Eight years ago, the people at Maker’s Mark were concerned about the barrel entry proof of their whiskey from an accounting standpoint. They have always used a 110 barrel entry proof to make their whiskey and never raised that number when the legal limit was raised to 125 proof. It is cheaper to manufacture whiskey with a 125 barrel entry proof, but it changes the flavor of the whiskey significantly. Maker’s Mark’s quality control department decided that they needed to be proactive on this subject. They got permission to put some barrels in the warehouse at higher proof to demonstrate why Maker’s Mark needed to keep the 110 barrel entry proof.
For the experiment they used whiskey all made on the same day and barreled it in 25 barrel lots at 125, 120, 110 proofs. The 25 barrels of each proof was done because they wanted to show that any changes were not just due to a difference in barrels. These barrels were all stored in the middle floor of a warehouse where they were not rotated, then aged for 8 years. They monitored the barrels as they aged, pulling samples through the years, running tests in the lab and sampled by a tasting panel. The test proved that the higher entry proof changed the flavor of Maker’s Mark significantly. It was not that the higher proof versions were bad whiskeys, they just were not the whiskey that built the brand and their loyal consumer base.
I was fortunate enough to be invited by Jane to participate in a tasting of these whiskeys. Jane had consulted with me on the history of barrel entry proof as this project came to an end. She wanted to be fully prepared with both historic and scientific reasons to support the outcome of the project. For the tasting, we gathered in a small event room at Hound Dog Press. Why Hound Dog Press, you may ask? Because they are releasing the whiskey in these barrels to the public through their gift shop and a few Kentucky liquor stores, and each version will be accompanied by a poster designed to explain the proof changes in each version of the collection. The four versions of the posters will fit together to make a larger poster.
There were about ten of us gathered by Jane and her team to participate in this tasting. Jane poured samples of each proof and provided water and crackers as palate cleansers for each person. She started by explaining that she and her team convinced the powers that be that these whiskeys should be released to the public and not blended into regular Maker’s Mark because it was important that their loyal fans had a chance to taste and appreciate the difference proof makes. The poster for the 120 proof version has some very interesting graphs on it showing the scientific and tasting findings made by the team. Jane referred to this poster often as we tasted the whiskey.
The 110 proof version is simply an 8 year old version of Maker’s Mark. The sample is 116 proof, having gained some proof over 8 years. The scientific graphs show that this version has the highest amounts of tannins, sugar and lignin of any proof variation. The tasting graph shows that it has a very balanced flavor profile with the most dark fruit, nutty, wood sugars, creamy, vanilla and caramel flavors than any other version. It is only exceeded by the 115 proof version in the final category of bright fruit flavor. Tasting this for myself, I find it is very complex on the nose with lots of caramel, apples, baking spices and oak. The flavor is excellent with caramel with a hint of chocolate, apples and apricot fruit, a little cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice with oak that is not overly tannic. Very well balanced and pleasant.
The 115 proof version is at 117.1 proof and, interestingly enough, has the least amount of tannin, sugar and lignin on the charts. It also is lower in every category of flavor except the bright fruit category. I find the nose to be less complex than the 110 proof. There are caramel and oak notes, but not as intense as the 110 proof version. There is more of the apple fruit, but that is about all. The taste is interesting as I get a little corn husk and caramel with some green apple and oak. Not bad and actually very drinkable, but it is not Maker’s Mark.
The 120 barrel entry proof version is bottled at 122.3 proof and has more tannins, sugars and lignin than the 115 proof, but not as much as the 110 proof version on the scientific graphs. The flavor charts show it has less flavor in every category. I find the nose to be very simple dominated by a brown sugar note and little else. The taste retains that corn husk note, but not as strong as the 115 version. There are caramel and apple notes, but they are very light and oak tannins are strong in the finish. Again, not a bad whiskey, but a boring whiskey in my opinion.
The final version, the 125 proof version, is bottled at 125.4 proof and, according to the scientific graphs, has more tannins than the 120 proof, but less sugar and lignin. The taste chart shows that it is equal to the 110 version in wood sugars, but less in every other category. I find the nose to be almost nonexistent with only a little vanilla and oak detected. The taste is corn husk and oak with hints of vanilla (mostly coming in the finish).
The bottles from this experiment are going to cost $100 each, so it is a $400 commitment to get every version. You will be able to order them online through the gift shop at the distillery, starting in November, and a few liquor stores in Kentucky will get an allotment of bottles. There is a limit of one bottle of each type to consumers. It might be good for a Bourbon society or club to invest in all four and let the group taste for themselves.
Maker’s Mark has done an experiment that proves what I have been saying since the 1990s – lower barrel entry proof makes a difference. That difference is a more rounded and flavorful taste profile. This was a very telling and worthwhile experiment. I would love to see a similar experiment with barrel entry proofs of 90, 95, 100 and 105. This 8 year old Maker’s Mark tastes better than many 10, 12 and even 15 year old whiskeys I have tasted. Buy all four and taste for yourself.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller