Death. Taxes. Non-aged stated Maker’s Mark.
Until 2023, these were three unwavering truths. Maker’s Mark has spent the last 65 years adhering to the prevailing adage that dominated the bourbon world in the mid-twentieth century: older is not necessarily better. It’s hard to believe today, but American whiskey consumers and distillers typically didn’t see old, oak-forward flavors as desirable traits in bourbon until closer to the turn of the 21st century. The Samuels family, which has run the distillery for three generations, has historically gone on record over the years stating that they don’t think their bourbon requires longer aging. They believed that their flagship whisky expression already has the perfect flavor profile so there was no reason to try and improve upon it.
With this philosophy, it’s easy to see why Maker’s Mark has a history of being relatively late in adapting to the modern bourbon consumer. Their single barrel program came online relatively late compared to the other big industry players. Their consistent annual limited edition line (The Wood Finishing Series) only took shape in the 2020s. I even find at times that the brand’s digital marketing strategy is a bit behind the rest of their industry contemporaries.
With their methodology seemingly firmly in place, an older, age-stated limited-edition product from Maker’s wasn’t really a question of “when” for me. It was barely a question of “if.” I wasn’t sure that Maker’s Mark would ever release a bourbon older than 9 years old. Color me surprised when they announced the release of a new product called Cellar Aged comprised entirely of 11 and 12 year old barrels.
As described by Maker’s Mark:
Aging our whisky for over 10 years wasn’t something we ever did. Not because we didn’t believe in it but because we hadn’t found our way of doing it. Maker’s Mark® Cellar Aged defines an older whisky that’s distinctly Maker’s. By embracing both the unique impact that our warehouse and cellar maturation have on flavor, we’ve created an older expression that is richer and more complex whilst staying true to the founder’s taste vision of bourbon without the bite.
In just a few short sentences, Maker’s Mark is setting an expectation that while this bourbon is aged longer than normal, it won’t have the hallmark flavor set of other similarly-aged bourbons on the market. One of the ways they’re able to achieve that unique “aged” profile for this release is with extensive cellar aging. Barrel aging relies on the spirit’s interaction with its oak container. Typical warehouses in Kentucky go through extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity every year. This allows for more physical penetration of spirit in and out of the wood staves and is part of the reason why bourbon can taste “ready” after just a few short years of aging compared to more temperate whisky-making locations like Ireland and Scotland.
In Marker’s Mark’s aging cellar, the average temperature was a brisk 47 degrees Fahrenheit and 58.1% humidity. As a comparison point, my refrigerator is currently set to 40 degrees. In this fairly consistent, temperate climate, the bourbon still interacts with the oak but it’s not nearly as active as traditional warehouse barrels that are repeatedly exposed to hot and humid summers followed by cold and dry winters. While the age statements are accurate, half of the aging time was what I’ll call “decelerated” aging. The experiment sounds really interesting in principle, but how would it translate over to the finished product?
Maker’s Mark Cellar Aged 2023 was comprised of 225 barrels that were first aged for the typical 6-7 years in their standard warehouses before moving to the cellar aging location for the remaining 5-6 years. The vast majority of the barrels were aged a full 12 years with a small percentage aged 11 years. Maker’s Mark Cellar Aged 2023 is bottled at 115.7 proof.
|Nose||Brandied cherries, clove, toasted marshmallow, crusty bread, cinnamon, plums, wet fallen trees. Water teases out brown sugar, dates, and some more baking spices.|
|Taste||Drying spice first, poached pears, hint of mint, vanilla ice cream, earthy, toasted oak, hint of cranberries, burnt sugar, some maple. With water, some dark chocolate, honey, and apples.|
|Finish||The earthiness continues, caramel, hint of cracked pepper, icing, butterscotch pudding, barrel char, dried red berries, and what I can only describe as “dusty” oak. Water brings out more honey and a bit of leather.|
|Overall Thoughts||If you handed me of glass of this whisky at a blind tasting, I could think of any number of words I could use to describe what I was drinking. “Old” would not be one of them. Nothing about this bourbon feels old to me. There is a distinct lack of oak tannins here. I know this was a production decision by the Maker’s team but it’s really unusual. I think for this style of decelerated aging to work, the time spent in the cellar needs to be a lot longer. The “oak” notes that I did find when tasting this were odd and borderline off-putting to me. If you like older bourbon because you prefer oak-forward flavors, this is absolutely a “try before you buy” expression.|