Jane Bowie, Master of Maturation and Director of Innovation at Maker’s Mark, is known in the industry as somewhat of a mad scientist of Bourbon. She started out as the Global Brand Ambassador for Maker’s Mark, based primarily in the UK, back in 2007. In the 15 years she’s worked for Maker’s Mark, she has managed the Diplomat program, managed the Private Select program, and now works on the experimental releases that have been coming out twice a year.
The History Of Rotating Barrels At Maker’s Mark
The Maker’s Mark experimental series has focused on different aspects of the Maker’s Mark process each year. Upcoming releases focus on Maker’s Mark’s practice of barrel rotation, which is meant to ensure a more uniform end product.
Historically, as noted by Bourbon Historian Michael Veach, barrel rotation was done to access the barrels selected for inspection by government gaugers, which could include barrels in hard-to-reach areas. The practice was mostly abandoned after deregulation of the industry in the 1980s because of the cost and labor involved, but Maker’s Mark has continued the practice as part of their uniformity standards.
Maker’s Mark will be rotating more than 200,000 barrels in its 49 warehouses this year. The rotation pattern is based on each individual warehouse, so in a six story warehouse, for example, the top two and bottom two floors would rotate but the middle two would remain in place. Barrels that spent their first three years on the outside of the warehouse are rotated to the inside, and vice versa.
Translating History At Maker’s Mark Into A “Taste Vision”
The experimental series releases start with a “taste vision,” says Bowie. We’re in her innovation lab, which is a small house on the Maker’s Mark Distillery’s grounds that once served as Star Hill Provisions. She’s pouring a series of different experimental batches that have been aged for different lengths of time — batch 80 at three and four weeks, batch 90 at six, seven, and eight weeks — so we can see the progression of the fully matured Maker’s Mark with the addition of different treatments of wood staves. Sometimes the differences in just one week are staggering.
If a particular batch doesn’t meet the predetermined taste vision, the innovation team will not use it, at least not right away. Many brands would find the opposite approach to be easiest — make the best whiskey you can with X, Y, and Z as variables. But Bowie and her team at Maker’s Mark find their approach to be the easiest because if something doesn’t fit the taste vision, it’s on to the next batch.
“Celebrating your own processes isn’t about saying our way is the right way and their way is wrong,” Bowie says. “It’s really just about your whiskey.”
Four main things happen during maturation, Bowie says: extraction from the wood, subtraction through the char, oxidation through the porous oak wood, and reaction between the wood and the whiskey as well as volatilization between its own chemical compounds. Bowie reports that the white dog itself volitizes between being pulled off the try boxes in the distillery and being walked over to the lab for testing.
Dialing In The Process
The innovation team started with the time and oxidation aspect of Maker’s Mark’s normal maturation process. They then developed it into the current batch’s taste vision. The team is looking for notes of tobacco, darker earth notes, indicative of this one aspect of Maker’s Mark’s process.
If the team comes up with a particularly amazing batch that doesn’t hit the taste vision, they will put it in the proverbial cookie jar to come back to later. They refocus on finding the right combination of time and wood to bring out the current taste vision they are trying to discover.
These experiments show us how a distillery that really effectively makes a single product can push the flavor profile in one direction or another. It’s always worthwhile picking up these experimental releases and comparing them to standard Maker’s Mark — the differences may shock you.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl