June 19th, 2010

Birth of a bourbon

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When Maker’s Mark president Bill Samuels Jr. and his master distiller, Kevin Smith, decided to make their company’s first new bourbon in over 50 years, they could have gone the well-traveled route: an extra-aged, high-proof whiskey with “reserve” in the name (and a price tag well over $50). But their whole philosophy goes against the whopping spice, caramel, smoke and tannic flavors that can come from extended time in charred oak barrels. They’re all about toasty, mellow, vanilla — a flavor profile they get by blending whiskey from barrels that rotate through three-story rickhouses (barrel-aging warehouses) for a “mere” six to eight years, compared to 12-20+ for some boutique bourbons. So, they decided to simply take their regular Maker’s Mark bourbon and amp it up it somehow. But how? Enter the wood chef.

I admit I laughed when I heard that term, too. (Disclosure: Maker’s Mark flew me down to Kentucky to check out the distillery.) But I realized it wasn’t a stretch when I talked to the chef himself, Brad Boswell of the Independent Stave Company. Boswell’s family has been making oak barrels for aging spirits and wine for 98 years. And lately, they have brought a healthy dose of science to their medieval craft. They begin with a thorough understanding of the chemical composition of different species of oak, and of the appropriate length of seasoning (aging oak staves in the open air) for the intended beverage. Then they cook the staves or finished barrels according to a library of recipes that “pinpoint layers of flavor” between toasted and charred, says Boswell. Basically, he can make you a barrel that imparts to its contents the exact characteristics you’re looking for.

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In Maker’s Mark’s case, those characteristics were “sweet toasty oak, not smoky. Forward on the palate. Long finish. No sour or bitter aftertaste. A little spicy,” say my notes from a conversation with Smith. But the distiller knew that that particular combo of spicy notes and long finish typically go hand in hand with at least a bit of smokiness, sourness and bitterness. “We were asking for the impossible,” says Smith. In fact, they were asking for something that couldn’t be achieved with any sort of aging regime in the charred barrels that are standard to the bourbon industry. (The wood on the inside of the barrel is literally blackened with fire.)

It took 125 experiments — many of which “sucked,” says Smith — to hit upon the right wood recipe, one that was entirely new in bourbon making. It begins with French, rather than the standard American, oak staves. Those staves are seasoned for a long 18 months, which lowers the wood’s tannins and intensifies its vanillins. Boswell then tried a new cooking technique: he seared the staves on both sides, like a steak, to just short of charred. Boswell catalogued this recipe as Profile No. 46.

Smith arrayed 10 of the staves in an empty Maker’s barrel, then poured the fully matured bourbon back in to rest for about nine weeks. The combination of the seasoned French oak and Boswell’s searing method gave just the sweet toastiness and spicy notes — think cinnamon instead of rye bread — that Maker’s wanted. Samuels and Smith had their new product, and they decided to name it Maker’s 46, after Boswell’s special wood recipe.

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This may all sound pretty esoteric, but the result is a bourbon quite different from Maker’s Mark. The 46 has a dry spiciness, a rich texture and a higher proof (94 compared to 90 for the flagship) that are sure to appeal to the bourbon, and even rye, adventurer, without alienating the devoted Maker’s Mark drinker. And it’s reasonably priced at about $10 more than traditional Maker’s, which is usually $23 to $25. Maker’s 46 will be available in Boston sometime next month.

The 70-year-old Samuels, a seventh-generation distiller who is nearing retirement, seems pleased by the new whiskey. He admits that it arose partly out of market demand for something new and exciting from Maker’s, which largely created the premium bourbon category that is now exploding. But he also wanted to be remembered for something other than faithfully reproducing his father’s bourbon recipe from the 1950s. Now his nightmares of a tombstone that says, simply, “He didn’t screw it up,” are over.

Coming up: my tour of the Kentucky bourbon trail.

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8 Responses to “Birth of a bourbon”

  1. Jen

    I was just visiting a friend in Louisville over Memorial Day weekend and got to visit Maker’s Mark. It was a very good tour. It was one of my favorite parts about visiting Louisville. I became an ambassador. Unfortunately, we did not have time to tour the Bourbon Trail. We did pass Heaven Hill Distillery on the drive to Maker’s Mark but decided to go on to Maker’s Mark.

  2. ljclark

    Jen, the Maker’s distillery is indeed quite a place. What do you have to do to be an ambassador? Hopefully you got to sample some good bourbons while you were in Louisville!

  3. Patrick Maguire

    What a great field trip! All in the interest of research, of course. Fascinating to hear the detail about Maker’s 46. Please give us a heads up when you hear about availability in Boston, retail and restaurants. Thank you-PM

  4. ljclark

    Should be available at your finer restaurants and bars sometime in July, Patrick. Cheers!

  5. Rip

    Why is it I’m constantly in a heightened state of rarified jealousy whenever I read your blog?

    Congratulations on the trip to Maker’s and thanks for the sharing. I’m quite eager to try 46.

  6. Elsewhere in the Liquiverse… « The Dizzy Fizz

    [...] distillers will be launching their first new bourbon in 50 years, Maker’s 46, next month. Check out blogger DrinkBoston.com’s report from Louisville on how the special edition bourbon is made–the secret lies in the seared French oak staves. [...]

  7. Adam

    Great post! Thanks for taking one for the team and heading all the way to KY so as to share this information with us. Next time you’re asked to bear such a burden, I would be willing to go in your place in order to help ease your obviously very high level of stress.

  8. drinkboston.com » Blog Archive » I drank Louisville, etc.

    [...] of Maker’s Mark, for taking me to Proof (and bringing me down to Kentucky to taste the new Maker’s 46). It’s not every day that I get to talk about bourbon and bourbon tourism with a rocket [...]

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