For years — 70 to be exact — Maker’s Mark has stayed true to the taste vision set forth by founders Bill Samuels Sr. and Margie Samuels. The mash bill churned out day after day at the distillery is as much part of the brand’s identity as the red wax that drips from every bottle: 70% corn, 16% soft red winter wheat, 14% malted barley.
That’s why you’ve never seen a rye version of Maker’s Mark, a Maker’s Mark finished in port barrels, or an ultra-aged 20-year-old Maker’s Mark — because those would go against what the founders set out to create in 1953.
(In 2010, the company did launch Maker’s 46, which introduced wood finishing staves to the process — but more on that in a bit.)
Now, with some forward-thinking innovations from the talented team behind the brand — including Beth Buckner, senior manager of innovation & blending, and Blake Layfield, senior director & head of innovation, blending and quality — Maker’s Mark will finally release an older bourbon in September called Cellar Aged.
And fans are going wild (myself included), because it’s also being bottled at a whopping 115.7 proof!
Cellar Aged is a blend of 12-year-old bourbon (87%) and 11-year-old bourbon (13%) that still fits inside the parameters of the Maker’s Mark taste vision. How is that, you ask? Well, the team took fully mature Maker’s Mark barrels (typically around 6 years old) that had aged in its standard rick houses in Loretto, Ky., and rehoused them inside the limestone whiskey cellar that was constructed onsite in 2016 for the Maker’s 46 product.
The temperature inside this bourbon bat cave, as I call it, is a constant 50 degrees, so the barrels were now free from the extreme ups and downs of the Kentucky weather. In other words, they could just chill out for another five to six years — much like a scotch does in the moderate temperatures of Scotland.
This mellow environment helps round out the flavor and adds more depth and richness to the taste, but it doesn’t allow for those sometimes sharp bitter and tannic notes from the oak to permeate, which is sometimes common in bourbons aged over 10+ years.
Maker’s Mark Cellar Aged will be released in mid-September with an MSRP of $150. It’ll be a limited annual release, and the ages and batches will likely differ from year to year.
Tasting with the Team
Last week, a small group of local media descended upon Maker’s Mark to catch up with Buckner and Layfield — and of course be one of the first to try the new release. We were taken around to see all the new things at the distillery — including bountiful herb and vegetable gardens, new artwork both inside and outside, a renovated visitor center complete with a stunning cocktail bar, and even a new chef at Star Hill Provisions.
While you might see those topics come up in later posts here, I’ll focus on what we learned about the Cellar Aged release for now.
Buckner explained that although bourbon fans have been clamoring for a well-aged Maker’s Mark for some time, until they built the limestone cellar, it just wouldn’t have worked. Why? Well, her and Layfield showed us firsthand as they marched us up seven floors inside one of their standard aging warehouses.
The temperature that morning was pretty mild for August — in the upper 70s — but inside the rick house, it increased by at least 3 degrees every floor we climbed. These rick houses stay hot, hot, hot in the summer and chilly in the winter, pushing that distillate in and out of the barrel year after year. And so Maker’s believes, by about 6 years, the bourbon has finished its aging cycle, according to that important taste profile first developed by the Samuels.
Sure, they could leave a barrel for 12 years or more inside a rick house and bottle it up to please their fans, but it would not fit within the perimeters of that taste vision. And that’s what matters most to them. Much respect for staying the course.
After traipsing up and down stairs and dealing with the incoming humidity, we were whisked into the cool, calm, dark cellar, where we finally got to try the new bourbon.
And in an effort to further drive home what continued aging in the cellar can do versus what the temperature extremes of a rick house can do, we tried the Cellar Aged release next to a sample pulled from a 12-year-old barrel from a rick house.
I will say that the Cellar Aged sample was definitely the favorite — imagine Maker’s Mark Cask Strength with even more baked apple, caramel and vanilla notes. It is reminiscent of Weller Antique — with those deep bursts of chocolate and fig, and it’s a pour I could sip on all night long no matter what season it is.
But the 12-year-old sample, I admit, wasn’t awful. It certainly had that vintage taste funk, like maybe it was pulled from Grandma’s attic, but I would still drink it if I had a bottle of it. At the end of the day, however, I realized that the flavors in that 12-year sample were so far away from the original Maker’s Mark, I can see why it wouldn’t gel with the founders’ taste vision.
All in all, it was an educational and experiential visit to Maker’s Mark. I’ll always have a soft spot for the brand because it’s what first got me hooked into this crazy bourbon world. If you haven’t been for a visit in a while, it’s worth it to check out. There’s something new lurking around every corner.