The Whisky Tasting Club

Is Bill Samuels having a laugh?

You wouldn’t expect Bill Samuels to go out without having the last laugh, and it seems he hasn’t.

Maker’s Mark’s manic mailman is approaching 70 and claims he’s about to hang up his hat ‘n boots and lay down his six shooter – but given the Ted Nugent of bourbon’s motormouth past and the track record of other Kentucky ageing distillers for hanging in for another 20  years, then if it happens roll me in sour mash and call me Wee Willy (Van) Winkle.

But let’s go with it for now anyway. What’s he done as he heads for the exit? Only gone and named his first new whisky in 50 years (The Samuels’ family doesn’t use the ‘e’ ) 46.

The joke here? That normal Maker’s has an alcoholic strength of 46% ABV – 92 proof – but 46 is at 47%.

“I think Bill did it deliberately,” says MM’s Jane Conner. “I certainly wouldn’t put it past him. You can just imagine him doing it. Right, we’ve got this great new whisky. We’re gonna call it 46. What strength shall we make it? How about 47?

“I mean it’s not as if one percentage point makes a lot of difference”

So what is this all about?

Well if you’re of the belief that the Kentucky boys are being outmanoeuvred by the new micros,  you clearly don’t know Bill Samuels. He’s not just capable of thinking outside the box; he climbs out then tramples all over it. Here is innovation in bourbon with a very capital I.

It seems that his relatively new whisky is a direct response to the growing demand for spicier, rye dominated whiskeys. Maker’s is at the soft, wheated end of the bourbon spectrum. So the challenge for the distillery was to stay true to the Maker’s ethic – sweetness on the front of the tongue – but at the same time deliver a sharper spicier bourbon than the standard version. No easy task.

So they’ve upped the rye content, right? Er no.

What they have done is to take oak from Northern France and introduce it to the cask. I can hear you shouting ‘Glenlivet 15, Spice Tree, Oak Cross’ but wait.

First the team – now headed by my good friend Greg Davis – identifies a batch of matured and correct Maker’s Mark. Then they dump the liquid. They take new French oak staves and they sear them. This is different to toasting or charcoaling. Then they break down the casks, rebuild them with the new staves, seal them, and refill.

After a few weeks they dump the liquid and fill bottles. That’s 46.

But  the work’s not finished. The barrels have to be stripped down, the new staves removed and the barrels returned to their former state to be sold on to a barrel broker.

The result is Bill Samuels in a glass – whacky, weird and wonderful. An unpredictable delight, with a soft and warm heart and a sharp and spicy tail. It’s a stunner, and with the Knob Creek Single Barrel, the second Kentucky beaut I’ve tasted this month.

Cost? A few dollars more than the regular Maker’s to cover the special bottle and the labour time.

The bad news, UK fans, is that 2014 is the planned release date here. Problem is that they discovered this maturation process goes pear-shaped in the Kentucky summer and they’re closed anyway August and September so they effectively lose four months.

And the whisky’s name?

Well every wood type, charring and charcoaling level has a number. The number of this particular French oak when it is seared is 46. Maker’s Mark did a deal with the cooperage: we use your number but no one can use this particular wood style.

Then Bill upped the strength a notch. And if and when you sip this wonderful whisky, you’ll swear you can hear him sniggering in to his glass.

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