The good news is that Maker's Mark, a distillery known for its reticence to release new whiskies over its 60 years of existence, has a new expression. The great news is that its new Cask Strength is extraordinary, managing to retain the Bourbon's essential smooth character, while packing it with even more flavor. The bad news is that there is precious little to go around.
Until recently the only way to get a taste of the straight-from-the-barrel-without-dilution version of the Loretto, Kentucky, whisky was to visit the source and buy it at the distillery store. Now, limited amounts are making their way into the hands of what the chief operating officer Rob Samuels describes as top-tier bartenders in seven or eight cities, which include Louisville and Lexington, Kentucky, as well as New York, Chicago and Denver, where you'll taste it by the shot. Distillery visitors can buy it by the 375-milliliter bottle.
For more than five decades, the company, which first distilled Bourbon in 1954, resisted the pressure to create alternate expressions of the familiar Bourbon with the red wax seal, even as the category began to rebound in the early '90s. Then in 2010, Bill Samuels Jr., the son of founder Bill Sr., debuted Maker's 46, saying that his nightmare would have been if he had shepherded the company without having created anything himself. Bill Jr. had taken over in 1975, when his father gave him one bit of advice: "Don't screw up the whisky." A year after 46 bowed in, Bill Jr. retired as chief executive officer, handing the reins to his son Rob.
Asked if Bill Jr. was jealous that his son was able to debut a new expression in such short order, Rob Samuels allows that his father is "as excited as I am." In fact, he consulted in the birth of the new whiskey as the two tasted through the many other examples of cask-strength Bourbon now on the market.
Rob Samuels says that the inspiration to create a cask-strength version came from samplings they had conducted with renowned bartenders invited to the distillery to taste straight from the barrel. "They were over the moon about it," and the father and son decided it might be good to share with a wider market.
Their major concern in making the whisky, he says, is that it retains the character of Maker's Mark without the extra alcohol being too forbidding. He describes as being "an even more amplified version" of Maker's. "Basically with Bourbon, you are who you are when you fall right out of the barrel."
According to Samuels, Cask Strength is made following the exact same process as the standard Maker's Mark—with the exception that no water is added before bottling. The procedure entails distilling Bourbon in 19-barrel batches. Those are then aged for about six-and-a-half years, with casks being rotated through different levels of the warehouse. At maturation's end, the whisky is melded with five other batches to ensure flavor consistency. As with most whiskies, the proof of the standard Maker's Mark is then lowered with the addition of water before bottling. In the case of Cask Strength it is bottled at full proof.
At this point, only one batch of Cask Strength has been bottled. The proof is 113.2 (or 56.6 percent alcohol), but future batches will vary in strength between 108 and 114 proof. (Evaporation that occurs during aging creates the inconsistency.)
While fans of the Bourbon will certainly be clamoring for access, Samuels says, "We simply don't have the supply to be everywhere." This is understandable since in early 2013 the brand considered, then reversed, a decision to lower its proof to avoid shortages created by its popularity. In the mean time, the company is ramping up production with the addition of a third still, which is identical to the original and a second still added in 2004. Still, there is no word as to when Cask Strength will have wider availability.
Samuels adds that the release enjoys good timing "in a sentimental way" as his grandmother Margie Samuels was last month inducted as the first woman into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame. The wife of the Maker's founder, she named the whisky and gave it its signature bottle design and red wax seal. Furthermore, it was she who developed the antique distillery as the oft-awarded visitor experience that it is today.
As for the decision to release the new expression in the small format (half the standard fifth), Samuels says that was based on short supply, too. They even considered a 50-millimeter bottle. We're glad that didn't win.
Maker's Mark (tasted at 113.2 proof, or 56.6 percent alcohol by volume; age; $39.99 a 375-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Deep amber, with the tiniest legs that take forever to break and turn chunky.
NOSE: Rich honey with floral undertones, a bit of oiliness, a candied nuance and, of course, a healthy dose of alcohol. Past that you find cinnamon, graham cracker and some Christmas spice.
PALATE: Opens up with citrus tang—orange, tangerine, even bits of grapefruit and lemon. Chew it out, and the whisky becomes savory with familiar Bourbon flavors—caramel and vanilla—joined by a distinct maple sugar note. With a fuller body than standard Maker's, it also delivers a toffee/cocoa hint. Through it all there is an elegant floral influence, reminiscent of Cognac.
FINISH: This clearly complex Bourbon doesn't disappoint on its long finish, which becomes very spicy, then slightly leathery and finally fades on fruit and barrel notes.
CIGAR PAIRING: The Banker by H. Upmann Arbitage (Dominican Republic, 7 inches by 50 ring gauge, $8.40, 90 points, Cigar Aficionado October 2014) A thick oversized Churchill with a bumpy head and some oils. Baking spices, nuts and a bit of citrus on the finish add complexity. These two elements meet and trigger a spicy/herbal bomb. Out burst cinnamon, Christmas spices, oregano and tarragon. Then follows sweetness, with the maple and vanilla of the Bourbon. The cigar answers back with its own rich woods and nuts. The Maker's turns mellower and the Upmann more full bodied. A continuously gratifying give-and-take as you go back and forth between the spirit and the smoke.
Partagás Short (Cuba, 4 3/8 inches by 42 ring gauge, £9.93, 91 points, Cigar Aficionado October 2014) Strikingly lush color to this gleaming little cigar, which is rich with earth, walnuts and leathery notes. The draw is even and full. The whisky fills in sweetness on this cigar, with its toffee character reacting well with nuts of the Partagas. The smoke does not give back as emphatically, but does lend leathery character to the Maker's. This is one of those cases when two excellent contributors end up in a partnership that is not explosively successful. The result is a neutral pairing that works (there is no clash), but has very little synergy when compared to the above marriage.