How do you take the pressure off?
The “pressure” I am referring to here is, well… everything. I’m talking about all the influences that ratchet up expectations about how good a whisky could or should be, to the point that the experience of finally drinking it ends in frustrated disappointment.
Let’s start with a big one: reputation. If you’ve heard great things about a bourbon, or if you’ve thoroughly enjoyed expressions from the same distillery, you’ve already probably hyped the whisky up in your own mind. Brand names exist for a reason, and the associated guarantee of quality is a key aspect of their persistence.
Price is also a direct source of influence on how we perceive whisky. For those that shell out the big bucks for a trophy bottle, that triple-digit (or – God forbid – quadruple-digit) price tag likely lurks in the back of their brain. How many folks who dropped a couple C-notes on a bottle of Blue Run were able to convince themselves that the whisky was more special, more interesting, or more flavorful than it actually is?
Speaking of special: the words “limited edition” are certain to strike FOMO into the hearts of bourbon lovers. Regardless of whether there is any actual limitation in the number of bottles produced, the perception of rarity conferred by this designation will produce hopes of something out of the ordinary, hopefully for the better.
Finally, there’s packaging. A big, fancy box (wood, if you’re really pushing it) or a design-y bottle with a novelty stopper is sure to have a subconscious psychological impact on a prospective purchaser, which is why brands occasionally drop the big bucks on bespoke packaging.
The whisky I’ll be reviewing today is unique (for me) in that it has managed – by luck or design – to steer clear of most of the aforementioned pitfalls as regards promise versus delivery. I’m speaking of the Maker’s Mart BRT-02.
With respect to reputation: though a fan of the distillery in a general sense, I have tried enough of their output to know that not all Maker’s is created equal. This is the newest entrant in the distillery’s “Wood Finishing Series;” I have previously considered the SE4 x PR5 and FAE-01 limited editions from years past. I liked the former but didn’t care much for the latter, nor was I a fan of the mainstay 46 expression, which was the first to employ the stave finishing process. So, I’m approaching this with due equanimity.
Price on this bottle (at least the one my wife brought home for me; love you, baby) was, mercifully, well below what one might expect to pay. SRP is $60, though the wonderful folks at Costco saw fit to let this go for $52. That puts this perhaps a notch above a bar staple but – compared to the rest of the batshit crazy bourbon market of this foul year of our Lord, 2022 – it’s practically a bottom-shelfer.
OK, fine, the words “Limited Release” appear on this bottle. However, Maker’s limited editions still don’t have the cachet (I mean this in a good way) of the similarly-monikered output of their Kentucky neighbors. As evinced by the fact that there were dozens of bottles of this sitting on the orange steel shelf at Costco, the tater batsignal had clearly not been illuminated on news of this expression’s availability.
To round out my checklist, let’s consider the packaging: this has the customary Maker’s red wax dripping down the same bottle shape as in prior iterations of this series. The label is a bit more eye-catching than normal, in a dark hue of goldenrod, but that’s about all I have to tell you. It’s got clean, elegant minimalism to it, not the sort of baroque exuberance that we’ve seen elsewhere.
Free of preconceptions as I am, I’m now at liberty to consider the actual substantive contents of this bottle. So, what am I working with?
The “BR” in the name refers to “barrel rotation,” the process by which barrels are moved (by hand) through the Maker’s Mark rickhouses. The “T” is for “temperature,” and each bottling is “inspired by the tasting notes” from a different part of the rickhouse. BRT-01 references the higher, hotter floors; BRT-02, the subject of today’s review, expresses flavors from the lower, cooler parts of the rickhouse.
Note that Maker’s was careful not to say that the component barrels in these expressions are actually from different parts of the rickhouses. With reference to BRT-02 specifically, Maker’s official site for the expressions has this to say:
“To achieve the taste of Maker’s Mark, we’ve always hand-rotated our barrels from the top to the bottom of our rickhouse. This equal exposure to temperatures gives each barrel the consistent flavors Maker’s Mark is known for. BRT-02 is inspired by the cooler bottom of the rickhouse and uses French oak staves to dial up the flavors developed over its final years of reaction.”
As you will know from my asking, begging, and pleading in this forum (as well as others), all I really want from Maker’s Mark is a single barrel at barrel strength, with an age statement and as much identifying information about rickhouse name and position as they can provide. I get that the distillery’s reputation is built on consistency, and indeed I love that about their mainstay bourbon and Cask Strength expressions.
But think about it this way: Wild Tukey, Four Roses, Heaven Hill, and other established distilleries produce fantastic (and fantastically consistent) core expressions that reliably deliver a dependable flavor profile. Allowing off-profile barrels (or, in the case of Four Roses, recipe codes not available in isolation elsewhere) into their barrel pick programs doesn’t diminish that in the least. On the contrary, I’d say that my appreciation of the blender’s art has been enhanced by being able to personally taste exactly how much divergence there can be between barrels.
Maker’s has permitted anyone doing a barrel pick to come around and choose their own bespoke combinationof finishing staves, which have resulted in more or less successful whiskys. Was this variation due to the acumen of those choosing the stave recipe, the quality of the respective barrels, being finished, the vicissitudes of fortune, or some lucky (or unlucky) combination thereof? We’ll never know so long as we’re unable to try unfinished single barrels; I doubt my prospective cheeky request for a proprietary recipe of “zero staves of any type” would be greeted kindly by the folks that administer Maker’s Private Select program.
Again, though, I’m setting all that aside. I’ve got the mildest of positive predispositions toward the whisky I’m about to review. A final note: this comes to us at “cask strength” of 109.4 proof (54.7% ABV). Let’s go!
Maker’s Mark BRT-02 – Review
Color: An almost luminous golden brownish-orange.
On the nose: This is very layered. A wispy cloud of oaky vanilla wafts from the glass a topnote. Just underneath this are tart stone fruit aromas of underripe peach; descending a level further, I pick up more sharply mineralic notes of limestone. The base of this is comprised of the most delectable smelling caramelized brown sugar notes. I’m fascinated by how each plane or stratum of this is so clearly delineated.
In the mouth: This starts out with a soft fruitiness that is quintessentially Maker’s in character. I get a delicious note of candied cherry that carries the whisky up the tongue, where it gradually morphs into an echo of the nose’s stoniness. On the sides of the tongue and the cheeks, however, I sense a reprise of those superb brown sugar notes. In the middle of the palate there’s a heat that starts to radiate across the roof of the mouth, at which point the whiskey takes on more of a woody cast. These spicy and woody notes are held in balance through the finish, adding some textural nuance without ever becoming overwhelming or bitter. That tart stone fruit once again makes a return in the form of a lingering aftertaste, where they are married to more piquant notes of ground cinnamon and cracked black pepper.
Surprising in the best of ways, this struck a deft balance between being identifiably a Maker’s Mark whisky (that first sip felt like a homecoming) while differing noticeably from any Maker’s that I have ever tried. The clarity with which each of the four layers of the nose expressed themselves is brand new to me; usually aromas so sharply demarcated are off-putting to me, but this whiskey pulled the act off with aplomb. I love the symmetry between the nose and the palate as well. This is not a perfect whisky, but it develops in an intriguing way from beginning to end, thus I am awarding it a score corresponding to “superb” on our price-sensitive scoring bands.
If you’re a Maker’s superfan, or a Maker’s fan like me (with a generally positive impression but a mixed record of liking and disliking Maker’s in its various incarnations), or just a fan of tasty bourbon, I can strongly recommend this expression. I don’t know how it performs relative to BRT-01, nor whether this is an accurate representation of the flavor development in the lower parts of the Maker’s rickhouses… and I don’t really care. It’s a very good whisky at SRP (or below) that I look forward to enjoying repeatedly and sharing with others… free of pressure, of course.
Photo of the two bottles courtesy of Maker’s Mark. Lead photo author’s own.