The first stop on the PeguWife’s and my Great American Cross-Country Barcrawl was Monday morning in Loretto, Kentucky. This little period piece of a mid-20th Century rural American town where I doubt an Aviation, Sidecar, or Daiquiri has ever been tasted might seem an odd place to begin an month-long examination of America’s cocktail culture, but appearances can be deceiving. In the hinterlands beyond Loretto, where the GPS throws up its hands and says, “I got nothin’,” is a tiny valley with a small sign at the mouth. This place is the definition of what people in this environ call, “The Holler”. In this holler you will find the unique, charming, and very successful Maker’s Mark distillery.
Until the 1980’s, Maker’s Mark had never been sold outside of Kentucky, yet it has a history of family ownership, which continues to this day in an operational capacity, going back six generations to Scottish ancestors who made a very different brown liquor. While they still consider themselves a “small-batch” distiller, the brand is one of the leading premium American whiskeys today.
Maker’s Mark is my lower-case b bourbon. In other words, if a recipe doesn’t specify a particular brand of bourbon, I’ll make it the first time with Maker’s Mark and I know it will work quite well. Maker’s is very smooth while still flavorful. The biggest reason for this is that they use a high amount of corn in their mash bill, and no rye at all. Instead they use wheat, which I think is responsible for the distinctly “very bourbony” taste of the whiskey.
Should you have the opportunity to visit the holler, the tour is well worth your time. It is a work of art, both as entertainment and marketing, and a wealth of information as well.
The grounds are gorgeous, and give a wonderful feel of 19th Century prosperity. It’s fabulous visual sleight of hand. For instance, they want you to feel as if they are just a little old ‘shine operation gone legit that still gets its precious product to market thusly:
The tour takes you through the operation from grist mill to packaging. Jeff Holmes, our guide, took use through the process step by step. Much of the Maker’s Mark production uses very old equipment, to good effect.
Many of the brewing vats where fermentation takes place are nearly century old wooden vessels. The aroma is just about overwhelming when you enter the fermenting room… overwhelmingly delicious. It’s also hot, as all that yeast does it work. The group crowded around the vat as Jeff explained the process. This vat holds 9,500 gallons. Don’t let the picture deceive you. They are almost two stories tall, extending well down into the floor.
Once the beer is fermented, the solids are separated and sold to Land O’ Lakes dairies to end up (eventually) as milk. The liquid is distilled and will yield only about 1,000 gallons of whiskey (before aging). Maker’s runs its whiskey first through a fast continuous column still to about 120 proof, then pot-distills it gently the rest of the way to 130. Before barreling, they dilute the white dog back down to 110 proof. They do this because they believe that higher proof will draw out undesirable flavors from the barrels during aging.
There are a few barrel warehouses right at the distillery, with a huge field of them down the highway about a mile or so. Maker’s Mark puts its newest barrels on the top of each warehouse where the heat is greatest, to start the aging, then rotates them lower in later years to finish out the six plus years.
For the entire time the distillery has been known as Maker’s Mark, they have produced one and only one product. Until last year. Last Summer saw the introduction of Maker’s Mark 46, a new expression of Maker’s Mark. To produce 46, Maker’s uses the exact same whiskey up until it has aged nearly six years, then during its last Winter of aging, the barrels are opened and ten staves of toasted French white oak are dropped in.
All bourbon is by law aged only in new, charred, American white oak barrels, so the different wood lends a new set of mellow flavors. It also makes 46 even smoother than regular Maker’s Mark.
When Jeff asked us if anyone knew the origin of the 46, the former Australian TV star who was on the tour with us suggested, “Because No. 7 was already taken?” (He had just gotten there from Lynchburg….) The actual answer is that 46 is the bin number at the cooperage where the french oak staves are stored.
In all honesty, I prefer the original for my purposes. 46 is remarkably smooth, and if you like your bourbon straight or neat, which isn’t my desire, I can see it’s fabulous. But in cocktails, I think that smoothness doesn’t hold up against other ingredients and ends up bland. Both are great bourbons, but choose wisely based on your intent.
Once the bourbon has done its time in barrel, it is sent to the bottlery. If you are lucky, this operation will be going full blast during your tour, as it was for ours. I was amused to see that the bottles are washed, not with water, but with Maker’s Mark! And once filled, the most recognizable element in Maker’s Mark’s packaging takes place, the dipping of the top into red liquid plastic. It’s a lot of fun to watch the folks on that line do the dip, lift, and twirl.
But the coolest thing is the station where you can suit up in protective gear and dip your own bottle as a souvenir!
The following product, a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon, hand-dipped by me at the distillery, were recently provided to me as promotional consideration to encourage me to discuss it.
For a complete disclosure of my policies regarding promotional items and all other financial interests, please click this link, or follow the
Liquor Fairylink in the header of this page.