By Richard Thomas
Released in 2010, Maker’s 46 was the first major brand extension by the distillery that essentially invented premium bourbon as we recognize it today, way back in the mid-1950s. The idea behind Maker’s 46 is one borrowed from the wine industry, and first applied in the whisk(e)y business by the Scotch Whisky negociant Compass Box: put staves or stave-like inserts of a given type of wood into an already maturing liquor, and give that liquor a “finish” that way. In the case of Maker’s 46, the wood chosen was French oak, which is noted for highlighting a liquor’s spicy side. The wood is also known for its tight grain, which means it doesn’t absorb liquid as readily as American oak, and therefore imparts those highlights more slowly.
The demands involved in making Maker’s 46 proved to be foundational for the iconic distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. For example, they discovered that they got the best results out of their French oak inserts over the winter months. Since that capped production output, the distillery built America’s first proper whiskey cellar. It also became the basis for their private barrel selection program.
The first cask strength version of Maker’s 46 was released as a distillery-only bourbon in 2015. The expression was then revived again in 2021, and brought into a more regular production and distribution. As my deputy editor, Kurt Maitland, often says, strong whiskey is better whiskey. So, how much better is this stronger version of Maker’s 46?
The nose takes what I would expect from a smore made in a kitchen, but with caramel replacing the chocolate. Toasted graham cracker, vanilla, marshmallow, plus a sliver of spicy oak. The flavor comes back into territory familiar to fans of Maker’s 46, which is to say classic Maker’s plus something more. Vanilla and toasted cracker meets a floral style of sweetness, but now this is coupled to a current of cinnamon. The finish goes on in equal parts of soft sweetness balanced by a tinge of oak spiciness.
Is Maker’s 46 better as a cask strength? I don’t necessarily agree with my colleague on the idea that stronger whiskey is better whiskey, because heat can drown out the character of the thing. The principal virtue of a cask strength whiskey is that it is a concentrate, and you can dial it down to suit you. For some, the 94 proof of Maker’s 46 will be just fine, but I tend to like things around 100 proof for neat sipping. I don’t want the 110.3 proof, but can dial it down to taste easily enough. Having done that, yes, it is slightly better, but only slightly.
Expect to pay about $40 to $45 a bottle for this item. At that price, it’s a real steal.