As a whiskey drinking society, I don't think we've ever been more concerned as to what our whiskey says about us as cultivated aficionados. In fact, sometimes I think we're more worried about how unique and different our latest bottle is than about how it actually tastes. I don't have any tangible proof of this, however. As Bill Maher often jokes: "I don't know it for a fact, I just know it's true." The only evidence I can possibly provide is the existence of Maker's Mark Cask Strength on our shelf at K&L, sitting their in plain view twenty four hours a day, seven days a week; a big, sweet, wheated, high proof Bourbon that in my opinion outperforms any competitor in its class. If you asked me if I'd rather drink Van Winkle Lot B or Maker's Cask Strength, I wouldn't even bat an eyelid: "the latter, please." We're living in a period when high proof wheated whiskies are an absolute rarity, yet people don't seem that excited about Maker's Mark. However, were I to put a bottle of Lot B on the sales floor, even for ten times the normal retail price, it probably wouldn't last the hour. So what gives? Why don't more people opt for the cask strength edition?
Because it's Maker's Mark. You can get that anywhere.
I'm not going to walk into a party with Maker's Mark!! Are you kidding? I need something rare and interesting. Something that proves I have friends in high places. Something that no one else in the world could possibly get. Something that will make people oooh and ahhh when I place it onto the table. Something that I can put on my Instagram later that night and act like it's no big deal. Oh....and I don't want to pay more than a hundred bucks.
You may think that last paragraph was sarcasm, but I kid you not: I get people who literally say things like that to me every single day. It's like the entire world lately has somehow overlooked the connection between rarity and availability. If there were something that incredible, coveted, and valued on the shelf at K&L, what could possibly make someone think it would be just sitting there waiting for them to buy it, at a bargain price no less? This is the reality I'm dealing with, however, so when I went out to Maker's Mark distillery this last November I decided I was going to try and do something about it. I didn't play around with any of the fancy French oak staves they had as part of their custom Maker's 46 program. I chose straightforward American oak planks, put them into the barrel, and let those babies soak for a few months in the hope that they would create exactly what I needed: a limited, affordable, big, sweet, wheated, high proof Bourbon that you couldn't just get anywhere and would only be available for a short period of time. Last night was the perfect evening to unveil that specimen. We had the private room at Hard Water and the weather in the city was perfect. The Embarcadero was singing. There was magic in the air.
I packed the house with fifty guests, while Erik and Michael jumped behind the bar and began mixing up Maker's Mark cocktails. The Beam-Suntory guys were in the house. We had food. I gave a little speech, explained the process, and then we drank. "This is really good," someone said to me.
"I'm glad you like it!" I responded with a smile.
"No, I mean this is really, really good!" he answered back. That seemed to be the consensus. Not earth-shattering. Not life-changing. Not going to go down as the best whiskey of all time. But really, really good. Tasty. Big, Sweet. Rich. Decadent. Yep. That's what I wanted. That's what we got.
There's the recipe on the back in case any other retailer wants the same thing. If you want to create a wheated Bourbon delight in a barrel, use six Maker's Mark custom staves with ten baked American oak planks and you'll get there. It took me all of fifteen minutes in the lab to figure that out. Back in November, the guys at Maker's Mark were looking at me like: "You're seriously all done?"
Yep. I knew what I wanted going in. Actually, I knew what I needed going in. I needed an answer to an impossible question: What do you have that tastes like Pappy that isn't Pappy?
Maker's Mark Cask Strength.
I can get that anywhere. What do you have besides that? Something rarer and harder to find.
How about this:
Maker's Mark 46 "K&L Exclusive" Private Select Kentucky Bourbon $69.99 - When Maker's Mark invited me out to do a custom K&L barrel of Maker's 46 (their enhanced Bourbon that sees additional aging with seasoned oak staves), I was practically itching to go; especially because I knew they were going to let us bottle the whiskey at full proof. If there's one thing we can't get enough of at K&L these days, it's high octane wheated Bourbon, especially since the Van Winkle craze of the past decade has gutted most of the available supply. Because wheated Bourbons substitute wheat for rye as the flavor grain in the mash bill, the result is a creamier and sweeter whiskey that really pops on the palate at cask strength. The really cool part about the Maker's 46 custom barrel program is that they allow you to choose between a number of different staves, three of which are exotic french oak flavors. While I'm sure we could have put together a rich and cocoa-driven cuvee from some of those toasted beauties, I had one goal in mind: dial up the American oak to full blast and make the biggest, sweetest, fullest, creamiest cask strength Bourbon we possibly could. All ten of the staves I selected were from the baked American and standard Maker's 46 variety, which added a serious dose of vanilla into the already oaky whiskey. Sure enough, the whiskey came out just as I had hoped: the nose is practically oozing with caramel and burnt sugar, while the palate is big at 55%, but all that sweetness from the wheated character overpowers the proof.