Green patches of the immense quilt that is Kentucky begin to reveal their details as we descend toward the Louisville airport. Fields of new grain, tobacco, and white fence-enclosed horse farms bask in their role in the state’s economy. More state pride vies for retail attention along the airport concourse, including life-size replicas of a derby-worthy thoroughbred horse and the eponymous purveyor of Kentucky fried chicken. The Louisville Slugger store is crowded with youngsters dreaming of the potentials of summer.
About 30 miles south of the airport a sign on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail announces “Welcome to Historic Bardstown, Founded 1780”. Under graceful deciduous canopies, the drive past stately Federal-style homes of dark brick, crisp white columns and well-tended lawns sets a tone of quality and craftsmanship. I arrive at the Beautiful Dreamer B&B, and am warmly greeted by Proprietors Dan and Lynell Ginter. The Beautiful Dreamer is directly across the street from My Old Kentucky Home State Park, with its name taken from the well-known Steven Foster poem and song.
My tour of Maker’s Mark Distillery is scheduled for tomorrow. Now, it’s time for dinner and a tour around town.
A Maker’s Mark mint julep is a great way to begin dinner at Kurtz Restaurant, a short walk from the B & B. Kurtz has been serving homemade, Southern style food for 73 years. Their signature coleslaw, followed by skillet fried chicken, Kentucky country ham, green beans and spiced beets are all local favorites and are beyond delicious. A Bourbon soaked bread pudding is the natural end of a fantastic sampling of Southern cuisine.
An evening drive around Bardstown is enchanting. The air has cooled from hot to balmy, folks stroll along the streets, lightning bugs punctuate the twilight with magical dots of light, and crickets add their tone to the tempo of the evening. The main thoroughfare is called 3rd Street and one section is known locally as Distillers Row. Over the years, families associated with many distilleries in the area have lived on, or very near, “The Row”. The Civil War Museum’s recreation of Old Bardstown Village is nestled in a quiet corner of downtown. It reminds me of Old Williamsburg. Before returning to the B&B, I stop by the state park’s amphitheater and peek in on a performance of The Stephen Foster Story. The 1850-era sets and costumes re-create the time when Foster was writing such American classics as “Old Susanna”, “Camptown Races”, “Beautiful Dreamer”, and “My Old Kentucky Home”. Sleep came quickly in an antique, four poster bed.
During the seventeen twisty miles from Bardstown to Loretto, I thought about the reason for this trip of discovery. Since 1958, the distillery has made only one product – small batch, premium Bourbon, sold in the iconic red wax sealed bottle. Now, there is a second expression – Maker’s 46, their “Second Big Idea (in 50 years)” I’m looking forward to my time with Master Distiller Kevin Smith as being enlightening, “spiritual” and tasty!
Kevin does not disappoint. In his tasting room, we compare traditional Maker’s and Maker’s 46. The color and aroma are pretty much the same, but the taste is different. He explains, “We started with a concept of trying to get the whisky to taste a certain way. Our solution was developed from an original idea from Brad Boswell, owner of our barrel maker, Independent Stave.” The prime criteria for the new creation was that the liquid should develop naturally, from grains and wood. In December 2009 they succeeded, and Kevin describes the new product, basically named for the 46th profile whisky the team created: “It’s not as much a sibling, it’s more of a cousin. Flavors are reminiscent of traditional Maker’s, but we’ve changed a few things – none of which make Maker’s 46 better than Maker’s Mark … I can see enjoying each on different occasions.”
So, what’s the secret? Quite simply, to make a superlative new product, start with a superlative existing product. In the early 1950s, Bill Samuels, Sr. developed the “mash bill” (list of grains) that made his new Bourbon truly unique. Together with corn and malted barley, Bill Sr. substituted soft red winter wheat as the flavoring grain, in place of the traditional, and more bitter, rye. This recipe created the philosophy of combining “taste good” with “good taste”, and continues to be at the core of Maker’s guiding principles.
The process developed by Kevin and Brad to make Maker’s 46 involves starting with fully matured Maker’s Mark. The liquid is removed from its barrel and then the empty barrel is opened and ten seared, French oak wooden staves are affixed to the inside. The barrel head and hoops are replaced and aging continues for several more months. Searing the staves caramelizes the sugars in the wood, adding unique flavors.
Tasting Notes for Maker’s 46: Age: no age statement, but “to maturity”; Aroma: Sweet, toasty oak with caramel overtones; more intense aroma without an alcohol nose; Taste: rich, creamy, seared oak flavors, caramel and vanilla notes; Finish: big, mouth-watering oaky finish, long with a little spice, without bitter bite. Proof: 94.
One of my favorite memories of this visit was seeing Margaret Samuels’ (Bill Sr.’s wife) personal copy of Fine Pewter – It’s Makers and Marks on display in the conference room. In 1958, when it was time to name Bill’s new Bourbon, it was Margaret who drew inspiration from this book and came up with the name. And, it was Margaret’s idea to seal each bottle with red wax. Well done, Margaret.
– Ray Pearson, Curator | Photo Credit: Ray Pearson