Photo: Julie Zeveloff/Business Insider
Disclosure: Maker’s Mark paid for our travel and expenses to visit the distillery outside of Louisville, Ky.You probably don’t spend a lot of time at your neighbourhood bar considering the origins of your booze of choice. But chances are good there’s an interesting story behind your cocktail, be it a gin martini or a Jack and Coke.
We recently had the opportunity to visit the distillery an hour and a half outside Louisville, Ky., where Maker’s Mark bourbon is made.
The distillery still runs largely as it did when it sold its first bottle back in 1956. The recipe is the same, as is much of the machinery. Of course, there have been a few changes: a water wheel no longer powers the plant, for one.
Greg Davis, the master distiller who oversees everything related to the production of whisky, gave us the complete rundown on how Maker’s Mark is produced, from the locally sourced corn and soft red winter wheat to the charring of the white oak barrels where the whisky ages.
He also taught us the right way to taste whisky.
Welcome to Maker's Mark. The distillery is in Loretto, Kentucky, about an hour and a half from Louisville and the same distance from Lexington.
The property was once the site of Burks' Distillery, which Bill Samuels Sr. bought in 1954. The business soon became a family affair, with Samuels' wife Marge baking breads to test various grain combinations used in whisky and developing the signature packaging.
Bill Jr., an engineer, eventually joined the family business after working as a rocket scientist. An engineer with a sense of humour, he designed this covered footbridge without a single right angle, according to Master Distiller Greg Davis.
Maker's is a functioning distillery with around 100 employees, but touches of history are everywhere. This old-school fire truck is apparently still functional, but we hope no one's counting on it.
This creek once powered the entire plant. But once electricity arrived, the water wheel was removed and the creek was redirected around the distillery.
All of the ingredients in Maker's Mark bourbon, including corn and soft red winter wheat, are deposited at this silo. All the ingredients are grown within 100 miles of the distillery.
We expected to find a major commercial operation but the actual distillery is relatively small. It produces a little over a million cases of bourbon a year.
The first thing that hits visitors is the smell: there's a sharp aroma of warm, yeasty bread. Maker's Mark has its own strain of yeast, which it has kept alive for decades.
The grains are all ground by a crushing machine. After they're crushed, the corn is brought to a boil and the wheat is added. Once the mixture cools, malted barley is added to break down the enzymes.
The mash is then sent to ferment in one of eight gigantic cypress fermenters. After around 12 hours, the solids rise and the mash starts to bubble as carbon dioxide is released.
Once the fermentation process is complete, the mash is distilled twice; once through a beer still and again through a second still.
But to some people the taste is just part of the job. At the quality control lab, a 20-person tasting panel tests every batch for consistency.
After distillation, the spirit is pumped to the cooperage plant to go into barrels. The barrels, made of aged white oak and charred on the inside, are inspected to make sure there are no cracks or flaws.
There's no magic formula for how long it takes bourbon to age. Depending on how long and hot the summers are, Maker's Mark ages for between 5.5 and 7 years.
Over in the bottling plant, Maker's Mark labels are printed in thick sheets on two antiquated printing presses.
In addition to coming up with the wax seals, Marge Samuels also had the idea to make the labels look hand torn.
Once the ageing process is complete, 150 barrels are combined into a batch, ensuring consistency in the taste of Maker's Mark. Bottles are unboxed and placed on a conveyor belt.
Bottles are rinsed out with a splash of Maker's Mark, ensuring that nothing touches the inside of the glass except pure bourbon.
A machine fills bottles and seals them with a cap. It's one part of the process that has been mechanised.
But the signature red wax seal is dipped by hand. Four women dip the tops into steaming vats of melted red wax, 72,000 a day.
The plant bottles 1.1 million cases a year, which sell in all 50 states and internationally. New York, California, and Texas are the biggest markets for Maker's Mark.
Of course, if you're going to travel to Loretto, Kentucky, you're going to want to do more than watch bourbon flow through a still.
There are also tours and tastings; the distillery is one of six on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and a popular destination for bachelor parties.
Visitors can also try their hand dipping a bottle into wax; it's harder than it looks to get it right.
History buffs will be impressed to learn that the country's oldest package liquor store sits on Maker's Marks grounds. The high windows let cars pull right up to get a refill.
It may not be the most efficient way to make a beverage, but if you're a bourbon drinker, the end results are sure to please.
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