Makerís Mark is unique among American distilleries in that it makes (at least for distribution within the USA) only one product.
The significance of this policy is that there is nowhere to hide. There is no Ďgood-better-best,í no extra-aged expression, no bottled-in-bond version, no line extension of any kind, unless you want to count the myriad collectible bottlings the company issues each year, which vary only the packaging, not the whiskey inside.
According to all available evidence, Makerís Mark makes everything they sell and sells everything they make. The fact that they use 1,000 gallon dump tanks (most others are ten times that size) tells us that the product must be extraordinarily consistent from barrel to barrel, a significant achievement.
At Makerís Mark, this high consistency is achieved through barrel rotation, an expensive practice long ago abandoned at most distilleries because variations in aging can easily be corrected in the dump tanks.
Rotation (changing the warehouse location of certain barrels) is necessary at Makerís Mark because of the small dump tanks used.
Makerís Mark is a wheated bourbon, sold at 90 proof with no age claim. It comes in a distinctive bottle with a simple, one-color label and trademark hand-dipped red wax seal. The whiskey is not only consistent but quite good, although it has in common with other best-selling brands a mildness and superficiality that can be frustrating to more adventurous palates. But there is nothing to complain about here. Makerís is real bourbon and a completely enjoyable drink.
The use of wheat instead of rye as its flavor grain also contributes to both the agreeable taste of Makerís Mark and its lack of complexity. Wheat-based bourbons are seldom as challenging (for good or ill) as those made with rye.
The color of Makerís Mark bourbon is polished brass and the nose announces that while, as the label says, the whiskey is Ďfully matured,í it is only just. There is a strong sense of fresh Ďwhite dogí lingering just beneath the mature spirit. This is not criticism. To the contrary, it makes me long for a taste of the distilleryís un-aged product. Iím sure it is delicious.
Both to the nose and on the tongue, the barrelís influence comes through as oak more than char. When you try to tease out different flavors you mostly get candy notes, which is typical of a wheater; caramel, toffee, even pancake syrup; the smoothness of milk chocolate with some of the bitterness of dark chocolate.
One surprising flavor that emerges: preserved lemon, which is similar to lemon candy but with more of a citrus edge. There is mint in the quick, clean finish. The achievements of pioneers are always most remarkable when you consider them in the context of their time. It is striking, for example, to visit Oak Park, Illinois, just outside Chicago, where you can view a very modern-looking Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house standing next to a gingerbread Victorian built in the same year.
In the same way, Makerís Mark bourbon contrasts sharply with the rough and ready bourbons that dominated the American whiskey category when Makerís was created fifty years ago. Although Bill Samuels Sr. did not create Makerís Mark all by himself, his was the vision; of a whiskey that while still definitely bourbon would be much friendlier and easier to drink than the bourbons he grew up with, but without being entirely bland and soulless.
Without question Makerís Mark has been marketed brilliantly, but it is axiomatic that even the best marketing can only sell a product once. After that, the product itself has to do the job and that Makerís Mark does admirably.
© 2004, Charles Kendrick Cowdery, All Rights Reserved.
From The Bourbon Country Reader, Vol.8, No. 2; August, 2004.