Friday, August 5, 2016

Whiskey Road Trip, Maker's Mark Tour

After my disappointing reception at the George Dickel distillery, I decided it would be best to clear the slate and approach my second tour of the day with an open mind. I hadn’t made any prior arrangements at Maker’s Mark, so I figured I’d just go in as a regular tourist and take the standard tour for what it was.

By the time I finished up at Dickel and got on the road it was already 11:00. I was going to lose an hour to the time zone change and Google Maps estimated the drive at three hours and 45 minutes. Those drive times are usually pretty conservative, but that would put me there 15 minutes late for the last tour of the day, at 3:30. All I could do was put the hammer down, forgo lunch and hope that I didn’t hit any traffic going through Nashville. I actually ended up making really good time and arrived at the distillery just before the 3:15 tour.

In addition to a relatively new tasting room and gift shop, which both date to 2007, the distillery completed another expansion of their tourist facilities in August of 2015. Reconfigured entry driveways separate the truck traffic from the visitor’s cars, which are now routed directly to the new, larger tourist parking area. From here the first building you come to is the relocated and expanded welcome center. The greenhouse-like space features a discarded pot still and large displays of many of the commemorative bottlings Maker’s has put out over the years. The new construction is an addition onto the Burks House, which dates to 1902. This was the residence of the original distillery owners, which has been restored to its Victorian glory and is kept in a museum-like state. This is essentially the staging area for the distillery tours, which, somewhat unusually, start and end in different locations.

The good thing about visiting on a weekday in early February is that it’s definitely not a peak tourist time. I was in a group of about half a dozen, which probably isn’t possible during the busy summer months when upwards of 1200 visitors come through each day. One of the first things our tour guide asked was if we had visited any other distilleries earlier in the day; some of us had, some had not. She looked a little surprised and a little impressed when I mentioned that my morning started at George Dickel.

About 10 minutes before arriving at the distillery, I drove past several new whiskey warehouses which were under various stages of construction. I assumed that they probably belonged to Maker’s Mark, but there are plenty of examples of warehouses which are located quite far from their corresponding distilleries. That question was put to rest when our guide mentioned that anyone driving up from the south would have gone past their under-construction warehouses. There were quite a few of them, which stands to reason; Maker’s Mark had just expanded with the addition a third still and all of the associated infrastructure to go along with it. This new still had just gone online toward the end of November, increasing production capacity by 50%.

One of the first questions came from another of the tour participants; “What is the meaning of the S IV symbol that is on every bottle of Maker’s?” This is the “maker’s mark” that Maker’s Mark is named for, and our guide noted that the “S” stands for Samuels and the “IV” indicates that William Samuels Sr., who founded Maker’s Mark, was the fourth generation of distillers in his family. There is also a star in the design, which I later learned represents Star Hill Farm, where the distillery is located.

I should note here that at the time of the inception of Maker’s Mark in 1953, William Samuels Sr. purchased the site and facilities of an existing distillery. Charles Burks and his family settled here in 1803. In 1805 he constructed a grist mill on the site as well as a dam on Hardin Creek to power the mill. There is no documentation of the exact date distilling started here, but it is believed to be shortly after the mill became operational.

Charles Burks and two of his sons passed away over the course of less than two years in the early 1830’s. Distilling ceased soon after but other family members continued the milling operations. Most of the older buildings currently in use at the distillery date to the late 1880’s, when the founder’s great grandson, George R. Burks restarted whiskey production on the site. At the onset of Prohibition he sold the distillery to J. E. Bickett, who had been a minority owner of the business since 1905. In 1935, his son, Frank Bickett, rebuilt the distillery and whiskey production resumed in 1937. The distillery was sold three separate times during the 1940’s, with the last owner, Dave Karp, shutting the plant down in the spring of 1951. Two and a half years later he sold the property and distillery to William Samuels Sr.

The original Samuels family distillery was established in 1844 by Taylor William Samuels when he and his son, W. I. Samuels, set up shop on the family farm. That was located outside of Deatsville, KY, about 25 miles north of the current Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto. Leslie B. Samuels took over the distillery in 1898 when his father and grandfather both died. In 1909 a fire destroyed the distillery, six warehouses and 9000 barrels of whiskey. Controlling interest in the business was sold to a Cincinnati based company and the distillery was rebuilt, but the Samuels family remained involved in the operation.

Much of that distillery was demolished during Prohibition, but the company reorganized after Repeal and built a new distillery at a nearby location. At this point Leslie’s son, William Samuels Sr., became involved in the business. He took over as the plant manager after his father’s passing in 1936. The distillery became quite successful and in 1943 the Cincinnati based owners decided to cash in and sell the company. William Samuels Sr. was unable the secure the financing to buy the distillery himself and was forced to sell his minority share to a New York based buyer. Samuels left the company after the sale and 10 years later started Maker’s Mark with the purchase of the old Burks distillery.

The distillery has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974 and was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1980. Many of the older building with historic significance have been well maintained and the Samuels family have been careful to keep up the turn-of-the-century appearance of the complex, even through times of expansion. Our tour guide didn’t go into too much detail regarding the pre-history of Maker’s Mark that I’ve outlined above, only mentioning that William Samuels Sr. purchased the distillery in 1953 for $35,000, as we were about to enter a warehouse that dated back to 1889. I’m guessing that the level of information given regarding that subject is something that varies from tour to tour.

From the Burks House we followed the brick pathway down the hill to the main area of the distillery complex. Even in the dead of winter, with no leaves on the trees and the grass a muted shade of green, the meticulously landscaped grounds were quite striking. I can only imagine how beautiful the place must be in the summer.

The first stop was the still house. This building stands out visually with its external grain silos and five-story tower which houses the stills. When you step inside to what is essentially a tourist viewing area, the layout is fairly compact, with a mash tub, two copper tailboxes and the lower section of a column still all in close proximity. The tailboxes are essentially the American equivalent of the traditional Scottish spirit safe; this is the piece of equipment where re-condensed distillate can be accessed for measurements as it flows to a holding tank.

At this point a few technical details were revealed. Current production capacity is 650 barrels per day. The use of a roller mill to crush the grain was a point of distinction, as most other American distilleries employ a hammer mill. They claim this adds less heat to the grain as it is being milled, which keeps the whiskey from developing bitter flavors. The mash bill is 70% corn, 16% wheat and 14% malted barley.

In the early day of Maker’s establishment, William Samuels Sr. put together a focus group of industry heavyweights which included Pappy Van Winkle to help him refine the process he would use. With their influence, he chose to burn the old family recipe and start over with a less common wheat based recipe.

Spirit comes off the column still at 120 proof and the pot still at 130 proof (like Dickel, Maker’s Mark employs a pot still “doubler”, but that piece of equipment isn’t visible on the standard tour at either distillery). Barrel entry proof is 110 and after aging the whiskey typically ends up between 110 and 116 proof.

Next we moved into another section of the same building which houses the fermentation tanks. There were eight of them in this room and they were traditional Cypress tanks which looked quite old. Additional fermenters are housed in other, newer buildings. When I pressed for details the guide did tell us that there where 50 more tanks and they were all made of stainless steel. She also noted that the fermentation cycle lasts three days. We were all encouraged to dip a finger in the mixture and take a taste, which was a nice touch.

From there we stepped outside, crossed a small bridge over the stream that runs across the distillery grounds and feeds into Hardin Creek and walked over to Warehouse A, which dates to 1889. We went inside the two-story building which holds the barrels in wooden racks, six high (the wood “floors” only run down the aisles, not between the rows of barrels). In spite of the outside temperature reaching upwards of 60 degrees, the warehouse interior was maintaining its rather chilly winter temperature.

The vast majority of the whiskey made here is aged in more modern warehouses located various distance from the distillery and averaging six stories high. To produce a consistent finished product which is aged for about six years, all of the new barrels are entered on the top floors of the warehouses and then rotated down one floor roughly once a year.

There was also a cutaway of a Maker’s 46 barrel which showed its inside. This first (and only, if you don’t count different bottling proofs) variant of Maker’s Mark was introduced in 2010. It is produced the same way as standard Maker’s Mark in every respect, up until the end of the aging process. After six years or so, the whiskey is transferred into special barrels which have 10 seared French oak staves standing upright in the center. The additional maturation lasts for 9 to 11 weeks, and then the whiskey is bottled at 94 proof (slightly higher than standard Maker’s 90 proof). This new expression was created by William Samuels Jr., who had been running the company since the late 1970’s. He had been responsible for growing Maker’s Mark from a regional brand into a national one, but wanted to leave a more enduring legacy for himself as he neared retirement.

From Warehouse A, we went back outside and took a short walk to the bottling hall. It was late in the day so we only saw a few employees doing some cleanup and maintenance rather than any bottling action. The bottling line looks fairly modern, but the bottle tops are still all dipped in wax by hand. I asked about the miniatures, and yes, even those are hand dipped. This process does have quality control standards; the wax isn’t supposed to touch the label and there are an optimal number of wax legs that should run down the neck. Still, each person that does this job has their own unique way of dipping and rotating. Apparently if one of these employees goes into a liquor store they can actually pick out the bottles that they dipped. It all sounds pretty cool until they mention the production quota and the expected pace of twenty something bottles per minute. Oh, and that stuff is real hot, you definitely wouldn’t want to splash it around too much.

After the bottling hall, it was back outside and over to Warehouse D. This one looks very similar to Warehouse A on the outside and is only slightly newer, dating to somewhere between 1889 and 1900. But the inside is a whole different story; only a short part of the building’s center section still serves as a barrel warehouse and the two ends have been repurposed and modernized. Entering from the south end brings you into a large, open, modern looking space which is divided into three separate tasting rooms by floor-to-ceiling glass panels; two to the left of a center aisle and a third, larger one to the right. Aging barrels can be seen through glass walls at the end of the space opposite the entrance.

We sat on bar stools at the three rows of free-standing wooden bar top where samples in tasting glasses had already been pre-set for us. We went through Maker’s White (unaged spirit at 90 proof), regular Maker’s Mark, Maker’s 46 and Cask Strength Maker’s Mark, with a brief discussion of each.

Next it was on to the gift shop at the opposite end of the building. This has been the configuration of Warehouse D since 2007, where visitors go from the tasting area to the gift shop by passing through the in-use barrel racks in the building’s center section, which spans about 40 feet. That short walk received a major enhancement in 2014, though. Rob Samuels, who had taken over as president and CEO of Maker’s Mark upon his father’s 2011 retirement, wanted to do something special for the brand’s 60th anniversary. He commission renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly to create a Maker’s Mark inspired piece which would grace the ceiling of that historical space. The 36-foot-by-6-foot backlit installation is visually stunning.

Like passing through a time portal, the doorway at the opposite end of the barrel rack section of the building brings you to the gift shop, which is another large, open, modern space. All of the Maker’s wares and bottlings were on offer, but I was after just one; Cask Strength Maker’s 46, which can only be purchased at the distillery. What came as a surprise bonus was when I was told that if buying a bottle at the distillery shop, you had the option of getting one that hadn’t been dipped in wax yet and dipping it yourself.

After paying $40 (there’s no extra charge for the self-dipping option) for my 375 ml prize, it was time to don the proper protective gear. With safety glasses, gloves, forearm gators and an apron all in place I was ready to approach the dipping station. My tour guide explained the process; dip, remove, hold the bottle sideways, twist the wrist to rotate it over, then hold it upright and let the wax run down. Aside from a few air bubbles, I had pretty good results for a first attempt.

In my last Maker’s Mark post I discussed their struggle with supply issues and compared the standard 90 proof bottling to the short-lived 84 proof offering and the new (at the time) cask strength bottling. Now I have the opportunity to compare the 94 proof Maker’s 46 bottling to my 110.8 proof example of cask strength Maker’s 46.

Maker’s 46:
The nose has strong commonalities with regular Maker’s Mark, but in an amplified, more volatile way. The leather and shoe polish notes are accompanied by ground cinnamon and vanilla aromatics.
A certain degree of sweetness still leads on the palate, but it’s less dominant and shorter lived when compared to the flagship offering. As with the nose, much more obvious vanilla and cinnamon notes seem to be the big differentiators here, and they partialy mask the corn-forward grain notes. It’s also notably more full-bodied.
The finish is where Maker’s 46 really comes into its own. The vanilla character peaks and then gradually fades as the spice notes build, becoming more intense and more complex. Cinnamon stick and cinnamon Red Hots are the driving force, but subtle hints of Ancho Chile and Paprika are also present.
Overall, this is a bolder, more assertive take on Maker’s Mark, which shows a broader evolution of flavors.

Cask Strength Maker’s 46:
The aromas are quite similar to those of the 94 proof version, but the higher alcohol level does make itself readily apparent when nosing.
The intensity of flavor on the initial sip is almost overwhelming. It’s profoundly spice-driven and just short of palate numbing at first. After a few sips to acclimatize the mouth it becomes more manageable, but it’s still a wild ride through a range of fiery spice notes. A hint of maple syrup and a bit of vanilla driven sweetness run through the background up front, but that soon fades, leaving spice notes that evolve and become quite dry as it moves through the lengthy finish.
This one gets right down to brass tacks, skipping the formalities and jumping headlong into waves of bold spiciness. The standard Maker’s 46 seems mild but better-rounded by comparison. The cask strength version of traditional Maker’s Mark nearly matches the intensity, but with more leathery oak and less spice character.

As I said in my previous post, my decision to visit Maker’s Mark was primarily driven by the fact that no other afternoon tours would work into my travel schedule that day. Don’t get me wrong, I like Maker’s Mark; it just wasn’t at the top of my priority list for distillery tours. That being said, I was really won over by the beauty of the place and the features of the tour.

I had actually made the mistaken assumption that this was where all of the general tourists go because the brand is so well know. But the distillery isn’t really near to much of anything; you really have to go out of your way to get there. While well-rounded bourbon enthusiasts might seek out other distilleries first, there’s no shortage of Maker’s Mark fanatics embarking on the pilgrimage to their ultimate destination.

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