It was the “burn” that was the problem.
In the 1980s the bourbon industry was dying -- distilleries were closing and people were being thrown out of work, said Bill Samuels Jr., president of Loretto, Kentucky-based Maker’s Mark distillery Inc.
“The whole category was regarded as unsophisticated brown liquor with too much burn on the palate,” Samuels told me over dinner at Pat’s Steakhouse in Louisville, Kentucky. “Traditional bourbons were regarded as something your grandpa drank on the porch. Thank God for Kentucky Derby Day -- at least a lot of bourbon got sold in mint juleps.”
Samuels, 70, with his father Bill, Sr., began trying to bring bourbon back to favor in 1958 with their slightly sweeter and much smoother Maker’s Mark, made in copper stills most bourbon producers had abandoned.
The success of Maker’s Mark changed things rapidly and Kentucky’s 10 distilleries all altered formulas, styles, and marketing. Many came out with “small batch” and “single barrel” styles, such as the Buffalo Trace Distillery owned by the Sazerac Co., whose 2010 Antique Collection of limited-release bourbons includes Eagle Rare 17 Year Old, George T. Stagg uncut and unfiltered 143 proof, and William Larue Weller, a wheat recipe bourbon also uncut and unfiltered, at 126.6 proof.
According to the Distilled Spirits Council, in 2009, a healthy 15 million 9-liter cases of bourbon & Tennessee whiskey were sold in the U.S.
Facing such rampant competition, Bill Samuels knew Makers Mark, owned by Fortune Brands, had to come up with a new product without distancing its faithful customer base.
“We’d spent so much time and focus on simply not screwing up the product that we didn’t innovate,” said Samuels, who once studied rocket science, then law, before joining the family bourbon business in 1975. “We knew we had problems with the burn on the back of the palate, which comes mainly from grains. We asked ourselves, can we create a bourbon in the Maker’s Mark style people already love that is really, well, yummy.”
Together with Master Distiller Kevin Smith, Samuels sought to intensify Makers Mark’s nose, length and style of finish. After numerous attempts, they turned to Brad Boswell of Independent Stave Co., who recommended Maker’s bourbon be finished in the original aging barrels but with the insertion of one-inch thick French oak staves seared (“toasted”) on both sides, which, over two to three months further aging, imparted considerable sweet spice to the bourbon. The result was “46.”
“Maker’s Mark was created in the 1950s for people who didn’t like bourbon,” Samuels said. “‘46’ is for people who like Maker’s Mark as well as other, more robust styles of bourbon.”
On taking my first sip of “46,” which is named after the special staves Boswell created, a tangy, spicy burn ran along the edges of my palate, not the back of it. It tasted of cinnamon and black pepper, followed by vanilla and caramel notes, then a very long, lingering finish with all those components in synch. It is certainly one of the best bourbons I’ve tasted, and at only about $35 a bottle and 94 proof, compared to the original Maker’s Mark at $25 at 90 proof, it’s an achievement that has become a cult favorite within a few months of release.
Samuels rolled “46” out without fanfare or advertising, yet the 2010 supply of 35,000 cases will be sold out by January and will soon be on allocation. Samuels notes happily that there has been “zero negative impact on sales” of the original Maker’s Mark brand.
I also tasted Jack Daniel’s Special Barrel Select, which is a Tennessee Whiskey, by law made with sour mash and filtered through a thick layer of maple charcoal before aging. Jack Daniel’s original formula, called Old. No. 7, has been joined by Gentleman Jack and, more recently, Single Barrel Select.
The latter was sampled as part of the 100th Anniversary of Nashville’s grand Hermitage Hotel, whose chef Tyler Brown conferred with Jack Daniel’s Master Distiller Jeff Arnett to choose a cache of just 240 bottles with a Hermitage Hotel Centennial seal.
I found it a superb, soft but very bright whiskey, with both an edge and a supple sweetness that gave it depth and huge complexity. Depending on how you look at it, the availability of this whiskey only at the hotel’s Capitol Grille and Oak Bar can be frustrating or good reason to get into the spirit of the hotel’s history, a place where a lot of years ago a Tennessee girl named Dinah Shore used to croon “Skylark,” “Blues in the Night,” and “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You.”
(John Mariani writes on wine for Muse, the arts and lifestyle service of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)