As we pull into the Maker's Mark Distillery, hundreds of people swarm the grassy field adjacent to the Victorian house, where tours begin, and fill the visitor centre. They're here for the Bourbon Chase, a 200 mile relay run along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. For many, it's their first time to see the picturesque black and red barrel warehouses and the subtle creek trickling over limestones, branches and leaves. For a first timer, Maker's Mark feels like a cross between an old western movie and a page out of Daniel Boone's adventures. Their comments go something like this: "Wow, isn't this amazing?"
No American whiskey has received more attention than Maker's Mark, a whiskey that brought Bourbon back with its clever marketing, innovative visitor experiences and championing a premium category.
Everything it's done since 1953, when it laid down its first barrels, defied traditionalism. Bill Samuels Sr. created a wheated Bourbon that would be bottled in a rather unique for the time, shapely bottle with a unique name - Maker's Mark. Bill's wife, Marjorie, created the bottle, name and most importantly, the red dripping wax. Maker's Mark trademarked this wax and sends hundreds of cease and desist letters to those imitating a red dripping wax, even winning a landmark lawsuit against Jose Cuervo.
Their son, Bill Samuels Jr., spearheaded the edgy marketing that mocked popped culture and other whiskey brands. Some of the best zingers were Maker's ads challenging Jack Daniel's, in which they found a private citizen named 'Jack Daniel' and included him in a campaign that suggested Jack Daniel's favourite whiskey was Maker's Mark.
These efforts landed Bill Samuels Sr., Bill Samuels Jr. and Marjorie Samuels into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. And that's the sort of 'wow' business factor that impresses the new visitors. Little do they know, Maker's Mark may just be getting started.
In 2014, Maker's Mark's distillery embarked on a $67 million expansion that included a third solid copper still that stands 45 feet and 36 inches in diameter, two new boilers, 21 more fermenters, a new grain roller, an evaporator, and a maturation cave for the Maker's 46 barrels.
When pursuing expansion plans, it was brought up that Maker's Mark could build a much larger still instead of adding a third of the same size. The answer was no, because, well, it's sort of a tradition of Bourbon distillers to keep everything the same in fear the slightest change could influence the flavour. Thus, Maker's Mark, for all intents and purposes, has three actual distilleries on property. By 2020, the brand expects to reach two million cases a year. It is also growing its portfolio.
There's Maker's Mark, Maker's Mark Cask Strength, Maker's 46 and Maker's 46 Cask Strength, all of which are winning over palates behind the bar and at home. There's the longtime rumour that Maker's Mark 12 Years Old is on the horizon, but the brand denied this and says they're focusing on meeting domestic demand.
Maker's Mark's chief operating officer Rob Samuels, who took over the brand in 2011, says, "We're doing the best we can," regarding the management of the demand. Nonetheless, Maker's Mark is not dependent upon another distillery. It's a single source distillery brand, which is fairly unique. "We can support growth into the future," Samuels says.
Part of that future includes an on-site restaurant, made possible by Kentucky's Senate Bill 11 passed in 2016. The new bill allows distilleries to open bed and breakfasts, restaurants and serve cocktails.
Maker's Mark is a facility cut into the 1800s era Kentucky farm life, surrounded by trees and barns, with one lane roads to and from. A Maker's Mark restaurant makes perfect sense for such a picturesque spot.
There's also the Maker's Select programme, in which the brand's customers select a single barrel made up of their custom selection of oak staves that include Baked American Pure 2, an American oak low and slow toasted with a classic cut that delivers traditional American whiskey richness - brown sugar and vanilla; Seared French cuvée, French oak infrared toasted with cut ridges that presents oak, caramel and roasted sweetness; 46, French oak seared, infrared toasted and classic cut that packs dried fruit, vanilla and spice; Roasted French Mocha, French oak cooked in a convection oven for toasting with a classic cut that offers notes of char, maple and cacao; and toasted French spice, French oak with low and high convection oven toasting on a classic cut stave that yields smoke, cumin and spice.
After you've tasted samples finished with the staves, you create your own blend using the five staves, which gives you 1,001 flavour profile options.
Whisky Magazine and its Icons of Whisky winners selected several Maker's Select barrels (see below 'Making Your Own At Maker’s') .
Kentucky's culture revolves around Bourbon and horse racing. Horses are in every Bourbon brand's DNA, from Woodford Reserve being the official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby to the Knob Creek Limited Edition Barrel Pick for the Belmont Stakes.
Maker's Mark sold its first case to Keeneland Race Track in 1958 and four years ago created the track's official cocktail - 'Keeneland Breeze', 1.25 ounces of Maker's Mark and splashes of DeKuyper orange curacao liqueur and ginger ale served in a rocks glass with an orange wedge. The track sold 30,000 Keeneland Breezes in the first week.
Keeneland also picked the first Maker's Select barrel pick, and they partnered with the Kentucky Derby Museum and Breeders' Cup for limited edition bottlings.
Maker's Mark was a single product up until 2011, when it introduced Maker's 46. Now, Maker's Mark is a growing portfolio of no age statement whiskey with each expression offering unique wheated Bourbon flavour profiles.
As Maker's Mark moves into special releases, its future is less dependent on the red wax and more intertwined with the new flavour profiles. We're tasting this brand for the first time all over again.
Making your own at Maker's
Every distillery does private selections a little differently, and Maker's Mark has taken it to the extreme. The selection process is a bit like being a mad scientist in a laboratory. Participants try each of the different already finished whiskies alone to get a feel for what each particular oak stave does to the final product. Then, reverse engineering from the desired flavour profile outcome, participants devise a combination of 10 parts to make the whole end product.
Whisky Magazine recently paid a visit to Maker's Mark in order to choose Private Select barrels for retailers all over the United States. Along for the journey were Maggie Kimberl, Bourbon author Fred Minnick, Whisky Live president Dave Sweet and master of whisky Steve Beal who said of the experience, "I love opportunities for bars, restaurants and spirits retailers to have a 'hands on' visit to the source. Usually, it's a terrific experience and you end up choosing a barrel of whiskey which appeals to your own taste."
Another wholly unique part of the process comes next. In a warehouse, participants thread 10 individual staves onto a stainless steel ring, making up their own unique finishing recipe. Staves are lowered into the barrel, the barrel head replaced and sealed. Then it is over to the tank room to be refilled with already aged Maker's Mark whiskey. After being laid down in the rick house, the Private Select will be bottled in six to eight weeks.
These whiskies will be available for purchase at select retailers in the United States from March to June and will also be available for sample at Whisky Live events.