Being a whisky hobbyist in a booming market means it’s often easy to lose sight of the everyday stalwarts. Not to say this isn’t understandable; once these common options have been explored the curious mind seeks further ventures. Yet there can be value in returning to basics, if for nothing other than perspective. It also helps that these bottles are often turned to for impromptu gift-giving, and few stand out quite like Maker’s Mark. The reason is both simple and effective: the red wax dip. This touch has Margie Samuels to thank, since she dipped the bottles at home after her husband, Bill, literally burnt the original family recipe in 1953. It’s no surprise then that some accredit Margie as the person responsible for Maker’s overwhelming success.
But of course, this all says nothing about the bourbon itself. Maker’s Mark is an oft-reviewed brand here, but for the sake of formality, let’s look at the essentials. The bourbon is made with wheat in place of rye for the secondary (aka “flavoring”) grain, utilizing a mash bill of 70% corn, 16% red winter wheat, and 14% malted barley. Bottled at 45% ABV, the baseline bourbon retails for roughly $25 with each bottle adorned by a unique red coating over the cork, neck, and sometimes body. As with all Maker’s Mark products, it bears no age statement in favor of an “age to taste” approach and is non-chill filtered.
Nose: Bright, sweet, and a touch effervescent. Light brown sugar, cherry, and candied pecans. Has a somewhat thin layer of butterscotch with hints of clove, cinnamon, and vanilla. Honey-flavored cereal laced throughout.
Palate: Matches the nose, from the light and bright experience to the caramel, vanilla, clove, and cinnamon notes. Cornbread upfront with a bit of cherry that slowly transitions into a grassy, slightly sour realm on the mid-palate before returning to a sweeter experience on the back.
Finish: Caramel, honey candy, and a light, lingering cherry. Mild pepper and oaky warmth lend the pour an extra touch of depth. Clove takes over on the tail-end, treading into anise with a whisper of menthol.
It’s fun to consider how my thoughts towards Maker’s Mark have changed over the years. Once seen as a slightly upscale bottle to a far more cash-deprived Ken, it then became a light and awkwardly sweet-yet-grassy dram. At that point it was difficult to fully enjoy. Perhaps it’s appropriate then that my most recent trek with this baseline wheater saw the two ends converge.
Standard Maker’s Mark is incredibly easy to dissect. This means pulling out notes and describing the experience is both easy and fun. It also helps that the bourbon has a lot going for it from a profile standpoint. Fun little aside: I used to never get cherry on Maker’s, but it’s now one of the key flavors I pick up on. To that end, the combination of cherry, vanilla, and caramel notes give this a familiar basis with other bourbons, but the presence of wheat grants a buttery personality to round out the herbs and baking spices. It’s simply a well-crafted and nicely balanced bourbon.
Where Maker’s flagship bottle may come up short for the enthusiast crowd is simply a question of wanting more. Reading back my notes while finishing a pour has only further served to reiterate why both the brand and their most affordable option are so well regarded. Yet I have no qualms in saying that, for all its merit, standard Maker’s doesn’t quite scratch the itch for me. But the emphasis there is on the word “quite.” A lot of what I look for in a solid pour is present here, ultimately marred by a generally light profile and the occasionally distracting herb or spice note overstaying its welcome. These may make a difference for the more discerning drinker, but they’re far from experience-destroying. In fact, blindly serving this to a hobbyist will likely result in a positive overall response. Will it rock their word? Almost certainly not. Will they have a problem finishing a glass? Certainly not.