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Maker’s Mark was one of those brands that never seemed to change. From the time they first began distilling bourbon in 1953 all the way up until 2010, they only ever produced one wheated bourbon recipe (that closely mimicked Pappy Van Winkle’s original recipe). Throughout that time, they kept the proof more or less the same, never going lower than 84 or higher than 101. But this staple of Kentucky bourbons has flourished because it was easy to drink and caught potential buyer’s eyes with its trademark red wax.
As the bourbon renaissance started turning into a full-grown explosion sometime in the mid-2000’s, Maker’s realized that they were going to get left in the dust if they didn’t find a way to compete with other distilleries who were rolling out new products. The powers-that-be at Maker’s didn’t want to lose their identity, so releasing ultra-high proofed bourbon or single barrels with age statements was still frowned upon. Instead, they looked towards the trend of barrel finishes as a direction they could take the brand. Barrel finishing had been embraced by their Scottish counterparts for a long time, but was starting to gain traction in the United States. Maker’s viewed finishing their bourbon in a wine barrel as sacrilegious though. What they needed was a way to make their bourbon stand out without covering up its identity.
The idea of wood finishing was born soon after that. Rather than wasting a second brand-new charred barrel to age the bourbon in, Maker’s has a team that disassembles their previously used barrels just enough to remove the top (called the head). From there, they would place entire staves of new wood into the barrel before sealing it back up again. Then they’d dump in their standard batched bourbon that was aged for around 6 years. The finishing process would take an additional 2 to 3 months while the barrels were rolled into the giant limestone underground cavern only a few hundred yards from the distillery.
When the idea behind Maker’s 46 was proposed, it was decided that simply adding American White Oak into a used barrel wouldn’t be enough. So they turned to French Oak sourced from overseas. Just letting a piece of oak float inside a barrel with aged bourbon dumped back in would not do much for the taste, so it was decided to “sear” the wood before it went into the barrel. This searing process was designed to create the chemical reactions needed on the surface of the wood that would interact with the liquid later on. Each barrel would get loaded up with 10 of these staves before being sealed and refilled with a batch of bourbon that had been previously dumped.
Now that we know the process behind how Maker’s 46 differs from regular Maker’s Mark, let’s find out how the taste has changed. I sampled this neat in a glencairn.
Nose: For having more oak influence, it comes off as incredibly sweet. Cinnamon, sour cream coffee cake and a hint of butterscotch all make it smell much better than the price tag tells you it should. There’s even a hint of baked orchard fruits within. Nice!
Palate: This is very drinkable and easy to sip. Oaky flavors blend with caramel and vanilla right away. There is a tiny bit of nuttiness to it, but overall it’s not very complex. The flavors it provides all do a great job and make for a satisfying pour. But its simplicity keeps it from being even greater.
Finish: Oak is dominate but tobacco pops up. The tannins are quite nice to find in a bourbon that is this inexpensive. Vanilla latte, cinnamon and toasted caramel round out this moderately long finish.
I’m pleasantly surprised at what I found in this bottle. The experience delivered more spice and oak than I was expecting. I think it’s obvious that the additional finishing staves did their part. There is very good depth, dimension and aged characteristics for a bourbon this young. It surely can hold its own against other distilleries $35-40 bottles in this age range and proof. The added wood character is just a bonus.
Surprisingly, I’ve enjoyed almost every product I’ve had from Maker’s Mark (Maker’s 101 being the exception). So maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised that Maker’s 46 has left me with such a good impression. I know that the price for this bottle is more expensive than the base, 90 proof version of Maker’s Mark. However, that is money well spent in my book. If you’re going to only mix drinks, by all means, get the regular version. But if you want the best flavor for a session of sipping, Maker’s 46 is a great place to begin.
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