Purists since ’50s, Maker’s Mark tries out a new bourbon

By Bruce Schreiner
Associated Press / June 8, 2010

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LORETTO, Ky. — It seemed like any other day at the Maker’s Mark Distillery, as workers dunked tops of whiskey bottles into tubs of red wax. Only this time, the bottles were different, and so was the bourbon.

Since the late 1950s, the quaint distillery tucked into the Kentucky hills has churned out just one product: Maker’s Mark. That’s changing with next month’s introduction of Maker’s 46, a close cousin of the original but with a different aging method in the final weeks to give the whiskey a distinctive taste.

While the world of expensive spirits is rife with offshoots, Maker’s was steadfast in clinging to a single product until now.

“This is our first creation in 52 years, and it really is a creation,’’ Maker’s Mark president, Bill Samuels Jr., said. “It’s not like it’s Maker’s with a couple of more years age on it.’’

To create the product, master distiller Kevin Smith started with Maker’s and dabbled for more than a year before hitting on the recipe.

Whiskey barrels storing Maker’s are emptied so workers can insert oak planks inside each. The barrels are refilled and aged two to three months longer than traditional Maker’s, which ages six to seven years. As Maker’s 46 mingles with the wood, it takes on stronger hints of caramel, spice, and vanilla, Smith said.

The new whiskey sprung up from consumer demand, Smith said. When Maker’s executives met with customers or bartenders, the question invariably arose: When was Maker’s going to offer a new whiskey?

The product’s name is a tip of the cap to the brand’s barrel maker and one of its top executives, who came up with the unique idea of using seared French oak planks inside the barrel to draw out more flavors. The product’s name reflects the profile number attached to the process.

Plans are to produce 25,000 9-liter cases of Maker’s 46 this year for US distribution, Smith said. That’s a drop in the bucket for the distiller, where overall production this year could surpass 1 million cases for the first time. Maker’s 46 will run about $10 more per bottle than traditional Maker’s, which generally costs $23 to $25 per 750-milliliter bottle.

The new bourbon comes at a time when the market for top-shelf spirits is shrinking, stung by the recession. Sales of brands in Maker’s 46 price range tumbled 5.1 percent in 2009, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Chuck Cowdery, an American whiskey writer and author of “Bourbon, Straight,’’ said Maker’s 46 is “really terrific’’ and predicted it will be well-received.

“They resisted doing this for a long time because they’ve always told consumers, ‘This is the best bourbon,’ ’’ he said. “They always thought it would be confusing to the brand image if they brought out something else. But it was that consumer that started telling them, ‘Try something a little different now and then.’ ’’