Like a lot of bourbon drinkers, I retain a series of ill-informed impressions about various brands based largely on my first experiences with them, and what I had around the house a regrettably long time ago.
Accordingly, my earliest impressions of Maker’s were driven primarily by quaffing it in mint juleps. During my intense neurotic cocktail fixation, I learned something very critical about cocktails with spirits aged in wood: the colder the drink, the more intense the perception of tannin astringency. Compared to a lot of other aged spirits that are compatible with cold temperatures, Maker’s is a relatively mature whiskey. Unlike, for example, the Russell’s Reserve bourbon expressions or Eagle Rare, Maker’s holds up well in very chilled drinks.
I generally suspect that what drives Maker’s to work so well in cold whiskey cocktails is twofold. First, Maker’s wheated mash bill plays pretty well with more subtle adjoining flavors, such as very gently expressed fresh mint oils. Second, Maker’s is one of the only large brands that still rotates their barrels throughout the rickhouse to avoid some getting too much time in the barrel on the top levels and too little on the bottom. It is a system that was more widely used before the contemporary era and has been abandoned by many of the larger older distilleries for both cost and safety reasons. Rotating barrels probably better regulates tannins better than blending oak-forward bourbon from the top of the rickhouse with less oaky bourbon from lower floors, a common practice today.
The benefits of base Maker’s in cocktails were the same things I considered flaws when consumed neat: it was too thin and too gentle for my palate. This may be a byproduct of enjoying young pot still rums and broadly preferring solvent-forward French grape brandies, but I like bourbon to be bold and aggressive (albeit without heavy tannins). Bourbon is America’s spirit, after all, and it might as well taste loud.
Nonetheless, after a long hiatus, I wanted to revisit Maker’s base and mid-shelf offerings in the spirit of continuing to emphasize availability for reviews. Along with other Suntory-Beam bourbons, Maker’s is not only ubiquitous in the United States, but also widely available in many foreign markets. We are in the U.S. holiday season so it feels apropos to kick it off with something to take the edge off cramming a lot of family together during flu season that is also available just about everywhere.
Maker’s Mark – Review
90 proof (45% ABV). Widely available in the D.C. Metropolitan Area for $29.
On the nose: Fresh rye bread, butterscotch, green apple, lavender with a touch of jasmine, baking spice, young parm (that fruity and nutty smell from honest-to-God Parmigiano Reggiano), and Calvados notes blend harmoniously together, though it does require effort to pull the nose out of the glass.
In the mouth: A relatively uniform – if not particularly distinctive – flavor from the front of the palate to the finish, with the aforementioned moderately thin texture. Green apple and fresh cut wheatgrass at the front of the palate and middle of the tongue with very light leather and allspice. Raspberry in the midpalate into the finish. Transitioning into the finish, the tannins are more present than the seeming youth of the flavor notes, but they occupy a category of tannin closer to wine than oak bomb whiskey. The finish holds that raspberry, but is also joined by gentle baking spice, walnut, and marmalade. The whole pour drinks evenly from start to finish, with no specific moments of crescendo or decrescendo, but the finish lasts a bit longer than the average pour in its price range.
Underpowered and balanced. This was actually a tough one to evaluate, because this is one of those instances where individual preferences affect scoring pretty dramatically. In a fight between a more brash but less balanced bourbon and a muted but perfectly balanced pour, I’ll go with door number one. That said, I would not fault anyone for thinking more highly of Maker’s entry level offering than I. If you’re looking for something very balanced and level in the sub-$30 range, you can hardly do better. If you’re looking for something bold and assertive, you may not find this to be a good fit.
Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Batch 23-02
109.6 proof (54.8% ABV). Widely available in the D.C. Metropolitan Area for $50.
On the nose: Iron, crème brûlée caramel, and that raspberry flavor from the entry level Maker’s is back, alongside toasted sweet orange peels, and deep tanned leather. Fresh unenriched white bread becomes more prominent alongside blackberry when a few drops of water are added. There’s a youthfulness that is apparent in both this and the base Maker’s, which in this cask strength release primarily manifests as fresh grits or sweet cornbread. For those who like youthful bourbon, these incorporate very well into the broader aromas.
In the mouth: The nose, with the exception of the berry and raw grain notes, is completely different from the Maker’s entry offering. The palate, however, tastes like a less balanced and amped up version of the more toned-down regular blend with a delightfully rich maple syrupy texture. The astringency is rather high despite youthful flavors, and it drinks very hot even when diluted. There isn’t a lot of definition to the flavors, but this is not necessarily a flaw. A few more drops of water really open it up, bringing additional flavors of bread pudding, cannoli, shortbread, toffee, blackberry, dark chocolate, and rye bread. Into the finish, one can find toasted steel cut oats, marzipan, dark chocolate, and dark tanned leather. All of this is bold and bright across the palate pushing hard and level into the finish.
This is the first pour I have had in years that dramatically improves with water, and I never know how to approach bottles that need water from a recommendation standpoint. Despite this caveat, I would score this alongside some of my favorite sub-$100 Wild Turkey releases once diluted a bit. This definitely favors brashness over flavor balance, but this is a personal bias I am happy to embrace. At $50 in my area, this release is a steal compared to a lot of the much lower quality material on the market in the same price range.
My recommendation, if the $20-$30 marginal price increase from the base offering isn’t prohibitive: bump up from the entry-level Maker’s offering if you like bourbon with a bit of punch. There aren’t a lot of affordable and mature 100+ proof wheated bourbons left on the market, and Maker’s Cask Strength is absolutely worth taking the chance despite some of the batch variations. I share Taylor’s score of Maker’s Cask Strength Batch 23-01 for Batch 23-02.