By Richard Thomas
It’s hard to understate the importance of Marker’s Mark, because either the revival of interest in premium, craft bourbons would have been much delayed or might not have taken place altogether. “Maker’s” was a small batch bourbon before small batches were in vogue, and thus the trailblazer that achieved real success and international recognition. Maker’s Mark was also the first label to diversify on a large scale, hawking everything from barbecue sauce to coffee and to turn its Loretto, Kentucky distillery into a real tourist destination. Truly, the T.W. Samuels family did the world a favor when they bought the old Burks’ Distillery in 1954, and started bottling Maker’s Mark bourbon whiskey in 1958. Even though Maker’s is now somewhat overshadowed by the better craft bourbons that followed it, it remains a fine, iconic label in Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey.
Maker’s Mark has one of the most recognizable presentations of any whiskey in the world, and definitely the most recognizable of any Kentucky bourbon. The neck of Marker’s square-based bottle is dipped in red wax to seal the stopper, creating the best-known image of bourbon whiskey. People who have never heard of Elijah Craig know about Maker’s Mark and its red wax. The coloring of the whiskey is amber-gold.
The distinctive style of Maker’s Mark starts with its mash recipe, which replaces rye with larger portions of barley and winter wheat. While Maker’s is mostly corn, just like all bourbon whiskey, the lack of any rye in the mash is still unusual and was almost unique in the 1950s. Maker’s is also odd in that it is not aged for any specified length of time past the minimum two years mandated by Federal law. The whiskey goes from the still into the charred oak barrels, and those barrels are rotated about the aging warehouse during the year to take maximum advantage of temperature differences in the building (another odd touch from Maker’s Mark) and improve the consistency of the aging process. The barrels are periodically sampled, and when taster decides a barrel is ready, it is pulled off the shelf and sent down to bottling. After filtering and blending, Maker’s Mark is bottled at 90 proof (45%).
The Maker’s Mark experience is noted mostly for its sweetness, which was another departure from old school bourbon-making at the time. The nose is fruity with hints of caramel, while the palate is thickly sweet, like molasses. The whiskey goes down with a smooth finish. Overall, it’s a pleasant, simple bourbon that is easy for anyone to enjoy, which goes a long way to explaining Maker’s continuing popularity.
Addendum by S.D. Peters
In the decanter Maker’s Mark at first brings to mind William Carlos Williams’ poem “This Is Just To Say”. It’s carmine hue, which shows off well in the glass, is similar to Casselman plums, and suggests a summer sweetness that the nose confirms. Toffee plays about the edges of mellow, vanilla-infused summer fruit, charged with a hint of ozone and a dash of pine needles.
If those notes seem incongruous in print, they make perfect (though peculiar), sense after a taste. The medium body glides smoothly over the tongue, drawing out a bouquet of plum, ripening nectarine, and white chocolate. Take a languid, drawn-in breath as the long finish settles, and a passing sensation of thyme invokes the scent of a thundershower just-passed through an ancient forest.
Maker’s Mark is an easy Bourbon to enjoy, and a great “starter whiskey”. Inclined to imbibe, but put-off by the spicier notes rye imparts to most Bourbon mashbills? Then pour yourself a glass of Maker’s Mark and let it mellow on the rocks for a spell. I think you’ll also taste the poetry.
The standard 750ml bottle of Maker’s Mark often goes for less than $20 on store shelves, and should usually be priced below $25 in the United States, variations in state liquor taxes permitting.