Reflecting on an old friend with the Maker’s Mark 2020 Limited Release

MAKER’S MARK WOOD FINISHING SERIES
Stave Profile SE4 x PR5 (2020)

MASH BILL – 70% corn, 16% wheat, 14% malted barley

PROOF – 110.8

AGE – NAS

DISTILLERY – Maker’s Mark

PRICE – $65

WORTH BUYING? – Absolutely

This will be a more personal post than usual. I debated whether to write it at all. But realizing how my relationship to this particular bottle of bourbon exemplifies a key sentiment I have for whiskey, and reflecting this Thanksgiving week on the people in my life I am thankful for, for those and the personal reason I’ll get to shortly, I decided it was indeed worth sharing.

I opened this bottle of Maker’s Mark on the day I learned that a dear colleague, mentor, and friend of twenty-two years had passed away. It was not unexpected, in that I’d known she was in poor health. But one is never fully prepared for such a moment when it arrives, especially when it’s a person of such extraordinary life.

I chose this particular bottle to reflect on my friend that day because it was Maker’s Mark that she always kept tucked away in the bottom righthand drawer of her desk, to ease a tough day or celebrate a good one. So a special release of the brand seemed a very appropriate means to offer up a toast to someone who was herself a kind of living special release—unique, with an uncommon depth and complexity of humor, insight, and passion.

Sitting on the back stairs of my apartment building, taking in the clear blue sky and reflecting on the many memories of my friend, what she accomplished in her work that impacted so many people over the years, what she meant to her husband whom I also know and have worked with, and considering what she meant to me that words cannot concisely capture… Well, the sweetness, the strength, the vibrancy of the bourbon worked like a clear stream running gently toward this open sea of feelings and thoughts.

She was born and raised in Kentucky, so, bourbon was in her blood. I would often drop by her office with a sample of one whiskey or another to share. Eventually I gave her a small three-ounce jar that we nicknamed The Vile. She would alert me with a text: “The Vile is empty. I will leave it on your desk to be replenished. Something less flammable this time perhaps.” I would find it there as texted, fill it with one bourbon or another, then leave it on her desk with a post-it note attached detailing what it was. Sometimes these samples would conjure specific memories for her. I once gave her a sample of George Dickel and she said, “Oh. George Dickel.” Then with an enigmatic smirk, “Reminds me of those prep school boys who gathered out behind the school.”

As I post this, it’s been eleven weeks to the day since she passed. I’ve poured further glasses from this bottle since that day, each an opportunity to reflect again on my friend, her family, and my appreciation for the precious time we have with those who bring meaning to our lives.

For these notes today, I first took this time to reflect, outside, under another clear blue sky. Then I slipped back indoors to take the more formal notes below. Rather than using a traditional Glencairn, as I typically would do, I stayed with this special tumbler. It is the only glass I use for this particular bottle of Maker’s Mark, given the fact that what I’ve already written above is at least as much—most often more—of my experience sipping this bourbon as are the brief notes that follow…

COLOR – roasted orange, toasty ambers, with pale lemon-yellow highlights

NOSE – lovely cinnamon taffy, sweet caramel, a stewed fruit of some kind like apricot and papaya and mango somehow all mixed in one, a dense pastry bread with vanilla icing

TASTE – fruity and soft, with a nice flare of heat like a nearby crackling fire, the creamy caramel darkens toward the end and that lovely hybrid fruit note emerges again

FINISH – a fine peppery tingle lingering around the fruit, caramel, a gentle cafe mocha note and a faint background of oak

OVERALL – elegant, fiery, very sweet without turning cloying, unusual, balanced between its fruit and caramel aspects

I can’t “objectively” comment on the taste separate from the association I have brought to it. Sipping at this bourbon, I cannot help but hear my friend’s smoky laugh and see her expressive face, which in a few subtle movements could convey a complex thought with the eloquence, wit, and concision of an Oscar Wilde quip.

Dwelling on the last sip before I came back inside to do the formal tasting notes, I recalled the last time I saw her in person. It was a few months ago at her house. I brought her three samples of bourbon I thought she’d enjoy, including the Maker’s Mark FAE-01, which she chose to pour that day.

It was clear she was in significant physical discomfort from her illness. But once she sat down on her couch and carefully selected which bourbon to try, poured a bit into a glass, held the glass up to her nose and breathed in its aroma, she was that same person I’d always known. “I love bourbon,” she said, with a care and consideration for each vowel and consonant of those three words. It was not something she could enjoy at her leisure anymore, so, small sips every so often. She savored the ounce she’d allotted herself that day. And it pleased me immensely to be able to bring her something that provided her such pleasure—that joy of experiencing someone else enjoying something so simple so much.

Sitting down today at my kitchen’s red table with this Maker’s SE4 x PR5 to taste it more formally, having already sat down with it outside to enjoy it in reflection, I actually found it easier and in a certain way less clinical than taking tasting notes can sometimes feel. I’d already enjoyed it as it was meant to be enjoyed, with a friend. So my formal tasting was infused with the pure pleasure of the bourbon from the start, rather than starting from a more analytical perspective.

I may very well take this with me into future tastings. Enjoy it first as a drink. Then dig into the details.

Yes, I do recommend this bourbon. My personal associations with it aside. It is a solid, complex, sweet, layered bourbon with classic flavors and a nice twist to its fruit aspects. It’s creamy and rich and satisfying, with enough restraint to it that it won’t fatigue your palate if you’re inclined toward a second or third pour.

The SE4 x PR5 was released in 2020. I found this bottle gathering dust on a shelf this past August 2021. Maker’s Mark as a brand is generally so ubiquitous, and such a classic old-school bourbon, almost to the point of cliché, that its annual limited releases don’t vanish in frenzied seconds like the special releases of certain other brands. They also don’t typically see the crazy hiked prices that those other brands do. Their more recent FAE-01 Wood Finishing Series release was also quite good, even more so than this SE4 x PR5 I would say. If Maker’s Mark’s annual experiments with wood staves continue to result in bourbons like this, then the Wood Finishing Series will be one to follow for certain.

To our good friends—past, present, to come, at our tables, or in our fond memory. Cheers!

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