For five decades, Maker’s Mark’s founders remained hell-bent on not changing anything about its wheated bourbon, and with nothing broken, there wasn’t a need to fix anything.
Decade seven is a different story. Today, Jane Bowie and Beth Buckner, who run the red-wax brand’s innovation lab, are charged with tweaking Maker’s time-honored taste theme—only without leaping the guardrails established by co-founder Bill Samuels in the 1950s.
Referring to a pair of upcoming Wood Finishing Series fall 2022 releases, Jane Bowie, the brand’s director of innovation says, “These whiskeys will be further away from our normal taste profile than before. … With what we’ve done in the past, I believe we’ve earned the trust of consumers to move away some from that.”
For each of the four years they’ve been made, all Maker’s Wood Finishing Series releases (all given obscure names like FAE-01 or RC-6 or SE4 x PR5) have been noticeably unique but recognizably Maker’s Mark, which is a good thing.
And every year after each release, Bowie and Buckner must create two new variations, which is no mean feat. Their secret is attacking each challenge strategically. All begin by telling Independent Stave Co.’s Lebanon, Ky., cooperage what new flavor and texture characteristics they want to create, and ISC creates specific wood staves to effect those changes. Precisely cooked French and American oak staves become the levers that manipulate Maker’s barrel-strength bourbon in whichever direction Buckner and Bowie imagine. Every step in the time, mind and tongue-consuming process is nosed, tasted, documented and discussed. Surely at some point they’ll name a release, “Thorough.”
MINIATURIZED IN THE LAB
I got an up-close look at this process on a recent visit to the distillery. It works like this: Miniature versions of the ISC staves (rectangles roughly 3-inches-long and a ½-inch-wide) are added to 1-liter bottles of Maker’s barrel-strength bourbon. Those bottles are then placed in the lab’s refrigerator to mimic an average temperature between Kentucky’s cold winters and hot summers. It also mimics the year-round 50-degree temps in Maker’s Whisky Cave, where its barreled wood-finished whiskeys age.
Since hitting the ideal flavor target for a specific release begins with some guesswork, a wide array of staves is used for the task. To avoid biasing Buckner and Bowie, neither knows anything about each stave’s flavor characteristics. Independent Stave does, however, know which staves will create which results and tracks each with an ID number that reveals no details to Bowie or Buckner.
Here’s how the test works. Each stave for each sample set is entered into bottles of whiskey in a staggered fashion:
- Stave 80 (an arbitrary number) is added to one bottle and ages one week.
- A week later, another Stave 80 is added to a second bottle and ages one week.
- Another week later, a third Stave 80 is added to another bottle and ages for a week. At this point, the lab has samples of the same stave aged 1 to 3 weeks.
What this allows Bowie and Bucker to do is track the first stave’s effects over a period of weeks longer than the others. So, say bottle No. 1 tastes delicious at five weeks but falls off after six weeks. The team can taste bottle No. 2 at five weeks old plus one day or two days or three days … you get the point. That allows them to target precisely where bottle No. 1’s whiskey peaked before falling off. This same exercise is done with unique staves across multiple sample sets.
Buckner, Maker’s innovation manager, tracks computer-generated data on spreadsheets, but she and Bowie keep their personal tasting remarks in notebooks. Using both sources of information, they look for trends to emerge as each sample ages. If a sample is trending badly, they let it continue for a bit just to ensure it doesn’t improve. If it stays “off,” it’s eliminated from the test. If one trends well, they detail what they like about it and let it continue maturing. If one is trending really well, “and we’re thinking, ‘This might be the one,’” Buckner says, “we taste it more often.”
Early in these tests, samples are generally tasted weekly. But if a sample begins to impress, it’s tasted more frequently to see if the whiskeys are nearing a flavor target.
If none of the current test set yields flavors Buckner and Bowie want, they request new stave options from ISC.
Yet even when the team finally chooses a sample it likes, one final hurdle remains: a full barrel test.
After working to refine this process for four years, “We’ve gotten really good at predicting the differences and what might happen in each sample,” Buckner says.
“But even then, it’s still complicated because we want get it right,” Bowie adds. “I’m the worst about saying it’s done, we’ve got it, and as soon as the whiskey’s going to bottling I just know we could have kept going!”
Though high-tech equipment used to help the process along is valuable, Buckner says the human element always rules in one-off products like the Wood Finishing Series.
“Analytics give us thousands of data points on why something is normal or why it’s outside of what we want,” she says. “With these (one-off releases), it’s still all about sensory, what we’re smelling and tasting.”
All this work for an annual whiskey release. Perhaps reading all this will make all of us more appreciative of the effort put into those releases. Still, as Bowie says, “It’s work, but it’s fun work.”