The Bourbon Trail (5 of 6): Maker’s Mark
Note: For brevity’s sake, I’m going to breeze over some of the finer points of distillation, as I’ve already written about them in part 1. For a more thorough breakdown of the bourbon process from grain to bottle, click here, or just type your question in the comments.
Distillery: Maker’s Mark
Location: Loretto, Kentucky
Owned By: Beam, Inc. (formerly Fortune Brands), since 2005
Major Products produced: Maker’s Mark; Maker’s 46.
Origin: Since 1954
The Maker’s Mark distillery sits in Loretto, Kentucky, a town generously described as “remote,” which means that there’s a 30-minute layer of Nothing insulating it on every direction. While Bardstown and Frankfort aren’t exactly cosmopolitan, one could at least find, say, a cup of coffee at noon on a Wednesday. Not so much in Loretto, population 662. Loretto’s the kind of place you have to pack for.
All the same, Maker’s Mark is a tremendously popular destination, and practically a necessity for anyone on a serious bourbon pilgrimage. I don’t have any special fondness for their bourbon, but we decided early that we had to go, for two reasons: (1) they have been singularly successful in carving out a status as a “premium” spirit, and it’s equally interesting and informative to see how they represent themselves, and (2) it’s big, and people call for it, and as a professional I want to know how it’s made.
On paper, they draw a number of comparisons with Woodford Reserve. Both put out essentially one product (both with one barrel finished product newly debuted), both ferment in cypress wood tanks instead of stainless steel, both are relatively small and yet both are owned by titanic corporations. Both have a similar price point and are direct competitors with one another. And yet everything about them, from the tour to the bourbon itself, couldn’t be more different. While Woodford keeps the cold sterility of a museum, Maker’s Mark affects a manufactured charm, a bit gaudy in it’s quaintness, and as such reminds one of some kind of Bourbon Disneyland.
That being said, the tour was one of the best we had, in part because we had a kickass tour guide, and in part because as it turns out, Maker’s Mark isn’t just a pretty face. While it may not be my personal taste, no one could say it’s not well made. If for no other reason, I’m glad I went because I left considerably more impressed with their product than I was when I arrived.
Maker’s is a “wheated” bourbon. To explain: pretty much all bourbon will have 3 grains — corn, a bit of malted barley, and a third, “flavoring” grain. Most distillers will use rye for its drying spice, but a few (W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, the whole Van Winkle line, and Maker’s Mark) use the smoother, sweeter wheat, yielding a smoother, sweeter product. Personally, I feel like the lack of spice makes Maker’s Mark a bit flat, but for people who think that smoothness equals quality (and have only had Jim Beam), it must taste like deliverance.
In any event, the good people at Maker’s Mark are more than happy to tell you their mashbill: 70% corn, 16% winter wheat, 14% barley. While most distilleries grind these into a fine powder with a hammer mill, Maker’s uses something called a roller mill, which grinds to a coarser grain, the type usually used by breweries rather than distilleries. This is more difficult to extract the sugars, but they believe not pulverizing the grain yields a smoother product.
They cook the corn at boiling temperatures, then lower the heat to 160° and add the wheat, then lower again to 150° before adding the barley. All told, cooking takes about 3 hours before it’s shipped off to the fermentation tanks.
They ferment their thick cereal mash to 10% ABV over about 3 days. They too roll with a handsome set of six cypress wood tanks, cypress used for its inert, water resistant grains. These tanks are relatively small, about 9600 gallons — again surprising me by actually earning the “artisan” title their marketing department tries so hard to claim.
In close detail, not only does it look like a living cerebal cortex (which is awesome), but you can actually see the coarse grains percolating in the foam. Obviously you can’t tell in still frame, but the surface is constantly teeming and crawling while the yeast works its beautiful magic.
Pretty much everything happens under one smallish roof, and the distillation room doubles as the foyer of what feels like a gilded bourbon cabin. From their 10% distiller’s beer, they first pump it through a copper column still up to 120 proof, then into a pot “doubler” still to 130 proof, which is, in terms of proof, on the medium-low side. To their credit, they don’t distill as high as they are legally allowed (159 proof), missing an opportunity for smoothness but keeping more flavor instead.
Their spirit safe (where the whiskey is held) is a couple of large copper tubs. They’ll get about 1000 gallons of alcohol out of each fermentation tank, which they water down to 110 proof (also lower than the legal maximum of 125, for reasons that were never explained) and rolled into the aging warehouses.
We were hungry, and didn’t care to see our 5th aging warehouse in something like 28 hours, mostly because they all look exactly the same. They have 26 warehouses. Enough said.
To not be robbed of the chance to genuflect at wooden circles, we were shown to a barrel full of staves (below), in order to illustrate the story of Maker’s 46. Both products, apparently, start exactly the same. Both are aged in a heavily charred barrel (#3 char) for at least 5 years and 9 months, at which point they’re tasted for the first time. The late bloomers might need as long as 9 years, and if a whiskey is aging too slowly, or too quickly for that matter, they’ll shuffle barrels around on different floors, a process that happens once every three years. Once it’s ready — if it’s going to be Maker’s Mark — that’s it. It’s batched and bottled.
Maker’s 46 takes a slightly more circuitous path to bottle. The mature whiskey is kept in the barrel, to which are added are 10 barrel staves of new, seared French oak. It gets an extra 2.5 to 3 months of what’s called “finishing” like this before bottling.
As for the name. It does not, as I had previously believed, refer to the alcohol percentage, as Maker’s 46 is actually 47% alcohol. The number 46 refers to the 46th page of the experiment notebook, where they finally figured out how to get the flavor they were after. A ha.
The bottling line is like a relief sculpture: one long, linear process with a worn groove on the floor denoting the path for their 100,000 yearly visitors. It’s mostly women on the line, with the expressionless efficiency of workers who’ve long ago accepted that getting photographed by total strangers, once an hour, every single fucking day, is just another annoying thing about their job.
As for the famous wax, every bottle really is hand dipped. They dip, then twist, then put back on the line as the wax drips down. The bottles are then immediately conveyed just past dipper #2, out of frame left, into a little enclosure that looks like an expensive doll house, a cooling hut where the wax solidifies. I have no excuse for missing a picture of this. Forgive me.
EDIT 8/8/12: The talented Alex Scott just did the tour and sent me a picture of the cooling hut. Thanks!:
Like I said, Maker’s Mark has never been my taste. I’m not against wheated bourbons, it’s just something about Maker’s in particular that tastes flat to me. Its got spice on the nose but the taste is sweet smoothness, a hint of caramel and butterscotch, and not a terribly long finish.
I was however pleasantly surprised by the Maker’s 46; it’s their first new product in 50 years and you can tell why they chose it. Apparently, Rob Samuels had an idea of how he wanted his new product to go, and tried a bunch of things until it hit. The barrel staves introduce much more spice and color; the nose is all butterscotch and that’s confirmed in taste along with some of that missing spice and some interesting heat before moving back into that familiar sweetness. More oak means more spice but also more sweetness, and it does risk being too sweet… but all the same, I’d take Maker’s 46 over Maker’s Mark 9 times out of 10.