Bill Samuels, Jr. has been living and working around Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky since his family started the distillery back in 1953. One of the key things that Bill, Sr. told Bill, Jr. when he handed over the bourbon making role to his son was, “Don’t screw up the whisky.” Since then, Bill, Jr. has been laser focused on making a consistent bourbon whisky so every bottle tastes just as good as the last. And that’s just what he did for years until his own retirement neared.
It was back in 2008 that Bill, Jr. decided it was time to retire. Before he turned over the keys to the distillery to his son Rob Samuels he wanted to leave his own mark on the family brand. Bill worked for a couple of years with Maker’s long time partner Independent Stave Company on creating a new bourbon that would start with all the goodness of Maker’s Mark wheated bourbon but with a new, unique finish. His stated goal was to create a finished bourbon that was “Yummy, bigger and bolder than Maker’s Mark.”
After nearly two years, 120 plus experiments of various stave finishes including different types of American and French oak; grooves vs. no grooves; convection oven, direct flame or water bath; cook time, short direct sear, extended infrared light; time spent in the finishing barrel and various temperatures tests inside the rickhouse a new product was born.
It was 10 years ago last month that those 120 plus tests gave the world Maker’s Mark 46. Why the name 46? After all those tests it was No. 46 that delivered the exact flavor profile that Bill had envisioned. In the end Maker’s 46 was made from fully matured Maker’s Mark aged for 5 to 8 years, then dumped into another barrel and aged with 10 custom wood staves for an additional nine weeks in a cool climate controlled environment that would keep the temperature below 55 degrees. Originally it was only made in Kentucky’s cool months but that restricted the supply of the new bourbon. As demand grew the distillery built a dedicated Bourbon Whisky Cellar in the side of the limestone mountain next to the distillery where the temperature stays a consistent 55 degrees. You see unlike traditional bourbon barrel aging where you want temperature swings to help push the bourbon in and out of the barrel for Maker’s 46 Bill didn’t want to pick up any additional flavors from the second barrel, he only wanted to pick up the flavors from the 10 staves that were resting inside the barrel. The result a decade ago was Maker’s 46.
That was the beginning of Maker’s Mark Wood Finishing Series. In 2019 the distillery released Maker’s Mark RC6 and this year beginning in September Maker’s will be releasing its latest in the Wood Finishing Series.
The Goal of Maker’s Mark 2020 Limited Release – Caramel and Vanilla Seasoning
We recently had an opportunity to meet with Maker’s Mark Director of Innovation Jane Bowie to get the details of the newest Wood Finishing Series release.
To kick off the conversation Bowie reaffirmed the Maker’s Mark philosophy on experiments. She explained that Bill Samuels, Jr. and Rob Samuels love to do experiment but they told her, “We don’t just throw sh*t against the wall, you have to have a goal in mind.” And just like with the first release last year this time around she also had a clear taste vision in mind.
The goal for the 2020 release was to amp up those rich vanilla and buttery-caramel flavors that typically stem from Maker’s unique approach to seasoning their barrel staves outside for a full year.
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“Last year with RC6, it was about celebrating the Maker’s Mark yeast strain,” explained Bowie. “So when you talk about the apple and honey suckle and some of those clove notes. Our yeast that we propagate on site brings those flavors and last year the goal was to make a whisky that celebrated that process by using wood finishing.
”This year we wanted to celebrate our seasoning process. We thought ok, we are going to make a Maker’s that is heavy in caramel and heavy in vanilla and maybe a little bit of spice to balance it out. One of the things that we’ve done since the beginning, something that kind of happened by accident, but we really have honed in on it over the years, is that we air dry all of our wood. The wood to make barrels never goes into a dryer. It spends 12 months at least on the lot at Independent Stave Company. They have about six acres of land with Maker’s Mark staves aging. They are air drying the wood. When you cut a tree down you are looking about 60% moisture. To get it to a workable form for barrel making it needs to be about 12-14% moisture content. So how you pull that water out really matters and there are certain processes. They set the wood out on the lot and it leaches out the tannins over the 12 months. If you go visit the cooperage and it’s been a rainy day you’ll see what looks like rust on the ground under the wood. That is actually tannins leaching out. It starts to change the chemical makeup and the chemistry of the oak.
“It begins breaking down the lignin and the hemicellulose. And when you start to breakdown lignin it’s going to create vanillin and give you vanilla characteristics. When you start to break down hemicellulose it’s going to make room and encourage furfurals to be more prominent with the caramel flavors.
“So when we started thinking about honoring that seasoning process with this release we thought, ‘Ok, we are going to make a Maker’s that is heavy in caramel and heavy in vanilla and maybe a little bit of spice to balance it out.’”
2020 Release is a Blend of Two Different Wood Stave Finishes
In the end, after 12 months of experimentation the 2020 Limited Release uses two stave styles – one drawing on vanilla, the other on caramel – that when married together yield a rich bourbon reminiscent of butter pecan.
- The Caramel: SE4 – The first stave in the 2020 Limited Release is SE4. It’s made from Virgin French Oak, convection cooked at medium heat with a short toast period and responsible for much of the caramel flavor.
- The Vanilla: PR5 – The second stave, PR5, is made from Virgin American Oak and convection cooked at low heat very slowly over time with a longer toast to bring out vanilla.
- The Blend: SE4 (6 weeks), SE4 (5 weeks) and PR5 (4 weeks) – The final bourbon whisky is a blend of three stave finishes. The blend is approximately 13% of the SE4 stave aged for six weeks, 32% of the SE4 stave aged for five weeks and 55% of the PR5 stave aged for four weeks.
Like existing Wood Finishing Series offerings Maker’s Mark 46 and Maker’s Mark Private Selection®, the 2020 Limited Release was purposefully crafted by finishing fully-matured, cask strength Maker’s Mark in secondary barrels containing the proprietary wood staves described above. After inserting the staves the barrels were then rested in the Maker’s limestone bourbon cellar where the cask strength bourbon interacts with the staves, before being mingled together to develop the expression’s unique flavor.
Aroma – Heavy vanilla with spiced caramel.
Taste – Butter pecan ice cream. Vanilla with creamy butter notes, dry spice and caramelized sweetness.
Finish – Long, round and dry.
Maker’s Mark 2020 Limited Release SE4 & PR5 Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky is bottled at 110.8 proof (55.4% ABV) with a suggested retail price of $59.99 for a 750mL bottle. It will be available nationwide beginning in September 2020.