Limited release whiskeys are still something of a novelty for Maker’s Mark, a company that got by for many years on a smaller than usual product lineup, focused entirely on their unique brand of wheated bourbon. It seems certain at this point, though, that limited release Maker’s Mark bourbons are here to stay, and the company has seen a good response so far to the first few releases of its “LEs,” dubbed the “Wood Finishing Series.” As with other Maker’s products such as Maker’s 46 or Maker’s Private Select, these whiskeys are created by giving them a secondary aging on proprietary oak staves created uniquely for each release, which is then put out at cask strength.
To date, this has resulted in two previous Wood Finishing Series batches in 2019 and 2020, each intended to highlight a different aspect of the classic Maker’s profile. The first, 2019’s RC6, was intended to highlight “notes of baking spice and fruit,” while the dual staves used in 2020, PR5 and SE4 were meant to amplify notes of caramel and vanilla, which we concluded was a rousing success. The 2021 release, however, is taking things in a decidedly new direction.
For the first time in this still-young series, the 2021 release will be split into two separate batches rather than one, with the first (FAE-01) in the spring and the second (FAE-02) in the autumn. This first batch, hitting shelves now, created a new virgin American oak stave that is “seared on one side and left raw on teh other, to amplify some of the signature dried fruit and oak flavors that Maker’s Mark is known for.” The distillery goes on to say the following:
The classic Maker’s Mark® Bourbon derives these tasting notes from naturally retained elements of barrel char and organic compounds called fatty acid esters (FAEs), which are responsible for both fruity tones and texture variations. Each side of the FAE-01 stave draws out different characteristics of these two flavor components – the charred side offers dark leathery tobacco notes, and the raw side yields fresh fruit, the two of which come together to create intense barrel-aged fruitiness. While 2021 Limited Release: FAE-01 focuses on drawing out specific flavors, 2021 Limited Release: FAE-02, arriving later this year, will be defined by its rich, weighty texture.
This sounds like an interesting departure to me, particularly in the sense that “dried fruit and oak” isn’t exactly how I’d typically describe the Maker’s Mark profile—rather, I think it tends to typically read as more dominated by caramelized sugars, vanilla and doughy wheat. What it sounds like to me is that this Wood Finishing Series is starting to zero in on some of the more subtle aspects of the Maker’s profile, which will likely yield whiskeys a bit further off the beaten path for this brand.
Regardless, the Maker’s Mark 2021 Wood Finishing Series FAE-01 release has the brand’s typically modest cask strength (110.3-110.6 proof), and will retail for an extremely reasonable $60. Here’s hoping you can find that at MSRP, and it doesn’t fall victim to increasingly common price gouging from package stores, but Maker’s should be commended for not simply using their LE program as an opportunity to set a sky-high price point.
With that said, let’s get to tasting and see how this Maker’s Mark limited release stands up to last year’s quality offering.
On the nose, the immediate impression is that this is indeed a fruit-forward bourbon, in a significantly different way than the classic Maker’s Mark. The fruit here is much darker, with a jammy streak to it, combining “bright” fruit and something more reduced and syrupy. Raspberry and cherry notes are quite nice, but they’re joined by some more unusual notes: Pencil shaving-like woodiness, along with a fair amount of nuttiness that evokes peanut shells, and some more “burnt”-like oakiness. After sitting in the glass for half an hour or so, when I returned to it I was suddenly met by a strong impression of French toast—all in all, a pretty unusual nose for Maker’s Mark, but I can dig it.
On the palate, my initial impressions are of dark berry jam, like blackberry/boysenberry, along with light caramel and significant char. There’s vanilla, but it’s a drier sense of vanilla without the residual sweetness one might expect. Indeed, this definitely seems less sweet/rich than some of the previous Maker’s Mark Wood Finishing Series releases like last year’s SE4 x PR5, but at the same time the alcohol presence on FAE-01 is more gently incorporated than last year’s, which was a bit on the fiery side. This gives FAE-01 the odd distinction of being rather drier and more oaky than last year’s release, but simultaneously being perhaps a bit more accessible thanks to a more gentle ethanol note. Where SE4 x PR5 was extremely bold, big and punchy, this one is less bombastic and more composed in its presentation, but it’s flavors are also more unusual for the brand.
When all is said and done, this is very interesting bourbon that explores some new dimensions for Maker’s Mark, but I think my taste hews a bit closer to the heart of the classic Maker’s profile. If, however, a Maker’s Mark variant celebrating more of a dark fruity/oaky dimension is something that sounds appealing for you, this FAE-01 release is pretty much exactly as advertised.
Distillery: Maker’s Mark (Beam Suntory)
City: Loretto, KY
Style: Wheated straight bourbon
ABV: 55.3% (110.6 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.