Maker’s Mark frequently finds its way into my collection. Their core lineup is available, affordable, and of competent quality, yet they’re hardly in rarefied company these days. Much of the interest surrounding Maker’s Mark from present-day whisky lovers can be traced back to the introduction of Maker’s Mark 46. The idea borrows from traditional cask finishes while putting a small spin on it. Rather than dumping whisky into entirely different casks, Maker’s place ten heavily seared virgin French oak staves into just-emptied barrels before refilling them to finish for about nine weeks. This idea ultimately became the basis for the popular Private Selection line, allowing individuals to choose their own combination of 10 staves with five different profiles.
What made Maker’s 46 such a big deal wasn’t simply its twist on finishing, but the fact it was the first new Maker’s Mark product released since the distillery’s inception. Five years after its debut, a cask strength version was introduced, offered only at the distillery in Loretto. That changed for a bit in 2020 when, in celebration of 46’s tenth anniversary, the cask strength option saw distribution outside of Kentucky. Another round came about in 2021, from which I was able to procure a bottle for myself. Mine was bottled at 55.15% ABV, but as an uncut and batched product, it’s subject to varying strengths.
Nose: Vanilla and oak with that underpinning of white wine and floral accents I often get on Maker’s. Cornmeal or polenta, buttercream frosting, and traces of cinnamon French toast. As it sits, the backbone presents more like earthy wood, coffee grounds, and hazelnut.
Palate: Cherry, dried apple, and coffee. Vanilla, hints of semi-sweet chocolate, and a touch of smoke in the background. French toast and cola lead the way to assorted baking spices (allspice, nutmeg, and cardamom) warming up the finish.
Finish: Waxy with an impression of walnuts and lighter roast coffee. Settles into a fairly standard bourbon finish, bringing discrete notes of light brown sugar, caramel, pepper, and allspice.
I find myself coming back to coffee shops and breakfast-based restaurants with this. Where the standard Maker’s, Cask Strength, and 101 often present with bright and sharp personalities, introducing staves can produce far more rounded experiences. Maker’s Mark 46 Cask Strength achieves just that. Instead of getting a potentially awkward mix of cereal grains, sweet fruit, and light baking spice, I get darker dessert and chocolate shop vibes with an appropriately rounded off and deepened vessel to carry see them through. French oak is one of the only finishes I enjoy when added to bourbon, thanks to its versatility and complementary flavors. Not only was the standard Maker’s 46 a big deal for the distillery for being a fresh product at the time, but also because finished bourbons were just starting to gain traction. It’s then of little surprise that the 94 proof version was successful enough to not only stick around, but see its proofier iteration gain increased distribution. For a time.
The limited (and awkward) run Maker’s Mark 46 Cask Strength saw is somewhat unfortunate, but I’d be remiss to say it’s frustrating. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, 46 ultimately led to the Private Selection program, which I’ve had great experiences with when considering how those turn out. What’s more is that the 46 staves are among the five available options, so a group could do 10 of them for a pick if so desired. So the option is there, I just wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.