It’s amazing what a fresh coat of paint can do.
At times, bourbon feels torn between tradition and innovation. If you ask the question “Why is a thing done this way?” about some aspect of the whisky production process, the answer – when not “Because the law says it has to be done that way” – is frequently “Because it’s always been done that way.” The industry is hidebound, with master distillers inheriting the procedures and standards of their predecessors.
There are good reasons for this. Consistency is king when you’re trying to ensure that every bottle of a brand’s whisky tastes just like every other bottle. The economic stakes are so high, the risks so great, that it doesn’t pay to mess with the formula. To paraphrase Keynes: it feels as though the industry would rather produce boring whisky conventionally than to produce interesting whisky unconventionally.
There’s a tension, though, in that consumers are addicted to novelty. While some may be content to have the same old standby bottle on their shelf year in and year out, there’s another part of the whisky enthusiast community that is constantly in search of a newer, shinier toy. How, then, might an established distillery attract this segment of the population without altering the whisky in the bottle or alienating their core fan base?
Changing the packaging of the whisky is a method to keep bottles looking fresh without making any substantive changes to their contents. I’ve noticed recent tweaks to the design of labels from Heaven Hill and Wild Turkey, among others. Though Evan Williams Bottled in Bond remains the same old budget-friendly standby, the label now looks more sleek. The bold graphic design of the Russell’s Reserve bottles continues to improve on an already rock-solid brand identity. Again, this doesn’t change the experience of actually drinking the stuff, but does create added shelf appeal that might attract a new customer.
In this vein, Maker’s Mark recently refreshed the labels for some of their range. One of the biggest changes was to the presentation of the 46 expression. You can compare the two bottles:
Gone is the tall, elegant bottle with gracefully sloping shoulders, having been replaced with the more squat and square bottle that is synonymous with Maker’s Mark. “Stave Profile No. 46” is now “Bill’s Recipe No 46”. The verbiage around the finishing process has the adjective “virgin” added before “French oak staves.” This is further emphasized with the addition of “FRENCH OAKED” in a bold, eye-catching gold leaf.
Though I consider myself mostly attentive to details, it’s hard to keep up with the finer points of every re-brand or label design change. So, when a follower on Twitter site snapped a photo of the new 46 Cask Strength bottle and asked if I had tried it, I responded in the negative. I was also intrigued, and resolved to pick up a bottle as soon as I saw it.
Longtime readers of this site will be well aware of my fondness for Maker’s Mark. Their mainstay expression is a reliable go-to, being widely available and always delivering good quality for the comparatively modest price. However, it’s the Cask Strength variant that really tickles my fancy, so much so that I once wrote a marathon review of 14 of the batches.
That’s not to say that everything released by Maker’s hits the spot for me. I didn’t think that the 101 proof release delivered the goods, nor did I think that there was enough consistency across the Wood Finishing Series to justify the premium prices (though the good ones were very good, indeed). Most germane to this review is the 46 expression, which I found to suffer (rather than benefit from) the stave finishing process.
The bottle I’ll be trying today, as it turns out, is just the old 46 Cask Strength, itself a limited edition that periodically appeared on shelves. Curiously, I have owned a bottle of this in the past, but donated it to a charity auction before I was ever able to taste it. Thus, while not completely novel to Maker’s fan, this expression is at least new to me. I therefore answered truthfully when I responded that I had never tried it. I’ll remedy that omission in a few minutes; first, though, a note about my relationship to wood:
Something I’ve learned about myself over the course of my whisky journey is that I have what seems like an above-average sensitivity to wood influence. I like my bourbons plump and fruity, with balancing notes of stone and wood. However, this latter element can often overwhelm the distillate, with the result leaving me feeling like I’ve been sucking on a stave. I get that others have a higher tolerance; for example, the Elijah Craig 18 Year Old has a legion of fans, though I found it catastrophically over-oaked. Feel free to discount my notes according to your own tastes.
So, with that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get into the specifics of the bottle at hand. This is batch 23-01, bottled at 110.3 proof (55.15% ABV). I paid $70 for this bottle, a slight premium to the SRP of $65.
Maker’s Mark 46 Cask Strength Batch 23-01 – Review
Color: Golden orange-brown.
On the nose: Classic Maker’s cherry notes, albeit in a dustier form, with an accent reminiscent of old, dry leather. There’s a sweet note of iced tea in here, as well as the lighter, sweeter scent of confectioners’ sugar, and a subtly herbal whiff of tarragon. Some time in the glass reveals a polished nuttiness. There’s also a heady, lingering note of acetone, nodding toward the comparatively high ABV.
In the mouth: Starts with a kiss of tart cherry that is a pure delight. This falls mostly silent as it moves toward midpalate, where a thin texture combines with a shrill and tannic woodiness. The whisky recovers its poise soon enough, however, as a toasty, roasty flavor carries this toward the finish. Here, the whisky once again quiets down and leans out, with a fading flavor and a drying texture of limestone. That astringent woody note lingers with a slight bitterness that creeps around the mouth.
This is wonderful during the fruity parts on the nose and in the mouth, and I love the other diverse aromatic accents that I’m getting as I sniff this. A promising start on the palate was quickly overtaken by the wood influence, though it’s not the worst example I’ve ever tasted. Had this maintained its initial body, the balance would have been better.
How to score this? It’s above average (though far from perfect) whisky, carrying a premium price relative to the standard Maker’s Cask Strength bottling, on which it is not necessarily an improvement. In total, I feel as though a score in the middle of the range is most appropriate.
Say what you want about Maker’s Mark, but they remain a go-to source of high quality whisky at prices that look increasingly attractive compared to the rest of the bourbon landscape. I’m glad that they experiment a bit, even if the results don’t always suit my tastes. Given the low cash outlay and the generally positive risk/reward skew across the range, I can confidently say that I’ll continue to pick up whatever they come out with at least once, regardless of how it is labeled.