Wow! What an opportunity! I was thoroughly surprised to walk into the liquor store and see the Maker’s Mark 42% ABV sitting on the shelf! I was sure this one was going to pass me by with the company’s quick reversal decision…just a quick blurb if you have not been informed about the controversy. Maker’s Mark decided to lower the alcohol content of its standard whiskey to keep up with demand. This lead to a backlash from loyal drinkers of the spirit and spurred a “social media” whiplash that quickly sent the company wheeling and reversing their decision. If you want to read more about their response please follow this link to their website and check out the news section. The following is a short excerpt of their response…
Since we announced our decision last week to reduce the alcohol content (ABV) of Maker’s Mark in response to supply constraints, we have heard many concerns and questions from our ambassadors and brand fans. We’re humbled by your overwhelming response and passion for Maker’s Mark. While we thought we were doing what’s right, this is your brand – and you told us in large numbers to change our decision.
You spoke. We listened. And we’re sincerely sorry we let you down.”
Rob Samuels, COO and Bill Samuels, Jr., Chairman Emeritus
It is nice to see a company listen to its constituents and change such an important long-term business decision. Now back to my adventure with the change. So there were the bottles! I had to go to a different store to find some stock of the 45% AVB version, got a bottle and planned a tasting of the two.
Rare is the opportunity to experience something like this and I was ecstatic but also contemplating how my perception to the two whiskeys have been tainted because I knew there was a difference. I questioned if my findings would be correct. In the end I decided I have faith in my abilities and know my limitations. I have done this long enough that I believe I can be balanced and give, to the best of my ability, a true and honest side by side comparison of the two whiskys.
Whisky: Maker’s Mark
Type: Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky, 42% ABV Bottle Code L3038MMB, 00770816
45% ABV Bottle Code L2320MMB, 05520926. No age statement. Label states each batch is made with less than 19 barrels.
Very interesting! When looking at the two there was a definite color difference. While they both resided within the same spectrum, one is laced with lighter colors while the other poses deeper and darker hues. The addition of water to cut the ABV made a subtle, yet noticeable difference in the color.
42% ABV- Maker’s Mark is American small batch Bourbon. Everything you might expect to experience is present. Warm and inviting, corn with a fun and submissive licorice play at the start. The oak is ever-present throughout the dance keeping tempo and adding support, but the 42% seems young and a little relaxed. Red fruit comes through with apple bleeding into cinnamon spice. A soft vanilla reverberates through the spicy corn and hints of burned sugar with caramel float at the edges.
45% ABV- The first couple rounds of inhaling the 45% show a more rich and what seems to be older whisky. The oak is most noticeable. In the 42% I said it was young and relaxed but with this the alcohol adds a bit of weight and age. The aroma has a more noticeable bite which, depending on your preferences, can be good or bad. The cinnamon and licorice are more potent with the corn being more spicy and the whisky, in general, being more intense to a small degree. The one difference I noticed was how the added alcohol brought out some tobacco scents in the 45% which were not present in the 42%, specifically a light Cherry Cavendish blend.
I should note, my nose is very sensitive to alcohol vapor and I can easily knock out my sense of smell if not careful. I need to bring a whisky slowly to my nose giving it time to adjust and it amazes me when I see others fully stick their nose into a glass and inhale deeply, if I did this I would not be able to pick anything out for a while! I believe this is one reason I have made a noticeable distinction between the two and to test my sensitivity I did a blind nosing and picked the 45% with no problem.
42% ABV- If you want a classic and fully American bourbon, again, Maker’s Mark represents the class very well. As with the nose a sweet corn is the first to open its eyes followed immediately with cinnamon spice. Other spices are present with just a hint of clove and pepper being dominated by the cinnamon. A pleasantly bitter soda begins but quickly gives way to more sweet aspects. A very light touch of apple returns with butterscotch making a play for your attention. Caramel swims around the tongue but can be missed if you are not paying attention as does light butter. A creamy mouth feel flows though the mouth.
45% ABV- As in the aroma, the senses are stimulated just a bit more but let it be said, that does not make this better or worse. Everything found in the 42% continues to be present in the 45%. The differences I noticed were not many. The 45% was more drying in the mouth but did not impact things for me as much as it did in the nose. Licorice has transformed into anise and I am reminded, briefly, of a Sambuca while it travels over the middle parts of the palate. It can also be said in the mouth one experiences a bit more of a bite. The 45% mouth feel did have a noticeable difference. The creaminess of the 42% is more oily in the 45% and I look for oily in bourbon and expect the creamy with Scotch…usually!
The finish is where I noticed the biggest differences. I enjoyed the 45% more in this category and feel the extra alcohol helps bring the finish out.
42% ABV- Sweet and soft oak with corn and vanilla. Medium long. Full but not overwhelming. The 42% just did not have the complexity of the 45%.
45% ABV- Once it goes down vanilla takes center stage. The constant in all is the oak and it still plays its song on the finish. The interplay of the oak and vanilla leads to other nut flavors and I am overjoyed to find coconut at the end. The sweetness in the mouth relaxes to a touch more bitter and drying but in a good way. Very light corn and butterscotch wafts up as cherry comes through with apple revisiting, but all are late in the end.
Before I took my first drink, I thoroughly did not believe that a meager 3% could make any real noticeable difference. To be honest, while I enjoy Maker’s Mark, I do not drink it regularly. If I had never heard of the switch I probably would not have remembered it was originally 45% ABV and gone about my business when picking up a bottle. Mr. Samuels was correct in his interview with Mark Gillespie on WiskyCast Episode 412 in that the recipe is almost indistinguishable from the original on the palate, but I did find differences on the nose and finish. Were these differences big enough to make me never buy Maker’s Mark again? No! It was still a great whisky in the 42% form and I really believe a good part of the market would not have picked out the differences. As for how I feel about the two…I preferred the 42% in the mouth but much more enjoyed the 45% in the nose and on the finish and as someone who can spend hours nosing a whisky before taking a drink, I would have been disappointed losing the 45%.