For the longest time, Maker’s Mark didn’t spring to mind when I thought “worth a premium.” I regarded the Loretto-based company as one that could charge more than its competition because they had a unique bottle design with their red wax. But it works. Maker’s Mark is a top-selling spirits brand, especially if we only consider American whiskey and, even more specifically, bourbon. The base Maker’s Mark expression has never struck me as a particularly strong bourbon, just something that gets the job done and maybe works better than others in cocktails. And their high-end expressions, like Private Select? Those were an afterthought for a budget-minded drinker, especially one who’d just graduated college in 2012 with no career path in sight.
If Maker’s Mark are good at anything, however, it’s marketing. And unlike Sazerac, they can usually keep up with the demand for their products. On top of the red wax top and seal, Maker’s Mark use some admittedly salivatory wording for their Private Select bottles. For example, if you live in Ohio, you may have had access to state-specific bottlings with names like Creamy Milkshake, Toffee Almond, Grandma’s Kitchen, and Caramel Mocha Bomb. If you’re unfamiliar with Maker’s Mark 46, it’s essentially regular Maker’s finished (at cask strength) with 10 seared virgin French oak staves for nine weeks. The result is a more dimensional pour that also makes for a particularly delicious cocktail. Now take that oak stave finishing process and apply it to other, codenamed staves, let the customer know which ones are used (on the bottle), and the sales likely speak for themselves. The profile used for this particular batch uses 2 Baked American Pure, 3 Seared French Cuvee, 3 Roasted French Mocha, and 2 Toasted French Spice. Okay, temptation’s taking over, let’s dig in.
Nose: Yeasty. Soft orange peel, cherry pastry, and vanilla cream. Like a buttery corn and brown sugar blend. Baking spices emerge after swirling, like nutmeg, cinnamon, and clove, but they’re incredibly soft and mellow. After sipping, the caramel and vanilla notes become way more obvious. Really soft and easy on the nose.
Palate: Vanilla, caramel, and butterscotch cream, like a vanilla Werther’s. Some oak spice and tingle with toasty brown sugar and orange upfront that quickly gives way to more of the sweet and soft baking spice notes. It’s like the Werther’s transforms into baked goods.
Finish: Moderate; the oak and alcohol successively build to good effect. More dry baking spices and sweets to include vanilla, caramel, butterscotch, brown sugar, and nutmeg.
Safe to say I’m a fan. Select Batch #2 provides a delicious pour that makes for a borderline excellent drinking experience. What’s more is it honestly lives up to the aforementioned marketing that goes into this line; call it a dessert bomb and I’d have a tough time disagreeing with you. Despite this, I wouldn’t call it overly indulgent. The combination of wheat and modest aging with the oak stave influence helps keep the sweet flavors from running amuck. This isn’t a bourbon that makes you feel like a lactose intolerant kid after scarfing down a pint of ice cream; it’s a slice of pie that avoids feeling too rich and quickly prompts a second helping.
Now we reach the part where I normally critique pricing and availability. Florida pricing puts this line in the $70-$80 range, which is nothing to shrug aside. Furthermore, selection and availability is a bit of a double-edged sword, since there’s such a wide variety of combinations, some more or less limited to select stores. As with other store picks, however, this creates an odd abundance mentality with a higher-end product. All of this is to say that, despite pricing and selection woes, I think the Private Select line (based on this sample) is a solid buy. The whiskey is from a trusted brand, the selections are often unique, and they’re bottled at a solid proof point. Not to mention that even if you can’t get a specific one you heard about online, stores that carry Private Select likely have a few of their own to choose from, so it’s difficult to feel shorted. This is one of the few times I will confidently endorse paying a premium, provided it’s within your budget.