Makers Mark Private Barrel Selection Experience
As you know by now, I have taken a liking to private barrel selection, whiskey store picks. I am such a big fan I made the decision to concentrate the majority of my bourbon writing to reviewing those store picks. Part of that passion is participating in a private barrel selection at the distillery. The typical private barrel selection experience involves arriving at the distillery, connecting with the Master Taster, Barrel Selection Manager or in some awesome cases; the Master Distiller. You are then taken to either the rack house, warehouse, or tasting room. From there the group taste samples straight from multiple barrels and they grade them. At the end of the process a barrel (or more in some cases) are selected for bottling and shipment at a later date.
This past week I had the opportunity to participate in a barrel selection at Makers Mark for NASA Liquors in Houston, TX which is owned by Thu Tran. Her son Alex was part of the selection team as he heads up the private barrel selections for the store. The experience is so different and unique from a typical private barrel selection that I had to write about it. Here is my experience at Makers. I hope you enjoy.
I have to start the story with a disclaimer: It is the policy of Makers Mark that they provide the barrel selection team with transportation from Louisville, or predetermined location by the distributor, to Makers Mark and back. They actually demand all participants use that service. I was already in the area so I skirted that option and met the team at Makers.
So my day started with a nice drive into Loretto, Ky. Upon arrival, all members of the selection team checked in at the distillery tour office and were instructed to meet at the Star Provisions restaurant near the private selection building. The team was informed that is was a very good idea to enjoy lunch before the selection started as there was a potential of consuming quite a large amount of bourbon during the process.
The team met and introduced ourselves then enjoyed a quick meal while the Makers Mark private selection staff prepared the room for our arrival.
We made the quick walk from the restaurant to the selection room. Room is hardly a word that described the facility. The first thing you notice is the entire facing of the building is made of limestone. Upon entering the front doors, you see a state of the art facility that is part lab, part library, and part tasting stations.
After the entire group was in the facility, Scott Mooney (Maker Mark Private Barrel Selection Assnt Manager) asked us to grab a spot at one of the tasting stations. Once seated, Scott and Frank Krockenberger walked us through the process. Instead of rehashing their comments, I will walk you through the process as I experienced it.
Scott and Frank started with a visual review of a sample stave from each of the stave options. There are 5 different staves that the team will work with to determine the final taste profile of the selection. The staves are:
- Baked American Pure 2 (P2) – A lighter wood
- Seared French Cuv’ee (CU) – Slightly more honey colored wood
- Makers 46 (46) - Mahogany colored wood used in regular Makers 46 offering
- Roasted French Mocha (Mo) – Dark, rich chocolate colored wood
- Toasted French Spice (Sp) – Deep red colored wood
The base bourbon is Makers Cask Strength bourbon. That is the only bourbon base used in the private selection process. It serves as the base of the final product but also the baseline for the specially treated wood offerings that give the selection its final flavor profile. The setting was finished off with the barrel selection recipe boards plus water and crackers to help cleanse the palate.
Systematically, each team member began tasting the bourbons on the tasting plate one by one. Starting with the standard Makers Cask Strength and going down the line in the order above. After each tasting, Scott and Frank would go around the room and discuss tasting notes with the group, as individuals. As most readers have probably tasted Makers Cask Strength, I will spare my tasting notes for that offering. Here are the notes for the treated wood varieties. This is a very basic, generic tasting note per offering just to give you an idea of where each one was skewed towards.
- Baked American Pure 2 (P2) – Sweet and light. Fruit notes.
- Seared French Cuv’ee (CU) – Vanilla and butterscotch with oak notes. My favorite.
- Makers 46 (46) - Typical caramel and oak flavors in Makers 46
- Roasted French Mocha (Mo) – Bold coffee with very dry but short finish. Very dry.
- Toasted French Spice (Sp) – Heavy spice and very long finish.
Now that our palates are familiar with each offering, it is time for the team to brainstorm and begin constructing special blends. We were informed by Thu and Alex that they were going to select 3 barrels today for the store. One barrel they wanted all staves to be Makers 46 so that was the easy one.
To begin the process, the team began conversations as to which staves we favored in the tasting and how much influence each stave, of each style, would influence the final offering. After lengthy discussion it was suggested that we start with something and adjust from there. The process for this involves taking poker chips with the stave ID on the chip and filling ten open spots on a barrel line up board. Each board represents the sample formulation that will be constructed, and modified, until the group agrees on the final product.
Our first trial barrel consisted of 4 P2 staves, 4 Cu staves, and 2 Makers 46 staves. The team agreed this should be a nice balance and easy drinker for the customers at NASA Liquors. Using large vials of whiskey from each barrel type, Scott and Frank began constructing the concoction for sampling. Once the formulation was completed, each of the team members nosed and sampled the blend. It was unanimous that this was a hit. As we had hoped, smooth drinker with light fruit notes, vanilla, with a nice oak balance. Barrel number 2 completed!
This process continued until we had selected two more combinations. Each of the three barrels that were constructed have very different tasting notes but it was agreed that all three would be pleasing to NASA Liquors customer base while still being vastly different than normal Makers expressions. The final two barrels were constructed as follows:
Barrel 2: 3 Cu staves, 3 Makers 46 staves, 2 P2 staves, 1 Mo stave, and 1 Sp stave
Barrel 3: 4 P2 staves, 4 Cu staves, and 2 Makers 46 staves
Upon completion, Thu and Alex were escorted to the barrel creation and filling room. In that room, they were given metal hoops that contained the ten stave combinations per barrel. Those staves were placed into empty barrels and lids installed. Alex was then able to fill the barrels with Makers Cask Strength bourbon. From there, the barrels will be stored in the barrel maturation rack house for nine weeks. That special rack house is located in the same building, which is nested against the limestone wall. The temperature in the rack house is naturally 55 degrees at all times. The only product stored in this rack house is Makers 46 and the Private Barrel Selections.
As you can see, Makers Mark process of private barrel selection is actually private barrel creation. Using the five different staves along with ten staves per barrel you can create 1,001 different private barrels. In the tasting room, there are floor to ceiling book cases with a retain bottle from every private barrel selected at Makers. It is quite the impressive library that is growing every week.
If given the opportunity to participate on a Maker Mark Private Selection, I would not hesitate to go through the process again and I would suggest any of you that have that opportunity to not pass it up.
I want to thank Thu and Alex Tran, Makers Mark, and the rest of our private selection team for a great day and unmatched experience.
Store picks and barrel selections are popping up at liquor stores, hotels, restaurants, bars, and bourbon clubs and we would love to review your barrel selections in this column.