It’s typical of whiskey brands nowadays to spin off variation after variation — cask finishes, longer aging, different mashbills and so on — and many lose the thread in the process, throwing so much whiskey against the wall that it’s easy to forget their original appeal. With Maker’s Mark, it felt like the opposite. I was never a huge fan of the flagship wheated bourbon, which debuted in 1959 and, on the heels of a rave review in the Wall Street Journal and a witty ad campaign, became one of the most popular American whiskeys in the world starting in the 1980s, a distinction it still holds today. For more than a half century, there was standard Maker’s Mark and… that was it.
It wasn’t until 2011, when Bill Samuels, Jr. (son of the founders of the brand) retired, that he unveiled the first Maker’s variation. Maker’s 46 was their standard wheater finished in French oak staves and bottled at a slightly higher proof, and I thought it was terrific. From there, it was off to the races, with cask strength and 101 proof expressions, as well as, among others, their annual limited edition Wood Finishing series. None of them strayed too far from the template, but almost without exception, I thought they were an improvement on classic Maker’s Mark (I did come around to some extent on the flagship expression, too).
One thing Maker’s never messed with was its age. Unlike almost every other bourbon in Kentucky, they never released an age-statement bottling. Maker’s Mark is typically aged an average of six years, which is par for the course, bourbon-wise. And unlike virtually every other large bourbon distillery, Maker’s rotates every barrel into different tiers in its warehouses during the aging process, ensuring a consistent product. But it also eliminates the chances that there’ll be some honey barrels aging for decades in a dusty corner of the first floor of a warehouse somewhere. Having tried Maker’s Mark aged for 12 years in the traditional way, I can attest firsthand that it’s pretty decent, but a touch astringent, a little too dry, a bit hot — in other words, a little too old. Or in the words of Maker’s managing director Rob Samuels, “It’s not bad. And it’s not consistent with our founders’ vision.”
How, then, do you age Maker’s Mark for twice as long while still having it taste like Maker’s Mark? The answer lay in a limestone hill near the distillery into which a cellar had been cut, originally for the purpose of finishing Maker’s 46. “We went 100 feet in the limestone shelf,” Samuels explains, “and we created this environment that’s naturally temperature controlled at 52 degrees.” Standard Maker’s barrels were aged and rotated in traditional warehouses for six years and then moved into the cellar for another 5-6 years. “The idea was,” Samuels says, “what if we slow down the traditional extraction of all those heavy, aggressive bitter tannins, but continue the oxidation?”
A blend of 11 and 12-year-old bourbon, bottled at cask strength (in this case 57.85% ABV), Maker’s Mark Cellar Aged retains the classic Maker’s mashbill (70% corn, 16% winter wheat, 14% malted barley) but the extra aging and higher proof transform it into something recognizable but more concentrated, more intense, more flavorful. Dark fruit on the nose morphs into luscious caramel and dark chocolate with hazelnut and hints of berries on the palate. Even at barrel proof, the spice is quite gentle, more warming than tingling. And while there’s certainly a fair bit of oak present, especially on the finish, it isn’t harsh and doesn’t dry things out too much.
Maker’s Mark has been knocking it out of the park pretty consistently for the last decade or so, but Cellar Aged may be the best expression yet, worth every penny of the $150 it’ll run you. And while supply is finite (how finite I don’t know), it’s said to be planned as an annual edition, so even if it’s gone when you look for it, it won’t be gone forever.