It's tough to tell which is harder to fathom: that a) once no superpremium Bourbon market existed or b) the whisky that made that market—Maker's Mark—is now 60 years old.
The venerable brand celebrated its anniversary yesterday by unveiling The Spirit of the Maker, a work of art in glass by the renowned Dale Chihuly. The piece will be on permanent display at the Maker's Mark distillery in Loretto, Kentucky.
Chief operating officer Rob Samuels recently announced that Maker's Mark would break ground on a third still at the facility. The new equipment will exactly replicate the other two stills there. The first dates back to the company's 1954 inception at the sight of the two-century-old Burks' distillery, now a National Historic Landmark. A decade ago, capacity was doubled with a new still in an effort to keep up with demand. Last year, Maker's Mark determined to lower its proof to keep up with the even further demand that had made the whisky scarce. That decision was rescinded almost immediately because of the great public outcry. Now, a new still will attempt to alleviate the situation by increasing capacity by 50 percent.
Certainly, no one in the spirits world predicted this when Bill Samuels Sr. first set out in 1954 to make a superpremium Bourbon—at an elevated price. He burnt his family's old recipe and concocted a new one, using soft winter wheat in place of the usual rye in a mashbill that also contains corn and barley. Eventually, the change to a higher-cost quaff gathered steam, and now we have a spectrum of elite Bourbons at prices that dwarf even Maker's.
Four years ago, Maker's added an extension to its previously singular line: Maker's 46. The addition was one of the final acts by Bill Samuels Jr., successor to Bill Samuels Sr., before his retirement and handing the reins over to his son Todd. The newer version starts out like the standard Maker's Mark, but adds a short finish by dipping French oak staves in the barrels.
The antique distillery, which preserves many of the touchstones of the Kentucky spirits heritage, is one of the jewels of the Bourbon Trail. The artwork, which, according to the company, "salutes those who have pioneered and redefined genres, refusing to be constrained by convention," will be on display during regular visiting hours. Made entirely of hand-blown glass elements, its visuals include a spectrum of significant colors, including browns and ambers (whisky), blues (water from the distillery's limestone spring-fed lake) and red (the signature red wax seal of the bottle).
We took the opportunity to remind ourselves how well both Maker's expressions go with a cigar.
(Cigar pairing notes on next page)
Maker's Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky (90 proof, or 45 percent alcohol by volume; age; $24.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Rich, amber color. Starts in small beads and then clumps together in large droplets to take its leisurely stroll down the glass.
NOSE: The bouquet comes out with a statement of fruit or honey—very candied—then backs off to reveal floral notes as well as some vanilla, nuts and nougat.
PALATE: A hallmark of Maker's is that it's decidedly smooth, but nevertheless packed with flavor in what otherwise could be a devil's bargain (the soft whiskey that trades away its complexity). Here we get a mélange of flavors. Orange peel is the first sensation, followed by heartier notes with vanilla, caramel, toffee and nougat. The sweetness arrives in with maple syrup and molasses, but none of the honey of the nose.
FINISH: As the long third act marches on, it offers a sense of the wood barrels with toast—but never char—and a distinct nuttiness.
CIGAR PAIRING: Vegas Robaina Familiar (Cuba, 5 5/8 inches by 42 ring gauge, £12.15, 89 Points, October 2011 Cigar Aficionado) Draped in a supple wrapper, this cigar integrates dried orange peel notes with cocoa and mineral flavors and touches of salt. We chose this cigar specifically to match its orange peel with the same note on the whisky. We weren't disappointed. That zesty note elevates to something more like a squeeze of the fruit in combination with the Maker's Mark. But, wait! There's more! The whisky becomes heartier and more full bodied. The caramel is more pronounced. The nutty notes come to the fore. The surprise is a chocolate and coconut that suffuses both. A good example of give-and-take between smoke and spirit.
Rocky Patel 15th Anniversary Toro (Nicaragua, 6 1/2 by 42 ring gauge, $10.50, 91 points, Cigar Aficionado August 2013) Beautifully box-pressed with an oily wrapper and perfectly tapered shoulders. It's sweet and earthy with nutmeg and caramel flavors the build to a woody finish. The cigar's earthiness is the touch (if) needed for this fruity whisky. Hearty notes abound and spices, not previously present, explode. In return, the Maker's gives back a sweetness that the cigar lacked and searches out citrus notes. Then it is difficult to determine out which element is the giver or taker, but the result is a candy bar of a pairing. Extraordinary.
MAKER'S 46 (94 proof, or 47 percent alcohol by volume; age; $34.99 a 750-milliliter bottle)
APPEARANCE: Slightly darker amber than the standard Maker's Mark. The legs are similarly big and slow.
NOSE: The aroma copies the above with the addition of some toast as well as olive oil.
PALATE: Just as you're thinking "this is just like the other Maker's" a burst of licorice comes through to prove its difference. As the spice softens toast takes over, and with it a woodiness that's otherwise more subdued. The orange peel turns to something more like a toasted English muffin with marmalade. The vanilla-caramel-toffee-nougat continuum gives up its smoothness in a favor of a tangy sensation.
FINISH: An even longer finish is suffused with spices, nuts, toast and olive oil. You're not sure whether to take another sip or float away to dream land.
CIGAR PAIRING: Vegas Robaina Familiar (Cuba, 5 5/8 inches by 42 ring gauge, £12.15, 89 Points, October 2011 Cigar Aficionado) Draped in a supple wrapper, this cigar integrates dried orange peel notes with cocoa and mineral flavors and touches of salt. Here the orange is in evidence, but not as pronounced. Instead, you get lots of toast and barrel flavors. The whisky picks up on the mineral notes and becomes chewy and caramel coated. Its fruity flavors are deeper and more creamy. The cigar is smoothed out as well, with more full-bodied woods and nut infusions. The whisky finds sweetness that was formerly subdued. Another great pairing.
Rocky Patel 15th Anniversary Toro (Nicaragua, 6 1/2 by 42 ring gauge, $10.50, 91 points, Cigar Aficionado August 2013) Beautifully box-pressed with an oily wrapper and perfectly tapered shoulders. It's sweet and earthy with nutmeg and caramel flavors the build to a woody finish. A similar effect engulfs this matchup—you'll go back and forth trying to figure out which is the hero. The whisky gets more well-rounded and nutty. The cigar picks up sweetness. Soft and hearty, sugar and salt, all combine in a seamless synthesis that breeds astonishment at what good partners are wedded here.