(Shepherdsville, KY) Hi 78 Lo 67 – Today we visited the third stop on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, the Maker’s Mark Distillery. Maker’s Mark is way out in the country, in the rolling hills near the tiny town of Loretto. The drive took a little over an hour, Dee driving and me navigating. It was a nice mix of winding roads through the forest, and open scenery of rolling countryside. Kentucky sure is a pretty state!
I have to admit, I love Maker’s Mark bourbon, so I was looking forward to today. When we got there (with the help of GPS) we immediately signed up for the next tour. Maker’s Mark is a very small distillery compared to Jim Beam and Heaven’s Hill, the two we visited last week. The property is very beautifully landscaped.
Unlike our two previous tours last week, this time we got to see the bourbon-making process from beginning to end. Our first stop was the distilling house.
There they unload the grains to start the “mashing” process. Maker’s Mark uses 70% corn, 16% wheat, and 14% barley. (Unlike most bourbons, Maker’s uses wheat instead of rye, which gives it a slightly sweeter taste.) The three grains are “mashed” together and heated in large enclosed tanks for three hours.
They then add yeast into the mix and transfer it to large open vats to start the fermentation process. It’s now called distiller’s beer. It was fascinating to watch the liquid bubble and the surface undulate as the yeast did its work. And it smelled delicious! (Dee didn’t think so.) Here’s Dee checking it out.
There were six vats in the room. The fermentation process takes three days, and there are three distinct “flavors” for each day. And believe it or not, we were allowed to stick our fingers in it and taste it! (The next step, distilling, is done under such high heat that any germs from fingers is destroyed.) It’s hard to describe the taste, but it wasn’t unpleasant. Sort of a mix between beer and moonshine.
After three days the mixture is sent by pipes through the still, where it’s heated by steam to 212 degrees and the alcohol is separated from the rest of the liquid. The alcohol vapor rises through pipes and condenses back into a clear liquid and drained into large copper tanks.
It’s hard to see in the above photo, but we could see the liquid pouring into the tanks through the small windows on top. In this state it’s called “white dog.” (Another name for it is moonshine.) It’s about 120 proof at this point.
The liquid is now whiskey, but’s it’s very unrefined. If you’ve every tasted moonshine you know what I mean. It’s now ready to load into the new charred white oak barrels and taken to one of warehouses to start the aging process. This is one of the smaller warehouses on the property. Most of their large, 6-story warehouses are across town in a big field.
I didn’t take any pictures inside the warehouse because it looks exactly like the other warehouses we were in last week.
Maker’s Mark is not aged for a specific time period, but rather it’s aged to “maturity.” In other words, when it tastes right it’s ready for bottling. When pressed they say the average time is between 6 and 9 years in the barrel.
A very interesting part of the tour was the bottling room. An indication of how small Maker’s Mark is compared to the big guys like Jim Beam, is the relatively small size of the bottling room. The whole process, from empty bottles to loading in boxes, was visible from where we stood. Starting from the right in this photo, are the bottle washing, filling, and capping stations.
Here’s a close-up of the bottles being filled.
Then comes the labeling station.
And finally the wax dipping and packaging.
More on the wax dipping… The square Maker’s Mark bottles have a distinctive red wax seal on the necks, and each bottle is hand-dipped in the wax by three ladies at the end of the line.
Here’s what their bottles look like. (Internet photo.)
One extra treat today was the opportunity to see the owner of Maker’s Mark, Bill Samuels, Jr. (son of company founder Bill Samuels, Sr.), sitting at the end of the line signing the labels on bottles of Maker’s Mark “46”, their ultra-premium bourbon. His signed bottles are only available in the gift shop.
Like all bourbon tours, our last stop was the tasting room.
We got three samples to taste: Maker’s Mark, Maker’s Mark 46, and a small amount of the pre-aged “white dog.” Dee doesn’t like bourbon, so of course I got two samples of each. :) Both versions of Maker’s taste excellent, with the “46” being just a little more smooth. But the white dog? Bleh!
I lied, the last stop was actually the gift shop. One nice feature of the gift shop is the opportunity to hand-dip your own bottle of Maker’s Mark. I couldn’t pass that up! After donning an apron, gloves, and arm covers (the wax is over 300 degrees), I carefully dipped my bottle and gave it a twirl to control dripping.
That makes for a nice souvenir. And to make it even more special, Mr. Samuels the owner happened to be in the gift shop at the time, so I asked him to sign my label. Nice!
Now I have to decide if I want to drink the bottle or just put it away and save it.
Another enjoyable tour, and my favorite one so far. We have three more to get to, and we plan to do all three in one day later this week. Tomorrow, we’re heading to Churchill Downs. Can’t wait!