Welcome to Shelf Sleepers, our semi-regular guide to the best booze nobody is buying. This time: Maker's Mark Limited Release (2020), an experiment gone right that me and dozens (!!) of others are into.
LeBron James was dubbed The Chosen One in February of 2002, almost a year-and-a-half before he'd be drafted, and has been considered one of basketball's greatest players for much of his 18-year career. During that stretch, James' game has evolved a number of times: the development of a reliable jump shot, a serious post game, greater defensive responsibilities and timely off-ball movement for starters (sadly no progress on free throw shooting, though).
LeBron James and Maker's Mark are cut from the same cloth.
Maker's Mark, founded in the late 1950s, quickly earned a reputation as one of America's best bourbons, with enormous sales figures to boot. It was considered a highly premium whiskey then, hence its late marketing slogan: "It tastes expensive... and is." The Samuels family – founders of Maker's Mark – were reticent to change a winning formula until the Bourbon Boom. When the competition changed, so did they; previously a one-bottle brand, Maker's released a regularly available cask strength bourbon followed by an experiment in wood-imbued flavors in Maker's 46. Then came the Private Selection single barrel line. Most recently, it released Maker's Mark Limited Edition, which, as paradoxical as it sounds, I think may be one of the best values in the world of allocated whiskey.
Like James, Maker's Mark doesn't get the respect its due because it's held its spot at the top of its craft for decades. Like Maker's, James has outlasted his competition through timely innovation. Maker's Limited Edition, which the brand releases a new version of annually, is the brand's newly developed step-back three-ball.
The whiskey begins as usual Maker's Mark – wheated bourbon made in 1,000 gallon batches, aged a good six-ish years. Then the barrels are emptied of whiskey and the brand drops 10 oak staves – the planks that make up barrels – into the barrels and dumps the whiskey back in. The staves, co-developed by the wood wizards at Independent Stave Company, are either virgin toasted American Oak or virgin French Oak.
For the record, stave finishing is a try-hard move by its lonesome. It's more tedious to execute than the more common barrel finishing techniques, and customizing wood staves specifically for the task is a hugely nerdy move. Then Maker's muddies the waters further: it's an uneven blend of whiskeys finished with different staves for different lengths of time. Breaking Bourbon, prolific bourbon reviewers sum it up as tidily as one can:
"In the end the company used a blend of these stave finishes. The final bourbon blend is approximately 13% of the [French Oak] stave aged for six weeks, 32% of the [French Oak] stave aged for five weeks, and 55% of the [American Oak] stave aged for four weeks."
The whiskey adds up. It smells like your classic, sweet Maker's. It tastes like it at first, too. A few seconds into your second or third sip, a baking spice tidal wave takes over and is followed up by a very non-Maker's woody, leathery vibe.
Last bit of math: it's an excruciatingly difficult task to make whiskey in limited supply and, if my liquor store is anything to go by, is very much available for a reasonable $60.