Our Trip to Maker’s Mark…Amongst Others

Whether you consider yourself a bourbon novice or a bourbon nerd, somewhere along the lines of your whiskey bucket list you will probably find, “Select a Private Barrel at a historic distillery in Kentucky”. Over the last 2 years, that experience has shot up my personal bucket list, sitting pretty in the top 5. With the assist from longtime GBS supporter, Larry Gornto, I and three other USC Alumni were able to experience a once in a lifetime trip to the bluegrass state. I have a BA in History from USC, so being hosted by Bill Samuels at the oldest working distillery on its original site was surreal; the grounds breathtaking. I can only imagine how much prettier it would have been 2 months prior with foliage in full color. Rest assured I will be traveling with the Gamecocks next fall for the USC/UK football game. Perhaps pick another barrel?
A little background about the trip: the GBS barrel curation team were all invited on this trip, but as with most hard-working family men and women, only 2 of us ultimately were able to make it on this specific weekend. Everything from unexpected surgeries down to their only free weekend with family in weeks: it’s important for them to know how much more fun I would’ve had with them all there. 
This Maker’s Mark barrel selection team consisted of long-time members Andy and Holli Brown, myself, my brother Ryan Miles, and Cameron Loope. Cameron is a University of Kentucky grad who has interacted with the Gamecock Bourbon society since the early days, has traded and offered samples of hard-to-get whiskey with our members, and is an overall great guy. I didn’t tell him what to wear, but he showed up in garnet pants with a black jacket and black shoes. Ask yourself if the Kentucky Wildcat bourbon society offered you the same experience; are you showing up in Blue and White everything? Probably not. He enhanced the trip in every way and is the perfect example of how interacting with us on social media and supporting our barrel efforts can be rewarding. I sent him a message 1 day before we arrived, and he jumped at the experience of a lifetime. To be able to give him this gift was easily one of my favorite parts of the weekend.

Our day started at 9:30 at Heaven Hill where we only had half an hour to venture around and look at their incredible museum. Heaven Hill distills Old Fitzgerald, Parker’s Heritage, Larceny, Fighting Cock, and Elijah Craig amongst others. This particular day, the “special release” was Elijah Craig 18 and we all scooped one up for our personal bars, and headed over to Willet to see if they had special releases before our 11:45 date with Maker’s. Willet didn’t have any special releases, but we did visit their bar complete with everything from $15 pours up to as much as you wanted to spend on old “library” stuff. I chose a Willet Family Estate 9-year barrel that had 149 bottles and proofed at 134. It was very good, but I’m not sure it warranted the $48 price tag per ounce. It was the most expensive ounce I have ever purchased, and it was a “you’re only up here once” impulse buy. To be fair, it came with a stemmed Glencairn glass that they charged $15 or $18 for in the gift shop, and I was able to bring it home. Andy had a distillery exclusive Willet Family Estate XCF “Exploratory Cask” 2.0. Extra aged in stout barrels and something else that I can’t remember. His was better than mine, and more expensive. We weren’t buying another at $50 per, so we headed down the road to Loretto. The drives between these distilleries never get old to me. 100-year-old rock walls line roads, rivers meander through foothills, horses graze, and the smell of cooking mash filters through the air. Heaven Hill as a name makes perfect sense to me.
Our day at Maker’s started in a way that I never could have imagined. I knew we were going to have lunch with our guide and curation team on the grounds, and I knew that I had requested to meet USC grad and grandson of Maker’s Mark founders, Rob Samuels, but I had no idea that Bill Samuels Jr. (the Innovator) was going to join us. We’ve been on the property for 15 minutes before I find myself dining with and asking questions to a living legend. Bill was opinionated, full of knowledge, engaging, interested, and an overall great guy to break bread with. Gamecock fans can appreciate the fact that he was reminiscing on being seated on NC State’s bench during the 1970 ACC championship game because there were no other seats in the house. Must be nice. This was the championship game we lost in double overtime with a visibly sick John Roche. Bill talked about how he was the best player in the room by a mile, and that we were the better team. I reminded him we were champions the following season and I would have rather beat UNC by 1 than NC State by 1, and he grinned and said, “I know”. Our lunch started with potato croquettes over a small baby green salad with remoulade, went into a bacon fat leek soup (to die for), and finished with a wagyu shoulder cut that was seasoned perfectly. I paired it with a neat pour of Maker’s Mark Distillery Exclusive Private Selection “Ice Cream Social”. To me, it was perfection in a glass and our inspiration for the barrel we selected later. Maker’s Mark was simply stunning. On a completely different level than Heaven Hill and Willet. Imagine Duke football’s gameday vs USC’s: incomparable. MM was full of old buildings and warehouses amongst sustainable practices with goat herding and organic farming. Our personal guide, Hannah, was fantastic all day and the distillery couldn’t possibly have a better ambassador throughout the barrel selection process.
Once we finished lunch, they had gotten wind that none of us had the opportunity to purchase or taste the new Maker’s Marks Cellar Aged whiskey that took the secondary market by storm ($400 over retail prices). Bill Samuels told me over lunch that he tried to steal a couple of bottles, and he couldn’t even get them. Doesn’t matter if his dad started Maker’s Mark or that he has run the distillery all of his adult life, these bottles are sacred to them, and there are only so many. Just like any employee of MM, they went through the proper channels to arrange a special tasting for us before our distillery tour.  A guy named Ryan brings out the 12-year Maker’s Mark that wasn’t aged in the cellar along with the coveted Maker’s Cellar aged. They wanted us to taste the difference between the same 12-year warehouse (barrels get hotter and more tannic) and the cave aged that maintains 53 degrees (less wood interaction, smoother whiskey). Ryan noticed my Gamecock Bourbon Society hat and told us that he owns one himself. He had a previous run in with GBS founder, Graehme “GC” Ramey, and was admittedly excited to share these rare bottles with our Society. It’s very humbling to have your reputation precede you at a place like Maker’s Mark, and to drink their most prized whiskey of all time with the Godson of Jim Beam. Talk about feeling like peasants while being treated like kings! These whiskies could not have been more different. They were both top shelf sippers, but the Cave Aged expression was a little smoother. The 12-year that stayed warehoused has a little more bite to it, but to me had a longer finish and the flavors stayed present longer. Two totally different experiences, both equally enjoyable for different reasons. From there we got the private and grand tour. It was amazing and overwhelming to see the operation they had going on. Much like a good movie, I don’t want to spoil the tour as it’s truly incredible and I encourage you all to visit Maker’s on your next Bourbon Trail adventure. If for nothing else, a Gamecock will one day be the President, and is currently making us proud with sustainable practices within a global business.
After our tour, the barrel selection process began complete with windows leading into the cave cellar so that all the tours could peek in wishing they were with us; another addition to the VIP experience they gave us. The selection process at Maker’s is unique to them, and no other distillery that I have ever heard of is doing it the way they do it. Since consistency is the name of their game, all their barrels should be identical, and there is no point in selecting a barrel. Instead, you choose different staves to introduce into your barrel that fits the profiles you and your group are looking for. Then they age it another 120 days or so. If you’ve ever had a Private Selection from MM, you’ve seen and probably know the stave breakdown I’m talking about. Of the 5 stave options, you select 10 total to age with your barrel. It’s not easy finding a sweet spot but having had the Ice Cream Social selection at lunch, we all knew where we wanted to start. The 5 stave options were (Mocha has been retired): Baked American Pure-2, Seared French Cuvee, Makers Mark 46, Roasted French Mendiant, and Toasted French Spice. To better describe how you can taste the difference, they poured each of us a ½ ounce of each stave on its own. We were able to discern what each stave brought to the character of the whiskey. P2 was a vanilla & caramel bomb. Seared French Cuvee brought honey and almond to the party. Makers 46 was a confection sugar explosion with hints of cotton candy but a red-hot candy mouthfeel and flavor (so good). Roasted French Mendiant brought Banana’s Foster, graham cracker and a heavy oak. Toasted French Spice has a vanilla & marshmallow nose to it. So we started with 3 Baked American Pure, 3 Seared French Cuvee, 2 Maker’s 46, and 1 a stave of the Mendiant and Spice.
We enjoyed that blend a lot, but we felt like it was a little too tannic for what we were going for. We wanted a whiskey unlike any barrel pick we have chosen to date. We wanted something on the sweeter side that would appeal to the masses and be a whiskey that anyone can be happy with from beginner to connoisseur. It’s also coming out in the spring of 2024, so a whiskey with lighter notes was on the agenda. After 6 different recipes blended, we finally settled on 1 stave difference from the Ice Cream Social. 2 Baked American Pure, 3 Seared French Cuvee, 2 Maker’s 46, 1 Roasted French Mendiant, and 2 Toasted French Spice. The Ice Cream Social had 3 American Pure and 0 French Mendiant. I realize this is all a mouthful to those that have no idea what I am talking about, but for those that enjoy the Maker’s Mark private selection varieties, they will appreciate knowing the blend we have coming in the next 4 months. We were ushered into a room where our barrel of whiskey was waiting and the official Tag was signed by Hannah and myself and placed securely on the barrel head. Each member of the barrel selection team signed the barrel, including Cameron. He was hesitant at first not being a USC alum, but he helped us select this barrel and earned the right to sign it. I didn’t tell him to sign ”Cats By 90” on the barrel, but that’s ok as Karma hit him hard the following night with a loss to UNC Wilmington in Rupp Arena. The SEC comraderie was welcomed and we all had a good laugh. You’ll also notice on the barrel, our group name is “J & F Beef Store”. We aren’t exactly sure how that happened, and we shared numerous laughs all day at it’s expense. It’ll make for a good story and a good laugh for years to come.
We left Maker’s Mark satisfied, but hungry. We decided on a hip brewery with great pub food in downtown Bardstown called Scout and Scholar. We all highly recommend it for upscale pub food that will cost you between $25-$40 per person with a beer and tip. We said our goodbyes and headed back to the hotel. All in a day’s work.
The following day was a quick hit and run day so that we could get back to SC before midnight. We stopped by 4 Roses first as they are known to put out a good single barrel or two early on. We got lucky and walked in on a day they were offering every single one of their 10 recipes in single barrel format. We each grabbed a bottle and headed to Wild Turkey in hopes they had some harder to find selections for us to bring home. We walked in the door and there was Jimmy Russell. The man himself with his wife of 60 some years signing bottles and memorabilia for everyone who asked. The first thing I said to him was “Y’all must have known I was coming today” and he laughed and laughed. I asked him about his grandchildren and his parents, and just regular small talk. He asked where I was from and upon learning I was from Aiken, he asked, “Do you know what’s in Aiken?” Vague question to me as I rattled off everything that I could think of that wasn’t what he was alluding too. Then he asked about Edgefield County, and thankfully my brother was standing right there alert and said “The National Wild Turkey Federation”. That got a wide grin from Jimmy as if he was Alex Trebek and Ryan a contestant.. He signed our bottles, took a picture with us, and we said goodbye with a Merry Christmas. We stepped back to their bar where Bo Garrett’s Gingerbread Old Fashioned was being served. Bo is the former guitarist for the country group, Montgomery Gentry, and was with them during their heyday. He is a great guy and now is an ambassador at Wild Turkey. We got to talking with Bo and in walks Jimmy Russell for more laughs and stories. It became a half hour conversation that was like listening to Einstein explain his theories; except it was whiskey. It really is hard to put into words how we all felt stumbling into such an incredible place in time. I’ll never forget it.
As with all bucket lists that see a dream(s) crossed off, it’s time to adjust my top 5. Look forward to kicking a few more buckets with y’all this winter and into spring!
Here are two great links to more Maker’s Mark & Samuels family history through research put together by Gamecock Bourbon founder, GC Ramey. Both outstanding pieces to read while enjoying your next dram out of a bottle adorned with Red Wax.
Cheers and Forever to Whiskee!

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