As a bourbon fan, not a bourbon expert, there aren't too many brands I could pick out of a lineup with confidence. But I'm pretty sure I could sniff out a Maker's Mark, no question. It's a sweet whiskey smelling of caramel and vanilla that lands on the front of your palate, soft and smooth, with a long, warm finish.
Whether or not it's to your taste, it's certainly distinctive. And as you might expect, nothing about this is an accident. Every stage of the making of Maker's is designed to produce a front-palate bourbon, sometimes at the cost of major inefficiencies. "It's a pain in the butt to produce a sweet bourbon," laughs distillery education director Dave Pudlo, after running us around the factory to see how it's made. "But that's what we decided we wanted to do." So devoted are they that Pudlo refers to the midpoint of the tongue, front to back, as the "River Styx"—in that once you "cross" to the back of the tongue, you're in a place where nothing good will happen.
So what does Maker's do to keep you on the "right" side of that river?
The Grains, And How They're Treated
All bourbon, by definition, is a grain spirit made with at least 51% corn (Maker's is more like 70%). But they're unusual in their use of soft red winter wheat—rather than rye. "It contributes sweetness in contrast to a spiciness that rye will contribute," says Pudlo.
What else? Maker's is rare in processing their grains with a roller mill press, which essentially squeezes the grain out of the husk, separating it from the husk. Other methods pulverize the husk as well, says Pudlo; "Think of the husk like the orange peel, when you're making orange juice. You want to squeeze the orange for the sweet juice—you don't want to toss it in a blender, and grind the peel up in there as well."
In the cooking process, that wheat is never allowed to get above 161°F, so that the proteins don't break down and so that the sugars don't caramelize (which would add a bitter element that Maker's doesn't want). So the choice of wheat, the method of pressing, and the method of cooking all contribute to the characteristic Maker's flavor profile.
Corn, malted barley, and wheat make up the grain mixture, or "mash bill," of the bourbon, but it's the yeast that does the noble work of turning it into alcohol. The yeast that Maker's uses is a strain that the Samuels family has used for generations. Tasted alone, the jug yeast is mouthwatering and a bit fruity, characteristics that emerge if you taste the mash bill once it's started to ferment—and that emerge, much more subtly, in the final bourbon.
The Barrels and the Aging
In any barrel-aged spirit—and in wines, for that matter—aging in barrels imparts sweet flavors of fruit or vanilla or caramel. In Maker's, all three are prominent. But the resins and tannins in the wood can also impart flavors that Maker's doesn't want. So how do they control the barrels' interaction with their spirit?
First, there are the barrels themselves. Maker's stipulates that all wood used in their barrels must be dried, outside, for at least eight months, including one full summer. This allows a lot of the compounds in that wood to wash, bleach, and dry away: tannic acid, resins, and such. "It's washed and dried by nature," says master distiller Greg Davis.
"Bourbon must be at 125 proof or lower when it's put in the barrel, but at Maker's, they actually barrel it a good deal lower: 110 proof."
The higher-proof the alcohol when it goes into the barrel, the more deeply it penetrates the wood; and if you penetrate too deeply, you extract more of the flavor of the wood fibers deeper within, rather than the warm grain flavor that's desired. Bourbon must be at 125 proof or lower when it's put in the barrel, but at Maker's, they actually barrel it a good deal lower: 110 proof. The bourbon is diluted down before it's aged. (This means that Maker's is using more barrels than it would otherwise—adding to the cost everywhere from buying more barrels to requiring more warehouse space to requiring more manpower to barrel, un-barrel, and move around.) What that does is expose the bourbon to more wood, while, at the same time, keeping it from penetrating too deeply—more contact with the layers that contribute the oaky-caramel-vanilla aspects, and less contact with the other compounds deeper within the wood.
... And the Rotation
There's as much as a 20–25°F difference in temperature between the warmer top of an aging warehouse, and the much cooler bottom. What does this mean for bourbon? At higher temperatures, the wood opens up and "breathes," allowing the liquor into its pores. But as mentioned above, Maker's doesn't want it to seep too deep. So after three summers, the barrels are rotated to the bottom of the warehouse, where the cooler temperatures slow down the breakdown of the wood.
In every case above, the process is less efficient than it could be—but in the interest of making Maker's taste like Maker's wants it to.