Classic twists on aging

Why mess with a classic?

For more than a half century, that was the mindset at Maker's Mark Distillery, which was — in the words of chairman emeritus Bill Samuels Jr. — a "one-trick pony." It produced a single whiskey: its trademark smooth, sweet bourbon.

A similar philosophy held true at Bulleit Bourbon, where for more than three decades its lone offering was a honeyed yet spicy bourbon.

But in the past few years both distilleries have expanded their offerings by tweaking their typical aging process.

Maker's Mark introduced Maker's 46 in 2010; the spirit takes fully matured Maker's Mark bourbon (which is usually 6 to 7 years old) and ages it three or four months with seared French oak staves to lend the spirit hints of cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla. Unlike the original bourbon, 46 has a long oaky, slightly spicy finish.

And this year Bulleit rolled out Bulleit 10 (it also introduced Bulleit Rye a few years ago), which is the distillery's bourbon aged for 10 years, rather than its typical six- to eight-year aging process. The extra aging intensifies the bourbon's oak and vanilla notes, along with dried fruit flavors and a smoky finish.

For Maker's Mark, the move to add another product grew out of a conversation Samuels, then the distillery's president, had with master distiller Kevin Smith a few years before his retirement.

"I said, 'Do you realize that I'm about to retire after 30-plus years, but I don't have any merit badges,'" he says. "I hadn't done anything beyond the fence posts that my mom and dad created (when they bought the distillery in 1954)."

Because Maker's Mark is a mellow whiskey, it has a narrow window to come out of the barrel balanced. That meant the whiskey couldn't just be left in the barrel longer, which is how distilleries typically extend their offering. Instead, Samuels and Smith had to figure out another way to produce what Samuels was after: "Maker's Mark on steroids," he says.

After a year and a half and dozens of failed experiments, they settled on the French oak-stave method.

Bulleit's path to extending its line was much easier. Looking at consumer demand for American whiskey, it decided to put a certain amount of its bourbon aside to "see what happens," says Stephen Wilson, the distillery's master of whiskey.

A skeptic might suggest that the new products are nothing more than the work of marketers looking to "extend the brand" by getting more shelf space. To some extent, they would be right. But just because they build on classic whiskeys doesn't mean they don't offer a unique and delicious twist on the spirits well worth imbibing on their own or, as I like them, with a single, slightly melted ice cube.

After all, if you ask Wilson, that's what drinkers are looking for.

"People's tastes are constantly evolving," he says. "It only makes sense for us to evolve with them."