For many bourbon drinkers – including me – Maker's Mark was the gateway drug. Its smooth, spicy flavor and clean, wheated finish was positively genteel compared to the Rebel Yell and Wild Turkey so often consumed in college. A bourbon that didn't need to be adulterated with Coke and ginger ale, and tastes good whether you drink it on the rocks or in a Manhattan? Classy.
But as bourbon has gotten more popular in the last decade, and more bars begin offering single-barrel Four Roses, or delicious young rye whiskeys from Catoctin Creek, or the high-priced Buffalo Trace Antiques, Maker's has slid toward the background. (The disastrous 2013 announcement that the distillers were going to lower the bourbon's proof, though quickly reversed, didn't do much to help the brand's image.)
I have a feeling, though, that bourbon enthusiasts are going to be talking about Maker's Mark more in the near future, thanks to Maker's Mark Cask Strength. The limited-release bourbon is uncut, unfiltered and bottled at the strength it comes out of the barrels in Maker's Mark's Loretto, Ky., rickhouse. (A press release from Maker's says individual bottles could vary from 108 to 114 proof; the one I sampled was 113.2, or 56.6 percent ABV.) It's important to stress that this isn't a single-barrel bourbon: distillery rep Theo Rutherford told me that it's a blend of 19 barrels of different ages.
Without ice, the Cask Strength is smooth and warm, without the burn common of cask-strength releases. That's due to the wheated nature of Maker' s Mark's mash bill, but also because its barrel-strength bourbon isn't as high-proof as Bookers or some of the Willetts you see these days. The nose has toffee and burnt wood, while the flavor on your tongue is a pleasing mix of cinnamon and vanilla, with some caramel up front.
The finish is possibly the best part: Lots more warm cinnamon, with no bitterness or overwhelming heat. Just lingering pepper and spice.
Right now, the only places in Washington with the Cask Strength Maker's are Jack Rose and both Bourbons, where a two-ounce pour costs $19, and a one-ounce taste costs $9.50. Rutherford says a small number of bottles will make their way to selected bars in mid-October, with Barrel and All Souls both guaranteed to receive some. There are only 10 cases coming to Washington this fall, he says. No more.
The "limited release" thing is no joke: No Cask Strength will be coming to liquor stores at all. The only place selling bottles for home consumption is the distillery's gift shop, where a 375ml bottle costs $39.99. That makes paying $19 for a taste a bit dicey: In the past, I've justified paying a little too much for small pour of cask-strength Willett by saying, "Oh, if I like it, then I'll know to buy a bottle of it." Unless there's a drive to Loretto in my future, I probably won't be picking up any of the cask strength for my own. But as a smooth, buzz-worthy cask-strength bourbon, and as a whiskey that restores your faith in Maker's Mark, this is definitely worth a taste.