Maker’s Mark is one of my favorite distilleries. That’s not exactly an unpopular opinion, given the brand’s iconic look and penchant for consistency. However, my appreciation for Maker’s Mark largely comes from their uniquely finished products, namely the Private Selections and Wood Finishing Series. Rather than taking their whisky and finishing it in different casks, Maker’s Mark introduce individual wood staves to impart various flavors. This makes their selection process for stores and groups far more interesting, complemented even further by the seemingly more proprietary staves in the Wood Finishing Series. Add to that the general feeling of preserving tradition in the standard Maker’s Mark bottling, as well as the positively photogenic distillery grounds (even on a rainy day), and it’s hard to not be won over by the Loretto brand’s charms.
So when a brand like Maker’s Mark does something on the contentious side, it tends to sting like a pour with too much heat or age for its own good. Three recent examples come to mind: attempting to reduce the standard bottle’s proof from 90 to 84 in 2013, pushing for NFTs, and the marketing for 2021’s FAE-02 release. We’re going to briefly look at the third instance.
One pleasant surprise from 2021 was the announcement of two Wood Finishing Series releases from Maker’s Mark. Each was meant to showcase a slightly different personality, with FAE-01 showcasing the flavor impact from a single stave and FAE-02 offering a more textural experience. Sounds good and interesting enough, right? Well, Maker’s Mark elected to go a step further, particularly on Twitter. They wanted to emphasize that FAE-02 was a release to hunt for, suggesting folks should “Dust off those hunting boots…you’re going to want to go to great lengths to find this bottle,” as well as asking “Did you drive across state lines? Or go to all the liquor stores in town? Maybe you waited in line for an hour or two. We want to know. What lengths did you go to for your bottle of FAE-02?” And if we hop over to their website, it still mentions that bottles of FAE-02 were a “precious few, so be on the lookout—or press your local shop about availability.”
Where to begin?
A small part of me wants to play the apologist. After all, if the marketing for a new product doesn’t inspire anticipation, then what role does it even serve? Yet the approach Maker’s Mark took with FAE-02 feels distinctly uncouth. One of the many things I like about Maker’s Mark is their lineup is widely distributed and generally available, even the Wood Finishing Series. So to see them suddenly push one of two companion bottlings from last year like it’s something people should go nuts for is somewhat spontaneous. Not to mention they (or at least Beam-Suntory) know how much product they’ll send out, where it’s bound to sell the most and, in a somewhat overgeneralized sense, ultimately control the distribution. So either A) FAE-02 was truly more limited than its predecessors and Maker’s Mark wanted to “warn” people, or B) they just wanted to goad people to generate excitement. Neither are exactly flattering.
And this isn’t even factoring in the encouragement to borderline harass local shops. As a former retail employee, this left a particularly foul taste in my mouth.
Alright, I’ve given myself a moment to cool down and return to what was originally intended: a review of the much-touted expression in question. I didn’t bother looking for a bottle, since its release window was shortly after my return from Kentucky last year. Yet a fellow bourbon fan was kind enough to surprise me with a generous sample, so I’ll be reviewing based on that.
Nose: Pecan pie and butterscotch. Brown sugar and a sweet, florally corn undercurrent. Developing aromas of peanut and cherry with plenty of caramel to go around. Vanilla comes to the forefront after sipping, along with a hint of savory baking spice.
Palate: Moderately dense and velvety mouthfeel help offset the initial hit of tobacco and barrel char. Holiday spiced nuts, caramel, and gentle vanilla soon follow, with the nuts taking precedent. Sweet, freshly baked bread in the background.
Finish: Falls just a touch short and shy. Lightly candied nuts complemented by caramel and buttery wheat. Some heavily steeped black tea.
To my surprise, this is slightly underwhelming. I tried the first bit of my sample alongside FAE-01, which I appreciated far more than I enjoyed. FAE-02 ostensibly fixes what I thought its sibling was missing thanks to its more enjoyable mouthfeel. However, it also suffers a comparatively diminished flavor profile. The comparison stuck with me, so I opted to wait longer to review FAE-02 on its own terms. Turns out waiting was hardly of consequence, because I still found the whisky closed off. The nose is positively delightful, but the palate simply lacks the personality to keep up. Subsequently, the finish didn’t pick up the slack while tasting, resulting in what I’d consider to be the least impressive Wood Finishing Series release.
The pause I took with reviewing FAE-02 wasn’t just so I could give it a fair shake when compared to FAE-01. I also wanted to detach myself from the aforementioned marketing as much as possible before revisiting. Alas, what FAE-02 ultimately amounted to was an accurate representation of my thoughts towards Maker’s Mark around this time in 2021: still good, just disappointing.