When I got the invitation to accompany some folks from 21c Museum Hotel to Maker’s Mark Distillery to help them select their very own barrel of bourbon, I nearly fell off my chair. I fall off chairs a lot — occupational hazard — but this time was different.
Do they acknowledge my mad bourbon skills and need help from a true pro? Do they think I’m cool enough to hang out with them? Will they let me sit at their table during lunch?
I still don’t know exactly why I was invited — we may never know. Perhaps it’s because I planted the bug in Chea Beckley’s ear a few months ago when I sampled his privately selected bourbons at Proof on Main. He’s the beverage director there, and he’s got quite a nose for choosing delicious spirits.
“If you ever find yourself with an extra spot on one of your trips, give me a holler,” I wrote on the card attached to two dozen Shenzhen Nongke orchids.
Oddly enough, three weeks later he asked if I was free on Dec. 13 for an outing to Maker’s Mark Distillery, where we would experience the brand new Private Select program and choose a one-of-a-kind barrel that’ll be split between 21c Louisville, 21c Lexington and Garage Bar.
The crew consisted of Chea Beckley; Proof bartender Greg Galganski; Proof cocktail server Colin Kellogg; Garage Bar bartender Matt Perez; 21c Lexington general manager Andrew Carter; Lockbox (the restaurant at 21c Lexington) executive chef Jonathan Searle; and Lockbox beverage director Brandon Judd.
We arrived at the historic Loretto, Ky., distillery at about 10 a.m. and were whisked away on a whirlwind tour of the operations by guide Jacklyn Evans. It was a chilly December morning, but, strangely enough, standing on the hallowed grounds of a beautiful bourbon-making facility warms you from the inside out.
We dipped our hands in the mash, sipped some white dog, spied the coveted yeast strand, checked out the nerdy laboratory, and even dipped our very own (but empty) bottle of Maker’s Mark in red wax at the gift shop. It was some of the crew’s first time at Maker’s, so they pulled out all the stops to educate and entertain.
One cool tidbit I learned was that Maker’s Mark has its original yeast strand cryogenically frozen — just like Ted Williams! — in three parts of the world in case a fire, tornado or Scottish invasion destroys the distillery. (Those Scots are jealous of our bourbon, I just know it.)
And with all that under our belts, it was time to choose our bourbon. Naturally, this was my favorite part.
We were led upstairs at the visitor’s center to a super secret area that resembled a board room. Samples of bourbon were set out for each person, along with various sizes, shapes and colors of wood staves, what looked like poker chips, and dump buckets (which were not used with this group).
Scott Mooney led our tasting experience and explained the difference between Maker’s Private Select program and those at other distilleries. At Maker’s, you’re not selecting a barrel from a rick house, you’re actually making your very own stave-finished bourbon by selecting which combination of 10 staves (out of five choices) you want inserted into your barrel of Maker’s for nine weeks.
Each of the five staves are toasted a different way, and each imparts a different taste and feel to the bourbon — even in the short span of nine weeks. The poker chips in front of us represented the staves, so by sampling bourbon made with each, we were able to come up with various combinations to get the exact taste the crew was after.
Now it gets nerdy.
The P2 stave is American oak toasted low and slow in a convection oven. It produced those sweet flavors you love in bourbon — vanilla, caramel, molasses and even brown sugar. The Cu stave (short for cuvée) is French oak toasted with infrared heat, and it created a wonderful, thick texture to the bourbon. This was my favorite.
The 46 stave — named after Maker’s 46, which employs the use of only that stave — is French oak seared and then toasted with infrared heat. It was robust and with just a hint of sweetness. The Mo stands for mocha, so you can guess what flavors the French oak cooked high in a convection oven imparted — chocolate!
And finally, the Sp, which stands for French spice, is French oak toasted high and then low in a convection oven. For those who like spicy rye-heavy bourbons, this is your stave.
Our group split into two, and we went to work concocting combinations like mad scientists. If it were up to me, I’d have five chips of Cu and five of Mo, but it’s not, thank goodness, so these guys spent at least an hour swapping staves in and out to get that perfect taste and mouthfeel.
Each team came up with their two favorites, and then we blind tasted the four options. The winner, you ask? We decided the best expression came from Beckley’s team: seven Mo, two 46 and one Sp.
My Cu was nowhere to be found, but that’s OK, because this bourbon was truly the best thing I’ve tasted in a while — and that includes a spiked hot chocolate bar I came across at a party last weekend.
After we picked a winner, we went into the rick house to insert our chosen staves into a barrel and pump it full of Maker’s Mark. It’ll now mingle for nine weeks — most likely in the new Bourbon Bat Cave, or cellar, as they call it — and then be bottled and shipped to 21c sometime before Derby.
Here’s a look at more photos from our field day: