Search & Distill: Marked Man

I get zero sympathy for having to attend wine and booze lunches in the course of my research and development, but these things aren't always fun. Normally, you sit with plenty of booze and some cheeseball "brand ambassador," who regales you with reasons why the product being imbibed is superior to any other one of its ilk. This information is usually only an inch deeper than the stuff you can find on the company's flash-tastic Web site, delivered with no moderation of the hard sell that tends to put off laid-back Northwesterners.Wineries and breweries often send their rock-star vintners and brewers to make the national rounds, but spirits companies rarely have as connected a figurehead. The exceptions are a few Southern gentlemen in Kentucky's bourbon belt; one of these, Bill Samuels Jr. of Maker's Mark, recently made a lengthy stop in Seattle.Samuels' father created the recipe for Maker's bourbon, and Senior's wife Marjorie came up with the name, the idea for the red wax top, and the typeface. If Maker's seems to be omnipresent in bars around the country, it's due more to the signature bottle and a singular, if not freakish, following of converts (also called ambassadors) than it is to runaway production. The distillery still ranks among the smallest in Kentucky, and makes whiskey in batches of 19 barrels at a time. Rival producers may produce batches of up to 50 barrels at a time, while a giant like Jim Beam can do hundreds. Maker's Mark also creates its whiskey by hand every step of the way, even down to dipping the bottles in that famous wax.The flavor of Maker's is among the sweetest of all bourbons. To me, Maker's Mark has two unmistakable notes working in tandem: crème caramel and a happy childhood memory of breakfast cereal, especially if you add a little water and let the vapor collect in a big or tall glass. (I like drinking my brown out of flutes or even Collins glasses.) "You can do so much with a sweeter bourbon, playing with the vanilla and caramel notes," says Samuels Jr.Purist that he is, Samuels prefers to cut his bourbon with ice and water. "You should dilute a spirit in order to really taste it. 70 proof works best with almost everybody," he explains. "You can always tell the bourbon amateurs because they'll drink it straight and talk about mouthfeel. That's not mouthfeel, that's high proof—and your taste buds being destroyed."Samuels' cocktail of choice is the Manhattan, but, he says, "I don't use any commercial bitters because I think they're too strong. We make our own bitters at the distillery that're about half as strong as regular bitters, so as not to mask the flavor of the bourbon."I agree when it comes to rum and bourbon cocktails, and I fudge mellower versions of bitters at home by diluting regular aromatic bitters, like Angostura or Fee's, with half of a brown Italian amaro (a drinkable bitter liqueur) like Averna or Ramazzotti, the flavors of which really complement brown liquor. This time of year, I suggest you add giant ice cubes and a few slices of ripe nectarine or peach to your concoction.Asked about the burgeoning cocktail revolution, and the emphasis being placed not just on cocktail adjuncts but on brown spirits in general, Samuels gets excited. "I'm just surprised it didn't happen earlier, that all the cocktail culture would [initially] surround vodka," he says. "Why would we be satisfied with the key ingredient of a drink adding nothing to the drink? How can we expand our creativity and still highlight the spirit?"After attending a Washington Bartenders Guild event at Zig Zag and meeting several local bartenders last week, Samuels was encouraged. "There's a much greater interest in looking toward the kitchen for inspiration in Seattle, that I haven't seen as much anywhere else. It's thrilling."

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