The final stop on my recent Bardstown tour saw us take a winding hilly road into Loretto, Kentucky to Star Hill Farm… aka the home of Maker’s Mark. Minor spoiler alert: even if you aren’t a big bourbon drinker, it’s worth a stop to this distillery just to visit the absolutely gorgeous grounds. I was so impressed by my visit that I not only grabbed a bottle of Maker’s Mark 46 there, but I also came home and locally grabbed this bottle of Maker’s Mark Private Selection.
Maker’s Mark puts on a great tour and just like all of the other distilleries I visited on this trip, I took a bottle home. However, it was a bottle of Maker’s 46, which we’ve previously reviewed (I just wanted to indulge in one of the highlights of the gift shop and dip my own bottle in the signature red wax).
But I came home and also picked up today’s review: a bottle of Maker’s Mark Private Selection – a new offering – that was bottled for Jewel Osco (a Chicago grocery store chain).
Maker’s Mark was born in 1953 when T. William “Bill” Sanders Sr. purchased the historic Burk’s Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky for the princely sum of $35,000. Five years later, the first batch of bourbon was finally bottled and the spirit has been flowing ever since.
Sanders Sr. was an engineer through and through, and wanted to ensure that every bottle of Maker’s Mark has the same flavor. His wife Margie was the visionary behind the bottle, label, name, and signature red wax. This was constant for years, until Bill Jr. took over the family business.
Bill Jr. introduced stave finishing into the process, which brought us the 46 product — and more importantly, this Private Selection product. (We will talk more about that process in the product section.)
The distillery and its associated brand were sold in 1981 to Hiram Walker & Sons, starting a long line of acquisitions which eventually ended in their current position with Beam Suntory in 2011. Beam Suntory is the third largest manufacturer of alcoholic beverages, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois (with the holding company located in Osaka, Japan).
- Learn More: What Is Bourbon Whiskey?
Maker’s Mark is interesting among bourbons in that there’s no rye included in the mix of grains. The requisite amount of corn (70%) is present along with the typical malted barley (14%), but what makes up the remainder of the mix is actually wheat (16%). It’s said that Bill Sr. didn’t have enough time to distill and age each batch to pick a “winner” for his new production line, so instead he made a loaf of bread from each and decided based on which one tasted better. If true, that does give the wheat content more logical reason.
The grains are fermented using some of the previous batch to kick-start the fermentation process, so the yeast fermenting the current batch of Maker’s Mark is always a distant relative of the Maker’s Mark of days gone by. Batches are kept rather small to make sure that the quality can be better controlled.
Once distilled, the spirit is aged in charred oak barrels for around six years — but there’s no specific time listed on the bottle because the distillers bottle the bourbon “when it’s ready”, whenever that might be. Something else unique for the aging process is that the barrels are regularly rotated by hand from the top of the warehouse (where the temperatures vary much more throughout the day) to the bottom (where temperatures are more stable), which makes for a more consistent batch.
The distillers taste barrels much more frequently than many other distilleries — so much so, they use a walnut bung in the barrel instead of the more popular poplar. Poplar is a more porous wood, so soaks up more of the distillate and expands to form a tighter seal. The walnut bung is not as porous, and can be easily popped out of the bung hole with a firm strike from a hammer. But this does require them to have a very meticulous 11 – 1 o’clock rule to ensure the bung is always pointed upwards in the rickhouse to prevent a leaky bung from unexpectedly emptying a barrel.
Introduced in 2010, Maker’s Mark 46 was the first new variant produced by the distillery since it opened. It starts off life as a typical barrel of Maker’s Mark, but then gets a little extra special sauce: some additional finishing with some charred French oak. The Private Selection takes this a step further. The private buyer (usually a distributor barrel select or restaurant) will select a unique combination of 10 staves of wood to be formed into a new barrel to mature their specific whiskey instead of only French oak.
The Jewel-Osco grocery store chain chose the stave profile for this bottle, “Sweet Kentucky Memories”: three baked American pure, one seared French cuvee, five Maker’s Mark 46, zero roasted French mendiant, and one toasted French spice. According to Maker’s Mark, there are 1,001 different stave profile combinations (and no, I did not do the math to verify this). Once the staves are added, the barrel is moved to a cellar rickhouse for some additional aging.
The original Maker’s Mark bottle is a variant of a French cognac bottle, with a bulbous base and a long slender neck. The Private Selection variation of Maker’s Mark is a departure from that mold in an unfortunate way, in that it’s much closer to a traditional bourbon bottle. There’s a round body, gently curved shoulder, and short neck topped by a cork stopper. The whole neck is hand-dipped and sealed in the iconic Maker’s Mark red wax.
The Maker’s Mark 46 bottle is relatively label free and the majority of the bottle is open clear glass, which highlights the deep amber bourbon inside. But these Private Selection bottles each have a large obnoxious label on the front highlighting the stave profile. I get that this is the whole jam of the private selection — this special combination of wood to change the flavor — but it just takes away from the aesthetic for me.
We start with a sweet aroma with a very non-descript richness alongside an underlying peppery nose of a barrel strength bourbon. Imagine smelling a pecan pie that has a little more gooey filling than normal… but that pie has also been soaked in neutral grain alcohol. It’s surprising how robust this is, considering that the base Maker’s Mark product is generally considered pretty mellow.
The flavor, luckily, does not have the same strong peppery notes. The pecan pie flavors continue here: rich brown sugar, vanilla, and toasted pecans. There are also some additional flavors present, most notably green apple and some mellow oakyness. The finish gives you the same burn that was so prevalent on the nose, which seems to track with the proof of this spirit.
It all works pretty well, but does not stand out significantly from the normal Maker’s Mark 46 product. I suspect it is from the fact that 50% of the staves used in this finishing process are also used in that finishing, and it will be interesting to see how similar they are in the other evaluation methods.
It was time to try this on the rocks, so I poured another glass and added my large sphere to the mix. The flavors here seem to be a little more muted, but not overly muted. The pecan pie is still there, but this time it’s a more balanced ratio of nuts to pie filling, and the alcohol burn is much more mild.
The primary flavors are more in balance, but the same cannot be said for the green apple or oak. They are almost completely erased — if I had not been specifically searching for them, it would be easy to overlook those flavors.
If I had to choose, I would prefer this neat. Yes, you have more of a burning sensation (just a friendly reminder from your barrel strength bourbon to sip slowly), but when you add ice you lose out on some of the more delicate flavors leaving you with a more one dimensional sip.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
I love a great old fashioned, and this makes a great old fashioned. The rich pecan pie flavors of the bourbon are a perfect thruple with the angostura bitters and orange. The sugar adds just the right amount of sweetness to keep everything in balance.
The only note I have is that the spicy finish is still there, which is the only knock against this cocktail. (That, and at 54% alcohol, you have you pace yourself.)
This is just okay in my book. Sure, the bourbon has enough flavor to keep the bright ginger beer at bay… but there is just something missing. I think it’s that the more rich and complex bourbon flavors are so subdued, this could be any bottle of Maker’s Mark.
Which might be the problem. I think an extra spicy note from some rye could have added to the overall profile and resulted in a more distinctive drink here. But I generally do not like a wheated bourbon in a Kentucky Mule, and this is no different.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad drink — it just falls a little short for me.
1,001 different stave combinations… and my bottle resembles Maker’s Mark 46. It’s hard to say that paying twice as much for a similar flavor profile is worth it.
That said, there are 1,000 different potential flavor profiles out in the universe. One that I tried on my tour was called “Toasted Marshmallow” with a stave combination: one baked American pure, one Maker’s Mark 46, seven roasted French mendiant, and one toasted French spice. It had a lot of added sweetness from the mendiant and a lot of additional toasted notes – it made me want to sit by a campfire with some graham crackers and chocolate. So not all hope is lost on this new finishing process, I just got a little unlucky.
If you are a fan of Maker’s Mark bourbon, I am sure there is a stave combination out there for you. But for me, it’s hard to rate this particular bottle at the same level as Maker’s Mark 46.
|Makers Mark Private Selection
Kentucky, United States
Classification: Bourbon Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 54.2% ABV
Price: $79.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
1,001 different stave combinations means that you are playing the odds that you choose a good one.