Maker’s Mark is one of America’s best known bourbon brands and I was invited to learn about the history of the Kentucky-made classic in Sydney recently.
The first thing that hit me was the smell – a delicious aroma of charred oak which had somehow drifted throughout the whole house in which masterclass was being held.
To help us learn, we got familiar with the Maker’s Mark theme of the 4W’s – wheat, water, wood, and wax.
First, a quick history lesson. Rules about bourbon production were established in 1964 and legislated in the US Senate.
Two key facts I didn’t know:
1. It’s not bourbon unless it’s matured in a charred oak cask that’s never been used before.
2. It’s distilled from a grain mix that’s majority corn.
So no “virgin” cask, no bourbon. It’s just whiskey. Them’s the rules.
To qualify as bourbon, the distillate must be made from at least 51% corn, with the remainder made up of rye, wheat or barley.
Maker’s Mark uses no rye — only a combination of wheat (the first W) and barley.
After this we prepared focaccia using some of the wheat grains we’d just learned about. Then we chucked it in the oven to pair with the whiskey later.
Next up, we entered the room the beautiful aroma came from. A cooper (barrel maker) had heated up some oak in a barrel to give an idea of how the Maker’s Mark flavour is created:
As we sipped on the Maker’s Mark 46 range, we learnt that its barrels are air-dried outdoors for nine months. The 46 is aged longer and includes French oak staves that are attached to the inside of the barrel.
Then it was onto the next W – water. Happily, this phase of the night included ice cubes to create our own Old Fashioned cocktails.
Good water is essential to the distilling process, and Maker’s Mark uses limestone-filtered water at its Kentucky headquarters, which they say takes out the iron elements for a smoother flavour.
Now depending how seriously you take your ice cubes when making a cocktail, it turns out there are weighted instruments you can use to emboss the ice with an emblem.
Here’s my effort with the Maker’s Mark logo:
And to complete the drink, we added two shots of Maker’s Mark along with sugar and bitters, stirred well and threw in an orange peel for extra flavour.
Again, my effort:
Then we finished off the festivities with the 4th W, wax.
If you have a passing interest in bourbon, you’ll know Maker’s Mark has distinctive red wax at the top of each bottle.
And while you’d think an international whisky label would have introduced some scaling techniques – nowadays the business is owned by Beam Suntory, a subdivision of the Japanese giant, Suntory, the world’s third biggest producer of distilled alcohol – it turns out Maker’s Mark still takes the wax process very seriously.
Each bottle is dipped in the wax by hand by a team of employees at Makers Mark’s Kentucky headquarters.
And that appears to form part of the company’s philosophy more broadly. Despite its international distribution list, each batch of Maker’s Mark is made using just 19 or 20 barrels blended together, compared to as many as 200 barrels for other large whisky labels.
One other thing worth noting is that this bourbon is one of the few American whiskies that uses the Scottish spelling, without an “e”, rather than whiskey.
To round out the event, we returned to the kitchen and scoffed some of our fresh focaccia.
Having always been a Scotch man, there’s no doubt that the smells, tastes and visuals of the evening have left me paying close attention to the bourbon section at my local liquor store.
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