Sunday, July 9, 2017

Maker's Mark Private Select Needs a Better Name

Many producers have private barrel programs, in which a customer selects and buys an entire barrel of mature whiskey. The contents of the barrel are bottled, usually with a personalized label, and delivered to the customer through the usual channels. Liquor stores do it. Bars and Restaurants do it. Private individuals do it too, often as part of a group. It is a fun experience and an easy way to 'make your own whiskey.' No special skills are required. You just need money and time.

But the Maker's Mark Private Select program is so unlike those other private barrel programs, the generic name doesn't do it justice. With the Maker's program, you aren't just choosing a whiskey, you actually customize it.

Here's the story.

In 2010, Maker's Mark had a problem. Its new corporate masters, the Jim Beam folks, were demanding innovation, i.e., new products.

New products are the lifeblood of most businesses. They generate buzz and increase top-of-mind awareness, which increases sales. Shareholders like innovation and, at that time, Beam was part of a public company.

But Maker's Mark has always been different. Although they had messed around with packaging and proof, they had really only ever made one product, aged-to-taste Maker's Mark bourbon. It was the only product made at the Loretto distillery and it was made nowhere else. They did things other people didn't, such as moving barrels around in the warehouses (called 'barrel rotation'), for the express purpose of creating a consistent product barrel-to-barrel, bottle-to-bottle, glass-to-glass.

They had been doing these things for all 50 years of their existence. They weren't good at making news. That's why company president Bill Samuels Jr. had to dress funny.

As he and other company representatives said repeatedly, "We already make the best bourbon we know how to make. How can we make it better?"

The answer was to make something that was still Maker's Mark, not better, just different. Thus Maker's 46 was born. Maker's 46 is a finished whiskey. It is mature Maker's Mark finished in barrels into which specially-prepared French oak panels have been added. The finishing takes about nine weeks.

Private Select takes the 46 concept a bit further.

When they were working on 46, they did a lot of experimentation with different woods and different ways of toasting them to bring out different flavors. Each experiment was given a number. The one they liked best was number 46, hence the name.

But then they realized, along with their partners in wood at the Independent Stave Company, that one wood prepared one way was just the beginning. What if you developed other woods? What if you combined them? What if you let customers combine them? How many different whiskeys could you make?

With Private Select, you have five different woods (all oak, U.S. or French, toasted differently), which you mix and match on a board such as the one above. Maker's 46 is one of the options. You work with samples of Maker's finished with each of the woods, so it's a blending project. What you create and taste in the blending session should be very close to the way your final barrel will taste.

They've been doing it since 2015. Forty-one barrels were created in the 2015-2016 season, for accounts in seven states. During the 2016-2017 season it was 239 barrels in 18 states plus the District of Columbia and Japan. They are doing about one a day now.

Suggested retail is $69.95 for a 750ml bottle (cask strength), which gives you a rough idea of how much it costs, since a barrel should yield about 250 bottles. Right now the program is available only to commercial accounts, not private individuals or groups.

There is more to tell, but that should be enough to explain why it needs a better name.


Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

I think we should be happy they don't have a better name for it. It could become TOO popular.

But you are right, what MM is doing is incredible, IMO. Since I have never taken part in it, I can't comment on how closely their samples predict the final product. But according to K&L, they hit it right on the mark.

I know many don't respect MM (especially the newly born "bourbon snobs"), but I like regular MM, love 46 and think MM Cask Strength is among the best bourbons on the market. This Private Select program is just icing on the cake. Of course, in the hands of the wrong people, they can probably ruin an otherwise great whiskey.

Richnimrod said...

Unfortunate that the powers that be rule pout selection by a private individual or group. I would LOVE to do this, along with some friends, of course. I bet some unique and amazing results would ensue. Maybe at some point.......?

Stacy Thomas said...

Chuck, what is the range of prices one might expect to pay to buy an entire barrel and have it bottled? Understand it will vary with the product but what might be a representative range excluding extreme high-end products?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Very roughly, $5,000 to $10,000.

Unknown said...

Perhaps a stupid question - as the finishing staves are all oak, is this still considered bourbon? How about straight bourbon?

Chuck Cowdery said...

It is considered 'straight bourbon with..." Even though the wood is oak, adding wood to the barrel is a no-no for straight bourbon. That doesn't mean you can't do it, but it has to be disclosed.