How Maker’s Mark makes its mark: A glimpse into the world of master distiller Greg Davis

Greg Davis, Maker's Mark master distiller // Photo courtesy of Maker's Mark

Greg Davis, Maker’s Mark master distiller // Photo courtesy of Maker’s Mark

Greg Davis, master distiller at Maker’s Mark in Loretto, Kentucky, is all about the craft spirit craze. “I like to call them the experimental distillers,” he says of the distillers embracing the new techniques and templates that are shaking up the spirits world.

But Maker’s Mark, Davis says, is focused on legacy, with a distilling process established in 1954 and passed down through three generations of the Samuels family. “I’m just here to preserve that legacy,” he says. “Don’t screw it up.”

In conjunction with a new Maker’s Mark Tastemakers series hitting select culinary hotspots around the country, Davis recently hosted a dinner at Butcher & the Boar to discuss Maker’s Mark’s approach to bourbon over a four-course meal and cocktail sampling, including the potent 110-proof Maker’s Mark Cask Proof.

Maker’s Mark, Davis says, has always been grain-to-glass and handcrafted in Kentucky, made with a blend of 70-percent corn, 16-percent soft red winter wheat, and 14-percent malted barley. The company sources much of its grain directly from family farms near their distillery: the Mattinglys grow the corn; the Petersons supply the wheat. (The barley is commercially malted in Europe.) For its yeast, Maker’s Mark uses a proprietary strain that immigrated to the United States from Scotland with founder Bill Samuels Sr.

Davis says the thing that sets Maker’s Mark apart from other Kentucky bourbons is their dedication to replication. Instead of adding larger tanks, the distillery’s most recent expansion duplicated existing equipment. It may be less efficient, but it ensures the same product batch after batch, he says. The yeast, distillate, and overall process make the drink, and using specific white oak barrels is essential.

“Our white oak is seasoned for nine months to include no less than one full summer, so wood cut in June must wait or season until the following June in order to be used for a Maker’s Mark barrel,” Davis explains. That way, the wood is drier, which then keeps moisture from diluting the flavors. After approximately six years in barrel, Maker’s Mark is finally bottled and capped with the red wax seal synonymous with the brand.

Greg Davis, master distiller, pouring a sample // Photo via makersmark.com

Greg Davis, master distiller, pouring a sample // Photo via makersmark.com

Maker’s Mark is one of few distilleries who rotate barrels in the warehouse while they age in order to control conditioning. Temperature variation between those stored on higher or lower pallets can make for different whiskey flavors.

To get the best sense of bourbon’s flavor, Davis encourages drinkers to sip using the “folded tongue” method. First, let the liquor sit still in the glass (don’t swirl it like wine). Then, inhale deeply through the nose and exhale through the mouth. This will give a softened flavor impression prior to the first taste. Next, fold the tongue and take a sip, making sure the liquid starts in front and moves over the entire tongue in a “V” to the sides and back, hitting all the different flavor points. With Maker’s Mark, look for winter wheat flavors on the front of the tongue; the bourbon is designed to be a flavor-forward experience, where the back of the tongue impression (where the alcoholic sting resides) is tempered instead of burning and bitter.

Davis describes cask-strength bourbon, which is stronger (it comes straight from barrel to bottle, and measures between 108–114 proof) and hasn’t been blended, as “Maker’s Mark DNA.” Oak, caramel, vanilla, and spice notes dominate the flavor.

As Maker’s Mark’s master distiller, Davis spends his days mixing distillate, testing barrels, and verifying yeast strains in the lab. He also convenes a tasting panel on every batch of the bourbon, and views his role as “keeper of the recipe” instead of an innovator. The Samuels family has given him the keys, he explains, and it’s his job to make certain not to crash the car. “We’re not concerned with the time, we’re concerned with the taste profile,” he says.

Maker’s Mark is now technically producing more bourbon than it ever has in its history, but the batches being churned out now won’t be seeing the shelves until 2021 or 2022. Until then, those barrels will be rotating through the warehouse, maximizing the potential flavors of those Kentucky-grown grains.

Select bars around the Twin Cities are currently carrying Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, including Butcher & the Boar, The St. Paul Hotel, and Borough. Butcher & the Boar will be offering the following special cocktails through Wednesday, March 2:

  • A special Adam & Eve Maker’s Mark Cask Strength cocktail ($14)
  • A special Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Manhattan ($14)
  • A Maker’s Mark flight featuring the full Maker’s portfolio: original Maker’s Mark, Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, Maker’s 46 ($13)

Find more spirits content at growlermag.com/articles/spirits.

 

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