My mom grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and used to scare us with stories of disappearing classmates’ parents. The Mafia had a big presence in the blue-collar, northern Ohio town, and it wasn’t uncommon for friends and neighbors to just up and disappear. And you really didn’t ask too many questions about it.
So when the invitation came a few weeks ago to join The Bourbon Mafia on a trip to Maker’s Mark Distillery to help them select a private barrel, I was apprehensive. But my love of bourbon combined with my curiosity to experience a private barrel selection far outweighed my hesitation. If I disappear, hopefully it’ll be after I sample all the bourbon.
Well, I’m still here, and I lived to tell about my one-of-a-kind experience with the boys of The Bourbon Mafia and the relatively new private barrel selection program at Maker’s Mark.
But first, a little more about the Mafia. The group was founded in 2013 by a handful of serious bourbon aficionados who wanted to deepen their understanding of and bond over Kentucky’s signature spirit. They now have about 37 members from across the country — including one female — and are starting to make themselves more visible in the community by hosting events and raising funds for various charities.
Their Facebook page has more than 1,200 likes, so the potential to increase membership should be easier than Sunday morning — if they choose to, that is. At the moment, you have to be sponsored/nominated by a current Mafia member, and there are annual fees as well.
Although I was a bit intimidated by the thought of spending my afternoon with 12 Mafiosos, I found the guys to be cordial, welcoming and serious about their passion for bourbon.
The morning began at an undisclosed location in Fern Creek. Two government-looking SUVs were hired to transport us to the Loretto, Ky., distillery. Having celebrated one of the member’s birthdays the night before, the guys slowly trickled in to the home base. One of the founding fathers, Brian Gelfo, came equipped with two-dozen donuts, coffee and bagels. Member Matthew Landan, who also owns and operates Haymarket Whiskey Bar, insisted on bringing along two rare bottles of Maker’s Mark that were released internationally in the late ’80s. They weren’t his, but another member gave him permission to smuggle the contraband.
The Bourbon Mafia pride themselves on locating and accumulating rare bourbons, and their collections are likely some of the largest and most diverse I’ve heard about. They also produce their own bottles by doing these private barrel selections at various distilleries. Usually, their selections are available to taste at Haymarket.
Once the full dozen were physically present, we loaded into the cars and headed south on Bardstown Road all the way to — you guessed it — Bardstown. After 90 minutes of windy roads, bourbon talk and nips of the Japan Maker’s, I was happy to embrace solid ground and breathe fresh country air.
Jane Bowie, director of Maker’s private select program, greeted us at the door and whisked us up to a private conference room with all sorts of decanters of bourbon, staves and tasting mats strewn about. It looked more like a science lab than a meeting room, and the smell of delicious bourbon wafted through the air.
Bowie, who knew many of the Mafia men already, explained the purpose of the private selection and the inspiration that led chief operating officer Rob Samuels to open the experience to consumers. The idea was hatched shortly after Maker’s 46 was released in 2010, and they’ve been refining the details ever since to create the ultimate private barrel selection available.
Our group was only the 10th to experience the process to date, which made the day’s activities feel even that more special. Maker’s 46 is created by taking fully aged Maker’s Mark and adding French oak staves to the barrel for another couple months. The staves bring out even more vanilla, spice and oak notes — key flavors of a well-rounded bourbon.
So here’s the gist of concocting our bourbon, a process that was not only scientific but also based on subjectivity. One person’s preferences might be different from another’s, so that two-hour portion involved heated debates, multiple attempts of switching up formulas, name-calling, high-fives, sweating, sipping and, finally, compromise. It was a lot like how I imagine the signing of the Constitution went.
Bowie presented five samples of wood staves and explained how each would change and/or enhance the barrel-strength Maker’s Mark. Baked American Pure 2 (P2) is an American oak that was cooked in a convection oven and brings sweeter flavors to the front of the tongue. The Seared French Cuveé (Cu) is French oak that’s been toasted in an infrared oven and cut with ridges to create a thicker, more oaky bourbon. The Maker’s 46 (46) stave is the same French oak they use in that product, while the Roasted French Mocha (Mo) stave also comes from French oak but is cooked high in a convection oven to create maple, chocolatey notes. Finally, the Toasted French Spice (Sp) is French oak that’s been toasted high and low in a convection oven that brings out smoke and spice flavors.
We divided into three groups and were tasked with concocting a delicious bourbon using various combinations of the five staves, using 10 total. If you’re doing the math, that’s about 1,001 possible combos.
My group preferred the thick characteristics of Cu as well as the rich taste from Mo. So we did four and four, with one P2 for sweetness and one 46 for balance. We thoroughly enjoyed that mix out of the three others we made and were sure we had a winner. The other two teams also mixed and matched until they found one they preferred. When everyone was finished, we waited outside while Bowie and her co-worker whipped up the top three recipes for us to blind taste.
I was sure our team would be victorious, even though the other teams included Landan, a bourbon expert, and Kyle Henderson, production manager at Angel’s Envy and who comes from a long line of master distillers (he’s the son of Wes Henderson of Angel’s Envy and grandson of the late Lincoln Henderson).
Turns out experience trumps luck, and Landan/Henderson’s team chose the winning concoction. If you’re curious of the recipe, it was two Sp, four Mo, three Cu and one P2.
Next up was a walk around the holiday-decorated campus, which eventually led us to a barrel storage/drying building where we opened up our recently emptied barrel and inserted our stave recipe. After everyone signed the barrel head, we met our barrel at the filling station where the guys got the chance to pump the fully aged Maker’s Mark into the bung hole.
After a quick lesson in dipping wax bottles and a few minutes at the gift shop, the last stop was the rick house, where the Maker’s crew were transporting our barrel to rest another nine weeks. That’s about the time it takes for the staves to work their magic, and cooler weather is preferred for this process. In fact, Maker’s only produces its 46 product in the winter months, and this is why they’re currently building underground rick houses at the distillery.
It was while the guys were laying our barrel to rest when Kyle Henderson shattered my dreams. I told him about my fantasy to spend the night in a rick house, sleeping among thousands of aging barrels with the intoxicating scent of bourbon permeating my dreams. He looked at me like I had three heads and neither drank bourbon.
“Do you know how many spiders and rodents are in those?”
He lost me at spiders, and up went my dream along with the angel’s share — never to be spoken of again.
The final item on our agenda was lunch, and as we congratulated ourselves on producing a fine bourbon, Rob Samuels stopped in to sample our prize. He commended us on our recipe and gave us his seal of approval. Maybe he does it with every group, but in that moment, we felt dignified.
Take a look at more pictures from the experience … before I disappear: