The thousands of aging bourbon barrels perched in black rick houses that dot the vast yet quaint Maker’s Mark Distillery grounds in Loretto, Ky., all hold the same recipe. It’s the bourbon Margie and Bill Samuels Sr. envisioned in 1953 when they created the beloved brand.
So when it came to new products and essentially drawing outside the lines of the familiar dripping red Maker’s Mark wax, nothing had been done until Maker’s 46 was launched by Bill Samuels Jr. in 2010.
Bill Jr. didn’t mess with his family’s recipe to create the new product — he knew better than that — but he did run wild with a finishing process that involved soaking various toasted staves in a barrel of mature Maker’s Mark for about nine weeks.
In that small amount of time, more flavors were imparted into the juice, creating a familiar yet vastly different flavor profile that many today prefer over the original.
And since 2010, there’s also been a Maker’s Mark Cask Strength release (again, not messing with the family’s recipe), a Maker’s 46 Cask Strength (just released last month), Private Selection Single Barrels, and a new line of products Maker’s is calling its Wood Finishing Series. The 2019 release, titled RC6 after the name of the stave, was the first, and now the company is excited to release the 2020 experiment: SE4+PR5.
What does SE4+PR5 mean?
I was fortunate to join a Zoom call with Maker’s Director of Innovation Jane Bowie, plus about a dozen of Kentucky’s top bourbon writers, on Thursday to learn more about the 2020 release and taste through the process with samples the distillery provided.
The personable and very talented Bowie was eager to let us in on the project that had been consuming her time the last 18 months. The goal was to highlight two prominent flavors found in Maker’s Mark: caramel and vanilla.
“I thought this was going to be the easiest one we’ve done, but it ended up being the most complicated,” said Bowie.
Turns out trying to highlight those two flavors exclusively was not an easy task, and in fact, it took Bowie and the Maker’s team two separate staves to do so. The team ended up using a blend of three finished Maker’s bourbons — two from French Oak staves (SE4) aged different weeks (one at five weeks and one at six weeks) and one from American Oak staves (PR5) aged for four weeks. These staves were toasted and made just for this product by Independent Stave Co.
Bowie said that due to the pandemic, she relocated her mad scientist bourbon lab to her living room for the last six months, trying out 50-60 different staves and more than 1,000 blend trials.
During my call with Bowie, I was able to taste through the bourbons at different ages, ultimately leading up to the final product, and it was truly a glimpse into the tough process of blending and having the end goal in mind during each and every sip.
It’s a lot of this: Maybe this stave tastes better at five weeks instead of two, but at six weeks it imparts too much of its flavors, so let’s go back to four weeks and see if we like it better than five.
So how does the final whiskey taste? It’s like soaking one of those Kraft caramel chews in a small bowl of pure vanilla extract and melted butter. It’s sweet, it’s viscous, it’s creamy and it’s dreamy. And it has a hint of baking spices on the finish.
Let me just say, this masterpiece hits all those harmonizing caramel and vanilla notes better than Barbara Streisand could if she were a bourbon.
The 2020 SE4+PR5 release (Bowie said you can call it either the 2020 release or those crazy stave codes) is bottled at 110.8 proof, and it’ll start showing up on store shelves on Sept. 1. Liquor stores can charge whatever they like, but you should expect it to be in the range of $60-$70. It’s also a limited release, and you won’t want to miss this one!