On the warmest afternoon in January – topping out at a spring-like 68 degrees – a relaxing drive along the winding country roads of Kentucky can be so refreshing; particularly when your intended destination is home to one of the most recognized brands in bourbon – The Maker’s Mark Distillery in Marion County. Along the many foothills reminding you that you’re not too far from Appalachia and past the rolling fresh water springs the air never smelled so clean and pure.
It’s a jangle in nature’s harmony but a well-received blessing to be enjoying such weather in the middle of winter as I traverse what seems like a one way driving path known as Burks Spring Road. Signs quickly offer relief that this is the way to Maker’s Mark. Follow these signs marked “Tours” and you will soon find yourself pulling right in front of the newly renovated Burks Family Home. Originally built in 1905, the Samuel’s family have taken great care to breathe new life into it with a full restoration and extension, it is now the Visitor’s Center and precisely where all tours begin. Cross the cobblestone path past red and black barns that seem over a hundred years old and enter the glass enclosed foyer where you will be greeted by an old copper still beaten with age standing like a totem surrounded by many decorative bottles of whisky and helpful tour guides eager to show and share almost everything there is to know about these grounds.
Today is little different for me though. I’m here to meet a very special tour guide. Rachel Ford – a young transplant from Alabama who’s passion for the brand and product born at this facility has earned her the title, Distillery Diplomat. I first met Rachel when she co-hosted a very special Magic, Dinner & Bourbon event with me at Down One Bourbon Bar in November, 2015. Today she has offered to give me a private hands on tour of Maker’s Mark and the opportunity to peek behind doors that rarely open to the public.
Passing through the gorgeous southern plantation-style Burks Family Home I meet with Rachel in one of the back offices. Our first remarks to each other regard the shared disbelief in this incredible weather of course. It’s a perfect day to stroll about the Maker’s Mark compound and I am so excited to get started.
She begins by telling me that before it was purchased by Bill Samuels (founder of Maker’s Mark), this land was once owned by the Burks Family and was the site of their grist mill and distillery which began operating in the 1800’s. Just a hundred paces from the back porch you can see the Quart House; called such because it was the surplus house where travelers to the estate could have their quart jugs filled with whisky in exchange for a few coins. Literally one of the oldest liquor stores in Kentucky. It still stands and is filled with replicas (perhaps some originals) of the equipment that was used to dispense liquor to anyone who made the day trip by horse and buggy to get their jugs filled. (Side note: Whisky can still be purchased for retail price on site but you have to go to the gift shop for that.)
Maker’s Mark has always been known as a small batch whisky and, even though you can see that red wax bottle top mingling with his friends on just about every bar shelf in America, this is still a small operation and everything that there is to see here is just a short walk along the cobblestones from the Burk Family House.
Rachel informs me that Bill Samuels had a dream of making a very unique whisky. He wanted a product that was highly palatable and consistent. His dream has come to fruition and lives inside every bottle of Maker’s today, but it was his wife Marjorie who took it upon herself to design everything about the brand from the hand-dipped red wax, the shape of the bottle itself to the very name. Due to her love of pewter figurines, Marjorie was much aware of the importance for a maker to put his mark on every piece he cast. Because her husband’s whisky was to be painstakingly hand-crafted with quality of product being held the highest priority, she decided their bourbon would be known as Maker’s Mark.
Today each label is printed with ancient looking printing presses and die cut to resemble the hand torn labels Marjorie would personally tear to remind everyone who looked at their bottle that the liquor inside was hand-made by real Kentucky people.
Kentucky is well-known for its southern hospitality and the workers at Maker’s Mark, with their crimson shirts and respective tools, are nothing short of exemplary. As Rachel and I stroll about each building we are happily greeted by the many laborers who are more than happy to share with you their passionate knowledge of the company, the product and the brand. Seems like they all know that to visitors like you and I they are practically rock stars. I almost wanted to get a few autographs from the people I met inside each spectacularly gorgeous red and black house.
Inside the grain house, Rachel shows me where corn that has just been freighted in from Bardstown is being tediously inspected for moisture content (less than 14%) and undergoes three further tests to ensure there is no presence of mold. The inspector on shift today lets me check the corn under florescent and then black light. The final test is adding distilled water to a snifter glass filled with grains and then microwaves it for 30 seconds. The water keeps it from popping and fills the glass with fresh aroma. If it smells musty at all then the corn gets rejected and someone in Bardstown gets a disappointing phone call. In the three years that she’s held this job, the inspector tells me she has never seen a bad batch.
Now if the ingredients are thoroughly tested then you have to assume that the final product is scrutinized even further. Next stop is the Quality Control House. This is where the science lab of Maker’s Mark is kept. Stepping in to the left you see gizmos and gadgets that remind me of my senior chemistry class. But look to the right and you see a beautiful dining room table lined with six rows of glasses and bottles. Some of them are clear. Some of them are brown. This is where the distillate is tasted after each distillation. Then several times after it has been aged so many months and years. I can only assume that the last row tastes exactly the same as what I find in my glass at home. Rachel tells me that they have up to twenty-five tasters to ensure the product meets all the proper criteria. Twenty-five individuals with twenty-five different pallets. If twenty-five people agree that the product is on point, how could you possible disagree?
From here Rachel, takes me to the printing house. You guessed it, this is where those old printers live. The operation is ran six days a week by two lovely ladies who make sure each label is pressed, cut and then stacked before it is taken over to the bottling house. Thousands are made each day using this age old process and I get to sneak one of them into my notebook as a memento before heading out the door.
Next we are on to the main feature of the facility… The Distillery, itself. Facing the steps that lead up to what seems like the façade of a lovely bungalow, I realize I’m about to ascend into the pulsing heart of Maker’s Mark. Memories of seeing Charlie Bucket and Grandpa standing at the gates to the Chocolate Factory begin to fill my head. This is where the alchemists toil all day making the potions they call “mash,” “distiller’s brew” and “white dog”. This is where it all happens.
Upon stepping through the front door from the spring-like air outside, we are quickly met with a blast of warm humidity and the scent of yeast. And it’s loud too. Loud like an airplane about to take off. The structure is made mostly of oak, pine and Cyprus but the gleaming copper and steal that surrounds us is breathtaking. Valves and pipes run along the room like arteries. We first peek at the cooker where grains and fresh water pumped directly from its source – the nearby spring-fed lake known simply as Maker’s Mark Lake – are heated and brewed for three and a half hours. It’s pretty much a monstrous, pressurized soup pot. And in more than sixty years, the recipe has never changed; 70% roll-milled corn, 16% red winter wheat and 14% barley. Most bourbons substitute the wheat with rye but that’s one of the great distinctions of Marker’s Mark’s sweet and subtle flavor.
In the next room, Rachel introduces me to the gigantic fermentation vats. The aroma of sour bread is intense. This is where the cooked brew sits for three days. Once the yeast is added, then life begins to make an incredible transformation. The vats are bubbling. They appear to be simmering. But these vats are not heated. The mash inside is warm and the bubbles are simply carbon-dioxide rising to the surface but it’s all just part of the natural fermentation process. There’s an obvious difference in the batches that have been sitting for one, two or three days and Rachel not only lets me see the difference. She lets me touch and taste the difference. This stuff will be distilled – more than once even – later this week so there is no harm in getting your hands deep in the stuff and tasting a mouthful. It has the consistency of cornbread batter and tastes just like you would expect from something that is called distiller’s beer. Reminds me of a German Heffe-Weisse. Each day’s batch is sweeter than the last.
From the fermentation room, the mash is filtered and then run through a line to the first still which is a forty-foot tall column still. Some of the remaining mash called, the backset, is reserved for the next batch which is all part of the sour mash process, ensuring that the yeast strain is consistent. If you’ve ever made Amish friendship bread then you know exactly what I mean… And you would definitely recognize the smell.
The first distillation in the column still produces a crystal clear whisky at 120 proof and is ran through two more pot stills. After the final distillation, we’re looking at 130 proof distillate. The pot stills, gleaming with polished copper, sit on a platform that reminds me of a stage and I feel compelled to climb on top. Meanwhile, Rachel searches the area for a ladle. She opens up a little trap and dips the ladle inside the first pot still and hands it to me, inviting me to smell and taste. This is the 120 proof. It burns the way a cask strength bourbon does but without the caramel and vanilla notes from barrel aging. This is whisky in its purest form. It’s earthy and rich in corn flavor. Next she dips the same ladle in the second pot still. This is the 130 proof and it tastes even livelier. Even more fire in the mouth and surprisingly quite oily. I could stay here all day… Well, maybe an hour or so.
Just beyond this first set of stills and cooker is another and then a third. Each set-up is identical and Rachel points out that since the reopening of the distillery in 1953, the Samuels family has expanded this operation two times. The process has never changed though. Same process. Same product. Just more batches in a day.
Before we leave the distillery, Rachel looks around to see if anyone is watching. She sneakily unlatches a rope that guards a wooden staircase and has me follow her up. Where we are going next is clearly a place that is rarely seen by outsiders. Upstairs I meet a gentleman named Nick. Nick wear’s the same crimson Maker’s Mark shirt as everyone else but he has a very unique job. He is the curator of the yeast strain. In over six decades, Maker’s Mark whisky has been fermented by the same yeast. Without it, the consistency of Maker’s Mark whisky is lost. It is a living colony that Nick has to protect. Inside a temperature controlled cooler regulated by a computer are several buckets and jars. This is where the yeast lives. A small jar which reminds me of a candy dish that always sat on my grandmother’s coffee table labelled #3 is picked up by Rachel. Inside is a peculiar gray-greenish liquid. Rachel pops the lid off and has me smell deeply. It’s sweet and sour. She takes a sip and offers it to me. Heck yeah, I’m definitely tasting that!!! It’s so cool and refreshing. Tastes like a frothy, cream ale. And I’m thinking I could have skipped my probiotic juice this morning. We extend our gratitude to Nick and quickly sneak back downstairs past the noisy stills and cookers and back out into the fresh outdoors and cobblestone.
Onward to what Rachel refers to as her favorite place… The most magical place on the whole grounds. The Rick House! This really is where the magic happens. This is the resting place for whiskey. Inside the air is incredibly cold. We can see our breath. This is not the first rick house I’ve been in but it is certainly the coldest. And then I’m reminded how the several thousand stacked barrels of whiskey are so insulated that the chill we are experiencing is the winter temperatures from earlier in the week. It’s this cold air that helps age all of the whisky but specifically aids in the finishing of the Maker’s 46; a fairly new product that would require an entirely new write up so I will hasten to leave you in want for more info about that. I can however tell you that the barrels in this warehouse are allowed to rest for approximately three years and the contents are regularly tested in the Quality Control House before they are shifted. Six tiers of barrels. The top is pulled to the bottom. Second from the top is pulled to second from the bottom and so forth. This is all done by hand. The biggest and burliest fellas that work here are responsible for rotating these 300 lb. barrels. And they have to be extremely precise with the positioning of each barrel. This is just one more step in the long process that makes this hand-crafted small batch whisky come out perfect with every pour because the location of the barrels on the ricks make such a difference in the way the whisky ages. But with each season the liquor improves until it reaches what master distiller, Greg Davis, grants its perfect potential and is ready for bottling. No less than 5 ¾ and no more than 7 years for each barrel before it is sent to the bottling facility.
Sadly, the bottling facility had made its quota for the day and finished up early so as Rachel and I leave The Rick House to check on them everything is already shut down. I never get to see the fill station in action. I miss out on seeing those die-cut labels being glued on. I don’t even get to see the bottles hand-dipped in red wax and then boxed up to be sent to various distributors all over the world. But Rachel decides to make it up to me… We head to the tasting room!
The tasting room is decorated with beautiful art from many of Kentucky’s artists who were either commissioned or simply took it upon themselves to create Maker’s Mark inspired pieces. All of the public tours end here but what lines the walls of the tasting room is only the beginning. Rachel proceeds to pour four glasses with four different liquids. The white dog I had already tasted in the distillery, the classic Maker’s Mark barrel-aged 90 proof whisky, the Maker’s 46 and the Maker’s Cask Strength. Each is so unique despite the fact that they all started out as the same distillate from that last pot still and makes for the perfect end to an amazing tour.
As you leave the tasting room, you must exit through the hallway known as The Spirit of the Maker. We pass another row of aging barrels, hand selected by Maker’s Mark Ambassadors and under an eerie and beautiful faux ceiling filled in with many hand blown glass sculptors by the world famous Dale Chihuly. If you’ve been to the Bellagio in Las Vegas, you have seen the miracles this man can create with glass OR you can just visit the Maker’s Mark Distillery to see the beautiful cherubs and fish that oversee your exit.
Before sending me off, Rachel points to an enormous limestone shelf not far away. The Samuel’s family is currently building a man-made cave that offers year round consistency in climate. This is where each new batch of the Maker’s 46 barrels will live for about nine to eleven weeks before bottling. It’s the next generation in an expanding brand.
This is the end of the tour. I’m a little sad that there’s no more to see, touch or taste but I’m so grateful by the experience. A lasting memory that I can relive in my mind each time I pour a glass of Maker’s from this day forward, no matter where in the world I may be.
Maker’s Mark started as a dream, became a goal and is now a successful and easily recognized brand thanks to the few people that operate this facility. Next time you go to the bar, order yourself a Maker’s. Have it neat, on the rocks or even mixed with cola or ginger ale. It doesn’t matter how you drink your Maker’s. Enjoy it and know that each sip was crafted by design. Each taste is perfectly produced.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Maker’s Mark whisky is the child of Bill and Marjorie Samuels. Their village is in Loretto, KY and I highly encourage you to check it out. Tours run every day of the week until 4 pm and only costs a few dollars. Even if you don’t get the same behind the scenes look I received, I can assure you it is still definitely worth the trip.