- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2017

What exactly is inside of a whiskey barrel? Hopefully, of course, liquid goodness, but for bourbon, which must be aged in a virgin charred oak barrel, the staves of wood utilized in the aging process lend the end product its rather unique profile.

At the Maker’s Mark Private Select Experience at the distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, restaurateurs and bar owners can combine staves from five different types of wood that go into each barrel of Maker’s can be inserted into a barrel in any of 1,001 possible combinations to create a unique barrel of Maker’s suited to an individual tastes — for a unique taste experience.

And when you’re putting this much time and effort into the experience, you want it to be right. Accordingly, the Private Select Experience allows the buyer to examine the different types of staves as well as taste how each type of wood influences the whiskey.

I’m seated today with Alex and Brian from Low Country Kitchen of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and now also in Denver. These fellas have previously fashioned their own barrels from other Kentucky distillers, but this is their first here at Maker’s. Low Country is a Southern-themed restaurant amid the Rocky Mountains, so having their “own” barrel to take back with them west to share with their customers is a prized — and serious — endeavor.

In the Private Select room, walled off by glass from the barrel house room where tourists walk nearby, we are each set up with taster glasses. Starting at left is the Maker’s Mark Cask Strength Bourbon, the so-called “base of the barrel.” The taste is silky, with no fire at all and slow on the finish. The Maker’s guide asks us to note where the fluid properly entertains the tongue, which, for me, is near the back lingually.

The ensuing five glasses each offer bourbon aged with one of the specific five staves. We try them all in turn, with our guide passing around the wooden staves in turn so we can examine and smell them as well.

The Baked American Cuvee is cooked low and slow, with hints of honey and vanilla. To me it has a bit of a wooden taste in the middle of the tongue.

Seared French Cuvee is lightly vanilla in profile, with the tingle of the taste starting way on the back of the tongue and then migrating forward. It’s got a little bit of an afterburn and is, to me, “very bright.”

The Maker’s 46 stave features mollasses aroma on the nose at the back of the throat. I get the sensation of autumnal leaves and I can smell the fire itself. Incredibly, the fire starts in the back of the tongue before traveling into my cheeks.

The Toasted French Spice stave absolutely hits you with coffee on the nose and a spice right at the tip of the tongue.

Having now experienced each of the stave flavors in turn, Brian and Alex begin the process of “mixing” the tastes for their barrel. Taking poker chips marked with the names of each of the staves, the two gentlemen place tokens into a gamelike board until they have 10. In this case, two Seared French Cuvee, four Roasted French Mocha and four Toasted French Spice. Our guide mixes up the elixir with their choices, swirls it in a beaker and then pours samples for all of us to try.

It’s got a spicy chocolate and espresso thanks to the mocha staves — creamy and at the middle front of the tongue.

I watch as Brian and Alex make adjustments in the enusing elixirs — adding in some Baked American Pure 2, taking away a Toasted French Spice, then adding in Maker’s 46. We try each of the new contenders in turn, and I’m offered the chance to mix according to the fellows’ game plan and swirl it for taste.

It takes less than 10 tries to get the magical formula. Brian and Alex smile and agree: This is the one.

To an adjoining room we adjourn, where a cooper hammers open the top of a barrel, inserts the requested cominbation of staves and then fills the barrel with the Maker’s. Here it shall then wait until it has aged to its optimal expression.

Food pairing

While yes, many of the South’s distilleries still reside in dry counties, the laws have slowly been changing thanks to economic concerns to allow for actual retail of bourbon at the distilleries (you used to be able to get a sample only) as well as, now, pairing with food.

Star Hill Provisions opened earlier this year once the ink of those lawful exceptions from Frankfurt’s liquor laws were issues. Now chef Newman Miller, a Kentuckian who cut his teeth in the restaurants of Chicago, has fashioned what he believes is a way to best enjoy Maker’s in a setting that will make patrons want to hang around all day rather than taste and leave.

“No distllery could mix their own drink,” Mr. Miller tells me, describing the surrounding area as “moist” since the county is dry but Loretto, thanks to the changes, is “wet.”

“Moist.” The city is wet, the county is dry.

Star Hill’s menu includes such Kentucky staples as Kentucky Browns, locally sourced produce and a Benedictine sandwich. All of this the chef pairs with an old-fashioned that is stirred 100 times.

Literally.

“We stir each individual shaker 100 times every time,” Mr. Miller said. “I can get two old-fashioned in a shaker.”

Mr. Miller describes his alcohol-food pairing sensibilities as a bit “oddball.” He said that after years of pairing meals with wine and cocktails, he was wishful of complementing the food of his home state with its most famous product.

“I think people in general think that the bourbon is going to take over, that it will be too strong to pair,” he said. “It really couldn’t be anything further form the truth.”

Mr. Miller said this attitude may be a tad provincial, that “only” wine can be paired with food. However, the chef believes in a different mantra: “Good goes with good almost universally,” he said.

“I think everything looks better, tastes better where it’s from. We want to be ‘of the place,’” Mr. Miller says of giving as much as locally possible to the Maker’s Mark dining experience. “And when we can put those things together with bourbon, which is just another ingredient for us, that’s our goal.”

In addition to the Maker’s Mark tour, which anyone in the public can take if they are over 21, the

Dining at Star Hill Provisions, visitors to the campus can also enjoy “Chihuly at Maker’s” through Dec. 3, wherein the glass artworks of Dale Chihuly will be on display throughout the grounds. Seven of Mr. Chihuly’s sculptures can be viewed, from the glass “tree” near the barrel house to the “Crimson and Chestnut Fiori Boat” and a glass ceiling near the gift shop. And visitors curious about the Maker’s Mark Private Select barrel program can learn more by taking the “Behind the Barrel” specialty tour, which educates participants on the program. 

As the holidays approach, the distillery will also offer “Candlelight Tours”, wherein visitors can explore the idyllic grounds in a festive holiday atmosphere. The self-guided Candlelight Tour is free of charge, and will be available Dec. 2-9 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Whiskey and food, glass and bourbon. The marriage of food, spirts and art is ever changing and ever fulfilling.

For information on the Private Select Experience, information about tours and for more on the Chihuly exhibit, go to MakersMark.com.

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