Why Maker’s Mark Brought Back Its Best Bourbon Idea

The Wood Finishing Series made a surprise return this year, and the first release is stellar

July 3, 2024 11:24 am
The Heart Release by Maker's Mark
The Heart Release is a continuation of the Maker's Mark Wood Finishing Series.
Maker's Mark

In all of its iterations, Maker’s Mark is working off the same mash bill. So when the distillery’s Innovation Lab wants to come up with something different, they turn to wood — specifically, wood staves that impart or enhance flavors. This process makes up the distillery’s excellent Wood Finishing Series, which made a surprise return this year after a seemingly retirement in 2023.

“We do the Wood Finishing Series to show the elements and the complexity that exists in our Cask Strength release,” explains J. Blake Layfield, Maker’s Mark’s Sr. Director and Head of Innovation, Blending, Quality. “Through wood finishing treatments, we can really pull flavors out in a more noticeable way.”

We visited the Maker’s campus in late spring to get a first taste of the revamped Series. Leading the way were Layfield and his compatriot Beth Buckner (Senior Manager, Innovation and Blending) who walked us through the 2024 WFS expression, “The Heart Release.” It’s quite different from the Loretto, KY, distillery’s previous wood treatment bottles. To start, it has an easy-to-remember name.

“We launched this series in 2019 with RC6, and the bottles would tell stories really specific to our whiskey-making process; RC6 was about our yeast and the flavors that might come out of that,” Layfield says. A number of like-minded releases followed, featuring names like BEP, FAE-02 and BRT-01. After that, “our CEO told us no more R2-D2 names,” Layfield adds, laughing.

Maker’s Mark Brings Its Wood Finished Series to an End With BEP
It’s the fifth installment in a well-received series

But the biggest change was the inspiration behind the bottles, which vary wildly in taste and profile but usually end up as some of our favorite bourbons of the year. Whereas previous WFS releases emphasized whiskey-making processes such as yeast selection, barrel location or barrel entry proof, the new Heart Release is about people — specifically, the people who work in the still house at Maker’s.

“Instead of Blake and I sitting around and going ‘we want the whiskey to taste like this,’ we took a completely different approach,” Buckner says. “We met with all 21 team members of our distillery team and we said, ‘tell me what you taste and you feel and smell as you do your job.’ And we kept hearing caramelized and caramel. And then maple and chocolate kept coming up, but it was very specific steps in the processes that resonated with those people. So, we did the taste vision and settled on caramel, maple and chocolate as the notes we wanted to express.”

The lab team achieved their goal with aplomb. Comparing the Heart Release to a regular Cask Strength Maker’s Mark (which, upon reflection, offers quite a bit of a s’mores note that I never noticed before), you’ll find those exact flavors of maple, chocolate and caramel amped up. The key to achieving this are two types of French oak staves, cooked at different times and temperatures — one where the cask strength base was finished for an additional five weeks with those staves in Maker’s limestone cellar, the other for nine weeks before both batches were blended together.

The campus at Maker's Mark
Maker’s Mark might have the most lush and beautiful property of any distillery we’ve visited.
Kirk Miller

The good news is that this limited-edition release is just the beginning of a new five-year series, with a different wood-finished bottle coming out annually that’ll reflect the “unique stories of each of our respective teams across the campus,” Buckner notes. 

It’s an innovative way to transform whiskeys all crafted from the same 70% corn, 16% wheat and 14% malted barley mash bill. But innovation has been a key part of Maker’s story. Founded by Bill Samuels, Sr. in 1953, the distillery (which calls it “whisky” and not “whiskey” like most American brown spirits producers) uniquely utilized soft red winter wheat as the flavoring grain. The company also became known for rotating each of its barrels by hand. Samuels’s wife Margie is the one who came up with the bourbon’s name, label, bottle shape and signature hand-dipped red wax coating. 

More recently, Maker’s has added several new releases to its portfolio, including Maker’s Mark 46, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength and last year’s impressive Maker’s Mark Cellar-Aged, which spent the latter half of its 11 years aging in a climate-controlled limestone cellar. It’s also recently become the rare B-Corp-certified distillery and is considered a leader in regenerative agriculture.

Classic Cask Strength Maker's and the 2024 Heart Release
In the Innovation Lab, some old and new Maker’s Mark; the taste vision for the brand
Kirk Miller

Overall, it’s a bit of an uncommon story for a bourbon brand. You can see that reflected on a whiteboard in the distillery’s Innovation Lab, which features the vision Samuels (and his son Bill Jr.) laid out for Maker’s years ago. Their notes ranged from rather broad strokes for its core product (“rich in flavor yet soft and delicate, distinct and complex”) to more simple and direct commands for Maker’s Mark 46, the distillery’s first innovation (my favorites of Bill Jr.’s directives: “yummy” and “MM on steroids”).

“Innovation is not just new and fun and exciting — it’s actually looking at your core product,” Buckner says. “Blake talks about being protectors of liquid. We do that every day. We start with that taste vision from Bill Senior. Bill was very much pie in the sky — it was how he wanted you to feel when you drink whiskey. It was the color of warmth. It’s pleasant and inviting. It should leave a sensation of warmth, and it should be total enjoyment. And so the ethos of what he wanted this brand to be is something we still protect day in and day out.”


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