July 2010

A New Mark for Maker's

By: Fred Minnick

As Kevin Smith grabs the shiny new bottle of Maker's 46, there's a quiet confidence radiating off his warm smile. He pours a taste, intently looks at the light brown spirit, brings it to the nose, closes his eyes and for a second, he contemplates and takes a sip.
Maker's Mark Master Distiller Kevin Smith with new Maker's 46. PHOTO: FRED MINNICK
"Boy, that is something," he says.

You might say Smith is proud to be the Master Distiller overseeing and co-creating Maker's Mark's first new product in more than 50 years. Or, you might conclude he's relieved the bourbon is, well, to be put bluntly, good. "My fear was, what if we create New Coke?" Smith says.

That is a question Smith no longer worries about. But in their experimentation to create something new, to answer the great demand from consumers, whiskey writers and bartenders, they created 125 different types of new Maker's. Almost all were absolute failures.

"We thought if we can throw the stuff in a bottle to sell to whiskey geeks and in our gift shops, the experiment will go away," Smith says. "We didn't know we had anything."

But they did have something. And on July 1, Maker's will release 25,000 Maker's 46 cases to the world, with a second release of 15,000 cases in the fall. The average retail price will be $34.99 a bottle, a modest amount for a bourbon that will no doubt be an international sensation among mixologists and whiskey enthusiasts.

Something New

Smith and Bill Samuels Jr. were always hearing, "When are you going to come out with something new?" Consumers have told them that they like the spicy notes of older whiskeys, and some have even said their palate had outgrown Maker's, albeit they like the signature flavor of the original classic. Even those in the industry were putting on the pressure: "Everybody else is doing something new. Why aren't you?"

"We've always said we wouldn't do something just because everybody else is doing it. But it was when the consumers started coming to us and saying they have been trying these new rye whiskeys-and liking them because of the bite and spice-that we decided to try something new," Smith says.

So, Smith and Samuels sat down, thought, debated and threw around ideas for weeks. How would they get that spice? Single barrel? Add rye? "Bill would say, 'Smith, focus!' because I kept shooting arrows to see if something would hit," Smith says.

And that's when it hit them: Instead of focusing on the how, they shot for the taste-just like Bill Samuels Sr. did with the original Maker's Mark.

In the 1950s, Samuels Sr. wanted to create a bourbon whose aroma could be taken in the aroma and tasted. "There have been spirits that I've smelled and felt like I needed to put a crash helmet on before I could throw it back," Smith says. "That's not what we wanted to create; we wanted that forward finish Bill's dad created."

They wanted to take the rich Maker's Mark notes, amplify them and give a woodier nose without the burnt smoky flavor, to take the caramel Maker's notes and add more alcohol for a longer finish.
On the first day of bottling, new Maker's 46 is dipped into Maker's Mark's signature red wax.

With the taste well in the tradition of the Samuels forward finish, the how had to be determined. "Bourbons with more rye have more spice. Maker's, using wheat, has that more forward, sweet aroma and flavor. If you use wood, to bring out tannic flavor, all that is back palate. We wanted to focus on that forward finish," Smith says.

The first revelation of the how was that they would not change the mash; they would start with original Maker's Mark. That in itself is groundbreaking. But as Samuels remembers asking: "Now what do we do?"

The Wood Chef

Smith knew they could not get their intended flavor without Independent Stave Company, Maker's Mark's cooperage since the beginning. Smith says Brad Boswell, President of Independent, was like a kid in a candy store when approached about the opportunity.

A special barrel regime and extra aging distinguish Maker's 46. PHOTO: FRED MINNICK 
"They had a very clear vision of what they wanted it to taste like," Boswell says. To produce the longer finish with the caramel notes, he experimented with more than a hundred wood profiles. The winner was a profile called Maker's 46, from which the product is named. The French white oak staves are aged and seasoned for 18 months and seared until they almost catch on fire.

"We knew it would take some time for the aroma and flavors to come together," Boswell says. "What we wanted to do is create certain flavors in the wood like you would with a steak: You want to sear the outside, trap all the good flavors inside and not cook them out. But you still get the complexity with good meat flavors. We did the same thing with staves; we created a nice wood vanilla on the outside and trapped in all the good flavors on the inside."

The Maker's warehouse workers dump the original Maker's from barrels, place the seared French oak staves inside, refill it with bourbon, seal it and store them. A few months later, Maker's 46 is ready for bottling.

From first indications, Maker's 46 will be a huge success. Bloggers, whiskey writers and even cigar enthusiasts have come out saying Maker's 46 was worth the wait. After Maker's sent out sample bottles to the press and bloggers, many called the distillery requesting another test lab sample, saying they didn't want to open their bottle and hoped to keep their sample in pristine condition.

Rightly, they wanted to hold onto a piece of bourbon history—a history that starts and finishes on the front of your palate. Just like Mr. Samuels wanted. 
Maker's 14 joins the original Maker's Mark as the company's first new product in more than 50 years. PHOTO: FRED MINNICK

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