As those of who've read my Guide to Bourbon know, most Bourbon distillers produce a range of products, using different recipes and bottling these at different ages and proofs. The one exception is Maker's Mark who has been bottling only one product since 1959, that being their six-year-old, 90 proof, "wheat recipe" Bourbon.
It's a controversial whiskey among the Bourbon cognoscenti, not because it's bad (it isn't; most would give it a B+) but because it has a market share considerably larger than one might expect for a Bourbon that's merely very good. It achieved this position via brilliantly successful marketing plus aggressive legal action intended to protect its trademarks (most notably the dripping red wax which seals every bottle of MM). Among those who adhere to the principle the race should go to the swiftest there's a feeling that market share should be based on the merits of your product and not on the skill of your marketing and legal departments. Although this is an admittedly naive view, it's one that's been frequently expressed in online bourbon forums.
Whether in response to these mutterings or, more likely, to provide existing MM drinkers with an up market option, last year the company decided to look at ways to produce something a little more distinctive. The traditional approach would simply be to age it longer (for example, 10 to 23 year old wheat recipe bourbons are sold by Weller, Van Winkle and Old Fitzgerald), but the company wanted to get something to market a lot sooner than that. Basically, they wanted a short cut.
Independent Stave, and asked for their advice. I'm sure the folks at IS were aware of a little device known as an infusion spiral, but because that was invented by a rival barrel company, The Barrel Mill, they weren't about to use that. Instead they came up with a rather labor-intensive procedure of draining the whiskey from the barrel, removing the barrel head, drilling shallow holes into the sides of the barrel, stringing staves of toasted French oak onto dowels, fixing the stave/dowel assembly into the holes, replacing the head, and refilling the barrel with the whiskey. The bourbon then spends another three months in the barrel before bottling. They tried dozens of different combinations of stave characteristics (number of staves, level of toast) and aging periods and the one they like the most was #46, and this is the basis for the whiskey's name, Maker's 46.
So how is it? Well, it's definitely better than regular Maker's Mark. It's got the signature MM caramel and vanilla, and adds a hint of cinnamon. You can pick up a little extra oak, but unfortunately there's a bit of oak tannin on the finish, rather like an insufficiently aged big Cabernet. I give it an A-, and get validation from Malt Advocate editor John Hansell, who gave it a 90 in his review.
Is it worth the $35.95 that it costs here in Oregon? In my opinion, no. For $31.50 you can get twelve year old Very Special Old Fitzgerald, a wheat recipe bourbon that is considerably more complex and refined. The hot-rodders like to say, "There's no substitute for cubic inches," and I think a similar principle applies to whiskey: there's no substitute for barrel time.
Of course, there are many people who make their choices on the basis of brand loyalty, and for long-time drinkers of Maker's Mark, the new 46 offers something special for those special occasions. To you I say, enjoy.