September 27, 2023 2:13 pm

Inside A Maker’s Mark Private Selection Barrel Pick

Nine Thirsty Men Face Tough Decisions at Maker’s Mark Private Selection Barrel Pick

My wife Judy says I like to compare (confuse?) my real life with dialogue and scenes from classic films. She’s not wrong. I’ve been known to use, “Forget about it, Jake,it’s Chinatown,” and “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” in actual conversation.

 Recently I sat in the Lakeside Tasting Room at Maker’s Mark Distillery with eight men. We were looking out over the water source that is the heart of all Maker’s Mark products. The group had the rare opportunity to taste samples and choose a barrel in the Private Selection program. I was reminded of the 1957 classic film “Twelve Angry Men,” starring Henry Fonda, where 12 men must state their reasons and beliefs to reach a consensus on the guilt or innocence of a young man accused of murder.

Of course, there’s nothing as life or death involved when picking a barrel of bourbon. But the pressure is real when the final taste of thousands of dollars’ worth of whiskey will be decided by the end of the day. And it turns out that what you think (and like to drink) is dramatically different from someone you just met two hours ago. Reasonable doubt, indeed.

 But this wasn’t just any barrel pick where you thief some samples from a barrel and narrow down your choices. You sample from five different bottles of Maker’s Mark 46 that have been finished with different staves. In essence, it’s a chance to become part of the Maker’s Mark Master Blender team for the day.

Maker’s Mark Private Selection offers a new take on the Maker’s Mark 46® process. It begins with cask-strength Maker’s Mark® and is aged for nine additional weeks in barrels specially fitted with 10 wood-finishing staves in our limestone cellar. Where Private Selection separates itself from Maker’s Mark 46 is barrel customization using five different stave types. This results in over 1,001 different possible combinations. As single-barrel bourbons, all expressions of Maker’s Mark Private Selection are bottled at cask strength – which ranges from 107-114 proof. – Maker’s Mark

The eight men around the table literally won the lottery. They are members of Louisville’s nearly decade-old Bourbon Brotherhood, “a monthly social gathering of men who enjoy bourbon and camaraderie” that also has a philanthropic bent. They were chosen from a drawing of more than 90 names to participate.


I was deemed the “stowaway” after requesting to tag along and write this story. Originally, I was only to watch and not participate. But the bourbon gods (old and new) smiled on me that day and the fine folks at Maker’s Mark added another plate, and quite a few glasses, to the table so I could join in this chance of a lifetime. If they won the lottery, I won the Maker’s Mark Mega Millions that day.

A day to remember

The group met in Louisville and rode down to Loretto together in a chauffeured van. Bourbon Brotherhood Founder Bruce Corwin (see interview below) brought several different Maker’s Mark products, including 46 and Private Selection, to help everyone prepare their palates for the day ahead. As they say, “It’s 10:30 a.m.somwhere!”

Our rainy day at the distillery began with a walk down to Star Hill Provision’s Restaurant for a wonderful farm-to-table lunch of Maker’s Mark chicken, smoked gouda grits, and coleslaw. Note, the restaurant will reopen to the public soon. A new chef just joined the staff.

Hannah Warner, Private Selection Specialist and our guide for the day, explained the tasting process, detailing the flavors present in each of the five stave samples. See Stave Options chart below.

Later I asked her what makes the Maker’s Mark Private Selection tasting so special. “It’s so different than everything out there,” Warner said. “You truly do get to create your perfect version. We have 1001 different combinations. If you prefer something that’s sweet and more dessert-like, we can do that for you. If you like something that is dark, alcoholic, and heavy on the spice, we can do that too.”

When asked about how her interest in bourbon began, Warner shared this story: “Just out of college, I took care of this lady, she was 102 years old. She drank Maker’s Mark specifically, every night before bed. She told me that was her secret to living so long. That’s actually what got me into the bourbon industry. It opened my eyes to everything that’s out there.”

After lunch, we toured the distillery and then loaded in vehicles for a quick drive to the Lakeside Tasting Room. I’ve toured Maker’s Mark many times through the years.  Guides usually reference the lake off in the distance that is the water source for the distillery, but I’ve never seen it. This beautifully decorated room with floor-to-ceiling glass opens onto a deck overlooking the lake. This water source is the reason the original Burk’s Distillery was built in Loretto in 1889.

Once seated around the table and being divided into two groups, the deliberations began. This “being a master blender” business isn’t rocket science, but it’s not for the faint of heart either. So please bear with me as I walk you through the process.

First, we tasted five different samples of Maker’s Mark 46 that had aged for nine weeks with a different stave in them. Making notes in our handy tasting notebooks along the way.

To create three unique quarter-finalist tastings, we had to fill three wooden boards (think a flat stave) with holes drilled to accommodate 10 different wooden medallions (think poker chips). The chips represented the five different stave options we had just sampled.

Here’s where the 1001 combinations come in. We had 10 holes that could be filled with any combination of the five different stave options (P2, Cu, 46, Mn, and Sp). 

For example, one of our three boards ended up being 4 Ps, 1Cu, 3 46, 1 Mn, and 1 Sp. We got there after lots of back-and-forth discussion, with everyone making their best case for how much of which stave should go into our “stave recipe.”  It’s not as easy as it sounds since everyone’s palate is different. Hence the jury duty analogy.

Once the stave recipe was complete, the groups went to the bar to blend a proportional sample from bottles containing Maker’s 46 finished with each individual stave.

Each group negotiated down to its favorite stave recipe of the three. Actually, one group had to go to four samples. In both groups, tie-breaking opinions were required. I went from stowaway to tie-breaker. Movin’ on up!

Finally, each group’s winners were sampled by everyone, and a final vote was cast. Gentlemen of the jury, do you have a verdict? Yes, but no unanimous jury here: a 5 to 4 vote. But that’s okay. In the best spirit of bourbon brotherhood and collegiality, everyone agreed that each of the two final choices were very good.

Final choice/recipe/selection of the staves that will go into the barrel for the next nine weeks: 

1 P2, 4 Cu, 2 46, 2 Mn, 1 Sp. Before the tasting, each participant signed a full barrel of Maker’s Mark 46, which will spend the next nine weeks with these ten staves lending their unique flavors to the blend.

Stephen Scott, or Juror Number 6 in my mind, coordinates orders and payments for the Bourbon Brotherhood’s twice-yearly barrel picks.

“The best part of this, and every barrel pick, is the camaraderie that almost instantly develops among the participants,” Scott told me later. “It’s the small things that we find in common and build relationships from there.”

“My first choice was not the final choice, but the winner was one that I quickly came to embrace. It will likely have broader appeal to those buying the bottle. Although on the losing side, a 4 – 5 vote confirmed that we had a solid selection of staves,” Scott said.

Mark Williams, or Juror Number 2 in my mind, has done tastings at Four Roses, Wild Turkey, and later told me that he really appreciated how different the process is at Maker’s Mark. 

“It was interesting to change the way a whiskey tasted, instead of picking from different barrels with set tastes,” Williams said. “I liked how everyone had input and we could all have the opportunity to mix each blend.”

When the Kentucky Legislature passed House Bill 500 last year, it allowed distilleries to sell private barrel selections directly to consumers. Distilleries are still working their way through just what that means. For Maker’s Mark and its Private Selection program, only select consumer groups like bourbon societies such as the Bourbon Brotherhood can now participate in the program, previously limited to restaurants, bars and retail liquor stores. Kailey Durbin, Maker’s Mark Private Selection Concierge, said the distillery is “celebrating and navigating its way through the newly passed House Bill 500.”

So for now, many of you reading this will have to wait a while for your turn to sit around the tasting table, overlooking the lake at Maker’s Mark. But when your chance comes, do not miss it. It is an opportunity you will never forget. And it’s the only type of jury duty where bourbon is served.

A Q and A Session with Bruce Corwin:
Founder of the Bourbon Brotherhood in Louisville, Kentucky.

Why does the Bourbon Brotherhood do a couple of barrel picks each year?  

This is one of the benefits we provide to our members. All members have an opportunity to participate in buying bottles and for each bottle they buy, they get one entry into a lottery to be selected to participate in the barrel pick.

What was your favorite part of the day?  

The on-site farm-to-table luncheon and distillery tour were fantastic, but the best is always sitting around the table with friends, tasting, talking, and selection the bourbon that we want to have bottled. It’s a very intimate and personal experience to share with friends.

When will the bottle be available?  

With most barrel picks, it’s a few months before you receive your bottles. The Maker’s Mark experience is a bit longer because there’s a nine-week stave finishing process that takes place in the Maker’s Mark cellar, so probably five months.

Will this bottling have a specific name?  

We haven’t decided on a name yet. Maker’s Mark allows two lines of text that we can add to the bottle’s label. It might be something as simple as “Bourbon Brotherhood” and “2023 Selection.” The bottle will be about $70.

Will it be available for the public to purchase? 

The barrel is purchased by club members and only available to them. Although we always hold back a few bottles from each barrel pick we do and offer them as part of the silent auction for the annual Bourbon Mixer fundraiser.

How many people entered for a chance to go on the tasting?  

For this barrel pick, we had 90 people participate in the lottery. Some signed up for one bottle, some for two bottles, some for 10 or more. Depending on the type of barrel pick you’re doing, you’ll typically get around 200 bottles from a barrel. The Maker’s Mark barrel pick can be up to 240-250 bottles because they fill the barrel to the top prior to the nine-week finishing process. Normal barrel picks, where a barrel has been aging for five or 10 years and lost some each year to the “angels’ share” will be less. Some might only yield 175 bottles.

Any final thoughts?

It’s always so exciting when the bottles are ready for pick-up, and we get to distribute them to our members and then share a pour together.

"Whisky is liquid sunshine."

George Bernard Shaw

“The light music of whiskey falling into a glass – an agreeable interlude.”

James Joyce

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