"While the procedure is nothing new, the fact that it's being used with American whiskey is."
Back in January, I wrote that Maker's Mark, one of the biggest selling bourbons in the world, was preparing a new style of bourbon for a summer release. Well, in case the sweltering temperatures weren't enough of a clue, summer is here, and as of right now, so is the new Maker's Mark, dubbed Maker's '46'.
Maker's has been carefully preparing customers for the new bourbon, taking journalists (including myself) on tours of the distillery and showing them the production process, and providing samples of the whiskey to bartenders across the country. Which brings us to the main question: Does Maker's '46' live up to the hype?
What's So Special About It?
I'm a big fan of American whiskies, as well as an interested observer of what's going on in the spirits world, and the Maker's '46' appeals to me in a few ways. Conceptually, it's not a huge innovation—the new bourbon is identical to the regular Maker's, with the only difference being that after the whiskey has reached maturity and is drained from its charred oak barrels, staves of toasted French oak are inserted into the barrels and the whiskey goes back in for another few weeks of aging. Tweaking a spirit at the end of its maturing process is a standard technique with scotch whisky, and a near-identical technique to Maker's was briefly used several years ago by makers of Compass Box Spice Tree, a vatted scotch whisky, until the Scotch Whisky Association objected and forced Compass Box to change the finishing process.
But while the procedure is nothing new, the fact that it's being used with American whiskey is. Like scotch, the production and aging process for American whiskey is constrained by a very tight set of rules, and in the case of bourbon, these rules are defined under federal law. And this is where Maker's '46' gets interesting.
Thanks to these rules as well as to a prevailing attitude among bourbon distillers, relatively little innovation made its way into the bourbon marketplace until only very recently. Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve have led the way with experimental whiskies, but when a major brand such as Maker's Mark starts to tinker with the aging process and pushing the boundaries (without overstepping them) of what defines bourbon, I think it can be taken as a sign of possibly big and hopefully interesting new things to come.
Not a Collector's Whiskey
And in this case, size does matter. The experimental and cask-finished whiskies from Buffalo Trace and Woodford Reserve have typically been small-scale releases or limited editions, appealing in large part to bourbon connoisseurs and whiskey collectors, with a suitably hefty price. Maker's '46' is not a collector's whiskey; it's a bourbon-drinker's whiskey, with a wide-scale release, a price that's somewhat higher than the standard Maker's bottling but still within reason, and there are plans for long-term production of the new style.
I find this interesting as well as rather refreshing: instead of seeing debut bottlings from American distillers that promise to stress my wallet as well as my patience in searching for them, here's an innovation I can actually buy at a local store, and I won't feel like I'm pouring away my dollars or a rare commodity each time I open the bottle.
How Does It Taste?
But that's all just talk about whiskey. How does Maker's '46' work in the glass? As you might expect given its base of original Maker's, the whiskey has the distillery's telltale wheated softness; its aroma has a richer, deeper oakiness with an undercurrent of cinnamon and dried orange peel, and on top of the customary fruity sweetness are several bombastic layers of spice.
The bourbon has Maker's usual long, smooth finish but with an additional peppery fire that ends surprisingly dry. Maker's '46' is distinctly more robust than the standard Maker's Mark (or many other bourbons, for that matter), and while the more assertive spice notes and dry finish make me think of the kinds of flavors found in rye whiskey, the spirit maintains its muted softness, making it a different creature entirely.
I've tried playing with cocktails made with Maker's '46', and so far the best luck has been in classic bourbon drinks such as a Mint Julep or an Old Fashioned. While the bigger flavors have been designed, in part, to appeal to the cocktail crowd, Maker's '46' doesn't shed its bourbon character, making it still a bit too sweet and soft to stand up against the bigger, complex flavors found in good vermouth or bold-flavored liqueurs.
That's not really a strike against it—Maker's '46' is bourbon, and even with tweaks to its aging process it maintains that essential identity of a beautiful sipping whiskey that does best when it shares the spotlight with as few co-stars as possible.
Maker's '46' debuted around July 1, and is still rolling into bars and liquor stores around the country. Have you come across it yet? What are your thoughts?