Limited release bourbons are the straw that stirs the drink when it comes to whiskey geek hype these days, but they’re still a pretty novel concept for Maker’s Mark. The iconic Kentucky wheated bourbon distillery has long favored a more simple and dignified product lineup at their distillery, focusing solely on wheated bourbon presented in a handful of expressions. Experimentation has come to the company over the years not via new mash bills or ultra-limited releases, but typically by playing with different types of toasted or roasted oak barrel staves, which the Maker’s 46 series made into a Maker’s Mark hallmark and prized proprietary technique.
Last year, however, the distillery acknowledged the demand for proper “LE” releases by putting out their first limited release bourbon, dubbed the first in the company’s Wood Finishing Series. In a manner similar to how Private Select barrels of cask-strength Maker’s Mark can be adjusted to the customer’s taste with a blend of finishing staves, the Wood Finishing Series sought to develop new stave profiles for each yearly release, which would be used to accentuate different dimensions of the classic Maker’s Mark bourbon profile. The first of these releases was last year, featuring the RC6 stave, which was meant to accentuate “notes of baking spice and fruit.” And for this year’s recently released limited edition whiskey, the company has gone all out by developing not one but TWO new staves, in honor of the 10th anniversary of the inspiration of Maker’s 46.
“Since the introduction of Maker’s Mark 46, wood staves have become our tool of choice for unlocking and amplifying natural flavors already present in our classic Maker’s Mark—always purposefully and with a specific taste vision in mind,” said Jane Bowie, Director of Innovation at Maker’s Mark in the company’s press release. “Where Maker’s Mark 46 was about creating a ‘bolder’ Maker’s, and the 2019 release was all about boosting the notes of baking spice and fruit, our 2020 Limited Release has been a quest to amp up those rich vanilla and buttery-caramel flavors that typically stem from our unique approach to seasoning our barrel wood outside for a full year.”
To do this, the distillery also has notably experimented with blending for the first time, in that they created two different stave profiles and then blended together bourbons that aged with those two different staves for varying amounts of time. The overall stave profile is dubbed SE4 X PR5—a bit unwieldy, but that’s limited release bourbon for you. Each is intended to draw different flavors out of the standard Maker’s Mark mash bill. SE4 is made “from Virgin French Oak, convection cooked at medium heat with a short toast period and responsible for much of the caramel flavor.” PR5, on the other hand is made “from Virgin American Oak and convection cooked at low heat very slowly over time to bring out vanilla.” The release is bottled at Maker’s relatively low cask strength, averaging out to 110.8 proof. MSRP is a very reasonable $60.
How successful are these new staves, and Maker’s first blended bourbon? Let’s get to tasting and find out.
On the nose, you immediately get that big waft of gooey caramel/vanilla bean that the distillery was surely going for, although there’s also substantial ethanol and roasty oak, segueing into a combination of torched cinnamon sticks and something pastry or confectionery like—warm sticky buns. I also get some caramel apple fruitiness, cocoa and hints of star anise and French oak spiciness. All in all, a pretty darn enticing nose, although it also suggests a bracing alcoholic presence even stronger than what you might expect for 110 proof.
On the palate, this Maker’s Mark heads in some interesting and not entirely expected directions. There’s tons of initial caramel and vanilla that is not quite as expressive as on the nose, but it then makes way for loads and loads of spice. Hot cinnamon shows up in spades, giving this a “spicy apple pie filling” vibe, transitioning into spicy oak that contributes more of a drying effect, but nothing too aggressive. It then heads into a panoply of baking spice notes and substantial heat. Make no mistake, the 110 proof of this one kicks assertively, which I imagine some fans may appreciate and others may find stronger than desired. In comparison with say, the 115 proof of something like Old Forester 1920, this feels demonstrably hotter to me, at least at first.
That sort of becomes a theme of this limited edition release—it is packed with bold, bombastic flavors rather than subtle ones. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a fact of its flavor profile—delicacy is not the draw here. Although the distillery focuses on “caramel and vanilla,” it should also be noted that oak is definitely an important player in this flavor profile, moreso than in most Maker’s Mark releases, with more of a “spicy oak” than “tannic oak” dimension.
All in all, I find this to be off the beaten path of Maker’s Mark releases, but in a genuinely enjoyable way. I also found that it seemed to be softening and sweetening in my glass over time, which bodes well for this bottle as I return to it in the future. To sum up: Expect big caramel, yes, but also big spice, substantial heat and more than a little oak. This is a barn-burner of a Maker’s Mark release, which is fitting of being the year’s “LE.”
Distillery: Maker’s Mark
City: Loretto, KY
Style: Cask-strength wheated bourbon
ABV: 55.4% (110.8 proof)
Availability: Limited, 750 ml bottles, $60 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.