I was recently invited, along with several other whiskey writers, to visit Jane Bowie in her lab at Maker’s Mark and see the process that she and her team go through to in order to bottle their special wood finish whiskey. The lab is very small and the group was split into morning and afternoon shifts. I was in the morning presentation. We arrived at the visitor’s center and walked down the hill to the small building that is the innovations lab. We were met by Beth Buckner and Jane Bowie and seated around a table with samples in front of us. Here is what I learned and experienced.
There are going to be two releases of this project this year. They want to highlight the flavors achieved by whiskey aging on the top floors of the warehouse and the flavors of whiskey aging on the bottom floors of the warehouse. When Makers Mark rotate their barrels, in a seven floor warehouse, the new whiskey goes in the top floors. After three years they rotate the barrels to the bottom floors. Barrels on the seventh floor are moved to the first floor, barrels on the sixth floor are moved to the second floor, barrels on the fifth floor are moved to the third floor and barrels on the fourth floor are not rotated. The purpose of this release is to highlight the flavors whiskey gains on the upper and lower floors.
To find these flavors for these projects, Independent Stave sends them stave samples that they think will produce the flavors Jane and her team are looking to produce in the whiskey. Only Independent Stave knows how the staves were produced because Jane and her team, as tasters, do not want to be influenced by preconceived notions of how the staves were produced. For every year that they create a wood finished Maker’s Mark, the team from Maker’s Mark take a bottle of cask strength Maker’s Mark and drop some staves in the bottle, seal it and place it in their walk in cooler that is set to the same temperature as the cave where the barrels will be aged. They wait a week and repeat the process and wait another week and do it again. This gives them a staggered sample of each whiskey.
Jane and her team will start sampling these samples after three weeks to see if they have what they have achieved. This is where the staggering is important. If they like what they taste at say four weeks but not at five, they can then do a side by side comparison of the whiskeys. They have about 80 samples to start with and these get parred down as the weeks progress. For our presentation, they had samples from this year’s wood finish from top floor goal and the bottom floor goal. They had samples from various weeks of each sample. These samples may not be the final choice, but we were allowed to witness the process.
A very interesting experiment. The one flaw I see in the process is that these samples are aged in bottles and not barrels. I think the staves in barrels will produce a slightly different flavor, but Jane and Beth do state this is more of a guide to the finished product. Aging the samples in barrels is not economically feasible. Jane stated that they are always similar, but not the same in flavor, but the flavor they are looking for is in the final product.
Maker’s Mark has always been very open about their process barrel staves to produce these whiskeys. Maker’s Mark has produced very good whiskey with this project. This is the fourth year of a five year project. I always look forward to these releases and I am glad Jane and the innovation team let me see how the process is done.
Photos Courtesy of Michael Veach