A certain type of review can sink under the weight of its own ambition, sometimes even before it is written. Today’s piece was almost such a casualty before I found a way to overcome inertia and give it some momentum.
I am a batch hound as much by necessity as by inclination. The desire to “collect the whole set” was lodged deep in my brain by the reverse side of 1980’s and 1990’s action figure packaging. Over years of collecting various types of things (action figures gave way to postage stamps and baseball cards, which yielded to books, which gave way to whisky), I have developed some rules of thumb.
One of these rules was that a narrow focus is preferable to a broad-brush approach. Most of us lack the financial resources to collect even one type of thing well, much less many diverse things. This focus also enables a connoisseurship to develop; looking at similar things repeatedly with an eye for detail seeking out minute variations is an effective way to help build expertise.
Also, collecting something widely available and comparatively cheap is always helpful; matchbooks are easier to find and more affordable than Fabergé eggs. Most of all: collecting something you enjoy for its intrinsic qualities – rather than collecting for the thrill of the chase or the potential financial gain – is the key to long-term satisfaction.
What, then, would be the implication of applying these rules to whisky? A maximally focused approach would demand collecting a single expression from a single distillery. The attention then shifts to finding similarities and teasing out differences between years or batches or other variations. Conforming to the second rule, this whisky should be a type that can be easily obtained without undue exertion or excessive expense.
That, your honour, is how I ended up with a baker’s dozen bottles of Maker’s Mark Cask Strength in my basement.
I’ve waxed enthusiastic about Maker’s Mark Cask Strength since my first run-in with batch 20-02. Since then, I noticed that bottles were widely available at stores in my area. Sometimes, I would catch a glimpse of one of the old-style labels, which got me thinking: how many separate batches might I be able to assemble if I searched assiduously?
A little more than a year later, and I have a set of fourteen batches going all the way back to 15-01. They’re not all there in sequence, but I feel like this at least gives me a representative sample of how the expression might have changed over the years… or not.
After all, Maker’s Mark’s guiding principle is consistency, which has endeared them to fans seeking a uniform experience. In a world where even mainstay expressions disappear from store shelves, it’s a great comfort to bourbon lovers to be assured that we’ll always be able to find Maker’s, and it will always be above average.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I’m ready to pick nits. As mentioned before, repeated exposure to variations on a theme can train the palate to be more discerning. A casual drinker might not perceive the differences in aroma and flavor to be as extreme as I will, thus my notes and scores should probably be adjusted for this exercise in pedantry. I’ll also be using the current price of $40 for my evaluation. Here we go!
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Batch 15-01 – Review
111.3 proof (55.65% ABV)
Color: Medium-dark brownish orange.
On the nose: Very focused and intense to start, this has a powerful aroma of orange marmalade with an herbal accent of eucalyptus. Some time in the glass reveals a buttery, baked aroma of fresh croissants, as well as a pert, green note of mint sprigs. Cherry hard candies and a dried note of firewood appear after a while. This is diverse and interesting; I wonder if that will carry through on the palate?
In the mouth: Starting with a thin texture and some muted woody flavors, this rounds out just a bit more as it moves toward the middle of the mouth. There, I get a very extracted note of brandied cherry, as well as some hot and tannic woody notes that emerge as the ABV makes itself felt. There’s an almost effervescent sweetness to this in the manner of cherry cola as it passes the middle of the tongue and progresses into the finish. There, the resinous flavor of pine meets some herbal notes (eucalyptus, again) with touches of paprika and red pepper. These spicy notes cover the roof of the mouth, while the lips and gums tingle with flavor reminiscent of Big Red chewing gum.
One of the better batches I can recall tasting. The only real weakness of this is the somewhat understated entrance on the mouth; everything else is plenty engaging. This isn’t as plump and as full-bodied as some of its siblings in this range, but it makes up for that through the clear delineation of each aromatic and flavor component, which present themselves with a self-assured intensity. The net result is extremely good, especially for the price.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Batch 17-01 – Review
110.9 proof (55.45% ABV)
Color: Medium pale golden yellow.
On the nose: This smells like the average of all the Maker’s Mark I have ever tried. It’s got red fruit in the form of tart cherries, an aromatic woodiness of eucalyptus, and some spicy notes of paprika and white pepper. As I sniff this longer, a confectionery scent of angel food birthday cake with vanilla frosting becomes noticeable. In total this leans toward the sweeter side, but there are enough notes from the other parts of the flavor wheel to prevent this from losing its balance.
In the mouth: The cherry note is once again front and center, but this time in a riper, more luscious form. It almost takes on the sticky sweetness of brandied cherry. There’s a bit more astringent, spicy wood here that propels the whisky up the tongue and toward the middle of the mouth. There, a drying stone note meets a peppery heat reminiscent of the tingly burn of jalapeños. That sweet cake note comes back again for an instant as this moves into the finish, which fades relatively quickly bar some more tannic astringency from the wood.
This is quintessential Maker’s in its profile. That’s not a bad thing, but don’t expect any crazy off-profile notes from this batch. About the zaniest it gets is that this leans heavily toward the sweeter flavors though, again, not in a way that makes this diverge significantly from the mean. It’s good, so I’m giving it a good score.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Batch 17-02 – Review
110.7 proof (55.35% ABV)
Color: A somewhat dull medium orangey-brown.
On the nose: Very bright, sweet, fruity, floral aromas make a cheery first impression. This smells very fresh, reminiscent of a springtime walk through a dew-dampened meadow. Some more richly sweet aromas of caramel and taffy eventually work their way in here, as well an uncanny note of clove cigarette, but mostly the nose remains anchored on that light, almost airy sweetness.
In the mouth: Starts somewhat nondescript, with a weak entrance devoid of much flavor. There’s a momentary nuttiness at midpalate before this turns toward a more intense version of that caramel note from the nose, accented by a tart woodiness that becomes slightly bitter as this whisky moves toward the finish. The bourbon then pivots to a stern stoniness that imparts a drying sensation to the back of the mouth. This lingers with a tingly heat and a not-very-pleasant aftertaste, once again evoking those sharply woody notes.
This held a lot of promise on the nose, but the palate went in a different direction entirely. I feel like this got worse as it went on, ending in an overdose of sharp, astringent wood that marred the overall effect. I’m deducting a point from average to account for this.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Batch 19-01 – Review
108.8 proof (54.4% ABV)
Color: Medium-light golden orange.
On the nose: A very un-Maker’s nose – not in a bad way – with an immediate, dense note of butterscotch and sticky sweet maple syrup. A little time lets this broaden out a bit, but never in a way that returns to a recognizably Maker’s profile. Rather, there are abundant herbs and exotic spices in here. I get cardamom and anise, as well as a hefty dollop of wood polish. More time reveals a smoky, meaty scent of BBQ brisket and some stalky green plant aromas. There’s the faintest note of powdered sugar, but mostly this is anchored in the “darker” end of the aromatic spectrum. In terms of the texture inside the nostrils, this noses way hotter than mid-50’s ABV. Nosed blind, I might have guessed high 60’s!
In the mouth: That heat is once again evident immediately, with an opening flavor that feels and tastes almost chemical. Another surprise comes in the form of the intense flavor of peanuts just before midpalate, a note more commonly associated with Maker’s Mark’s sister distillery in Clermont. This never regains its poise or balance, ping-ponging between that intensely chemical note and some bitter nuttiness, with a vague lingering impression of chocolate.
An oddity, this diverges meaningfully from the aforementioned consistency of Maker’s. There are some points of intrigue in here – I especially like the novel herbal notes on the nose – but the overall presentation falls apart in the mouth. It’s got some off flavors that are so intense, they overwhelm any of the good notes and make this somewhat difficult to actually drink. This tastes like a not-that-great batch of Booker’s bourbon; I’m cutting two points off of average as a consequence.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Batch 20-02 – Review
110.4 proof (55.2% ABV)
Color: Medium amber.
On the nose: Extremely herbal straightaway, to a surprising degree. There’s almost the sense of walking through a pine forest, so expressive are the initial aromatics. Fortunately, a little time in the glass allows tones these notes down, bringing them into balance with other aromas. This becomes more recognizably Maker’s in style, with a brandied cherry note intertwined with chocolate fudge hot sauce and some baking spice. At times, this takes on a high-toned and slightly sour, slightly bitter note of lime zest. It also seems like that pine note waxes and wanes with every alternating sniff of this; sometimes it steps to the fore, other time it recedes into the chorus of other notes. I’ll be interested to see how all these elements express themselves in the mouth.
In the mouth: This presents hallmark Maker’s Mark flavors from the first moment it touches the lips. Sweet and tart cherry candy notes mix with a drying note of limestone that carries the bourbon into the middle of the mouth. There, it takes on a soft texture and the flavors fade somewhat, as a lone nit to pick in an otherwise flawless presentation. The whisky is redeemed as that aromatic pine note reemerges here on the finish, where it finds perfect balance with a reprise of the nose’s baking spice elements. There’s a piquant cocoa note in the manner of mole negro sauce as an added bonus before the whisky enters a gentle medium length fade.
Any fears that this would be overly woody dissipated as soon as it reached my mouth. This is a very, very solid expression of Maker’s Mark. It has the distillery’s classic notes, with added intrigue from the wood, all well-balanced against a handful of other delightful flavors. This represents the level of quality I am after with every bottle of Maker’s Mark Cask Strength I grab, and I am scoring it positively to reflect that.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Batch 20-03 – Review
109.8 proof (54.9% ABV)
Color: Golden orange
On the nose: Very grainy, almost youthfully so. An initial sniff gives a big, sweet blast of corn. Allowing this to sit in the glass produces some more confectionery sweetness, as well as herbal nuances of eucalyptus and a spicy accent of anise. There’s the slightly bitter and nutty scent of almonds, as well as a more creamy note of unscented hand lotion. Astoundingly, when I revisit this I get the uncanny aroma of pepperoni pizza.
In the mouth: The quintessential Maker’s cherry note is front and center as this greets the tongue. As the whisky moves toward midpalate, that note blooms and transforms to take on the floral aspect of rosewater. On the finish, dry mineralic notes play with piquantly spicy tastes of black pepper and a tart lemon juice flavor. That initially youthful impression comes back in the form of some juvenile grainy notes as well as a woody flavor that puckers the mouth with its tannic astringency. These wane to allow a reprise of the nose’s confectionery flavor to gently spread throughout the mouth.
One of the lesser batches of Cask Strength, this has some high points but also some areas in which it falls short. In particular, the grainy notes on the nose and the finish, paired with the sharp, tart woodiness on the finish points at this being suboptimally mature. I’m shaving a point off of average to account for this.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Batch 20-04 – Review
109 proof (54.5% ABV)
Color: Medium-dark burnished copper.
On the nose: There’s a soft and sweet fruitiness initially, which is about as charming as a first note gets. Cherries, sure, but also peaches and cream. The woody accents here are more of a spicy and roasty variety, with a mocha note similar to some of the Private Select bottlings that emphasized those staves. There’s also the richness of chocolate fudge implying a scrumptiousness that begs for the first sip.
In the mouth: Initially quite tart, this begins with a sour note of citrus fruit as it meets the tongue. The whisky is propelled toward the center of the mouth by a mineralic zip of limestone. It broadens out somewhat to encapsulate fruit flavors, but in the tart form of underripe cherries. That sourness mutates into a vaguely woody bitterness as the whisky moves toward the finish. There’s none of the hoped-for chocolate notes, however this does have a tingly and energetic aftertaste of sour cherries and pert stone, with a thickly woody accent of mesquite.
This has high and low points. The mocha and cocoa accents on the nose are very nice, but the flavors at midpalate leave a bit to be desired. Considered both on the spectrum of Maker’s Cask Strength batches, and against the broader backdrop of similarly priced bourbon whisky, I am left feeling like this is about average.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Batch 20-05 – Review
108.7 proof (54.35% ABV)
Color: Medium-dark brownish orange
On the nose: Initially this presents similarly to some of the better Wild Turkey limited editions; there is a cherry note accented by the cedar and tobacco scent of a cigar box, as well as sumptuous leathery notes of a very old and well-maintained Chesterfield armchair. More sniffing reveals rich and sticky-sweet aromas of brown sugar and maple syrup, as well as an herbaceous medicinal whiff of eucalyptus. This is close to the platonic ideal bourbon nose for me; let’s see if it carries through on the palate?
In the mouth: That cherry is once again front and center, albeit in a more tart form as the whisky kisses the lips and the tip of the tongue. This firms up significantly as it moves toward the middle of the mouth, with a very solid limestone note pushing other flavors to the periphery. There’s a momentarily bitter, tannic greenness in here, but that dissipates quickly to make way for a roasty mocha note. This expands laterally as it reaches the back of the mouth, where tart cherry and pert limestone are once again joined and spread out to coat the palate. The finish lingers similarly, with that drying minerality gripping the tongue long after the final swallow.
As noted above, the nose on this is about as good as it gets. The palate was different; not bad, just more focused on a narrower range of flavors. Texturally this is fairly austere, so those with more sensitivity to sharply sour or drily stony flavors might like this a bit less than I did. In total, and considering the other examples here, I am scoring this slightly above average.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Batch 21-01 – Review
110.6 proof (55.3% ABV)
Color: Medium-pale, dull brownish orange
On the nose: Sweet and floral. Some of those confectionery and birthday cake notes from Batch 17-01 make a reappearance, with the added dimension of chalky candy in the manner of Necco wafers. A deep inhalation yields a meaty and savory-sweet note of BBQ chicken breast, as well as some Christmas-y elements of berries, spiced wine, and pine boughs. There’s a vaguely exotic spiciness in here; I’m thinking Garam Masala or cumin, but it’s hard to pin it down precisely.
In the mouth: This starts full bore, with a quick nip of cherry transforming immediately into a woody and nutty mixture in the front of the mouth. This pivots quite abruptly as it approaches the midpalate, with a drying stony note that turns unpleasantly bitter at the middle of the tongue. Unfortunately, this does not abate at all, but rather persists sourly through the (in this case, regrettably) long finish.
Great diversity on the nose, but it all goes awry in the mouth. This is actually tough to drink, so off-putting is that sour note that crowds out the rest of the flavors in the second half of the palate. I’m scoring this about as low as I ever score this expression.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Batch 21-03 – Review
109.4 proof (54.7% ABV)
Color: Medium-pale copper.
On the nose: A pleasant mix of ripe stone fruit (apricot, peaches) and a gooey note of chocolate fudge. Some sweet aromas of fruity hard candy are balanced by the herbaceous woodiness of eucalyptus. There’s a faint stoniness in here as well, but with a sweet accent; this is a novel aroma for me. With time, a faintly ashy aroma emerges.
In the mouth: Initially, there is a tripartite flavor here that incorporates wood, nuts, and chocolate in perfectly balanced proportions. Toward the middle of the mouth this becomes more nut driven, with a potent flavor of almonds. There’s a turn toward darker-toned notes through the finish, which also takes on the bittersweet flavor of black licorice. There’s a final reprise of the stone fruit notes in more concentrated form before the finish fades gradually, leaving a heat that contains faint echoes of the preceding parade of flavors.
This is delicious and totally balanced from front to back. One of my favorite batches thus far, it can be enjoyed equally as a hedonistic indulgence or while being picked apart with intellectual precision. I’m therefore giving this a score as high as I have ever given for any batch of this expression.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Batch 21-04 – Review
109.4 proof (54.7% ABV)
Color: Medium golden.
On the nose: This is kind of a ‘tweener relative to the two flavor profiles that have emerged from this vertical, and I mean that in a good way. There’s fruity sweetness of a variety that reminds me of gummy candies, accented by a richer note of cocoa. This is balanced by a very deft aromatic touch of pine wood, as well as a piquant, oily, slightly bitter nip of citrus rind. Stepping back for a moment and re-approaching this, I get a nice, pleasantly creamy (but not flabby) note of oaky vanilla and some fresh, floral perfume scents.
In the mouth: At the front of the mouth this starts with a mild nuttiness that turns on a dime into a tart citric note which then changes once more into a warming woodiness. Toward the middle of the palate this is rounded out and takes on a more polished woodiness, with a few lightly spicy sprinkles of cinnamon and nutmeg thrown in. The wood meets a sternly mineralic stoniness as it reaches the back of the mouth. That cocoa note reemerges in a subtle but very pleasant form through the finish, which snakes back toward the front of the mouth with a radiant heat and a gentle return to the floral elements.
Of the batches tasted thus far, I feel like this one does the best job of marrying the disparate ends of the flavor spectrum, with a handful of pleasant little surprises in there for good measure. It is balanced, but retains the “edge” that barrel proof enthusiasts enjoy in the form of some fairly sharp elements and a warming mouthfeel. Like 20-02, I feel that this is a good benchmark for the (well above average) quality I would like to find consistently among batches. I am therefore scoring it comparably to that expression.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Batch 21-05 – Review
110.0 proof (55.0% ABV)
Color: Medium-pale golden yellow.
On the nose: To match the paler shade of this whisky, the aromas here all tend toward the lighter end of the spectrum. Honey, floral perfume, powdered sugar, and apple juice all play cheerfully together. Unfortunately for me, the rich fruity notes (cherry especially) and some of the more serious herbal nuances are here only in their faintest forms. I get a bit of menthol, perhaps, as well as some twiggy greenness, but mostly this stays on the sunny side of the street.
In the mouth: There’s a burst of candied cherry as this greets the tongue, which unfortunately fades rapidly as this moves toward the center of the mouth. Texturally, the whisky leans out to a surprising degree, with the mouthfeel become very mute and watery at what ought to be the crescendo of flavors. This never really regains its footing, instead fading rapidly with a dilute mélange of vaguely sweet, stony, and woody scents that are almost indistinguishable individually. There’s a slight bitterness to the aftertaste as a final unpleasant punctuation mark on a thoroughly disappointing experience.
This veers so far from the expected profile of MMCS that I’m not sure I would be able to pick it out in a blind tasting. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if the whisky ended up in a place of pleasant balance, but this doesn’t come close. In the mouth, especially, the flavors which aren’t weak are bitter and off-putting. This is cocktail fodder for sure, and I’m scoring it punitively to reflect that.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Batch 21-07 – Review
109.3 proof (54.65% ABV)
Color: Medium-pale orange.
On the nose: The fruitiest nose I can recall on a Maker’s Mark whisky of any expression. There’s a sumptuous note of apple cider, ripe apricots, and even some wild berry aromas in here. A curious note reminiscent of red rocks presents itself, as well as some freshly ground cinnamon and a hint of pine needles.
In the mouth: More sedate to start, this presents an earthy flavor accented by some dried wood notes as it meets the tongue. The thin, airy sweetness of confectioners’ sugar emerges at midpalate, with a tart citric note of lemon juice making a brief appearance. This lapses into an astringent, tart woodiness as it moves into the finish, where the flavors all but vanish. A momentary taste of cinnamon candy is the last impression, before this leaves a residual heat as it the only reminder of its presence.
My hopes were elevated after my first sniff, with the expectation that even a bit of the nose’s fruitiness would work wonders on the palate. There was really nothing of the sort; instead, the impression is of shrill, brittle notes that don’t have much staying power. In the mouth, this is perhaps the worst batch of Maker’s Cask Strength I have tried yet. I feel compelled to knock two points off average to reflect this.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Batch 21-08 – Review
112.5 proof (56.25% ABV)
Color: Medium orange.
On the nose: Cherries with an abundance of shifting accents; sometimes there is an herbal or a spicily woody aspect to them, sometimes they are dipped in chocolate, but always there’s a return to the tart juiciness of a red cherry. As I hover my nose away from the glass I am getting more exotic cooking spice notes of cardamom and star anise. There’s also the smoky meatiness of chicken breast cooked on a charcoal grill. More sniffing yields the earthy scent of mushrooms. It will be interesting to see how this performs in the mouth.
In the mouth: A luscious note of brandied cherry creates a very delightful entrance as this whisky hits the tongue. This gains viscosity, heft, as well as some herbaceous and medicinal notes that create the texture and flavor of cherry cough syrup. This turns momentarily stony before there’s a tannic, bitter woody note that lasts for just a moment before disappearing, yielding to roasted peanuts and a return to the initial brandied cherry note, which leaves a lingering impression through the mouth.
Nearly as good as the 21-03, the only nit to pick here is that momentarily astringent woodiness in the middle of the mouth. I like how off-profile the nose is, while the intensity of the cherry flavors in the mouth create a deliciousness that compels another sip, and another, until the whisky disappears. I’m scoring this not quite as high as the best in this lineup, but not too far off, either.
Wow, what a rollercoaster! I started to worry as I got into the latter 21- batches, but fortunately the -08 batch from this past year saved the day. Again, I’m surprised at how much variation emerges from this distillery known, perhaps above all else, for its consistency. Some might question my scores; I question their dispersion myself. Perhaps I am picking nits, and considering all these against a broader landscape of bourbons would make them hew more closely to a score somewhere just above the mean? There’s only one way to find out for yourself: assemble a few bottles (thankfully, they remain easy to find and fairly priced) and do a mini version of this tasting… and if you do, please let me know how it goes!
Lead image author’s own; the rest are courtesy of Maker’s Mark.
Taylor – Epic article. This touches on two topics that I feel do not get enough attention. #1 Batch variation is real – even with large well established brands. What was a 5-star stunner is now a 3-star when I buy a second bottle. #2 I am a little worried about MM’s wood management. The last couple years, I feel I have seen a big uptick in the sharp oak notes and astringency. I caught a lot of those descriptions in your notes. (Aside – I really wish I could see MM bourbon use the same wood management as Michters).
Angstrom, thanks so much for your comment and kind words. Indeed, the emphasis seems to be shifting to the wood; this is especially so in the case of the Private Select program, which is all about the flavor from the stave finishing. Maker’s – in my opinion – is at it’s best when the flavors from the wheated mash bill can shine through, and that is reflected in my relatively higher scores for batches that lean in that direction. Others may feel differently; de gustibus non est disputandum. Cheers!
I really like your intro on consciously setting constraints and a narrow focus when collecting. I always have an MM CS handy, and, yes the stronger than expected) batch variations are real. I have also noticed, as Angstrom has, the increasingly spicy notes (as well as more peanuty notes). I wonder if there are differences within a batch. In single malts, differences in bottle number from a single cask are apparently discernable, especially between the first few and last few bottles (not that I ever have). Don’t know if the same can happen for bottles from a single batch due to stratification or different amounts of air contact just prior to bottling.
Thanks, Alex. Call it lessons learned from a lifetime of collecting various types of things. Your question about intra-batch variation is a good one; might be worth snagging two bottles from stores in different regions to do an empirical comparison? Lots of avenues for exploration; I’d encourage you to take the lead, as I’ve had all the MMCS I can stand for the time being. Cheers!