Thursday, October 13, 2011

Meeting Greg Davis - Maker's Mark Master Distiller

We were recently invited to a special meeting with Greg Davis, the Master Distiller of the famous Maker's Mark distillery in America (pictured, left).  The meeting was held at the JW Steakhouse on London's swanky Park Lane and took the form of a bourbon and steak dinner (a nightmare scenario for the vegetarian half of Whisky For Everyone!).  Greg is the youngest Master Distiller in the American bourbon industry and treated us to an enlightening evening. A short video that we recorded can be found below, where Greg offers an insight in to what gives Maker's Mark its distinctive character and flavour plus techniques used at the distillery to maintain quality.

Maker's Mark is one of the best known distilleries in America. It is the most southernly in the state of Kentucky and is located in Loretto, Marion County. Maker's Mark is large with a capacity of 8 million litres per year (this dwarfs most distilleries elsewhere in the world) and is one of the oldest in America, having been founded in 1805. The original name of Star Hill Farm Distillery was changed to Maker's Mark in the 1950s when new owner Bill Samuels decided to revamp the whole organisation. He changed the recipe and the combination of grains used as he wanted to create a premium bourbon rather than the economic ones that were flooding the market following the end of the Prohibition period. It is now one of the best selling American whiskies in the world.

Following a welcoming Maker's Mint Julep cocktail, the main part of the evening (apart from the huge dinner!) was one of the most interesting tastings that we have attended.  We were presented with four glasses which contained Maker's Mark whisky at different stages of its development (pictured, below) - new make spirit or 'white dog' as they call it in America, under matured, fully matured and over matured.  As Maker's Mark only release their regular bottling and the limited edition Maker's 46, this was an innovative way for us to taste a number of samples and see the difference that age gives the spirit. We have included our brief tasting notes for each sample below - all were presented at 45% ABV.

White Dog (far left)
This is marketed and sold as Star Hill Whisky and is only available at the distillery shop.  It is new make spirit that has come from the stills at 65% ABV, before being cut down to 45% ABV.  It has had no maturation. The spirit is clear and has a fresh, fruity nose with a buttery, dough-like background note.  On the palate, there is plenty of tangy, hot spice and it is incredibly fruity (think of crisp, green apple) and juicy.  This clashes with a mouth-coating, rich and creamy feel that is again buttery and a little yeasty.  The finish is hot, burning and spicy with plenty of oat-like cereal notes.

Under Matured (second left)
This is spirit that has been aged in casks for roughly two and a half years.  The colour is golden yellow and the nose is robust, very woody and packed with vanilla and wood spice.  The palate is uncomplicated and very oaky up front, with plenty of sweet vanilla, dry wood spice and fresh coconut.  A pleasant tangy citrus note comes through, as does a heavy yeast note.  The finish begins sweetly with a touch of honey and vanilla, before becoming very dry and woody.  The heavy yeasty note also lingers.

Fully Matured (second right)
This is the Maker's Mark which is released on to the market. The whisky is matured for an average of five and three quarter years, and is selected when the flavour profile is correct.  The colour is golden amber and the nose is rich and sweet with a lovely combination of vanilla, honey, coconut and spiced orange.  The palate is equally rich and sweet, feeling creamy with the aromas from the nose replicated and joined by dry wood spices, oak and further tangy orange zest.  The finish is sweet before leaving you with an oaky, drier freshness. Read our previous review of Maker's Mark with more expansive tasting notes by clicking here.

Over Matured (far right)
This whisky has been maturing for almost double the amount of time that the regular Maker's Mark does (about 11 years).  This makes it quite old for a bourbon, which normally come in under 10 years of age.  The colour is dark amber and the nose is full of vanilla and heavy oak spice (think of pencil shavings).  The palate is initially feisty with plenty of drying wood spices and chilli-like heat, before it softens to reveal lovely sweet, creamy vanilla, honey and zesty orange notes.  A late hit of burnt caramel leads in to a bittersweet finish that has notes of robust cereal and spiced zest.

As we sat after dinner and enjoyed a couple of very good Maker's Mark cocktails (Manhattans served either on ice as pictured or straight up), we reflected on the line up with a couple of others in the group. It was very interesting to try the same whisky, starting with its purest form and then seeing what Greg and Maker's Mark consider "too young", "just right" and "too old".  This was a new concept to us, but having thought about it this was essentially the same as trying a new make spirit followed by different ages of a single malt or blended whisky.  The White Dog and Under Matured were a little rough but it was good to see the signature characteristics of the initial spirit.  The regular Maker's Mark is lovely, if you prefer your bourbons on the richer and sweeter side.  The general consensus of ourselves (and the guests surrounding us) was that the Over Matured version was actually pretty good stuff, despite what Greg said about it!


Jason Pyle said...

Great read Matt. I like your last comment. While I haven't tasted anything Maker's would call "overly matured" I can imagine it would be quite good indeed. In fact I imagine it would be better even.

Maker's is beautifully made stuff, but it's it's a bit flat an one dimensional. Maker's 46 helps to elevate the spice character, and is a big improvement in my opinion, but wheated bourbon has this amazing transformation as it gets older. It goes from soft and round to far more complex at around 10-12 years.

I would urge Maker's to release some older product. I am not an age snob by any means, but I would love to try it and bet it would be excellent.

JimmyD said...

My first taste of Star Hill came via my brother who trained cutin'horses for a Gentleman named Charlie Cord in Sun Valley,Idaho. The story was, the Cord family (yes, the Cord and Auburn motor vehicles) had invested in Star Hil in the late thirties/early forties and had a few cases stashed away of the product in Beverly Hills,California. The formats were pint bottles and the bottling date on what I sampled/drank was 1947. To this day, I've not sipped a finer bourbon-and I love Maker's 46. So, when I googled Star Hill and the White Dog product came up, I was a tad disappointed. The Maker's 46 closly resembles the '47 Star Hill I tasted and I wonder if the original Star Hill recipe contributed to the product we know today as Maker's Mark.