[Sip & Tell features barstool interviews with spirits industry professionals.]
Maker's Mark, that trusty Kentucky bourbon, has not changed one damn bit since the Samuels family reinvented their recipe in 1953. Red winter wheat in the mash, as opposed to rye, gives the bourbon a smooth balance, and the brand is known for producing small batches aged in charred oak barrels for five to seven years, producing a subtly sweet caramel flavor. It's also considered a whisky (instead of a "whiskey") due to the brand's Scottish heritage.
Here in New York City, the brand is having an interesting moment as more and more bars are using brown spirits to create classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan. Maker's Mark, most popularly ordered on the rocks, is available at just about every bar in the city, from dirty dive to upscale lounge. For decades, ordering a bourbon or whisky neat or on the rocks was an act of rebellion against the candy cocktails of the Cosmo era, but now that fresh-ingredient cocktails and pre-Prohibition cocktails are in vogue, ordering straight bourbon doesn't seem as sophisticated. (Of course, most people who order bourbon straight don't care what anyone thinks, anyway.)
When it comes to using bourbon in cocktails, some mixologists prefer more super-premium, small-batch bourbons, or rye whiskey, which has come back in style, while Maker's Mark's is one of the top-selling whiskys (behind Jack Daniels and Jim Beam). NYC Maker's Mark Distillery Diplomat Stephen Yorsz says crafty cocktailians who roll their eyes at Maker's are missing out. "Don't confuse commercial success with lack of quality," he said.
Stephen admits he has a pretty "cheddar" job--touting Maker's Mark is not a hard sell--after all, it's an American icon with its red wax seal and loyal fan base. Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club calls Maker's Mark "incredible bourbon that created and defined the premium bourbon category."
Given Stephen's background as a bartender for hotspots such as Home, Guesthouse, and STK, it's not surprising that he wants to bring Maker's into trendier enclaves like Simyone Lounge (formerly Lotus). While Stephen credits the cocktail renaissance with encouraging more people to break out of their vodka comfort zone and try brown spirits, he doesn't see why bourbon can't move from places like Employees Only into the nightlife scene as well, where Grey Goose and Patron still rule. At the same time, he takes pride in the brand's history as a no-nonsense spirit.
"Maker's Mark is premium, but not exclusive," he said. "Anyone from Joe Schmo to Heidi Klum will drink it because they like it. And that's the beauty of it--it's a common thread--the camaraderie over the one product."