The abundance of Maker’s Mark bourbon in Kentucky might make it hard for locals to believe it ever was a slow-growth brand. But according to chief operating officer Rob Samuels, it took four decades for the red-waxed base bourbon to achieve a sales pace of 100,000 cases a month.
Yet its offspring, Maker’s 46, created in 2010, hit the 100,000-case mark in just six years.
“And that’s why we’re here today, in this limestone whiskey cellar,” Samuels told a media group touring the new Maker’s Mark Cellar Thursday in Loretto. “The popularity of Maker’s 46 and our Private Select program pushed us to create this.”
Are you thinking, “I’ve heard of wine cellars, but what’s a whiskey cellar?” Here’s what that is and why it’s especially important to Maker’s 46.
Construction crews dynamited holes into a large limestone hill about 100 yards from the distillery, enclosed the space with a massive stacked limestone-fronted structure and covered the its roof with earth and landscaping. Between the limestone and the earth insulation, the barrel aging room temperature is maintained naturally at 50 F year round.
That’s important for Maker’s 46 and its premium Private Select barrelings, which undergo a secondary aging of nine weeks. During that period, the goal is to lose no liquid to evaporation, meaning the process can happen only during cold months in Maker’s rickhouses, which aren’t mechanically heated.
The only way the brand could meet the surging demand for Maker’s 46 was to create a cold storage structure it could use year round, and lo and behold, that’s exactly what a limestone cave guarantees: 50 F, all day every day.
Back to its features: The stacked limestone exterior and its ponderous wood doors look like something out of Napa Valley. The look is, like everything on Maker’s Mark’s campus, first class. To get to the aging room, you pass the brightly lit barreling area where employees work, and then a warmly lighted tasting room, where Private Select minglings will take place.
The aging room itself is dimly lit, giving it the appearance of “a bourbon church,” said one woman on the tour. The limestone face of the hill, left craggy from dynamiting and chiseling, forms a backdrop for a few hundred barrels that will eventually total 2,000 set aside for Maker’s 46.
The structure extending outward from the hill and its earthen roof was landscaped by John Carloftis Fine Gardens. The famed landscaper and native Kentuckian, said plants specifically chosen for the project will bear the red and white colors of Maker’s bottles when in bloom.
“This project was close to my heart because I love Maker’s Mark,” said Carloftis, who lives in Lexington. “It will be amazing when you come visit in the spring and summer.”
For the tasting room wall, glassblower, Brook White, owner of Flame Run in Louisville, created a 300-piece glass assemblage he named, “From a Single Drop.” The work details the journey of a single drop of water from the distillery’s spring-fed lake nearby to becoming a drop of Maker’s Mark bourbon.
Tours will begin in 2017, and Samuels said, more Private Select barrelings will follow.
(If you’ve never tasted one. You’re in for a treat. Not only is it Maker’s Mark 46 bottled at 110 proof, it’s a one-off unique mingling created by retailers, restaurateurs, hoteliers and bar owners. Prospect Party Center has some of its bottles left, and Silver Dollar can pour you a taste of its own. I can’t recommend them highly enough, especially since I served on the panel that created Prospect’s.)
“This is the world’s first limestone whiskey cellar,” Samuels said. “We’re tremendously proud of that, and we’re really looking forward to sharing it with others.”