"If the new Maker's Mark bourbon is a success, it may prompt other American distillers to release more 'what-if' experiments."
Dedicated fans of American whiskey received some interesting news last week. As reported on What Does John Know? (the blog maintained by Malt Advocate publisher John Hansell) Maker's Mark is adding another whiskey to its lineup.
Maker's Mark already produces one of Kentucky's most popular bourbons, and the new whiskey will be identical to that sold in the iconic wax-dipped bottles, except the spirit will undergo a few months of additional aging in barrels that contain staves of toasted oak.
The process isn't new—a similar approach was employed several years ago by Compass Box for its Spice Tree vatted malt until the Scotch Whisky Association intervened and forced the producer to change its process. The practice of tweaking the final stage of the aging process to produce a different character in the spirit (I wrote about cask-finished spirits late last year) isn't new either.
But what is notable is that this practice is being undertaken on a bourbon; until recently, it seemed that most experimentation was taking place in Scotland with their distinctive single malts.
That's not to say that Maker's Mark is the first out of the gate of bourbon innovation. Over the past few years, Woodford Reserve has released several unique styles of bourbon as part of its Master's Collection, including a whiskey finished in Sonoma Cutrer barrels, as well as the most recent release of a bourbon aged in casks composed of extra-seasoned oak, which gives the whiskey a bombastic character of cocoa, spice and molasses.
And Buffalo Trace has an extensive series of experimental whiskies (though very limited in quantity and distribution) that tinker with almost every aspect of the spirit's production and aging.
These whiskies are similar to scotch single malts such as the annual releases from The Balvenie which have been finished in different types of barrels (the most recent release was finished in Madeira casks, which gives the Speyside malt a gorgeous, dates-and-honey character), or the line of innovatively finished whiskies from Murray McDavid, in that they're limited edition, get-it-before-it's-gone bottlings.
But according to Hansell, Maker's Mark aims to make this new bourbon a regular part of their product line, and if other distillers follow a similar path this could be a very exciting time for American whiskey.
While sales of bourbon and rye have blossomed over the past decade, there's been relatively little large-scale activity with these kinds of experiments, especially as compared to the variety of finishes and styles seen in the world of scotch whisky. If the new Maker's Mark bourbon is a success, it may prompt other American distillers to release more "what-if" experiments and perhaps expand their product lines as well.
It'll likely be a few more months before the new Maker's Mark appears in bars and liquor stores, and as curious as I am to try the new whiskey, I'm even more interested in what happens afterward.
Are you a fan of American whiskies? What kinds of innovations and experiments would you be interested to try?
About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.