What's all the fuss about Maker's Mark Bourbon? It's just whiskey...

There is no thing such as just whiskey. Seeking out bourbon and whiskey on the American Whiskey Trail. Photo: Maker's Mark / Jacquie Kubin

WASHINGTON, February 18, 2013 — I drink Bourbon, and whiskey. I think real women drink brown spirits and I have felt that way since about 1976 when I had my first sip. 

And whiskey and bourbon are not the same. There is a difference.

I have anywhere from four to five choices on my shelf at any one time because each is different and serves a different purpose. And I sip Makers Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon. Neat. Nothing but a glass. And when they announced they were going to “water it down” to meet demand, my voice joined the chorus of NOOOOOOOOO that could be heard around the world.

Bourbon is wholly American; it is something to be sipped and enjoyed neat on a winter’s evening or with a slice of ice and splash of citrus at the end of a hot summer day. Whiskey can be made just about anywhere.

If you don’t understand that, or if you do acutally, you want to take a journey on the The American Whiskey Trail, which winds from Washington, D.C. to Nashville, through the dense green hills of Tennessee to the horse lands of Indiana, tells a tale of American history and culture.

From the early days, when clear moonshine was sweated from a mix of corn and rye and yeast, then distilled in the heat of the backyard still, to the creation of the amber-brown liquid of today, there are hundreds of years of history and artisanal skill to the production of whiskies and bourbons.

That history and the centuries of accumulated craftsmanship passed from generation to generation go into every ounce of whiskey that is bottled today.

Exploring the trail calls first for a stop to visit the copper craftsmen at Vendome Copper & Brass Works, Inc. of Louisville, Kentucky. This family-owned business creates the beautiful copper stills used by distillers worldwide. Next visit the cooperage where Jack Daniels barrels are still mostly made by hand.  

Vendome Copper and Brass Works family (Image: Jacquie Kub

Vendome Copper and Brass Works family (Image: Jacquie Kubin) (click to enlarge)

The modern story of whiskey begins with George Washington, who began commercial distilling in 1797, following his years as President.

Washington built his distillery at the urging of Scottish farm manager and son of a Scotch Whiskey distiller, James Anderson, who encouraged Washington to go into the business as a compliment to his farming and grist mill. A quick demand for Washington’s whisky led the distillery to become one of Mt. Vernon’s most commercially lucrative efforts.

The recently rebuilt distillery at Mt. Vernon, built on the foundation of the original building, is a step back to early American history.

Today’s amber-brown brew owes its color to an Ohio river merchant of the 1800s, who discovered that a barrel charred to remove the flavor of fish or pickles turned clear moonshine into an amber liquor. Since well before the prohibition years of the 1900s to the boutique distillers of today, each brand is distinctive and has its own stamp of color, nose and taste.

As a long weekend’s enjoyment, the American Whiskey Trail might be the best journey through America’s heartland you can take. There are stops in small towns, like Jack Daniels‘ Lynchburg; small hip distilleries such as Corsair Artesian’ Distillery and Taproom in Nashville, or the spirit’s distiller tucked onto the wayback roads, Pritchards Distillery  in Kelso, Tennessee.

Before we take flight, it is important to understand the difference between Whisky or Whiskey (our usage here will be Whiskey), and bourbon.   

It’s a difference important enough to make one person a Jim Beam bourbon drinker, another a Jack Daniels whiskey devotee. No two brown spirits are exactly alike, and while it is small steps that set them apart, their taste profiles are miles apart.

In addition to sipping Maker’s Mark, I mix Knob Creek and Woodford Reserve bourbons, and either neat, or with Coke, choose Jack Daniels whiskey.  

The subtle flavors that the Master Distillers take to replicate their mix to perfection come from recipes that are hundreds of years old. 

The recipe is never changed. Whiskey is made from four main ingredients – corn, rye, yeast and water. Those ingredients must be all-natural and precisely combined before the distilled liquid is stored in charred oak barrels for precisely the right amount of time to create the exact flavor profile with each and every casking.

Bourbons - the aforementioned Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek and Woodfords, to name my personal flavor favorites - all share certain traits. 

Woodford Reserve bottles being filled with rich amber bourbon (Image: Jacquie Kubin) (click to enlarge)

Woodford Reserve bottles being filled with rich amber bourbon (Image: Jacquie Kubin) (click to enlarge)

By law, bourbon must be:

  • Produced in the USA
  • Made of a grain mix of at least 51% corn (other grains are malted barely and wheat)
  • Distilled at less than 160 proof (80% ABV)
  • No additives allowed (except water to reduce proof where necessary)
  • Aged in new, charred white oak barrels
  • Aged for a minimum of two years in order to be called “Straight” bourbon

Whiskey, on the other hand, is made world-wide. Scotch Whisky, Canadian, Australian, Finish, Danish or English … wherever a still can be set up, where an oak barrel, corn, rye and yeast be found, whiskey can be made. 

It is that charred oak barrel, and time, that makes the difference between clear high-proof “moonshine” and whiskey.

The process of distillation begins with corn mash – a mixture of corn, rye, water and the brewer’s “yeast”. 

The yeast is just as closely guarded a secret as the Coca-Cola recipe is, and it helps to give each brand its distinctive, consistent flavor.

The yeast distillers use today has a lineage that goes back to the original mother yeast, and it is passed on from vat-to-vat, year-after-year, not unlike the Olympic torch. Each distillery has one person in charge of protecting and adding just the perfect amount of yeast to the mash. 

The fermentation process begins as the yeast breaks down the sugar in the corn, creating the mash that begins to bubble and boil, releasing gas.

The mash barrel and stirrer at the George Washington distillery (Image: Jacquie Kubin) (Click to enlarge)

The mash barrel and stirrer at the George Washington distillery (Image: Jacquie Kubin) (Click to enlarge)

The top layer of the liquid is like watery, very soft oatmeal. The taste is not unpleasant. The smell is fragrant with layers of sweet sugar, warm bread, spicy rye, and the oak of the giant open barrels that the process takes place in.

Once that mash finishes bubbling, the liquid is transferred to the still, where distillation, a process as old as moonshine itself, separates the “spirits” from the mash.

At the George Washington distillery, you can watch the clear drips of “liquor” emerge from the copper tubing. Take a drop on your finger and taste the strong, bitter spirit.

This process is born of heat.

Water turns to steam at 212 degrees Farenheit, depending on air pressure. Alcohol evaporates at a much lower temperature, about 172 degrees. 

As the alcohol spirits evaporate, they are captured at the top of the still, from which they’re transported by winding copper tubing. As they move through the tubing, the spirits cool and condense back into a crystal-clear, high-proof liquid.

Whether using George Washington’s methods, with the spirits escaping down a wooden trough to drip, drip, drip into a wooden bucket, or the large commercial distillers where the spirits emerge in a crystal clear deluge, it all begins and ends with the same ingredients.

Corn, clean lime-rich spring water, rye, yeast, heat and time.

The distilled spirits are casked into charred oak barrels and given time to age within the cavernous barrelhouses that dot the countryside, eventually becoming smooth, fragrant bourbons and whiskeys.

What makes the American Whiskey Trail so fascinating is that, while each distiller follows the same basic recipe, each spirit is uniquely different.

If the Whiskey is made in America, only then may we call it bourbon, and the only additive to the finished spirit is clear water, whose only purpose is to reduce the proof, or the measure of alcohol to the volume of the liquid.

Maker’s Mark was going to increase that water.  WAS.

In the U.S., it’s a simple two-for-one conversion: 100-proof whiskey contains 50% alcohol, 50% trace organic compounds and water. 86-proof is 43% alcohol.

Straight from the cask, the proof of the distilled spirit can be as high as 140, and it is not for the faint of heart.

To those who travel the Whiskey Trail, the barrelhouses offer glimpses behind doors usually kept closed. You’re allowed to step inside the darkened, cavernous buildings where the whiskey is aged in buildings filled with barrel upon barrel of whiskey, barrels stacked nine stories high.

Maker's Mark barrels (Image: Jacquie Kubin) (Click to enlarge)

Maker’s Mark barrels (Image: Jacquie Kubin) (Click to enlarge)

Maker’s Mark is the only distillery that uses a system of rotation to move the barrels from the upper reaches, where the temperature is warmer, to the lower perches, where it is eventually tapped and determined to be of age sufficient for the consistent taste of the brand.

The Maker’s Mark barrelhouse is dry and cool, while Jim Beam’s has a discernable moistness. It is the little things that separate one bourbon from another.

Stepping into Jim Beam’s barrel house with Jim’s grandson, Fred Noe, an immensely affable man, one is left pondering the enormity of deciding which barrels, out of the four thousand or more barrels surrounding you, are going to combine to make that consistent flavor.

It is staggering to think about being able to choose this barrel, and then that one, to combine them into one consistent batch of Jim Beam, Jack Daniels or Maker’s Mark.

And one of the best jobs at the distillery I think.

On the Marker’s Mark tour you might meet one of the brand’s Master Distillers, such as Greg Davis, who owns the distinction of being the youngest Master Distiller ever.

As in wine tours, tasting the different bourbons and whiskeys is an important part – for those of age – of the tour. And each distillery adds its own flourish.

Greg is an active and engaged ambassador of Maker’s Mark. He enjoys bourbon and wants you to enjoy it as well. 

We stood in a cool, darkened barrel house, beams of light streaming down from windows nine floors above, and tasted the spirits from start to end – raw moonshine to the red-wax sealed signature bottle.

We learned that a Maker’s Mark barrel includes additional charred oak blades that the spirit mingles with, adding extra depth. 

Maker’s Mark uses a recipe that is 70% corm 20% soft red winter wheat and 10% rye, providing the blend’s profile that is sweet on the tongue with a forward finish.

Nineteen barrels of Maker’s Mark are combined to create a consistent profile. The spirit is aged in the barrel for six years, on average. The exact time a barrel ages depends on the weather, and the dictates of the master distiller.

The barrels are constantly monitored and their contents tasted.

Barrel aging is hugely important to all the brands. A general rule of thumb is that aged one year, the color is still clear, and you can taste and feel the oil from the grain. It burns the tip of the tongue, bleeding back toward the throat; a generally unpleasant spirit.

Jack Daniels barrel house (Image: Jacquie Kubin) (Click to enlarge)

Jack Daniels barrel house (Image: Jacquie Kubin) (Click to enlarge)

After three years in the barrel, more wood sugars have drawn out of the barrel and the caramel and vanilla flavors are becoming pronounced. 

The most world-famous of all whiskeys is Jack Daniels, from Lynchburg, Tennessee, where Gentleman Jack Daniels found a cave spring with a continuous supply of clear, fresh water from deep in the earth.

The water, iron free, is filtered through limestone, adding a mineral-rich smoothness to the spirit.

Jack Daniels is a Tennessee Whiskey, a distinction that is only given to the famous square black-labeled spirit No. 7 and George Dickles.  

While both spirits are obviously distilled in Tennessee, what makes them different from their bourbon cousins is that, before being barreled, the raw spirit is filtered through 10 foot deep vats of sugar-maple charcoal, once before it is barreled, and a second time four years later, before it is bottled.

Statue of Jack Daniels at the Lynchburg, Tn distillery (Image: Jacquie Kubin) (Click to enlarge)

Statue of Jack Daniels at the Lynchburg, Tn distillery (Image: Jacquie Kubin) (Click to enlarge)

From this charcoal filtering the Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey profile emerges.

A modern day Mecca for whiskey aficionados, Jack Daniels’ history reaches back to 1866, and it enjoys the distinction of being the first registered distillery and the oldest registered distillery in the US still making whiskey.

And yes, true to popular beliefe, the county it is made in is dry, though you can taste and buy Jack Daniels at the distillery. 

Jack Daniels No. 7 is arguably the most recognized whiskey bottle in the world. From it pours a spirit that is dark, with a golden or coppery hue. The aroma of the spirit is noticeable, and instantly recognizable.

The taste is mineral crisp from the limestone and cave spring water, woody as a result of the charcoal mellowing, or filtering. Known as a quality sipping whiskey, Jack Daniels presents an under layer of fruit with vanilla and charcoal, making it, in my estimation, a fine porch or bbq pour.

Or a great end-of-a-long-day-moment-of-quiet choice.

Visiting the distilleries is a journey not only for the fan of the sour mash, but also the person who wants to see a bit of America that remains relatively unchanged over the last 146 years.

_____________________________

The American Whiskey Trail produced by 


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Jacquie Kubin

Jacquie Kubin is an award winning journalist that began writing in 1993 following a successful career in marketing and advertising in Chicago.  She started Communities Digital News in 2009 as a way to adapt to the changing online journalism marketing place.  Jacquie is President and Managing Editor of Communities Digital News, LLC and a frequent contributor to The Washington Times Communities as well as a member of the National Association of Professional Woman, New American Foundation and the Society of Professional Journalist.  Email Jacquie here

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