The history of Maker's Mark goes back to 1954 when the distillery was founded by William Samuels Sr. with the first bottle coming out of the plant in 1959. While the brand remained under family ownership until the early 1980s, it then passed through a number of hands before settling under its current owners, Beam Inc (via the now split Fortune Brands).
There are two main things about Maker's Mark bourbon that stand out - that it was the first brand to sell itself with the 'small batch' moniker (definitions vary, but MM has stated that they aim for batches of ~20 barrels) and that they are one of the few bourbons made with wheat as the flavoring grain rather than rye. The whisky (they use the spelling more traditionally used by scotch and Canadian whiskies) is bottled at a very respectable 90-proof with their trademark red wax seal.
Nose: mellow corn, sweet vanilla, some toffee/caramel, woody cinnamon, a hint of fruit. After adding a couple of drops of water, the whisky acquires a slightly artificial cast, with bubblegum sweetness and deeper vanilla notes, along with a tiny puff of wheat and raspberries, while the corn still peeks through and more oak emerges.
Taste: opens with mild sweetness and slightly thin flavors of corn, which carry through the palate, mild oak appears part way through, followed by a blossom of vanilla and dry cacao with a small prickle of pepper near the back. After dilution, the opening sweetness becomes somewhat cough syrup flavored, while the other flavors become somewhat flatter, with more bitter oak coming out at the back and continuing on into the finish.
Finish: corn, mild oak, very little burn, slightly bitter and peppery. After adding water, the cough syrup/bubblegum flavors come back in the finish.
While I don't find it to be a terribly compelling bourbon at this point, I do have to acknowledge a small debt to Maker's Mark. Back when I was an undergraduate, my college would regularly have a week or so during winter break when students and faculty could teach classes on just about any subject they liked. One student decided that he wanted to do a bourbon tasting. Out of curiosity, I decided to attend. Unfortunately I had almost zero experience with neat spirits at that point and most of the whiskeys just tasted like burning. The one exception was Maker's Mark, which was noticeably smooth and palatable, even after almost half a dozen, often barrel-strength, bourbons. It nurtured a small flame that I might actually like whiskey, though it took many more years before that dream was realized.
So ultimately, even though I think I'll be sticking with Weller Antique for my wheated bourbon needs, Maker's Mark has its place. Their bourbon is almost the definition of smooth, gliding across the tongue with barely a bump. Just don't add any water if you want the best of what Maker's has to offer.
If you're trying to introduce someone to bourbon who tends to prefer smoother whiskeys, this isn't a bad place to start. But once they've dipped their toes in, there are all sorts of more interesting bourbons to choose from.
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