Long ago Kat and I worked in a busy French Quarter bar. We sold a lot of premium-priced bourbons. Jack Daniel’s was big, Crown Royal was the chart-topper (it’s actually a Canadian whiskey), but those were the choices of the poseurs and nouveau riche. The cognoscenti ordered Maker’s Mark. Maker’s distillery is in Loretto, KY, barely 25 miles north of our base. We’re this close? We just had to take their Legacy Tour conducted by ex-CEO Bill Samuels, JR.
Bourbon was down in the dumps after World War II; the spirit was so down that in 1953 Bill Sr. purchased a run-down distillery with 6 buildings and 200 beautiful acres for just $35,000. Bourbon’s well-to-do cousin Scotch gave American distillers something to aspire to. Bill Sr. set out to find a new recipe after publicly burning the old family recipe “that made bourbon so harsh it’d blow your ears off. ‘Acquired taste’ is just bull: if whisky tastes bad, it just tastes bad. We can make it better.” Good bourbon requires excellent water without iron, reliably consistent grains, with good aging in barrels of charred American oak. Bill, Sr. wouldn’t wait six years to distill and age 50 barrels of trial recipes, so Mama baked breads using various mixtures of corn, malt, and rye or winter wheat. The grains that make the best bread should also make the best bourbon. Rye was dropped in favor of winter wheat, and the corn content was boosted at the expense of both wheat and malt. Mama designed the label, invented the Maker’s font, demanded that squarish bottle, and came up with the idea of hand-dipping the neck of each bottle in hot wax. Maker’s Mark was thus born from a combination of Bill Sr.’s “tastes good” and Mama’s “good taste”.
Mama also insisted on having a dollar to spend on building restoration for every dollar Bill Sr. spent on equipment. He balked and dug in his heels. She changed the subject, asking if he remembered when they were in college? Thinking Mama done give up, Bill Sr. replied “Sure, what part of it?” Mama reminded him: “Well, in our U. of Louisville graduating class, one of us finished first.” She won her matching funds, and today the whole distillery is protected as a National Historic Landmark.
The tour ended in the Tasting Room with each of us seated before four small snifters of Maker’s various products. Our tour guide escorted us safely past the terrors of sipping neat 90 proof whiskies. He described the flavors by the location of the tastebuds sensing sweet, sour, and bitter on the human tongue. Old bourbon had a hot, almost bitter back of the mouth feel. Scotch dances around the front and mid-side of the tongue; this sensation is what Bill, Sr. had searched for. And sure enough, there it is, a bit hot at first, then smooth and smoky mellow later on. I’ve never had a mint julep with premium bourbon but next May when they run the Kentucky Derby, Kat and I gotta try it.
That is, unless we’re living in Costa Rica.