Dizzy Recap: Maker’s Mark Distillery Visit

Sipping Maker's Mark at the source in Loretto, Ky.

Just as Bourbon Heritage Month came to a close last month, I was invited* to embark on a trip to Loretto, Ky, to visit the Maker’s Mark Distillery–my first-ever visit to a commercial distillery. On a 90-degree September day, I arrived at the Maker’s Mark campus — a sprawling collection of quaint black barn-like buildings with bright red trim — to see firsthand how the iconic red wax-capped Kentucky bourbon is made.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived–after an hourlong ride from the Louisville airport, which featured scenery of vast tobacco farms, Jesse James-era taverns, and one property with an endless collection of lawnmowers–was the sweet and sour aroma of fermenting grain. It’s fitting to compare the smell to baking bread, since the recipe for Maker’s Mark was reinvented in 1953 after Bill Samuels Sr. baked several loaves to experiment with various grain formulas. He settled on the use of winter wheat instead of the traditional, harsher rye, giving Maker’s Mark its signature soft finish.

At the boardroom, I was greeted by Victoria MacRae-Samuels, Director of Operations, and Dave Pudlo, Distillery Education Director.  I learned that the distillery has a long history, along with the Samuels family. Established in 1805 as a gristmill distillery, Maker’s Mark is the oldest working distillery on its original site, and a National Historic Landmark. A 10-acre spring-fed limestone lake provides pristine, iron-free water for the bourbon. Victoria told me how Bill Samuels Sr., a sixth-generation distiller, purchased the Loretto distillery the same year that he set fire to his 170-year old family recipe and created Maker’s Mark.

After a hearty lunch that included sliced ham with all the trimmings and Derby Pie (a chocolate and walnut tart doused in bourbon sauce) for dessert, Dave led me on an intensive tour of the distillery. I saw how the corn, malted barley and winter wheat are first inspected and then sent through and old-fashioned rollermill, and then the grain is cooked in a massive open cooker. Dave even let me taste the sweet yeast that goes into Maker’s Mark, which uses cultures left over from one batch to the next, meaning that some cultures can be traced back to Pre-Prohibition.

After fermenting in large wooden vats, the mash is double distilled–once in a 16-plate copper column still that reaches through several floors of the distillery, and again in a copper pot still before reaching 130 proof. The white dog is then placed in charred white oak barrels and stored in warehouses (called rack houses or rickhouses) for six to seven years, and the barrels are rotated from top down to ensure temperature variation. Finally, a panel of tasters (who wouldn’t want that job!) select barrels at different stages and balance them for the final bottling at 90 proof.

For more than 50 years, Maker’s Mark has proudly stuck to their one expression of bourbon, but in June of this year, the brand turned heads by releasing something for the next generation of whiskey drinkers–Maker’s 46. Developed by former Master Distiller Kevin Smith ( recently hired as Beam Global Spirits & Wine’s Director of Bourbon and Distillery Operations), the classic Maker’s Mark is aged an additional two months or so in barrels featuring seared French oak staves–not charred, but seared. This wood “recipe” was the 46th variation created by Brad Boswell of the Independent Stave Company, giving the new bottling its name. The result is a more toasted version of Maker’s Mark, featuring bolder spice yet still lots of vanillans and a soft, long finish. Best of all, the 94-proof Maker’s 46 is only about $10 more than the original Maker’s, retailing for about $35.

Maker’s Mark goes to great lengths to retain the level of craftsmanship that started their brand, and this was apparent throughout every step of my visit. It’s why the labels on the bottles feature Marjorie Samuels’ (wife of Bill Samuels Sr.) original lettering and each bottle is hand-dipped in wax. This year, Dave said Maker’s Mark hopes to produce 1 million cases, a company milestone. About 25,000 cases of Maker’s 46 are expected to be released this year.

I want to thank Victoria, Dave, and new Maker’s Mark Master Distiller Greg Davis for showing me such hospitality, and also to Evins Communications for arranging my visit.

If you have the opportunity to visit Maker’s Mark or any other stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail,  do it–you’ll experience an American tradition, and best of all, taste the results.

View of the distillery's main operations building.

Mash ferments in large wooden vats for several days.

An open display of the Maker's 46 barrel featuring staves of seared French oak.

At Maker's Mark warehouses, barrels are rotated down six floors for six to eight years.

Shiny copper stills at the distillery.

My tour guide, Dave Pudlo, Distillery Education Director.

*Maker’s Mark paid for my travel and accommodations. I was not compensated in any other way or expected to write a review.

Elsewhere in the Liquiverse…

 

Brooklyn. Bowling. Brothers. Bourbon!

  • September is Bourbon Heritage Month (complete with these NYC events and the Kentucky Bourbon Festival Sept. 14-19), and naturally, this is cause for celebration. Kick off the brown spirit-soaked festivities tomorrow night at Brooklyn Bowl, where Maker’s Mark is hosting the first Brooklyn Bourbon Bowl. You can count on two reserved lanes of free bowling, live music, and $5 Maker’s Mark drinks, Brooklyn Pilsner and Maker’s Mark frozen slushies from 8 p.m. to midnight. Don’t miss Brothers among the rock ‘n’ roll lineup, featuring actual twin brothers Dylan and (Prime Meats bartender) Damon Boelte. 61 Wythe Ave., Brooklyn. Free; Maker’s Mark drink specials.
  • Audrey Saunders’ iconic NYC cocktail bar Pegu Club recently turned 5; check out Sonya Moore’s recap here. Meanwhile, Alphabet City mainstay Louis 649 turns 6 tomorrow, with a happy hour from 6 to 9 p.m. featuring half-priced bottles of wine and beer and $9 cocktails.
  • Autumn is the season for new bar openings in New York, and Metromix has a long list of watering holes on the horizon. And you can add Whiskey BrooklynPeels (from the Freemans team) and Lambs Club at The Chatwal Hotel (bar program by Sasha Petraske) to the list of just-now-open bars–go warm up those fresh bar stools!

Brothers. Photo by Jason Goodrich.

The Whiskey Brooklyn, now open at 44 Berry St., Brooklyn.

Sip & Tell: Stephen Yorsz of Maker’s Mark

Steve Yorsz loves his job.

Stephen Yorsz loves his job.

[Sip & Tell features barstool interviews with spirits industry professionals.]

Maker’s Mark, that trusty Kentucky bourbon, has not changed one damn bit since the Samuels family reinvented their recipe in 1953. Red winter wheat in the mash, as opposed to rye, gives the bourbon a smooth balance, and the brand is known for producing small batches aged in charred oak barrels for five to seven years, producing a subtly sweet caramel flavor. It’s also considered a whisky (instead of a “whiskey”) due to the brand’s Scottish heritage.

Here in New York City, the brand is having an interesting moment as more and more bars are using brown spirits to create classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan. Maker’s Mark, most popularly ordered on the rocks, is available at just about every bar in the city, from dirty dive to upscale lounge. For decades, ordering a bourbon or whisky neat or on the rocks was an act of rebellion against the candy cocktails of the Cosmo era, but now that fresh-ingredient cocktails and pre-Prohibition cocktails are in vogue, ordering straight bourbon doesn’t seem as sophisticated. (Of course, most people who order bourbon straight don’t care what anyone thinks, anyway.)

When it comes to using bourbon in cocktails, some mixologists prefer more super-premium, small-batch bourbons, or rye whiskey, which has come back in style, while Maker’s Mark’s is one of the top-selling whiskys (behind Jack Daniels and Jim Beam). NYC Maker’s Mark Distillery Diplomat Stephen Yorsz says crafty cocktailians who roll their eyes at Maker’s are missing out. “Don’t confuse commercial success with lack of quality,” he said.

Stephen admits he has a pretty “cheddar” job–touting Maker’s Mark is not a hard sell–after all, it’s an American icon with its red wax seal and loyal fan base. Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club calls Maker’s Mark “incredible bourbon that created and defined the premium bourbon category.”

Given Stephen’s background as a bartender for hotspots such as Home, Guesthouse, and STK, it’s not surprising that he wants to bring Maker’s into trendier enclaves like Simyone Lounge (formerly Lotus). While Stephen credits the cocktail renaissance with encouraging more people to break out of their vodka comfort zone and try brown spirits, he doesn’t see why bourbon can’t move from places like Employees Only into the nightlife scene as well, where Grey Goose and Patron still rule. At the same time, he takes pride in the brand’s history as a no-nonsense spirit.

“Maker’s Mark is premium, but not exclusive,” he said. “Anyone from Joe Schmo to Heidi Klum will drink it because they like it. And that’s the beauty of it–it’s a common thread–the camaraderie over the one product.”

"West Side" at The Jane Hotel (Maker's Mark, Amaro, honey liqueur)

"West Side" at The Jane Hotel (Maker's Mark, Amaro, honey liqueur)