Face Off

For a company that was once adamantly against having more than one product on store shelves, Maker’s Mark has done a hard 180 this past decade and changed with the times. It’s no longer enough to put all of a company’s eggs in one basket, as bourbon drinkers expect more and more variety in their bourbon products nowadays. As a result, Maker’s has added to their growing portfolio, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, Maker’s 46, the distillery-only Maker’s 46 Cask Strength that was replaced with the now ongoing Bill Samuel's Private Select, in addition to one of the most unique private selection programs in the industry. Their latest brand extension is the “Travelers’ Exclusive,” Maker’s Mark 101.  

It wasn’t always like this. When Maker’s Mark decided to release a cask strength version of their brand in 2014, it shocked the industry. After all, it was only a year prior that the company announced that they were going to lower the proof of their standard release from 90 to 84 proof in an attempt to meet demand. After the ensuing backlash and a company reversal of their plan, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength was released and it was everything a Maker’s Mark fan ever wanted from the brand. A bolder version of a bourbon classic.

In late 2018, Maker’s Mark announced they would release a 101 proof version of their brand with the caveat that it would only be available at travel duty free shops. This move isn’t unheard of, as many brands often offer a special edition of their product at such locations. Perhaps the company is testing the waters to see if there is demand for yet another version of their flagship bourbon, as Maker's Mark 101 lands in between them proof-wise.

But the question still remains, is Maker’s Mark getting too granular with their products at this point? Do drinker’s really need three options, all with the same mashbill, aging process (Maker's rotates their barrels to maintain consistency), and within 20 proof points (Cask Strength’s proof varies from batch to batch)?  Does one of these releases need to be voted off the island, or does Maker’s 101 need to lose the exclusivity part and deserve a permanent place in the Maker’s Mark lineup?

Breaking Bourbon: Fred, what's your official role in Bourbon & Beyond?

Fred:
I'm a co-founder in it, and the curator of the festival. I curate the culinary and bourbon stuff. Less on the culinary, but 100% on the bourbon. I come up with some ideas on the food side. But really everything in the bourbon...that's my footprint...that's like my baby. Especially the panels, I came up with all those. And that's kind of what I do every year. And then I also do promotions for the festival and drink with the artists and stuff, teach them how to taste bourbon...things like that.

Breaking Bourbon:
How did you initially get involved in Bourbon & Beyond?

Fred:
I am just really a bourbon geek and there is nothing more. I really didn't have it in my plans of breaking into super mainstream stuff. But the more I saw the impact I could have on regular everyday consumers, the more I wanted to do that kind of stuff. I can have more support and have a bigger impact and that’s really what Bourbon & Beyond has. It transformed me a little bit.

Breaking Bourbon:
Ok. So you talked about the food aspect and the stage aspect. But what makes Bourbon & Beyond different than other music festivals that attendees might go to?

Fred:
There are a lot of festivals that will have some kind of a drink component to it, or food component. But you go there and there is no connection to the food or drink, it's just there. And the food may be good, and the drink may be good. But there's no one there to talk about it. There's no one there to say what it is. And it's a real miss, in my opinion, for a lot of music festivals to have that, because it doesn't matter what the genre is, people who go to music festivals and listen to concerts, they are usually more on the affluent side.

So it is usually the people who listen to the likes of the Foo Fighters, Leon Bridges -  that's your affluent crowd that has a college degree and is out spending money. So I think that's what Bourbon & Beyond is, it is legitimately a bourbon festival. It really is. If you look at our panels for the last three years, those panels have been some of the most engaging in the industry. Last year I got Fred Noe and Jeff Arnett on the stage...Jack Daniels and Jim Beam, a huge rivalry. And no whiskey event in America [has] ever done that. And this year, we have a panel on the history of slavery and American whiskey as a topic...that most people don't want to discuss...but we think it's important.

I'd say what really makes us different, is that there is a thoughtfulness for every square inch of the festival. And specifically on the bourbon. This is one of bourbon’s best chances to convert a French consumer into a fan [for example]. And its happened. I mean, the first year there were truckloads of Eddie Vedder fans, and none of them were bourbon drinkers. And then in the middle of his set, they would go to the big bourbon bar, and then get a cocktail.

But also on the culinary side, we're bringing the people who are on Top Chef, who are the celebrity chefs, and they're kind of like their own rock stars right now. And we're bringing them to the table We're bringing them to people to meet. [For example, there are] a lot of Graham Elliot fans out there. So you bring in that kind of talent, and you know, this festival just stands out so much. [It’s] so much bigger than a lot of those that try to do something like it.

Breaking Bourbon:
The last two years have been two day festival. This will be the first three day festival, which means even more bourbon and music for everyone, right? So what type of bourbon experiences can festival attendees expect when they go to Bourbon & Beyond?

Fred:
So kind of the whole market would be big bourbon bar, where you go in there and it’s the size of a football field….like spans the whole thing. You know you can get bourbon or you can get a cocktail. There [are also] Tiki components, [as in] there will be bourbon Tiki. You'll find little hidden bars throughout the festival. There's a lot of effort to pair the food with the bourbon. You'll see some fun pizza and bourbon opportunities. But probably one of the coolest for our particular audience is what we call the Hunter Bar. And that's the element that Silver Dollar operates and they're bringing in a bunch of vintage stuff and then bringing in some [feral] pigs and stuff. And then you've got my minibar, which the minibar is the bar where we bring in the craft spirits. I've got Wilderness Trail, MB Roland, and Bluegrass Pillars and then we're also going to put all of our barrel picks in there. And we've partnered with Kroger this year as our retailer. And when I tell you - they were like “Hey, can we do barrel pics for the festival?” I was thinking we might do like five or six. That turned into about 12 to 15!

Breaking Bourbon:
It really sounds like at Bourbon & Beyond you can be any experience level with bourbon to really appreciate that.

Fred:
Yeah. We definitely have something for the geeks, the panels would get you. But the music draws in such a non-bourbon drinker. In fact, the majority of people who come, like 70%, are from outside of Louisville. And so I think we will have 20 countries, we will have people from almost all the states, we'll have people from everywhere at this festival. And what we're trying to do is to get this [to] where people talk about it like they do Coachella. This is an incredible festival, an incredible lineup, and bourbon is the headline. Bourbon is literally the headliner...star of the show. And when people walk in, they see all this stuff, they listen to music, and they're like, WOW! And they want to come back and they want to do more. It is a very, very important festival for bourbon.

Breaking Bourbon:
What have you learned from your last two go-arounds, helping curate Bourbon & Beyond, that you plan on incorporating into this year's event?

Fred:
I'd say what I personally learned is that...I am trying to give the people who come the best possible bourbon experience. It's really refreshing to me to see the new blood of fans come in before we're able to taint them and while they're still pure. So Bourbon & Beyond is kind of like the new wave of consumers before we've had a chance to...you know...what's the word I'm looking for...manipulate them into being crotchety curmudgeons.

Breaking Bourbon:
Speaking of the music aspect, do you have any fun stories about the last two festivals of converting any musicians into bourbon drinkers, or getting to hang out and really influence the artists into looking at bourbon in a different light?

Fred:
Oh, yeah! The first year, I hung out with ZZ Ward, and I taught her about bourbon and tasting and all that, and she fell in love with it. Same with Sean James, a really brilliant blues player. And it was magnificent. Sean and I stayed in touch. ZZ...she's like...she's blowing up. But last year, with the rain, I hung out with David Byrne who was one of the headliners. And we drank some Kentucky Owl and some other stuff. But he was cool. And he is very, very much like he was on stage, very eclectic and unique.

Breaking Bourbon:
Very cool. And is there anyone this year that you're looking forward to seeing and trying to drink bourbon with, or just influence them into looking at bourbon in a different way?

Fred:
Yeah. The obvious answers are [people] like Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters. The person I am really most excited to talk to is Willie Nelson's boy, Lucas Nelson. He's an amazing musician...amazing. And I think he gets overshadowed for the fact that he's Willie Nelson's boy. I am a big fan of his, so that's probably who I'm most excited to meet. And of course, we've got the other two festivals. Louder Than Life is the next weekend. And the headliner for that is Guns N’ Roses. I am not gonna lie, I'd love a sip of bourbon with Slash.

Breaking Bourbon:
Wrapping up, you know a lot of people want to know when can we expect you to launch Vodka & Beyond?

Fred:
So much funny about that. I tried to do a panel on vodka this year, and I couldn't get anyone from the vodka world to join me on the bench. So it's not like I didn't try to give it a presence at Bourbon & Beyond. I was like, “Hey, you guys, you have like an hour to convince me vodka is good. I mean, come on, you know...” but I think in their hearts they just know, they know they are inferior. But there's vodka there. If you are a vodka fan you will find plenty I am sure.

Breaking Bourbon:
Final plug for Bourbon & Beyond this year?

Fred:
If you can find me and I've got five minutes to spare, I'll have a bourbon with you. I really, truly mean that. I'm busy at this thing, I have things to do, but I really truly and genuinely enjoy just hanging out with people. And you know, I've got to pace myself. What I learned last year...I also shot my Amazon Prime show there...what I learned there is I need to make a little bit more time for hanging out with our people.

Maker’s Mark - 90 Proof

Price: $30

Full Review

Nose
: A blast of sweetness immediately greets you with this one. Notes of vanilla, caramel, brown sugar, and even a bit of strawberry are present. It’s a surprisingly strong scent for a 90 proof bourbon.

Palate: Notes of toffee, vanilla, and oak are most prevalent with fainter hints of toasted nut and cinnamon. Overall it has a thin but buttery mouthfeel that goes down smooth.

Finish: The palate’s flavors that carry over to the finish are by no means deep and layered, but overall they’re pleasant and hard to find fault with.

Maker’s Mark 101 "Travelers’ Exclusive" - 101 Proof

Price: $50 (1 Liter)

Nose
: A perfect amount of intensity greets you on the nose. Apple, vanilla, and caramel swirl to create an inviting and pleasing aroma.

Palate: A touch sweet at first sip that quickly transitions into a spicy and oak filled palate. Burnt caramel, vanilla, butterscotch, and toasted nut round out its flavor profile.

Finish: A strong cinnamon burst before transitioning into a dry and hot aftertaste. Lingering amounts of caramel, vanila, and oak make for a very traditional tasting bourbon.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength - 113.5 Proof

Price: $55

Full Review

Nose
: Faint hints of cherries, cinnamon, and vanilla. It’s overall on the sweet side. The nose is in-line with the standard Maker’s Mark profile, but surprisingly not as potent as I would have thought being over 113 proof.

Palate: Nice full-bodied mouthfeel that coats your tongue. Notes of caramel, toasted nuts, and cinnamon provide a wonderfully flavored sip. The palate also follows the standard Maker’s flavor profile, but it has much more life in it.

Finish: Medium to long finish that has a great mix of sweet and spicy. These contrasting notes play off each other nicely as they keep the high and lows in check. The tail end of the finish concludes with earthy tones. It may be on the low end of the proof range for a cask strength bourbon, but it still packs a decent amount of heat.

Maker’s Mark is a lot of things to a lot of people. For some it’s their first experience with bourbon. For others, they find it incredibly boring and don’t give it a second look. Yet the brand has its superfans. It’s also a bar staple, reliably found in most bars you walk into around the world. I often fell into a few of these categories from time to time. Nowadays, I believe in the brand’s virtues and remain a big fan of their Cask Strength release.

It’s easy to dismiss the standard 90 proof Maker’s Mark for most bourbon enthusiasts. It’s quite tame overall and hard to impress fellow enthusiasts when throwing your acclaim at it. This is where the Maker’s 101 really shines. It’s bigger, bolder, and more robust. This is also how I described Cask Strength in my initial review years ago.

Most surprisingly, Maker’s 101 tastes more potent compared to my 113.5 proof Cask Strength. Both being new bottles, the 101 proof is noticeably hotter, drier, and less sweet than the Cask Strength. How this black magic is accomplished is anyone’s guess. Joking aside, Maker’s 101 reminds me a lot of Old Weller Antique’s characteristics. It also features a potency I don’t often associate with Maker’s Mark.

In contrast, the Cask Strength wears its wheated mashbill on its sleeve much more so than the Maker’s 101. While still potent at times, the Cask Strength tastes sweeter overall with more caramel and butterscotch coming through.

So that leaves the standard 90 proof release. I get it, it’s hard to get excited about it, but it most certainly has a job to do. Acting as the the brand’s welcome wagon, it’s a starting point, and without it, new bourbon drinkers might be scared off by the robustness of the 101 proof or 110+ proof Cask Strength.

Where does that leave us? Besides Maker’s 101 surprisingly tasting a bit more robust and less sweet than the Cask Strength, this lineup is what you’d expect it to be. Simply put, there aren’t any night and day differences. Sure anyone could proof down the Cask Strength version to 101 proof, but there is something less exciting about doing it that way. The 101 proof release might not win over any naysayers of the brand if they weren’t convinced by the Cask Strength release, but for bourbon drinkers curious about a middle-of-the-road proofed Maker’s, the 101 proof is a fun and enjoyable tasting experience.

In the end, who can complain about having more options? With many drinkers citing 100/101 proof as their sweet spot, Maker’s Mark needs to do drinkers a service and make Maker’s 101 a standard everyday addition to their lineup.

If widespread distribution never comes to pass, is the new 101 proof release worth searching out and going out of your way to procure? If you consider yourself a fan of the brand that’s an easy yes. If not, I’m not so sure otherwise. It’s certainly better than the standard 90 proof, but not so much so that 101 proof Maker’s is somehow the brand’s magic proof point that the company was not aware of for all these years. Because of how Maker’s rotates their aging stock, they’re one of the most consistent brands when it comes to flavor profile. This results in proof differences not having the same drastic results that they can with other brands. Maker’s Mark is better at 101 proof than 90 proof, that point is very clear, just don’t expect it to blow your mind. Who knows though, that extra proof just might be a sweet spot for you that makes you give Maker’s Mark a second look.

The sample bottle used for this review was provided at no cost courtesy of Breaking Bourbon reader Ken. We thank him for the sample and for allowing us to do things with it with no strings attached.

Written By: Eric

May 3, 2019
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