You hear it all the time: “We want to be the Napa Valley of the bourbon world.” Some distilleries shrug it off, some take it seriously and some do something about it.
Maker’s Mark Distillery is one of those distilleries that’s acting on that goal–and then some. It’s not the easiest place in the world to get to. In fact, smartphone GPS directions tend to take people the long way down a few winding one lane roads to make the trek (or so I’ve heard.) The actual distillery sits pretty much in the geographical center of Kentucky, surrounded by the state’s signature limestone. There are some that will dispute that it’s literally in the center, but it basically is.
Unlike other distilleries that have expanded product lines by introducing flavored whiskey or a vodka, Maker’s Mark has stayed true to its core mission of making bourbon. When Bill Samuels Jr. was contemplating retirement as President of Maker’s, he decided he wanted to leave his own mark on the company that his father T. William “Bill” Samuels, Sr. started back in 1953. Bill Samuels, Jr.’s son and now Maker’s COO, Rob Samuels tells the story that his dad wanted to make a new whiskey that wasn’t just “Good” but was a “Wow.”
“My father Bill Samuels said it can’t be just pretty good, he said it’s got to be a wow. And when we tasted for the very first time the whiskey that would become known as Maker’s 46 we thought it lived up to that taste vision of a bigger, bolder, spicy taste profile. We thought it was a wow.” ~ Rob Samuels, Eighth Generation Distiller and COO of Maker’s Mark
Keeping Up with Demand for Maker’s 46
During our visit to the distillery, Rob Samuels explained how it took four decades for the red-waxed base bourbon to achieve a sales pace of 100,000 cases a month. It took its offspring, Maker’s 46, created in 2010, just six years to hit the 100,000-case mark.
“And that’s why we’re here today, in this limestone whiskey cellar,” Samuels told us while touring the new Maker’s Mark Whisky Cellar in Loretto. “The popularity of Maker’s 46 and our Private Select program pushed us to create this.”
The World’s First Limestone Whisky Cellar
Rob Samuels leads the way to the first ever tour of Maker’s Mark Cellar.
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Are you thinking, “I’ve heard of wine cellars, but what’s a whisky cellar?” Here’s what that is and why it’s especially important to Maker’s 46.
Construction crews dynamited holes into a large limestone hill about 100 yards from the distillery, enclosed the space with a massive stacked limestone-fronted structure and covered its roof with earth and landscaping.
“The limestone wall forms the entire back wall and sides. We built the roof with earth on top, it’s a living roof. We’ve actually filed an application and feel reasonable confident that this facility will be granted LEED certification through the United States Green Council.”
Between the limestone and the earth insulation, the barrel aging room temperature is maintained naturally at 50 degrees year round.
That’s important for Maker’s 46 and its premium Private Select barrelings, which undergo a secondary aging of nine weeks. During that period, the goal is to lose no liquid to evaporation, meaning the process can happen only during cold months in Maker’s rickhouses, which aren’t mechanically heated.
The only way the brand could meet the surging demand for Maker’s 46 was to create a cold storage structure it could use year round, and lo and behold, that’s exactly what a limestone cave guarantees: 50 degrees, all day every day.
Entrance to Maker’s Mark Cellar with landscape designed by world renowned landscape architect Jon Carloftis.
Maker’s Mark Cellar can hold up to 2,000 barrels.
The stacked limestone exterior and its ponderous wood doors look like something out of Napa Valley. The look is, like everything on Maker’s Mark’s campus, first class. To get to the aging room, you pass the brightly lit barreling area where employees work, and then a warmly lighted tasting room, where Private Select minglings will take place.
The aging room itself is dimly lit, giving it the appearance of “a bourbon church,” said one reporter on the tour. The limestone face of the hill, left craggy from dynamiting and chiseling, forms a backdrop for a few hundred barrels that will eventually total 2,000 set aside for Maker’s 46.
The structure extending outward from the hill and its earthen roof was landscaped by Jon Carloftis Fine Gardens. The famed landscaper and native Kentuckian, said plants specifically chosen for the project will bear the red and white colors of Maker’s bottles when in bloom.
“This project was close to my heart because I love Maker’s Mark,” said Carloftis, who lives in Lexington. “It will be amazing when you come visit in the spring and summer.”
Tradition Flows from a Single Drop of Inspiration
Maker’s Mark Cellar Private Select Tasting Room
For the tasting room wall, glassblower, Brook White, owner of Flame Run in Louisville, created a 300-piece glass assemblage he named, “From a Single Drop.” The work details the journey of a single drop of water from the distillery’s spring-fed lake nearby to becoming a drop of Maker’s Mark bourbon.
“This is the world’s first limestone whiskey cellar,” Samuels said. “We’re tremendously proud of that, and we’re really looking forward to sharing it with others.”
Public tours will begin in 2017, and Samuels said, more Private Select barrelings will follow.