Maker’s Mark is one of the most iconic bourbon brands of the modern age. Bill and Margie Samuels lead the way, post-prohibition, in bourbon marketing, tourism, and helping people outside of Kentucky rediscover quality bourbon. Without Maker’s Mark, there is no doubt that bourbon would not be where it is today. Despite the fact that it was such a forward-thinking brand when they first started, for awhile it looked like Maker’s Mark was getting a bit stale. As other brands began to offer single barrel, barrel proof, or other special edition bottles, Maker’s Mark continued to provide their same product year after year. Their fans didn’t have a problem with this, but other bourbon lovers like myself passed on Maker’s Mark to try something new, something higher proof, or even better value for the price point.
They shook things up in 2010 with the introduction of Maker’s 46, which involves aging traditional Maker’s Mark in a barrel with French Oak staves inserted for an additional nine weeks. This was the first new variation of Maker’s Mark since they started 50 years prior. In 2014 they introduced a cask-strength version of Maker’s Mark and eventually sold a cask strength 46 in the gift shop of their distillery. Even with these change, Maker’s Mark resisted the urge to follow the lead of other bourbon brands and begin offering single barrel or another version of their product. They always maintained that their product was so consistent that barrels would have little difference between them, and that the product in their bottle was the best version of their bourbon.
All of that changed this year with the introduction of their Private Select program. At first glance, the Private Select program is just a cask-strength version of Maker’s 46 but with different combinations of wood staves. But the more I learned and thought about it; I realized that this program is on the cutting edge of consumer-brand interaction in the world of whiskey.
I learned a lot about the program when I interviewed Allen Shephard of The Stadium Liquor in Covington about his experience in creating a barrel with the Gallenstein Family, who own The Stadium and several other liquor stores in Northern Kentucky. The Gallenstein family were among the first liquor stores in Kentucky to participate in this program and the joy he had as he talked about the bottle his team had created made a strong impression on me. He was beyond thrilled with his experience, and I was very impressed with their version once I opened my bottle. The interview was on Episode #224 of The Charlie Tonic Hour so you can hear for yourself. I also learned about the process from a media roundtable I participated in during the Marriott Bourbon Battles experience. I was able to listen and ask questions with Maker’s Mark CEO Rob Samuels, Maker’s Maturation Specialist Jane Bowie, and whiskey expert Heather Greene as they talked about the Private Select program. Both of these experiences provided an in-depth look at the process, from two different points of view.
The Maker’s Mark Private Select program essentially allows you to create your very own cask strength version of Maker’s 46. But instead of being limited to just French Oak staves, you have five different stave types to choose from, each one imparting a very different flavor on your barrel of Maker’s Mark. According to Shephard, they had originally planned to have ten different kinds of staves for the client to choose from but ultimately decided that would muddy the process with too many choices.
As it stands, the creator can choose ten staves from among the options of Baked American Pure 2, Seared French Cuveé, Maker’s 46®, Roasted French Mocha, and Toasted French Spice. These staves each add a unique flavor as the bourbon ages an additional nine weeks. With over 1,000 different combinations of finishing staves possible, the Maker’s Private Select process is the most customizable and interactive barrel selection program on the market. When I attended the roundtable, I had only tried The Stadium’s version, which I loved, but there I was able to taste a version of Maker’s flavored with one of each type of stave.
We started by trying the Maker’s Mark Cask Strength as a baseline and then tried five different versions of a private select barrel, each one aged with ten of the same staves. It was remarkable how different each barrel was. Especially considering that, aside from the Baked American, each of the others was made from French Oak. The only differences were the charring and cut. One of the staves, for example, had ridges cut into while the others were smooth. The tasting order started off sweet, with a lot of vanilla and caramel and progressed to tons of spice and dark chocolate at the other end of the tasting spectrum.
There are so many possible combinations that there is no way people participating the program could try every taste possibility. And even if they could, the barrel still has to age nine more weeks before the final product will be ready. S how does someone know what the bourbon they are picking will taste like?
According to Shephard, the way people participating in the Private Select program choose their staves is by combining a small amount of bourbon treated with each of the five staves. One millimeter of bourbon equals one stave. So for example, if you wanted two of each stave they would add two millimeters of each of the five treated bourbons to your glass, and that would let you know what the final product will taste like. With so many variables that go into the final product of bourbon, I was skeptical if this sample would accurately reflect the final product. But according to Shephard it did. Not only that, some of the qualities he loved about the Gallenstein selection, such as the finish, altered completely if you changed even one stave. This demonstrates that choosing which staves and combinations people can pick could not have been an easy process for Maker’s Mark. They had to be fairly certain that no matter which combination of staves people choose, the end result will be good whiskey. Otherwise, they risk putting their name on a product that doesn’t represent their high standards of quality.
Eventually, I was able to try the Private Select bottle that the Griffin Gate Marriott created, as well as Keeneland’s Private Select bottle. Griffin Gate had picked a stave combination of 4 American, 4 Roasted Mocha, and 2 French Spice. As a comparison, the Gallenstein Selection was 3 American, 5 French Cuveé, and 2 Roasted Mocha. Not a huge difference in the wood, with only four staves being different out of the ten, but the sweetness, finish, and spice level is very different. Keeneland’s was the first I had seen that used all of the staves. Theirs is 1 American, 3 French Cuveé, 1 Maker’s 46, 3 Roasted Mocha, and 2 French Spice. The result was Keeneland’s being much spicier than the other two. I bought the bottle from Griffin Gate, as well as from The Stadium, and I have very much enjoyed my bottles. One thing that I have noticed is that they need to sit longer really to open up. If I drink them too soon after pouring the sweeter notes are much harder to detect, and the difference between the two is more muted.
The Private Select program seems to have been very well received by bourbon lovers. The Stadium has already booked their dates to pick their barrel again next year, and the reviews of their selection were excellent from the whiskey lovers I know who bought a bottle. Currently, Maker’s 46 and the Private Select program can only run November-April because the heat of the summer over cooks the staves. Maker’s Mark is currently building a cave into the hill behind their Welcoming Center so that they can produce these barrels year round. I think that there is so much excitement around this program because it lets consumers be a part of the creation of their barrel in a way that no other major distillery is doing. People love to feel like a part of a product that they love. One of the reasons for Maker’s Mark’s incredibly loyal fan base is their Ambassador program, which lets fans put their name on a barrel at no cost. People feel very connected to this brand. While Maker’s has been slow to the barrel selection game, they entered it by leap-frogging what others are doing. I think that we will see more programs like this in the future. People aren’t hungry for bourbon because it is a hot commodity right now or even just because they love the taste. They love it because they are hungry for real experiences, authenticity, and being a part of something bigger. The Private Select program lets bars, hotels, liquor stores, and restaurants not just have the experience of picking out a great barrel, but helping to create that barrel.
While Maker’s has been slow to the barrel selection game, they entered it by leap-frogging what others are doing. I think that we will see more programs like this in the future. People aren’t hungry for bourbon because it is a hot commodity right now or even just because they love the taste. They love it because they are hungry for real experiences, authenticity, and being a part of something bigger. The Private Select program lets bars, hotels, liquor stores, and restaurants not just have the experience of picking out a great barrel, but actually, direct how the finished product tastes.