Friday, November 4, 2022

Has Maker's Mark Jumped the Shark?


The latest release in the Maker's Mark Wood Finishing Series: BRT-01 & BRT-02

Would you pay $120 to taste Maker's Mark's mistakes? That is the proposition underlying these two new releases from Loretto. 

Mistakes, you say? Back in 2010, Maker's Mark very publicly agonized over the decision to release its first line extension, Maker's Mark 46. Why? Because from its humble beginnings as a family-owned distillery in the 1950s, Maker's always maintained that they make one bourbon and it is the best bourbon they know how to make. As then Master Distiller Kevin Smith said in 2009, Maker's is a small distillery and struggles to make enough standard Maker's Mark without trying to make something else too. Back when Dave Pickerell was Master Distiller, he let people taste 10-year-old Maker's to show them how bad it is. But that was then. 

Under pressure from Jim Beam, its new parent, Maker's launched Maker's Mark 46 in 2010. They insisted it was still 'perfect' Maker's Mark, but with a little something extra. "Not better, just different" was their mantra. "Think of it as a change-of-pace for the Maker's drinker," they said. "A way to enjoy something a little different but still in the family." Its very name testified to their resistance, since only on their 46th attempt did they come up with something they were willing to share. 

It got much easier after that.

Here is how they explain these two new iterations: "Our fourth Maker’s Mark® Wood Finishing Series may be the easiest way to taste your way through the rickhouse. The name BRT was given to these expressions because of the influence our consistent practice of hand-barrel rotation (BRT) and temperature has on our whisky process. Made to be enjoyed as a pair, BRT-01 is inspired by the tasting notes found at the hotter top of the rickhouse, and BRT-02 is inspired by tasting notes found at the cooler bottom. Together, they give people the unique opportunity to experience where the characteristics responsible for the original Maker’s Mark® come from, so they can reach a new level of understanding of whisky."

Suggested retail is $59.99 each (750 ml) so for a mere $120, you can taste two perfectly incorrect versions of 'perfect' Maker's Mark, its yin and yang

What the copywriter meant to write was "taste notes" not "tasting notes," but that is not the heart of the problem. 

The 'Wood Finishing Series' is so called because it features different secondary wood finishes, like Maker's 46 itself. From that description, this release seems to have nothing to do with secondary wood finishes. Instead, it is meant to demonstrate what happens when Maker's doesn't complete its rotation cycle. Maybe it should be called the Wood Unfinished Series?

Except that is not what it is. Notice the words 'inspired by' in the product description above. From the movies, we know what 'inspired by' means, as in 'inspired by a true story.' It means true, but not quite. In this case, 'inspired by' means these are secondary wood finishes after all. A demonstration of the 'whisky process' it is not, but rather a symbolic simulation of it, and one of dubious value. 

Tucked away at the bottom of the press release is this: "BRT-01...uses American oak staves to dial up the flavors developed over the first three years of aging" while "BRT-02...uses French oak staves to dial up the flavors developed over its final years of aging." In what way do American oak staves simulate the "hotter top of the rickhouse" and French oak staves simulate "the cooler bottom"? That is not explained. 

Barrel rotation has long been a token of what Maker's Mark calls their “purposeful inefficiency.” They love to talk about it. The story goes like this. Long ago, most distilleries routinely moved all or most of their barrels within the warehouse to even-out the aging process, because barrels in different locations can age very differently. Barrels were 'rotated' the same way players change positions on a volleyball court. Barrels of new make entered at the top and, step by step, rolled to the bottom like bottles in a vending machine. When a barrel got to the end, it was ready to drink.

As you can imagine, moving barrels around like that takes a lot of labor. Because of the expense it is rarely done today. Maker's doesn't rotate everything, only some barrels 'as needed,' but more than other producers. They say it is necessary because they use small dump tanks. It is easy to smooth out differences when you dump hundreds of barrels for each bottling batch. A bottling batch for Maker's is more like 20 barrels, so they need all of them to be 'right,' hence rotation. 

The problem with talking about 'hand-barrel rotation' is that most people don't know what you're talking about unless you explain it thoroughly. (Sticking 'hand' in there doesn't help.) Hearing the term without an explanation, one probably assumes the barrel itself is rotated, as in spun around for some mysterious purpose, like riddling Champagne bottles. 

In this case, it doesn't matter what one thinks 'hand-barrel rotation' means, because that is not what is going on here. This is a simulation of barrel rotation's effects and a seemingly arbitrary one at that. 

In the real world, a barrel that spends too much time in the upper, hotter part of the warehouse will tend to taste too woody. We'd call it overaged. A barrel that spends the same amount of time in the lower, cooler part of the warehouse may taste immature, too green. You rotate to even that out. Does anything about this product tell you any of that? 

Remember, Maker's stated intention with BRT-01 and BRT-02 is to help us "reach a new level of understanding of whisky." Instead we get word salad, 'buzz' that is little more than irritating noise. No one is edified. Maker's Mark used to resist this sort of thing, but has yielded to the News Monster like everyone else. 

For the record, a 750 ml bottle of 'perfect' Maker's Mark is still about $30. 


Anonymous said...

You are so mean, when you’re honest!!

Anonymous said...

I’m going to say this until someone listens. Drop the stave chicanery and just do age stated cask strength special releases. A 10 or 12 yr would be great.

Brian (AKA The Dean) said...

Every Maker's Mark variant I've had the opportunity to try (Cask Strength, 46, Private Selection, etc.) has been an excellent drink. I have ZERO issues with the stave finishes, thought they aren't necessary for me to enjoy MM.

With that said, as with most Distillers (and most makers of any given product) the marketing people seem to know how to make a mess of things. Unnecessary BS for what I imagine is very fine whiskey

Anonymous said...

Thank you kindly for including the bottom of the press release. Everything I had read led me to believe that these two offerings were indeed from thee top and from thee bottom of rickhouse(s). I love Maker's, especially 46, but not interested in trying essentially Private Selects that have puffers added.

Rob K said...

I wish smaller successful companies would stop selling out to majors

Tom Johnson said...

Really good posting, the kind of thing I suspect most whiskey writers would be afraid to write for career reasons. Well done.

Anonymous said...

1. "Jumping the shark" is one of my favorite expressions and 2. yes, MM's has jumped the shark but there's a lot of that in the bourbon world lately (many years) and I say that as someone who loves bourbon. I guess it could be argued that chicanery is part of American whiskey and bourbon tradition, so there's that. Personally, I'd prefer that every distillery did whatever they want (without sacrificing integrity of contents) and offer it at market prices - let the aged and honey barrel stuff cost more - at prices set by producers, not secondary market. A bit more like the Scotch market. Sure, there's room for limited bottlings, limited barrels, etc. But don't tell me that Weller, Buffalo Trace, Sazerac Rye and the like are "rare" and "allocated". Well, Scotch scene isn't entirely blameless (cough-cough Macallan). The good news is: there's plenty of fish in the whisk(e)y loch.

Anonymous said...

Will we get an update on makers and their age preferences now that they're releasing an age stated bourbon?