Maker’s Mark Distillery Tour

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It says something that we arrive just minutes after the office opens and there are already two full groups of about 40 people placed ahead of us.  Not to worry; Maker’s Mark is staffed for this, as evidenced by our tour beginning 15 minutes after they opened, for a tour that lasted about an hour and fifteen minutes not including time in the “gift shop.”

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Like others I’ve visited, Maker’s is  located in a vale of sorts, accessed by an unlikely approach of several very rural roads.  Originally built around 1805 and operated as Burks Distillery, William Samuels Sr. bought the shuttered site in 1953.  His family had made whiskey for six generations, and he wanted to make a finer whiskey than his family’s recipe, which was reportedly burned.   The secret, they say, is Kentucky’s limestone filtered water.  But each distillery has its own tweaks.

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The site itself has a somewhat charming topography, not too unlike Tolkien’s Shire.   The process of making whiskey is essentially the same as others, except that they replace rye grains with red winter wheat.  Roll the grains in a mil to reduce the bitterness, add the limestone water, add in corn and let it cook in one of three low flow cookers, lower the temperature, add the red winter wheat, cook it some more, add malted barley, and cook it some more.  The process takes 3.5 hours.  Then add it to the fermentation vat, add a strain of yeast held by the family for six generations, and wait for the starches to turn to sugars. You don’t get to see any of that, of course, only the spiffy equipment.

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After the first day of fermenting, that’s when you have what is called “distiller’s beer,” which is then pumped into a column copper still.   Steam turns the alcohol portion to vapor, takes it up to a condenser, and viola. Except that Maker’s double distills it, through a pot still in their basement, to put the taste “more forward on the palette,” sweeter and less better.  And thus Maker’s White.

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Below is a reminder that the place that supplies both old and modern tastes may be located in a very old building.

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The tour guide gives frequent nods to Samuel’s wife Margie, who helped design the bottle, came up with the wax seal idea and method, designed the shutters with the bottle cutouts, and even the name, noting that on the bottom of other bottles was the glass maker’s mark.  

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Next stop is the labelling shop, where three 1930s presses are used to the tune of 60,000 labels per day with the desired perforation qualities.   I hope they have backup machinery stored somewhere else…


Next step was Warehouse A, with skinny windows reportedly made to prevent people from sneaking barrels out.  This is the oldest of their warehouses and smallest, holding 4,000 barrels.  Others nearby are up to 7 stories and hold up to 50,000 barrels.  

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About those barrels, to be legally termed a bourbon, distillers can only use barrels once, they have to be charred, and they have to be made of oak.   They obtain the barrels from Independent Stave company, who ages the barrels nine months and one “Kentucky summer” to remove the bitterness from the wood.   They’re then flame roasted on the inside for caramelization.  Once assembled and delivered, they’re filled with alcohol from the still, cut it with water at 110 proof, then deposit the barrels at the top of the warehouse, where they remain for three Kentucky summers, the heat of which causes alcohol to work its way more vigorously into the wood of the barrel.  

At end of third summer, key employees taste the barrels, as they don’t “grade” by barrel age.  When suited, they return the barrels to the bottom of the warehouse to age further, where they gain color, for a total of 5.75 to 7 years until maturity.   At that point, 378 barrels of similar age are merged to form a batch, where the taste is checked again.  As the brewery is part of a conglomerate, the spent barrels are shipped to a sister company in Scotland for aging Scotch whiskey. 

Then we approach “the cellar,” for the story, and sales pitch, for Makers 46 and Maker’s Special Blend.   Samuels, Jr., approaching retirement, wanted his own “brand.”  So he took Maker’s Mark, and working with the stave company and the master distiller, came up with an additional flavoring system.

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You take the top two rings and the barrel head off the barrel, insert 10 French oak staves (aged 18 months and lightly flame seared) into the barrels, rebuild and fill the barrels, and age them for nine weeks in “the cellar,” a new building that is temperature controlled at 50oF.

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The stave manufacturer termed the inserted staves as profile 46, or, as they were solely made for Maker’s Mark, Maker’s 46.   And, the third generation also wants his stamp.  So, instead of 10 staves of like kind, they will let “industry partners,” like restaurants, tweak the profile to their own liking.  The current Fall blend includes two Baked American Puro, four Maker’s 46, two seared French Cuvee, one Roasted French Mocha and one Toasted French Spice.

We then toured the bottle filling line, which is unremarkable except for the hot wax melting station, where employees hand dip each bottle, rotate it once or twice horizontally, then turn it vertically to allow the drips.  

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One surprise of the tour was a Dale Chihuly exhibit, built right into the ceiling of a passageway from The Cellar to, I think, the frequently promised tasting.

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And, on to the tasting.

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The Maker’s White just burns, being grain alcohol, and the others are enjoyable to varying degrees of flavor and the extent to which you like your drink neat.  You get a couple sips per, for anyone who wants to count.

As far as swag goes, they have it.  I don’t drink bourbon except very rarely, but… there’s a father-in-law and guests at my Christmas Party.  And, there’s the opportunity to dip your own bottle of bourbon, so… yeah.

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Overall, a great tour!

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