Maker's Mark Cask Strength​ Review [In Depth]

Maker's Mark Cask Strength 21-08

Alex author
Founder, writer
Maker's Mark Cask Strength 21-08 header

Maker's Mark Cask Strength​ Details

Distillery: Maker’s Mark

Type & Region: Bourbon, Kentucky, USA

Alcohol: 56.25%

Composition: 70% corn, 16% soft winter wheat, 14% malted barley

Aged: At least 4 years

Color: 1.3/2.0 on the color scale (russet, muscat)

Price: $45-50

From the company website:

This is Maker’s Mark® Bourbon in its purest form. Bottled at barrel proof and nonchill filtered, Maker’s Mark® Cask Strength ranges from 108 to 114 proof depending on the barrels. Surprisingly smooth, this bourbon retains the signature, front-of-the-palate flavors of Maker’s Mark® while amping up the vanilla and rich oak notes.

Maker's Mark Cask Strength overview

Maker’s Mark has been making wheated bourbon for decades, so they know a thing or two about making it. The funny thing is that for decades, they didn’t offer a cask strength bourbon. They had the “standard” Maker’s Mark, Maker’s Mark Gold at 45% (I know, I reviewed one from 1986), and Maker’s Mark 101. Maker’s 46 itself is still a relatively new release for Maker’s Mark.
For a while in the 2000’s, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength was a distillery-only release sold in 375mL bottles. I only know this because I bought one at the distillery. But around 2014, they made it official and released it nationally in the full 750mL bottle. For the most part, I think it retails for around $50. Years later, you can find pretty much everywhere that has a decent bourbon selection, which always surprises me.
Given how things have been for a while, with relatively limited selection of cask strength wheated bourbon, and Weller mania and demand for Larceny Barrel Proof driving prices sky high and availability to the floor, at face value a cask strength wheated bourbon for give or take $50 that you CAN ACTUALLY FIND seems like a great deal.
It can be, because the last time I had one of these (a 2015 batch in 2018), it was amazing. So much so that it beat Weller Antique in a comparison. I haven’t had once since 2018, until this 21-08 batch years later.
I’m curious how this old favorite of mine fares after all these years, so find out if this is a compelling-enough bourbon that you should rush out and grab one immediately in this Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Bourbon review.
Maker's Mark Cask Strength 21-08 back
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Maker's Mark Cask Strength smell

At first, I smell dense dark honey, cinnamon, candied orange, caramel nougat, roasted oak, cinnamon, dried apple and cherry, chocolate, and a little honey baked bread. From memory, it’s not as outwardly grassy and bready as Weller Full Proof, and focuses more on the honey and darker caramel sweetness. It smells great, orange and oak spice-forward with noticeable chocolateness that all feels well balanced with not much heat.
After swirling and resting, there’s a gummy and wheat-y honey, clove, dried orange and cherry, caramel nougat, vanilla, roasted oak, toasted bread, fresh orange juice, and a hint of chocolate. It’s like Maker’s Mark, but with more “bulk” and some extra traits not found in regular Maker’s Mark like chocolate and more fruit. It still smells good, but doesn’t feel as full and rich even after 10 minutes of rest.
Over time the lower end sweetness, especially the dried fruit, comes back to reinforce some of the lower end, and that helps a lot. It helps bring back the overall balance, and nuance between honey, fruit, and chocolate. This one requires a bit more patience to get all the scents that are in there.
As wheated bourbons go, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength for the most part sticks to the straight and narrow path of how I think wheated bourbons usually are – clove, cinnamon, and orange-forward. The signature Maker’s Mark’s grassiness and wheat-y gumminess are also there.
The list of fragrant and pleasant scents is really nice, but not all that rich and mature, but also not quite surface level. There isn’t much pop or an exciting / noteworthy trait that makes me think, “yes this is great stuff”. You know what though, it still has a lot going for it.
Maker's Mark Cask Strength 21-08 front

Maker's Mark Cask Strength taste and aftertaste

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength has darker honey, dry nuttiness, dried orange peel, clove, roasted oak, roasted grains and bread, vanilla, and slight doughy and gummy funk. I will say, the flavors aren’t as refined and delicate as the scents, which have a better balance between the sweet, fruity, and spicy. It’s a hard left turn.
In this case, the flavors lean more oaky, grassy, and spicy. I can’t help but feel that it doesn’t feel all that mature, instead more rough, edgy, and young, lacking much of the nuance contained in the scents. It’s not super grainy or funky like really young bourbon, but the edges are still there. This is also a far cry from the Maker’s Mark Cask Strength from 2015, which I recall being more richly sweet and fruity.
After “chewing” I get more gummy honey, vanilla, dried orange, clove, peanut shells, roasted oak, dried grass, cinnamon, and a little underbaked bread. Yup, there’s that distinct earthy grassiness and gumminess I also get from normal Maker’s Mark, but with a bit more of everything else too.
The thing is, I want something more than just “bigger” Maker’s Mark. I want new flavors and more sweetness and fruitiness to shift the balance away from all the oaky, grassy, and nutty notes I associate with less maturity.
The finish carries on the flavors with caramel, roasted oak, dried grass, peanut shells, dried orange peel, a sort of gumminess that might be from the wheat, and slightly underbaked bread. It’s oak (but not a dark oak), spice, and grass forward as you might expect at this point.
Maker's Mark Cask Strength 21-08 side
After “chewing” there’s darker honey, roasted oak, dried peanut shells and grass, clove, and dried orange peel. There is a slight twist though as some light pineapple or fresh apricot come out after 30 seconds.
While the flavors skew more oak and spice-forward, there still is gentler fruity pop so it tastes good and with enough flavor to keep it mostly interesting. It just still generally tastes kind of young and rough around the edges at times so I’m not as impressed as I hoped I would be…because I know what it used to be like. I’m getting a lot of mixed signals from what I know and what I’m drinking.

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Maker's Mark Cask Strength Rating

Mid shelf+
This is disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is solid, but I was expecting a “Top Shelf” or close to “Top Shelf” experience based on what I’ve had in the past. Unfortunately this batch is closer to “Mid Shelf” than “Top Shelf”, and that reality check smacked me. It’s not 2015 anymore. But who knows, maybe this batch is an outlier and the rest are generally much better.
The mostly dense honey, orange, and clove are nice for sure, aided by the ABV, but the problem is that this 2021 batch often feels oddly young and rough around the edges. The dense sweetness and stronger supporting fruitiness are not all there, especially in the flavors where it matters most to me.
The more prominent oak, grass, nut, and grain flavors don’t make me think mature, so that doesn’t help either. It especially sucks because the scents actually have nice balance and depth that make me anticipate that the flavors are going to be just as good.
While it sucks for me, unfortunately I think bourbon lovers everywhere are ultimately the biggest losers. One of the most available and reasonably affordable options falls short. The other options are Rebel Cask Strength (I think they only come in store picks), Wilderness Trail (I think they have a cask strength wheated bourbon), Penelope Four Grain Barrel Strength, and maybe Old Elk. Except Rebel, the others tend to be more expensive, in the $60-80 range, and that’s a reach for many.
I also should apologize to Penelope for saying that their Four Grain Barrel Strength Bourbon was the not quite as good version of Maker’s Mark Cask Strength. Maybe it’s not as good as Maker’s Mark from 2015, but it’s definitely comparable, if not better, than Maker’s Mark Cask Strength of today.
Now I’m going to wildly speculate about why this 2021 batch is this way, all based on my own experiences and musings. I think it mainly comes down to sky high demand and Maker’s Mark trying to meet it across multiple new products, but at the cost of less than optimal barrel selection.
That 2015 batch came from a time when Maker’s Mark Cask Strength was still fairly new to the market and bourbon was becoming popular, but demand hadn’t exploded yet. At that point, Maker’s Mark wasn’t making as much of it, so they could take more care when blending. They also weren’t juggling barrels between cask strength, 46 cask strength, limited releases, and the numerous Private Selects. It was still Maker’s Mark, Maker’s 46, and Maker’s Mark Cask Strength – simple.
My point – better barrels probably went into Maker’s Mark Cask Strength in 2015. For 2021, they had to sacrifice quality to meet demand, and that’s probably why they focus so much on stave finishes: they need it to offset how oaky, grassy, nutty, and underbaked bread-y it can be.
Or they’re just saving the better bourbon for other releases. Either way, I made a similar comment when I reviewed a Maker’s Mark Private Select from 2020 – it was good but I could tell the base bourbon was not that mature; the staves helped lift it up.
This is one of the biggest letdowns I’ve experienced in a while. I’m this critical because I bought this bottle having gone on and on about how great Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is, only to find out that it’s changed for the worse over the years. I guess I better start hunting for older Maker’s Mark Cask Strength bottles from before 2016, because I can’t imagine these are going to get better anytime soon.
Alex author
Meet the Author: Alex

I have far too much fun writing about whiskey and singlehandedly running The Whiskey Shelf to bring you independent, honest, and useful reviews, comparisons, and more. I’m proudly Asian American and can speak Cantonese, Mandarin, and some Japanese.

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