The folks gathered at the Bohemian Hotel's Rocks on the Roof bar were a decidedly Maker's Mark crowd. Several presented "ambassador" cards at the door, signifying their membership in the distillery's loyalty program.
After all, it was a momentous occasion for the legendary Kentucky distiller whose familiar red wax sealed bottles grace dorm rooms and board rooms; jon boat coolers and luxury yacht bars. Tonight, the distiller's second redhead, Maker's 46, was being debuted in Savannah.
I'm just two years older than the original batch of Maker's Mark - and with the distiller's open-ended maturing process, had my first sip of Maker's 16 years into its history. Since its founding, the caramel tinged, slightly sweet and mildly oaky Maker's Mark has been largely unchallenged in its category. Woodford Reserve gives Maker's a serious run for the money but is enough discernible to attract its own audience.
The distillery has toyed with some special projects, but never rolled a new product to market as a permanent brand.
Company President Bill Samuels Jr. and Master Distiller Kevin Smith say they did not set out to create a version of Maker's Mark, but intended to create an entirely unique product that built on the core brand's steadfast characteristics.
Smith collaborated with barrel maker Brad Boswell and the experimentation began.
They had eureka moment after a batch laced with a flavor profile No. 46 toasted stave hit the sampling glasses. The trio had already determined that this new product couldn't come from artificial flavors, but, instead, it had to come naturally from grains and wood.
Maker's 46 begins with original Maker's Mark, which gets a dose of that now legendary No. 46 stave and the added oomph of four more proof points - 94 proof vs. Maker's Mark's 90 proof.
I assessed my sample neat - and on the rocks to combat the day's near 100-degree temperature.
The nose is familiar: Pleasant, sweet, toasty oak nose with caramel overtones. It's a more intense aroma than Maker's Mark, and does not belie it proof with an alcohol nose.
Caramel and vanilla notes linger on the front of the palate, but then brace yourself of ra cinnamon ball spice that brings a pleasant burn. This unique character alone defines the greatest difference between the two products.
I don't know that Maker's Mark needed another brand. The famed, redheaded older sister may have needed a dusting off and some new party shoes, but Maker's 46, at about $10-$12 more per 750 ml bottle, is not enough of a shift to lure new consumer to the brand. To some degree, it combats the small batch, single barrel competitors, but to my palate, does not compete in that arena either.
Good whiskey, of course - Samuels' untarnished reputation dictates nothing less. A market maker, hardly.