Tipples

Maker's Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon offers stronger bourbon for duty-free retail

Beam Suntory's brand ambassador Gordon Dundas (far left) says Maker's Mark Cask Strength (left) has the brand's bourbon style, but is unfiltered and straight from the cask.
Beam Suntory's brand ambassador Gordon Dundas (above) says Maker's Mark Cask Strength has the brand's bourbon style, but is unfiltered and straight from the cask. PHOTO: DFS

Maker's Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon is now offering something stronger for the Singapore market in duty-free travel retail, with Maker's Mark Cask Strength.

At 108 to 114 proof or 53 to 58 per cent ABV (alcohol by volume), the bourbon smells like paint thinner, but is distinctly smooth on the palate, with amped-up flavours of oak, spice, caramel and vanilla.

"What Cask Strength gives is that Maker's Mark style, but uncut, unfiltered and straight from the cask, which is what makes it so unique," says brand ambassador Gordon Dundas of Beam Suntory, the conglomerate that owns the brand.

The new offering is ironic, given that just three years ago, the distillery faced a backlash for wanting to water down its flagship, red-wax sealed Maker's Mark bourbon whiskey from 90 proof to 84 proof (or an approximate drop from 45 per cent to 43 per cent ABV) in the face of falling stocks and rising demand.

It takes approximately six years to make a batch of Maker's Mark, but instead of increasing the price, the company decided the fastest way to increase the existing supply was to water down what it had on hand.

They reversed the decision after an outcry from diehard fans.

Beam Suntory's brand ambassador Gordon Dundas (far left) says Maker's Mark Cask Strength (left) has the brand's bourbon style, but is unfiltered and straight from the cask.
Beam Suntory's brand ambassador Gordon Dundas  says Maker's Mark Cask Strength (above) has the brand's bourbon style, but is unfiltered and straight from the cask. PHOTO: DFS

Mr Dundas, 43, admits that it was "a simple mistake".

"It was one way of trying to supply the market, but we were well aware after a week that it wasn't the right thing to have done," the Scotsman says.

"We held our hands up and said we've listened, we were wrong and changed it back. It's always going to be 45 per cent ABV, the standard."

Following the misstep, the brand has been catching up quickly, with the Kentucky-based company now focused on expanding the distillery instead to meet the surge in demand for bourbon.

"We're in a major expansion of Maker's Mark at the moment to increase production and supply the demand that's required," Mr Dundas says. "We'll start to see the benefit of that expansion in the next few months."

It is a timely decision considering bourbon has seen growing demand in the Asian market.

Mr Dundas believes that Beam Suntory - a subsidiary of Suntory Holdings Limited of Japan - is well placed to meet these demands in the Asian market.

He says that "bourbon is on the up, big style at the moment".

"In Asia, we see it booming in Japan and Taiwan, a traditionally Scotch whisky market. In China as well, the Chinese consumer is looking to try new categories," he says.

It also helps that bourbon whiskey and Scotch whisky production are inextricably linked, since whiskies are typically finished in ex-bourbon barrels. By law, bourbon barrels cannot be reused, so Maker's Mark barrels are sent off to other whisky distilleries in the Beam Suntory family, such as Scotland's Laphroaig and Japan's Yamazaki.

In any case, Maker's Mark is likely to continue facing demand and supply issues.

"We're in a unique situation because we sell everything that we produce and when it's gone, it's gone," Mr Dundas says.

"It's not a gin or a vodka where you can just turn the tap on. Particularly with Maker's Mark, we want to retain that handmade element, so you have to just wait till it's ready."

• Maker's Mark Cask Strength is available at all DFS wine and spirit stores in Changi Airport's departure and arrival halls, and retails at $90.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline 'A bourbon that's making its mark'. Print Edition | Subscribe