"My bourbon has arrived!" proclaimed an excited Hugh Higgins. But this was no ordinary restock: each bottle featured his personal signature on the label.
With 30 years of experience in the wine and spirits industry prior to opening Hearth restaurant, Higgins knows his bourbons. This past March, he put his knowledge to the test on a visit to the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. While many distilleries let customers purchase an entire barrel of whiskey, only Maker's Mark allows a select few to choose how they want their barrel “finished.”
“This bourbon scenario actually begins at UFS,” Higgins recounts. “One of the owners, Tom Wiegand, invited me and a small panel of his employees to join him in crafting our own blend.”
After a private tour and tasting, the group from Peoria got down to work. First they tasted the classic Maker's Mark Cask Strength on its own; then came the challenge: “to add 10 barrel staves from five different types of toasted oak expressions to an existing barrel, in any combination we wish.” After three or four months of aging, those wood influences would greatly affect the bourbon’s flavor profile.
Maker’s Mark had an entire barrel of each flavor on hand for sampling—allowing them “the chance to look into the future as to how our finished product could evolve,” Higgins notes. “After experiencing the five unique flavors, we were tasked with developing our desired proportions from each of those options.”
Their very first recipe—two portions of Baked American Pure, one portion Seared French Cuvee, four parts Maker's 46 and three parts Roasted French Mocha—was “love at first taste,” he declares, “with its sweet vanilla and caramel flavors that end with a suggestion of toasted pecan.” Though the group tweaked four more batches, the original remained their hands-down favorite. After adding their staves to a then-empty barrel and signing the barrel head, it was refilled and stored for aging.
In early October, UFS launched sales of their personalized Maker's Mark Private Select Barrel—with the hand-signed barrel on display. They’ll sell bottles as long as inventory lasts, while at Hearth you can get it by the dram—or in your favorite bourbon cocktail. “The reception has been amazing,” Higgins adds. “In five business days, Hearth sold an entire case, just two ounces at a time.” So don’t sleep on this… the inventory is limited. a&s