Outside of notes like pepper and baking spice, vanilla and caramel are two of the more common flavors associated with bourbons across the board. So how difficult could it be to craft a bourbon whiskey that pays homage to these two flavors in particular?
Simply nosing the latest special release bourbon from Maker’s Mark’s Wood Finishing Series one might not immediately surmise that dialing in the very well-integrated dollops of sugary caramel and round vanilla was a complex task. But glimpsing the launch code-like name on the bottle of the 2020 Limited Release—officially designated “SE4 X PR5”—you start to get the idea that this whiskey is more complicated than these two top notes suggest.
Serious fans of Maker’s Mark know the Loretto, KY-based distillery long resisted the whiskey industry’s trend toward limited edition bottlings and special release whiskeys, opting instead to focus on what it does so well: providing an excellent and much-loved wheated bourbon sold under a singular label in a singular expression (in an iconic wax-dipped bottle, no less). The addition of a single new expression—Maker’s 46—to the distillery’s core range in 2010 was a momentous event for a distillery that had for so long chosen to do one thing very well, and only one thing.
But once you start tinkering it’s difficult to stop, and the new annually released Wood Finishing Series—now in just its second edition—is an outgrowth of the experimentation that delivered Maker’s 46. Instead of playing around with cask finishing or blending, Maker’s 46 is crafted by taking a cask of original recipe Maker’s Mark bourbon and inserting a stave of specially cured French Oak into the liquid toward the end of its maturation, imparting additional flavors to the bourbon. Getting to that specific wood finishing process with that specific type of French Oak naturally produced a lot of stave experimentation and a huge (and still growing) body of knowledge around stave-finishing and its impacts on Maker’s Mark’s unique liquid. It would’ve been a shame to leave all those experiments and all that knowledge on the cutting room floor.
With its first limited edition, Maker’s Mark Director of Innovation Jane Bowie and her team experimented relentlessly to find a stave profile—titled “RC6”—that would ratchet up the flavors of baking spice and fruit, notes associated with the distillery’s proprietary yeast strain. For this second iteration, Bowie and her team wanted to nod to the special regimen of extra-long air drying and toasting all of its wood staves undergo prior to being constructed into barrels and filled with bourbon—a process that helps bring out specific flavors in the whiskey.
The taste vision was straightforward: heavy vanilla, heavy caramel, some spice for balance, and no tannin. “We thought, ‘this is gonna be so easy,’” Bowie says. “Vanilla and caramel, the two most common tasting notes that come out of people’s mouths when they talk about most bourbons.” But it soon became apparent that those specific flavors were coming from two different parts of the stave cooking process, and were in fact best imparted by completely different types of wood. “We started realizing that we were going to need to use two different staves,” Bowies says.
Moreover, experiments showed that vanilla notes really started to shine between two and four weeks after the stave was inserted into the bourbon cask, while the caramel notes began to pop more like five or six weeks in. In other words, they couldn’t put both staves in the same barrel, they were going to have to make two different bourbons and blend them.
In the end, they ended up making three. The bourbon finished with the vanilla-enhancing stave—labeled “PR5”—makes up more than half of the blend. The caramel enhancing “SE4” stave imparted significantly different (but desirable) caramel notes at five weeks and six weeks in the barrel, so Bowie and company formulated their final blend to include two SE4 bourbons, one at five weeks of finishing and the other at six weeks.
That might seem a long road to travel just to punch up the vanilla and caramel notes in a Kentucky bourbon, but the results speak for themselves. On the nose this bourbon works as advertised, with a walloping dose of warm dessert aromas (or maybe a gooey, decadent, cinnamon-dusted breakfast pastry is a better analog here). But on the palate, you’re reminded that despite the marquee notes of vanilla and caramel, this is ultimately a tribute to wood. The aforementioned flavors are there, but also a healthy dose of spicy, toasty oak to balance out those sweeter notes. You end up in the realm of butter pecan ice cream drizzled with caramel, which is a fantastic place to be. This is dessert bourbon through and through, though much like dessert you can really enjoy it anytime.
With this cask strength (110.8 proof) offering, Maker’s is now two-for-two with its limited edition offerings, suggesting we have more good things coming from the distillery’s ongoing stave finishing experiments. Given all the work and experimentation that went into making it, the very reasonable suggested retail price of $60 seems low.