Down a pathway from the satisfying dripping of red wax and the bubbling pools of mash that usually entertain tour groups at Maker's Mark Distillery sits a cozy, unassuming cottage.
To the unknowing eye, it looks more like an Airbnb than a laboratory.
But on a recent winter morning, I knocked on the door and entered the mildly cramped space where Jane Bowie and Beth Buckner dream up the next big expressions for the bourbon company. They welcomed me and about four other spirit writers to a large table filled with spittoons and numbered wine glasses shielded with beaker covers.
The women were more than halfway through the 18-month research process for the next two installments of Maker's Mark’s Wood Finishing Series, which are slated to be released later this year.
Outside on the grounds, if you take the public Maker's Mark tour, your guide will tell you over and over again this company "makes one thing," and it focuses on doing that very specific one thing right. The brand prides itself on its recipe and is borderline obsessed with consistency.
In that way, Bowie and Buckner's roles in the innovation department are seemingly oxymorons. They're masters of innovation for a brand that insists on being steadfast in its flavor.
What they actually do, though, is build upon the traditional recipe in the same way a decorator might put a treasured painting in a different frame. Outlining art in gold, aluminum or rustic wood can accentuate different features in a piece.
They take that ever-so-consistent Maker's Mark Cask Strength Bourbon and allow it to mature further by adding in wooden staves that are toasted in different ways, changing the flavor profile of the spirit.
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That extra step transforms those sweet caramel and vanilla tasting notes the brand is known for and brings out other sensations like tobacco, tannins, burnt molasses, cinnamon and cardamom.
Now that the team was more than halfway through the Wood Finishing Series' next two installments, Bowie, the Director of Innovation, invited our little group in to see where they were in the process.
Bowie, for the record, is a complete delight. She’s one of my favorite people in the bourbon industry to interview, and it’s because she’s truly authentic and off-the-cuff. When I accepted the invitation to the lab, the Maker's Mark's marketing team told me “you can’t script Jane, so we don’t try to.”
That’s just what I was hoping for.
As I settled into my tasting space, Bowie passed around a Ziploc bag with small pieces of wood that nearly looked like fun-size Kit Kat bars. They use these fragments of staves, liter-sized bottles, and a walk-in cooler to simulate what would happen with a full-size barrel.
Testing on a full-size barrel would be fun, Bowie explained, laughing, but it would be wasteful and irresponsible.
“There are some really appalling whiskeys in that fridge right now,” she told us.
So instead they do everything in small batches.
They start by requesting different types of wood from Independent Stave Company that are toasted in various ways from a variety of ovens to meet their needs. Essentially they ask for something that’s nutty, spicy or comes with a hint of mocha, and usually, their contact can figure it out.
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The whole process is blind, though. When the staves come back, Bowie and Buckner don’t know what type of tree it came from or even what oven it went into. They don’t want to lean on the history of what they’ve enjoyed in the past.
They want to bring out new flavors.
“You find you start, naturally, getting biases. I have a favorite oven,” she admitted. “I do. I do. I have a favorite oven."
They know they can make really good bourbon from using that oven, too, but that knowledge could limit the experiment.
So that morning I wasn’t working with a specific type of wood that had been toasted for however long in a whatever oven.
I was working with staves No. 31, 47, 80, 87, 90 that had been soaking in that Maker's Mark Cask Strength for different lengths of time. Buckner and Bowie wanted to show us the difference just a matter of days makes for these bourbons. They use three bottles per stave, and they start the maturation process a week behind each other.
This means they can taste where they’ve come from and where they’re going in terms of a flavor journey all at once.
With a few sips, we learned that stave No. 80 at three weeks was well-balanced and had a bit of a buttery note that it lost at four weeks. Just seven more days with that stave created a stronger cinnamon tone with a toasty feel to it.
Toward the end of the process, stave No. 90 ended up being one of my favorites, but early on it was among the underdogs.
“This stave has really come into its own,” Bowie told us. “We did not like this one the first few weeks.”
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When I asked her to elaborate, she turned to her notes.
“Let’s see,” she said, flipping through the pages. “It came out of the gate with a lot of wood sugar, but there wasn’t any structure to balance it."
"At week three I just wrote ‘no, absolutely not,’” she finished.
That “absolutely not” was far from the case now. At six and seven weeks, No. 90 had a rich, tobacco sense to it, and our group agreed, it finished like the end of a cigar — in a good way.
Over the course of about an hour and a half, she let us taste through a half dozen of those progressions, and looked for our guidance in which of the bourbons we thought hit the mark and which had matured too far.
Then, she broke the big news to us that none of the bourbons in front of us were going to taste anything like the finished product that ends up on the shelves.
All the experimenting they’ve been doing up until this point has been helping them search for specific elements. They’ll start blending these individual spirits into even more complex expressions in the coming weeks.
But even though I didn’t get a true preview of whatever the 2022 Maker's Mark’s Wood Finishing Series expressions will be, Bowie did give us two pretty incredible consolation prizes before we left the cottage.
First, she pulled out an eight-year-old Maker's Mark that had been bottled in 1993. With the clang of a few clean glasses, she treated all of us to a big Kentucky hug that left a warm, mouthy, divine butterscotch taste that was smoother than any glass of Maker's Mark I’d ever tried before.
So much for consistency, I thought. That bottle, a "dusty" as she called it, was a pure treasure.
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Then the two women grinned as they decided to take a pull from the “sludge barrel.” In that walk-in refrigerator in the small innovation cottage, they keep a vat of all the fragments of experiments that have come to an end, and they unapologetically mix it all together.
“I have no idea what’s in it,” Bowie said, retrieving a few more clean glasses. “We just dump whiskey in it... We haven't tasted 'sludge barrel' in a while."
I winced as I put it to my lips, but then I realized, this wasn’t the alcohol equivalent of mixing too many fountain sodas together at a gas station.
Instead, what hit my palate was a clear reminder that everything that comes out of this lab starts with that consistent, Maker's Mark Cask Strength bourbon.
"Actually, sludge barrel is pretty good," one of the gentlemen in our group said.
"Oh, what a rich mouthfeel," another agreed.
"There's a little sweetness," someone else added.
"I think 'sludge barrel' would be a great label."
Even with all the trials, errors and successes that went into that barrel, what came out felt oddly familiar.
It certainly wasn’t that tried-and-true consistency, but it was smooth enough and much better than we all expected for something called “sludge barrel.”
Features columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, Southern Indiana and Kentucky unique, wonderful, and occasionally, a little weird. If you've got something in your family, your town or even your closet that fits that description — she wants to hear from you. Say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org or 502-582-4053. Follow along on Instagram and Twitter @MaggieMenderski.