shifted toward bourbon whiskey, which has increasingly been fixated on handful of preferred distilleries. As I learn more about the “house styles” I like (and dislike), I am more inclined to “collect the whole set” by ticking every box in the portfolio of a favored producer.
Despite devoting my attention to a more limited set of bourbons, there are inevitably omissions that occur. Sometimes there’s a practical reason for this. For example, I hadn’t tasted any of the Parker’s Heritage Collection until recently. In that case, my fondness for Heaven Hill was outweighed by the relative scarcity of those bottles, and my own disciplined refusal to pay the multiples of SRP for which they changed hands.
Other times, my ignorance of a particular expression is less excusable. Such is the case with the subject of today’s review; as foreshadowed above, there has been no barrier to my acquisition and tasting of this whiskey. I have passed by literally hundreds of bottles of this over the course of several years, all for sale at fair prices, and yet never pulled the trigger… until today.
Maker’s Mark has gotten abundant coverage in this space. Their core bourbon is one of the most reliable go-tos in all of American whiskey, offering great drinking for the money. Cask Strength is a staple of my home bar, and I am assembling a collection of as many batches of that expression as I can find. Though the 101 Proof and FAE-01 Limited Edition didn’t land for me, I quite enjoyed the SE4 x PR5 Limited Edition.
In my review of one of the Private Select program picks, I made note of the introduction of the 46 expression in 2010. This was the first new expression introduced by Maker’s Mark in the distillery’s (then) 57-year history. For those unfamiliar with the specifics of this iteration, Maker’s Mark’s own site provides a succinct synopsis:
“The innovative wood-stave-finishing process starts with fully matured Maker’s Mark at cask strength. We then insert 10 seared virgin French oak staves into the barrel and finish it for nine weeks in our limestone cellar. The result is Maker’s Mark 46: bolder and more complex, but without the bitterness typical of longer-aged whiskies.”
That’s the hope, at least. Accelerated maturation is somewhat of a Holy Grail to those who would seek to achieve the depth and complexity of flavor associated with mature whiskey without investing the time and money required to actually age whiskey longer. There’s a growing list of failed attempts to find an economical shortcut to good, old-fashioned maturation.
As noted in the Maker’s materials, 46 starts with fully mature whiskey (likely about eight years old), so this is less about cutting corners than looking for a bit of extra “oomph.” We’ll see if the French oak staves are able to deliver on this promise.
Some final specifics, before I get to tasting: this is bottled at 94 proof (47% ABV), though an annual limited edition release at cask strength is also available intermittently. Retail price for this is in the $35 to $40 range depending on your location, in comparison to the $25 to $30 for the standard 90 proof (45% ABV) Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey.
Maker’s Mark 46 – Review
Color: Medium brownish-orange.
On the nose: At first there’s the expected Maker’s sweet richness here, but it feels buried under layers of overlay from the stave finishing. A medicinal note of cherry and some strawberry salt water taffy meet with initially overpowering notes of wood, herbs, spice, and earth, though these latter elements come back into balance with a little time in the glass. A deft touch of mint leaf plays against vanilla and some bitter citric notes of orange peel. There’s anise and jasmine incense, as well as a slightly astringently woody note that moves toward a very piquant whiff of cardamom, which is the only place this really feels off to me.
In the mouth: In the front of the mouth, the tongue is greeted by some softer candied cherry flavors. The whisky takes on a charred, ashy quality as it moves toward the middle of the palate. The wood takes over in the middle of the mouth, with a tannic astringency that overwhelms the other flavors. That note pivots on a momentary citric sourness before the whiskey leans out into the finish. There’s a note of limestone intertwined with more of that extracted woody flavor. This leaves a vague, residual bitterness that coats the mouth, with only a mild hint of cherry to offset it.
I’m a skeptic of the stave finishing process, which was initially confirmed by the overpowering woody notes on the nose. As I spent some time sniffing this whiskey, that concern abated as those aspects receded and the aromatic profile achieved more balance. I hoped for a similar result on the palate, however I just couldn’t get past those wood notes. Particularly in the middle of the palate and on the finish, there was a mouth-puckering bitterness that detracted from the overall experience. As a result: I’m shaving a point off of average.
As it turns out, I don’t have to kick myself for all the missed opportunities to try this one. I’m reassured that I was not missing anything, but also slightly dismayed. Between 46, the Private Select program, and the annual Limited Editions, so much of the Maker’s Mark portfolio is focused on stave-finished variations. Occasionally they’re improvements on the foundational bourbon, but they also miss the mark (Get it? Mark!) frequently enough that I can’t comfortably make an unqualified recommendation to try them.
Meanwhile, Maker’s Mark fans still clamor for the same missing pieces: a single barrel (or cask, as they prefer) expression, as well as an extra-aged expression of the type described by Brian Haara in our conversation. I’ll keep my fingers crossed; in the meantime, you’ll find me sipping on the more reliable standbys from this distillery.
Photo courtesy of Maker’s Mark.