July 30, 2018
Distillery: Maker’s Mark
Region: Kentucky, USA
Type: Bourbon (wheated)
Composition: 70% corn, 16% soft winter wheat, 14% malted barley
Aged: NAS (rumored ~6 years), aged in virgin American white oak
Price: $17 on sale (375mL), but likely $50-70 normally
From the Maker’s Mark website:
“This is Maker’s Mark Bourbon in all its glory. By eliminating the proofing process normally used before bottling Maker’s Mark, Cask Strength comes in at 108 to 114 proof. This surprisingly smooth bourbon retains the signature, front-of-palate flavors of Maker’s Mark – while amping up the notes of oak, caramel, vanilla, and spice.”
Maker’s Mark is a legendary global whiskey brand, and one of the first to create a premium image decades ago for its bourbon. Unlike many other brands, Maker’s Mark only has 2 products, with some variations: original Maker’s Mark and Maker’s 46. I was lucky enough to visit the distillery and go on their tour a few years ago, and remember buying my first bottle of the cask strength variety as part of the tour. I really enjoyed it and even got to dip my own bottle in wax. While this product was initially only sold at the distillery, distribution now covers the entire US.
Some more commentary on wheated bourbon: while rye is the most common secondary grain used in bourbon, there are a handful that replace it with wheat, creating different senses. The Pappy Van Winkle and Weller lines are by and far the most well known and sought after groups of wheated bourbons, including the Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 and Weller Antique 107. Wheat is supposed to help create a smoother and sweeter bourbon, whereas rye adds spice and mint. Think about the difference between wheat bread and rye bread, and you can imagine how the two might taste different in bourbon. Let’s give it a try.
Maker’s Mark did not exaggerate when they said “smooth”. The first sniff is incredibly smooth and mellow, with only a hint of the 55% alcohol hidden inside that you would expect to flatten you. Even as I sniff harder to try to overwhelm my nose, it still doesn’t happen. The smells are also incredibly “amped-up” as Maker’s Mark says. There’s a combination of honey, brown sugar, maple syrup, caramel, and vanilla that screams pecan pie. The scent is especially prominent when I’m nearly done and all I can smell is the liquid that coats the glass. Additional sniffs also reveal some wood oak and cinnamon, as is expected from bourbon. The sweet notes are strong, but stand-out enough to balance the alcohol and wood.
On top of the sweetness, there are strong floral, herbal, grassy, and earthy notes, like standing in the middle of a field, as well as a touch of sourdough bread and yeast. This combination of sweet and floral also reminds me of sweet tea with only a dash of sugar. All in all, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength smells like you’re walking through a field in the middle of summer with a pecan pie in your hand going to your friend’s house for dinner. It’s a lovely smell.
No surprise, but this tastes like it smells. Every sip is intense, yet smooth and complex. The alcohol is noticeable but never overpowering for me, but nevertheless may overwhelm others. On my first sip, I immediately notice a moderate sweetness of brown sugar. The longer I leave it in my mouth, the more I taste the cinnamon and wood spice as the alcohol coats my mouth and begins to burn.
On subsequent sips where I intentionally leave the liquid in my mouth for 10 seconds, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength develops citrus, cherry, herbal, and sour cornmeal flavors (but only a little). The taste of sour cornmeal, like bourbon mash right before distillation, also appears. It’s a little sweet and savory from the corn, but also sour from fermentation. For me, the sour note is unique to Maker’s Mark. If you ever get a chance to try the mash while on a tour, definitely go for it. Just make sure you ask for permission first from your guide.
The aftertaste is grassy and floral. After I swallow, there immediately is a gentle dryness and bitterness, reminiscent of black tea. There’s also something there akin to salted peanuts. The aftertaste is not as sweet as expected given its smell and taste, but that’s not a bad thing. This leaves my mouth pretty dry, especially when I leave it in my mouth for 10+ seconds.
With only a few wheated bourbons in the market, and many of them extremely difficult to find (e.g., Weller, Pappy, Parker’s Heritage), and most mass-market competition coming from Larceny and Rebel Yell, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is an excellent buy, even at the $50-60 price point. As controversial as this may sound, I think this is better than Van Winkle Special Reserve 12 and Weller Antique 107. I highly recommend Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, and have actually purchased 4 of these smaller bottles because it’s just that good.