Makers Mark, barrel select recap.

For many of you that listen to our podcast already know most of what I’m about to explain in this post, so feel free to just skip ahead and check out all the pictures. I thin pictures are worth a thousand words so I will do my best to make sure there are as many pictures up here as I can reasonable fit.

We were fortunate enough this year to travel to Louisville Kentucky, and then a few hours south to Loretto Kentucky to visit the makers mark distillery. Now we didn’t just head all that way to sight see, we went to Makers with a purpose and that was to purchase a barrel of whisky. You might be asking yourself; now how does one go about buying a barrel? Do they send you the whole barrel full of whisky? And how do you get it out? I promos I will answer those questions and more, but first let me tell you about Makers Mark the brand.

Makers Mark

Bill Samuels Sr. a 6th generation distiller wanted out to set himself apart in the whiskey industry, and after accidentally losing the families 170-year-old recipe for bourbon, Bill, in a stroke of geniuses, started to experiment with mash bills by baking bread. He did this to save years of aging and to get a general feel for what the whiskey would taste like. Think about it, bread making and whiskey making use all the same ingredients. Grain, water, and yeast. Thus in 1953 Bill had discovered the mash bill for Makers Mark, the most unique part of the bill was he replaced the more commonly used rye in bourbon for soft red winter wheat. This gave the whisky a nice, sweet flavor and left the peppery hot bit of the rye out.


Now that Bill had created a signature whisky, his wife Margie wanted to make sure that whisky would stand out against the others, so she put the same effort into designing the packaging. Around the distillery the common saying is, it’s because of Margie people buy their first bottle of Maker’s and it’s because of bill they buy their second. The bottles shape, label, red waxed sealed top, and even the name are all thanks to Margie. While the liquid of each bottle of makers is the same because of the had dipped wax tops, no two bottles are the same. They say that a perfect drip is 7 runs on the bottle.


Margie also put just as much care into the distillery itself, It’s said that with every dollar that was put into the product another dollar was put into the grounds, and you can tell. Perfectly manicured grounds, beautifully painted red shutters, and black warehouses cris cross around the perfectly shaped, lush thick oak forest, oh and don’t forget the stacked limestone walkways that are held together with gravity and not mortar.


Everything that Bill and Margie started is still in practice today, everything from the hand dipped wax seal, to the hand torn labels is produced right at the distillery.

As Bill and Margie, retired and passed the heritage onto their son Bill Samuels 1975  they famously said “don’t screw up the whisky” A the new caretaker of the Maker’s brand Bill Jr. was eager to make his own mark on the company. However, Maker’s Mark only has one mash bill, so how do you get a new expression and be able to put your own touch on your family legacy without changing the whisky? Jr. introduced us to Makers 46. A fishing program that was pioneered by Bill Jr. After the whisky had reached maturity and was ready for bottle, be added inferred charred American oak finishing staves back to the barrels let them rest in cold dark place for 8 moor weeks. The release year for 46 was 2010, and up to this point Maker’s only had one expression. The current caretaker of the Maker’s Mark brand is Rob Samuels, which we had the pleasure of meeting on our trip. Since he was a boy, he’s worked at the distillery in almost every position and when he took the rains he created the barrel select program. He took the 46 finishing program and introduced 4 additional staves that could be added to the finishing process.

When we were there our barrel guide was Ryan Paris. His distillery given title was “bourbon specialist” and buy was he. This guy’s palate was second to none and was so familiar to the whisky and flavors he was able to walk us through right to what we wanted. Enough flattery for Ryan, he was telling us that the optimal finishing environment for the program and for the 46 line was in a cool dark area much like the environment of a cave. Now, it was explained to us that it is illegal to age whisky underground, something to do with prohibition laws still on the books. So, Rob Samuels, keeping with the traditions of his grandmother oversaw the construction of a limestone warehouse. To imitate a cave, a construction crew blasted into the side of limestone hill until they had enough vertical wall to act as the rear and sides of the building, then on completion of the front and the roof they backfilled the roof so there was a living roof. The result was a beautifully constructed building decorated on the front with all the limestone remnants, and an internal climate that resembles a cave. Dark and damp and a constant year-round temperature that stays at 55 degrees.


This is the warehouse where our barrel is currently maturing and was the warehouse where we sat to do the selection process. On the front half of the building was a tasting room, with massive floor to ceiling windows that looked back into the warehouse and onto all the barrels of whisky. On the adjacent wall was a beautiful hand blow glass sculpture of dripping wax, and the Maker’s logo, all in a muted red, and engraved with the names of every person that had done a barrel select program. On the opposite wall form the windows was four bookcases, floor to ceiling and double sided, lined with a barrel select bottles. One bottle from each barrel that was done. Ryan told us that by law and for quality control reasons they keep one sealed bottle and one test sample from each barrel, and what we saw there wasn’t even the half of it. In the middle of the room were 3 large oak tables, and for each place setting there was a board arranged with 5 stave tasting glasses and 5 mix tasting glasses. In the middle of the board was a single glass, that was filled with a sample of the barrel we would be starting with.

Ryan talked briefly with us about each stave, and what flavors each one would impart on the whisky if used in the barrel, and as we tasted through them held our hands and pulled our own lasting notes from each sample. Now this selection is different from most, because we were able to take these samples of each finishing stave and blend them to imitate the impact of recipe we chose. We were essentially playing master blender with 5 barrels.

The staves we had to choose form were:


  • P2 (baked American pure 2) American Oak cooked low and slow. This stave was responsible for the front palate, was light and bright without almost any finish.
  • Cu (seared French cuvee) French oak, inferred toasted and cut with ridged to get both charred and uncharted flavors. This stave was round, rich, full and loud.
  • 46 French oak, seared and then toasted. The Maker’s 46 bottles you can get at the store are finished with 10 of these staves. Was the mid palate binding stave.
  • Mw (Roasted French mendiant) French oak, Low an slow but for a longer time than the P2. This stave was coffee, chocolate, and acid. Was a very dominate flavor.
  • Sp (toasted french spice) French oak, high and then low convection bake. This stave was tart and fruity and was all back of the palate.


Now that we knew what we were working with we had to decide what wanted out whisky to taste like. Being it that our barrel was going to land in November and would a winter bourbon, we opted to go with a rich, round, chocolate winter sipper, that had a small heat in the front, but a lingering spice note in the back. And to come up with that flavor it was trile by fire.

Ryan had these boards on the table that had 10 slots for what looked like poker chips and a place to set a small decanter. The poker chips were stave punches and represented the number of staves we were thinking of. We would set out the appropriate staves and he would mix us a sample based on what we had picked. We’d taste the sample, discuss, and then then try again.

Now sitting in the tasting room had a unique feel to it, because about every five minutes a new tour of people seeing the distillery would walk past the windows, stop, and take pictures of us, much like being in a display at a zoo.     

But finally, after only the third try, we had found our whisky. Now we wouldn’t have done our due diligent if we didn’t keep trying to come up with a better whisky, but after the 5th or 6th try, we just called it. Upon completion we were awarded a birth certificate for our recipe, framed out of used staves, and taken back into blending room where we were allowed to pick out our barrel. We signed the top, took pictures, and then said goodbye to our newborn. It’s almost like picking out a puppy, you have to let it get a bit older before they can leave mom.

With all that behind us and the memories still fresh in our brains. I wanted to make sure we could share the experience with you. All in all, I would highly recommend the trip to Maker’s and if given the chance, do the barrel select program for yourself.