What brings you back?
If you taste whisky broadly and deeply – as I do – then you’ll occasionally make note of a bottle that grabs your attention. Maybe it is especially excellent. Maybe it has an aromatic or flavor profile that is unique. Maybe (less frequently of late, but not never) it offers superb value for money. Whatever the reason, this is a whisky that you just can’t get enough of.
In my reviews, I’ll sometimes say “I fully intend to get another bottle of this,” or some variation thereupon. The amount of times I follow through on that promise is a fraction of the amount of times I make it. It’s not that I’m not earnest; each time I say it, I truly mean it, at least in that moment. So, what gets in the way of procuring another bottle?
The simplest (and therefore, likely correct) answer is “ADHD,” of the peculiar variety that affects whisky lovers. There’s always a new release from the established brands, not to mention the many craft distilleries or upstart NDP labels. It seems that not a day goes by when another unfamiliar bottle doesn’t pop up on the shelf. They’re mostly just OK, but you never know, right? The siren song of FOMO leads us to pass up any number of tried-and-true standbys in the (often misguided) hope of discovering something new and brilliant.
In my case (being a monkey that is constantly under pressure to dance for Malt’s demanding readership), reviewing the same expression repeatedly would fail to amuse the folks for whom I am writing. For sipping at home, I mostly stick to a handful of economical and easily procured expressions: Wild Turkey 101, Evan Williams Bottled in Bond, and the subject of today’s review (more on that in a moment). Were I to try to review each of these anew every time I cracked a bottle, I’d quickly bore the rest of you – and myself – to tears.
That said, I’ll sometimes go an uncharacteristically long time between snagging bottles of even my favorite expressions. I was reminded of this in the past week, when I noticed the B523 batch of Elijah Craig Barrel Proof on the shelf. I love this whiskey, I am never without it, and yet I have not bought a bottle in over two years. Stockpiling of prior batches is part of the explanation, but it’s not the whole story, particularly in the case of the whisky before me today.
Whenever someone asks me what bourbons they should try (with caveats about affordability and availability appended), I invariably revert to my “holy trinity”: the aforementioned Elijah Craig Barrel Proof, Wild Turkey Rare Breed, and Maker’s Mark Cask Strength. I’ve matured enough in my appreciation of bourbon (or, viewed in another light, become cynical enough) that, were I stranded on a desert island with only these three bottles handy, I wouldn’t feel like I was missing much.
However, the last batch of Maker’s Mark Cask Strength I tasted was batch 21-08, as part of my mega-vertical of this format. So, what has brought me back to good ol’ MMCS?
I have a trained assistant (my son) who has long been captivated by the irresistible tactile appeal of the red Maker’s wax seal. Ever since he was a toddler, stopping by the bourbon shelf on trips to the grocery store required a short break for him to fondle the drips. As he has grown, he has developed a keen eye for “Slam Dunk” bottles. For the uninitiated: these are bottles of Maker’s (typically Cask Strength or the standard bourbon in the 1 liter format) that have been dipped with a heavy hand. The wax that usually stops in the middle of the neck cascades down the shoulders of the bottle in an crimson tide.
Hunting for Slam Dunk bottles has become a little game between us, mostly to prolong his patient waiting during my interminable scrutiny of the whiskies on offer almost anywhere. Thus, while accompanying me on a trip to pick up some Campari, he excitedly exclaimed that he spied a Slam Dunk bottle. And oh, what a Slam Dunk bottle it is!
Greater poets than me would struggle to find the words to describe the majesty of this bottle. It’s as good an example of the Slam Dunk format as I have ever seen, with some of the tendrils of wax creeping almost to the base of the bottle. I gingerly placed it in the shopping cart (so as not to break off any of its appendages) and, for good measure, grabbed another non-Slam Dunk bottle from the same batch. It is this latter bottle which I have opened (the glorious aforementioned bottle is perched on a high shelf with others of its ilk) and will be reviewing for you today.
Final specifics: this comes to us at 110 proof (55% ABV). I paid $37 at my local. For whatever you want to say about Maker’s Mark’s foray into higher priced limited editions, the core of their range remains as affordable as ever.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Batch 23-01
Color: Medium-dark brownish orange.
On the nose: Brooding and dark to start, this has intense herbal aromatics, as well as a syrupy sweetness, offset by some forest floor aromas. Herbs de Provence and garrigue spring to mind, as well as molasses, maple syrup, eucalyptus, and camphor. Some time in the glass releases the scent of brandied cherries, as well as some bitumen. All these elements swirl around in what is probably the most intriguing nose I can remember on any Maker’s expression.
In the mouth: Totally different on the palate, this has the light sweetness of confectioners’ sugar, pavlova, and cherry ice cream at the front of the mouth. These are all very soft in texture, but the whisky becomes firmer as it moves toward the middle of the mouth, with a stoniness so drying as to almost be bitter. The cherries are the star of the show at midpalate, accented by more of the aforementioned creamy and sweet notes. This takes on a little astringency as it moves toward the finish, though this quickly balances out. It doesn’t maintain intensity for long, but the flavors do persist in a more gentle form, echoing faintly their appearances on the nose and in the front of the mouth. Not to sound like a broken record, but cherries again linger around the gums and cheeks, while a slightly peppery tingle prickles the tongue and the top of the mouth.
The surprising juxtaposition between nose and mouth had me counfounded at first. I was expecting the palate to be similarly anchored in the lower end of the flavor register, however I was astounded at the first sip. This quickly turned to relief as the body filled out. I began to appreciate the dichotomy of this, and the spectacular diversity of aromas and flavors it presented.
This is the alchemy of great whisky: the ability to take humble ingredients and a prescribed production process and turn it into a sensory kaleidoscope that challenges preconceptions. Best of all: this can be attained without venturing far, begging favors, or selling a kidney. In light of all this, I am comfortable scoring this “Superb” on our price-sensitive Scoring Bands.
It’s been too long since my return to Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, and I am upbraiding myself for it. Rest assured, though; no more shall I tarry before coming back to good ol’ MMCS. You’re welcome to join me anytime.