The Private Select Process:
Maker’s Mark offers one of the most unique “single barrel” offerings in the world of whiskey.
For most whiskeys, a single barrel is a self-explanatory term. Instead of blending a bunch of barrels together before bottling, a “single barrel” is a whiskey barreled from just one barrel. The idea being that each barrel yields slightly different characteristics, and you can often find a true gem. Why might a barrel be different? Certainly the origins or build of the barrel plays some part in it, but generally barrels from different warehouses, different locations within a warehouse, or different temperature regions in a warehouse, can be quite different.
Maker’s Mark’s process is different, and that comes somewhat out of necessity. A bit of background is necessary. Most distilleries put whiskey in a barrel, roll it off to a warehouse, and leave it sit until it is ready to be bottled. Maker’s is one of the few (only?) major distillery that rotates its barrels. Maker’s will take a barrel during the maturation process and move it to warmer or cooler locations in the warehouse, in attempt to cause each barrel to be as similar to one another as possible when ready to bottle. Because of the efforts made to create consistency from barrel to barrel, a “single barrel” of Maker’s shouldn’t be anything unique from a standard blended Maker’s Mark bottle.
Next in the background of this story comes Maker’s 46. Not too long ago, Maker’s introduced a product called Maker’s 46, which is a standard Maker’s bourbon that is “finished” in a re-used barrel that has ten wood staves added to it. A stave is the slat of wood used to create the outside of a barrel. Maker’s, through its research, developed the “Maker’s 46 stave,” ten of which are lined inside a used the barrel to create the Maker’s 46 bourbon. More on the staves below.
It is these staves which can set a normal Maker’s apart. What if Maker’s had other possible staves, and what if a customer could choose the type and number of staves to add to the finish process of ordinary blended together Maker’s Mark bourbon, and allow those combinations to create a single unique barrel of whiskey? That is exactly what Maker’s has done, the end product of which is by their terms a “Single Barrel”, or Private Select as they like to call it.
Now, if the only option was the “Maker’s 46” stave, then a Maker’s Single Barrel wouldn’t really be unique. So Maker’s took four other staves developed during the Maker’s 46 process and added them to the single barrel toolkit. Below is an overview of each stave, and what they add to the character.
Baked American Pure 2 (P2) – This stave is a normal wood slat that is baked in an oven “low and slow.” The process creates “notes of brown sugar, vanilla, caramel and spice.” In our experience, this stave added sweetness and sharp oak note.
Seared French Cuvée (Cu) – As the name implies, this is a French oak stave, unlike the traditional american oak. This stave is “ridge cut” (i.e., grooves are cut into it), and then seared with infrared heat. The process creates “toasty notes of oak and caramel.” Our take is that the Seared French Cuvée added intense butterscotch notes and maybe a little nuttiness.
Maker’s 46 (46) – This is the traditional Maker’s 46 stave that we discuss above. It is infrared baked French oak like the Seared French Cuvée, but without the grooves. This adds “dried fruit, vanilla and spice.”
Roasted French Mocha (Mo) – More French Oak, but baked in a conventional oven at high temperatures. This process adds “char, maple and cacao.” In our experience, Roasted French Mocha means chocolate notes and a long finish.
Toasted French Spice (Sp) – This is French oak in a convection oven, cooked first at a high temperature and then a low temperature. Expected flavors are “smoke, coumarin and spice” We experienced dry, tannic smoke from this stave, with a bit of cinnamon and fruit.
Prior to selecting our barrel, the “team” (Scott Hill, Chris Crow, Eric Schroeder of Flight Club, and Tom, James and Keaton from Tom’s Wine and Spirits) pulled together as many different Private Select bottles using as many different recipes as we could find. Our goal was not to mimic one of those recipes, but instead to use the selections of others to help us isolate flavors that we like or didn’t like.
The experience was enlightening. In one evening a couple of weeks prior to our tasting, we sampled 10 different recipes. Each were not-surprisingly different, but the range of the flavors produced using the same source bourbon was surprising. We liked each, but there were certainly some take-aways to be used on selection day.
First, we found that Baked American Pure and the Seared French Cuvée each produced a significant sweetness. Too much of both without offsetting deeper flavors would not produce our desired result. Second, the Roasted French Mocha and the Toasted French Spice added body, finish and offsetting bittering notes that worked well with the sweetness. But too much of either or both produced a smoky, tannic experience that we didn’t care for. Third, the Maker’s 46 produced solid spicy vanilla notes and balance. And Fourth, we just don’t care for the Toasted French Spice.
To put this in a bit of formula (using P2-Cu-46-Mo-Sp), we left our homework session somewhere in the 3-3-2-2-0 range, with the P2-Cu combination being an interchangeable sum of 6.
We arrived out our selection location to find that Maker’s supplied separate bottles comprised of 10 staves of each stave – one bottle had 10 staves of P2, the next had 10 staves of Cu, and so on. The idea would be to blend these source bottles in 10% increments to replicate what a final product might taste like.
Our first blend began where our tasting left off. 2-4-2-2-0 and 4-2-2-2-0. To our surprise, the 2-4-2-2-0 came across as almost muted, as the range of sweetness across the experience seemed one dimensional and without interruption. By contrast, the 4-2-2-2-0 came across as much more aggressive, spicy, oaky and sharp. The nose on the 4-2-2-2-0 was fantastic, but the sharpness of the palate left some to be desired. By contrast, the nose on the 2-4-2-2-0 was muted, but the finish was ripe with butterscotch. We hadn’t hit gold yet, but we enjoyed the two experiences enough to not scrap the plan and start over, but instead continue to refine following these paths.
Our second sets of samples attempted to accomplish two things. First, while we were not settled with either of the 2-4-2-2-0 or 4-2-2-2-0, we did enjoy the level of sweetness that the combination brought. To refine, we thought we would head down a 3-3-2-2-0 path – something that brought the butterscotch and nut flavors, but in the same proportion as the crisp oak and vanilla. Second, we considered the remaining two elements to our blend – the Maker’s 46 stave and the Roasted French Mocha stave. (Interestingly, other than the elimination of the Toasted French Spice stave, these two staves were met with the most mixed reviews). On one of the next blends, we attempted to soften the spice/oak in favor of the softer chocolate flavors and a prolonged finish; on the other, an attempt to increase the fruit, vanilla and oak and soften potentially bittering chocolate and coffee notes.
Gold. We struck gold, or at least that was our feeling. The two combinations were fantastic. The 3-3-2-2-0 was rich with vanilla, caramel, toasted marshmallow and crisp apple and crisp oak. The 3-3-1-3-0 was terrific in terms of balanced sweetness, with rich butterscotch, vanilla, candied chocolate and milk chocolate. Sample 3-3-1-3-0 provided a complex experience that evolved over the nose, palate and finish. It began with a very inviting nose, continued to a rich and complex palate, and finished with a long, transitional finish that concluded with a tapering milk chocolate. The 3-3-1-3-0 became our overwhelming favorite, with the 3-3-2-2-0 coming in in second place.
We continued to tweak. The following two boards contained new iterations of the 3-3-1-3-0, this time with a 3-3-0-3-1 and 3-3-1-2-1. We poured second blend of the 3-3-1-3-0 to compare side by side. Both of these iterations attempted to refine the sweetness-balancing characteristics, like the oak, chocolate and coffee. Neither attempt was an improvement on the 3-3-1-3-0.
We kept attempting more tweaks on the 3-3-1-3-0 success. Boards of 4-3-0-3-0 and 3-2-2-3-0 were sampled. Each was a good product, but not an improvement over our 3-3-1-3-0.
While we felt we had exhausted the possible refinement to our 3-3-1-3-0 recipe, we didn’t want to quit without trying some very different paths. We sampled the selections of our friends in the Kansas City area selecting a barrel along side us, as well from another Wichita store that picked that morning. We attempted some combinations based upon some of the other bottles that we had previously tried, and some other odds-and-ends combinations. Many of these (including those selected by the other stores) were quite enjoyable. However, we were quite satisfied with our combination next to anything else we have sampled.
We are excited to bring what we have dubbed “Tom’s Mark” to Wichita. We think it is an outstanding whiskey, and something that both Maker’s fans and non-Maker’s fans alike will enjoy.
But while the bourbon itself is quite enjoyable, what we learned from this experience is the value of sharing great whiskey with friends. From the “Homework Night” to “Selection Day,” sharing whiskey with friends will create memories well beyond good bourbon. In honor of this, we have included the phrase “Guy’s Night” on the label. We encourage you to pick up a bottle and share it with friends (guys and gals alike).
Scott is a co-founder of Flight Club and a frequent writer and reviewer on the Club’s blog.