Classification: Straight Bourbon
Company: Beam Suntory
Distillery: Maker’s Mark
Release Date: September 2023 (Annual limited release)
Age: NAS (According to the company a blend of 87% 12-year-old and 13% 11-year-old barrels)
Mashbill: 70% Corn, 16% Wheat, 14% Malted Barley
MSRP: $150 / 750mL (2023)
Maker’s Mark is a storied distillery located in Loretto, Kentucky, which is approximately 60 miles southeast of Louisville. The brand is known for their use of wheat as the secondary grain in their mashbill (as opposed to the more commonly used rye) and their iconic trademarked red wax dripping down the neck of each bottle.
Maker’s Mark is one of the few distilleries to rotate the barrels between the upper and lower levels of their barrel aging rickhouses to even out the differences in temperature and other contributing factors across barrels over time. This process is intended to provide every barrel with a similar overall aging experience. As a result, barrels of standard Maker’s Mark are typically deemed ready at approximately 6 years old according to the company.
Maker’s Mark Cellar Aged was announced in August 2023, and was released in September. Per the company's press release, it will be an annual limited release and will be created using the same maturation approach each year, but the specific blend of bourbon ages will vary from year to year and be based on taste. According to the company, “To become Maker's Mark Cellar Aged, barrels of the distillery's classic distillate first spend approximately six years aging in traditional bourbon warehouses, where they endure the Kentucky climate and its temperature swings season after season until they reach full maturity and can be called ‘Maker's Mark.’ Barrels are then moved into the distillery's proprietary whisky cellar for an additional five to six years of aging before being blended to taste and bottled. Built into the natural limestone shelf of the Kentucky hills, the cellar's consistently cool environment slows down the tannic impact that occurs during maturation, while allowing the bourbon to develop a deeper, darker flavor with hidden depths, but no bitterness.”
The inaugural 2023 release of Maker’s Mark Cellar Aged is a batch totaling 225 barrels. The total bottle count is undisclosed, however at an estimated 180-240 bottles per barrel this puts the estimated yield somewhere in the 40,500-54,000 bottle range. Cellar Aged will be available in the United States in September 2023; in London, Munich, and select Global Travel Retail accounts in October 2023; and in Tokyo and Singapore in early 2024.
Wafts of sweetness greet you with caramel syrup and cinnamon sugar up front. Robust barrel char forms an undertow, dialing the sweetness back a notch and providing some balance. Hints of red fruit appear in the background. There’s a slight punchiness to the aroma that persists throughout, which feels like a combination of the bourbon’s proof as well as a slight pinch from the astringency high proof wheated bourbons are known for having from time to time. While this factor doesn’t completely undo it, it does pull the bourbon’s introduction back from its high overall potential.
Butterscotch and cornbread make for an interesting combination of flavors at the onset. Caramel, brown sugar, and contrasting cinnamon spice follow. The proof stays in check initially, allowing the flavors to come through with a rich, satisfying intensity. As it draws towards the finish, the cinnamon spice note begins to strengthen, which is coupled with a slight astringency that begins to really ramp up on the backend.
Cinnamon spice continues to intensify, providing a strong undertone for a long, warming finish. Hints of apricot, red fruit, and brown sugar develop against the spice. The astringency carries over from the palate, however the cinnamon spice engulfs it as the finish progresses. It’s not a perfect showing, but it is fairly intense and long with cinnamon against the sweeter backdrop of flavors, which makes it memorable as a result.
Maker’s Mark Cellar Aged could be described as really unique for one reason: its age. Cellar Aged is the oldest Maker’s Mark release ever, and fans of the brand have been craving it.
Maker’s Mark is known for its consistent process of rotating barrels as they age in their rickhouses. As a result, most barrels are ready at around 6 years old, and more notably, are believed to taste relatively similar from one to the next. This process is unique and contrasts the aging process used by other large Kentucky distilleries who experience a wide range of flavor profile variation among barrels as they age in different parts of their rickhouses. While achieving relative consistency across barrels is pretty amazing and offers its own set of advantages, having variation between barrels provides two major advantages as well. First, flavor variations allow for the creation of additional brands, with each brand capitalizing on one of the general flavor directions barrels experience by being aged in different rickhouses and locations within those rickhouses. Second, enough variation from barrel to barrel gives the distillery the opportunity to offer a single barrel program, as there is enough variation in flavor profile across the barrels to give customers a range to choose from on an ongoing basis.
Reading between the lines, Maker’s Mark worked around their consistency achievement (and problem) with their first permanent brand extension that took place 13 years ago in 2010, Maker’s Mark 46. With presumably a stock of barrels that all taste very similar, have been aged for about the same amount of time, and were made using the same recipe and process, how do you create another brand? They answered this by emptying standard Maker’s Mark barrels, inserting ten heavily-seared French oak staves, and then refilling the same barrels and aging for an additional nine weeks in the distillery’s limestone cellar so that flavors from the French oak staves could be imparted on the bourbon. This process served as inspiration for Maker’s Mark’s private selection program, which was launched in 2015, and allows the person or group selecting each barrel to choose a custom variation of finishing staves for their own specific barrel, resulting in 1,001 different combinations, and as a result almost no two barrels tasting alike.
Maker’s Mark also expanded their offerings to highlight different proof points, Maker’s Mark 101, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, and Maker’s Mark 46 Cask Strength. The limited edition Wood Finishing series, which debuted with RCS in 2019 and ended with BEP earlier in 2023, were much like extensions of the company’s private selection program, offering different combinations of finishing staves and highlighting various aspects of their production process.
The one variable missing from all of these product variations: a focus on the impact of simply increasing aging time. With all of the releases until Cellar Aged, none were simply “higher aged Maker’s Mark.” They offered variations in stave finishing and higher proof points, but it stopped there. Fans of the brand have been rabid for higher aged Maker’s, and stories of sampling such barrels, often in the presence of company visionary Bill Samuels, Jr., remain legendary, though I can only offer my recollection of conversations with people in the industry and no specific proof. The fact is, people wanted to taste a higher aged version of bourbon’s most iconic brand, plain and simple.
While Cellar Aged is a higher aged standard Maker’s Mark at its core, it comes with one giant caveat that needs to be pointed out. Spending the second half of its time aging in a cool cellar is interesting, but also means what’s in the bottle is not exactly higher aged Maker’s Mark as one might envision it. A version that allowed the barrels to spend the additional time aging in the same rickhouses would fit that bill, and might be a brand extension to watch for in the future, maybe with a prominent age statement on the front label. But Cellar Aged is not that version. Instead, with barrels used for Cellar Aged spending approximately half of their total time aging in the cellar where it’s cooler, darker, and the air is more damp, the potential impact of time in barrels is different than what would be achieved by continuing to age in the rickhouses. This is not a complaint by any means, but instead an observation highlighting the factors that make this release incredibly unique.
Maker’s Mark Cellar Aged is a good value at its $150 MSRP. However, this is more driven by what it is than how it tastes. Comparing side by side to Maker’s Mark 101 and Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, Cellar Aged edges them out, though the difference is not overwhelming, especially as compared to Cask Strength. 101 handles the astringency fairly well, but dials the intensity back to a highly noticeable degree. Cask Strength varies by batch as well as proof, but the bottle I compared to is a similar proof point as Cellar Aged and offers a similar level of intensity. Notably, I didn’t pull dominant oak notes from Cellar Aged despite it being nearly twice the age as Cask Strength, which is most likely attributed to the aging conditions in the cellar discussed previously. I did find it to be slightly more complex, and the finish to be quite a bit longer. Cellar Aged does well to maintain the same quintessential Maker’s Mark flavor profile, amplifying richness and adding complexity, but at the same time not overcoming the bit of imbalance and noticeable astringency I often pick up with Maker’s Mark bourbon.
But the fact that this is a blend of 11 and 12 year old barrels of Maker’s Mark is pretty notable. The release represents a snapshot in time for the brand, and future releases of Cellar Aged will offer ever-expanding comparisons. Considering the increase in bourbon pricing we’ve been experiencing, such as Sazerac’s Daniel Weller Emmer Wheat Bourbon ($500), Four Roses 135th Anniversary Limited Edition Small Batch ($200), Chicken Cock Chanticlear ($500) and other high priced releases, Barrell Craft Spirits’ line of limited edition Gold Label whiskeys ($500), and plenty more examples that seem to pop up on an increasingly frequent basis, it’s clear bourbon and American whiskey pricing is on the rise across the board. $150 is a better than fair price point for Maker’s Mark Cellar Aged, but just keep in mind a lot of that value lies in the background of this release, not just the flavor profile.
The highest aged release ever from Maker’s Mark gives fans what they’ve been asking for.
Maker’s Mark is a brand that’s recognizable to many due to the iconic red wax dripping down the neck of each bottle. It’s been a staple wheated bourbon that has helped serve as an ambassador for bourbon globally. A consistent production process, including rotating barrels as they age in the rickhouses, makes for a consistent end product that has historically reached maturity at approximately six years old.
Increasing time spent in barrels has not been part of the equation for previous releases from Maker’s Mark, and may simply be due to a downward trajectory that causes older barrels to become off profile or even overly tannic or astringent. Despite this, other brands manage to age their bourbons longer in similar conditions. As a result, fans have been hungry for a higher aged Maker’s Mark…if for no other reason than just the pure experience of it. The company answered this by slowing aging for the second half of each barrel’s lifespan in their limestone cellar, an aging location that was constructed in 2016 by blowing out the side of the hillside and constructing an aging warehouse that was primarily intended to keep up with demand for their barrel stave finished bourbons.
While other brands have experimented with similar aging conditions, Cellar Aged is the first of its kind from Maker’s Mark, and offers them the opportunity to experiment with that particular aging condition. While it’s certainly a bottle fans will want to scoop up and it hits some high marks, I wouldn’t describe this inaugural release of Cellar Aged as a home run. It stays fairly tight to its baseline, and leans into the richness of flavors that are typically present in Maker’s Mark more than any other aspect. It doesn’t highlight oak flavors as much as many higher aged releases from other distilleries tend to do. Cellar Aged is a modest improvement over the standard Maker’s Mark Cask Strength (though this will vary by batch), and by some measure is a representation of playing it safe. I still would love to try a higher aged version of Maker’s Mark bourbon that has spent all of its time aging in the company’s standard rickhouses, but until that time comes, Cellar Aged is the closest we have to exploring the flavor boundaries of high aged Maker’s Mark.