I am finally at liberty to disclose the story behind Maker’s Mark 46. You see, as a Maker’s Mark Ambassador — an honor granted to me years ago after mailing in a card rubber-banded to a bottle of the stuff — I was among the first to receive the company’s new “special” bourbon.
I first received word of this experimental libation via my January dispatch (read: promotional email) from Maker’s Mark H.Q. That was when I emailed the company and ended up talking on the phone with its president, Bill Samuels Jr. A few weeks later, a pint of Maker’s Mark 46, labeled “SAMPLE – Not For Sale,” was delivered to my doorstep.
Samuels, a seventh-generation Kentucky distiller and Maker’s Mark scion, is about as down-to-earth a corporate honcho as you’ll ever find. “The only reason I’m running this company is because of my last name,” he joked. For all his self-deprecation, he had long nurtured an ambition to create a new Maker’s Mark blend.
When Maker’s Mark 46 officially debuts this month (bottles began rolling off the assembly line in late June), it will be the first new bourbon Maker’s Mark has released in half a century. It will also be the culmination of two long years spent drinking, and distilling, and then drinking some more.
Since 2008, Maker’s Mark Master Distiller Kevin Smith (not to be confused with the filmmaker and sworn Southwest Airlines foe) has concocted a blend that intensifies Maker’s Mark sweet, almost caramel-y flavor without the brew turning bitter. The original is 90 proof (45% ABV) while Maker’s Mark 46 is 94 proof (47% ABV). (Thirsty In LA does a great job explaining the finishing process, developed by Brad Boswell, in which they lightly sear French oak staves on both sides.)
Guzzle & Nosh hosted a blind tasting in mid-March, pitting Maker’s Mark (Sample A) against Maker’s Mark 46 (Sample 1).* For fun, we threw in Elmer T. Lee as a bonus round. (NOTE: The blend for Maker’s Mark 46 may have changed since then. I have not yet tried the 46 off the shelves.) G&N’s Man in Mixology, Rob Takata, decanted the bourbons into identical glass bottles, so that even I didn’t know which was which.
The consensus? 5 out of 6 Guzzle & Nosh tasters — a panel comprised strictly of non-expert bourbon fanciers — preferred Maker’s Mark 46 to traditional Maker’s Mark. 83% — not as compelling as “9 out of 10 dentists,” but still impressive.
Tasters found traditional Maker’s Mark to be “sharp,” “more fiery” and “reminiscent of classic saloon firewater.”
Maker’s Mark 46 was praised for its richness and subtlety. Almost everyone was impressed with how it tasted “heavier” yet smoother than the original. Tasters also remarked: “It sneaks up on you with its strength” and “If it was a wine, it would be a full-bodied Italian red.”
Our one contrarian, who preferred traditional Maker’s Mark, thought it had more body and more staying power. He described the original bourbon as “hot,” “tingly” and (disconcertingly) “like an old friend who you’ve had a falling-out with but you’ve decided to let bygones be bygones.” He described 46 as “dry,” “not a lot of complexity” and (more disconcertingly) “I hate my mother; she ruined my life.”
G&N tasting sessions have been known to evoke undignified passions. Faced with the potential for further psychological breakthroughs, there was nothing to do but to drink more bourbon.
*Rob created this numbering system because he felt that labeling the bourbons #1 and #2 or even A and B might create a subtle predisposition.