Maker's Mark master distiller Kevin Smith believes Maker's new bourbon might persuade some Texans to give up on Canadian whiskey.
"Bourbon's very big in Texas, but one of the things that's always surprised me is the number of Canadian whiskey drinkers," says Smith, who was born at Fort Hood. "Maybe they don't realize how great bourbons are."
Smith's hoping to make the point with Maker's 46, the first new product in Maker's Mark's 52-year history. He'll be in town next week to show off the bourbon he describes as having a "rich, caramel-vanilla-forward taste."
At distillery President Bill Samuels Jr.'s prodding, Smith last year began experimenting with a Maker's spin-off that would utilize the same mash bill -- the proprietary blend of grains that define a brand -- but replicate some of the qualities of rye whiskey, without a sour finish. Smith partnered with Maker's cooperage, Independent Stave Co., to tweak flavors through wood and age.
"We started down some wrong paths," he recalls.
Some of the test batches, he says, "might smell good until we tasted it. Maybe we could have conned someone into buying it."
Independent Stave's Brad Boswell then gave Smith a load of French oak staves, seared to caramelize the wood's sugars.
"I said, 'What the heck do we do with this?'" Smith says.
Smith ultimately emptied Maker's from a barrel, affixed 10 staves inside it, put the whiskey back in the barrel and allowed it to age for two months. The results were ground-breaking, both for Maker's and the bourbon industry. Returning bourbon to a barrel seeded with wood staves is a new technique that Smith anticipates other distillers will adapt to their recipes.
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"This little introduction has opened doors," Smith says.
Smith, who's served as Maker's master distiller since 2008, admits he was initially wary about tinkering with the distillery's venerable bourbon.
"I was fearful that people would think I was trying to make a better Maker's Mark," Smith says. "I didn't want to be the guy who screwed up the brand. There was the stress that I might be creating New Coke."
Dallas drinkers can soon decide for themselves how well Smith did: Maker's 46 goes on sale next month.