Maker's Mark's Master Distiller Greg Davis Talks Maker's 46 and Energy Efficiency

Categories: Interview
Greg Davis - MM.jpg
​In his early forties, Greg Davis is the youngest master distiller in the bourbon industry. He's in charge of production and taste at Maker's Mark's Victorian distillery in the countryside of Loretto, Kentucky. The beautiful structure has been functioning as such since 1805 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- not a bad place to spend your days. Since T. William "Bill" Samuels, Sr. who created the bourbon with the red wax seal purchased it in the '50s, it's been pumping out some of the industry's finest bourbon. Each bottle is packaged by hand, offering a very personal touch to your evening beverage.

Davis values the care and precision that goes into making his product. The company just released Maker's Mark 46, offering a more unique flavor of bourbon. We met with Davis to discuss the new addition to their drink lineup and to talk a little about what it's like to walk about in his shoes.

New Times: It's interesting that you're actually from Kentucky. Do you live there now?

Greg Davis: Yes, I'm born and bred, raised native. That old Midwestern saying, "born, bred, cornfed."

Do you feel like that's why you got the job? 'Cause you're from Kentucky?

No, it's not really that. I've been doing this now for 21 years. I can't think of anything else that I'd rather do. Everyday, I go in, and it's so much fun. I've yet to work a day in my life so far. It's been absolutely fantastic.

You started making your own beer and wine at home in college. Was that because you were broke?

It was actually just kind of fun for me. Biology always came really easy to me, it was something I always enjoyed through school. One day, I happened across a guy who was making making his own wine in his dorm room. The rest, as we shall say, is history. When actually really got everything started in this direction was I went to work for another beverage company in the beverage development, fermentation sciences group. Well, as part of my resume, I took in some of my wine with me and needless to say, I was probably top on their priority list because I understood fermentation.

How long have you been with Maker's Mark?

I've just been with Maker's Mark for a little over a year.

How is this position different from others you've had?

At Maker's it takes us a little over a month to do what I was doing in just a couple of days (at former job). It's a very unique experience to go from a large production environment, a lot of computers, still good hands on involvement, to actually take that step back and go to a more hands on approach. You go back to learning how to read the column, just minor instruments, just a couple of pressure gauges is what we run with. And the fact that we still use a roller mill for grinding all of our grain. We still use the old balance beam, the guy just has a manual slide to weigh up every single batch of Maker's Mark.

When you walk through the facility, even when you approach the grounds at Maker's Mark, you know we have a big Victorian style setting, you come into the facility, it's a small facility, you're thinking, OK, where is the magical production facility. No, everything is done there, it's all done by hand. As much as I'd like to say it's me who does all the work, it's really not. The only time it's about me is if something goes wrong. Then all the fingers point at me. Because, we start with locally grown grains except for the malted barley, the beer guys kind of control that for us. The corn we buy from one family, the soft red winter wheat we buy from another family and it's all grown locally, right there on the limestone shelf.

What does the hand dipped bottle in wax offer the bourbon?

It started as a way to make the bottle pilfer proof, one of my favorite stories from Bill has been, his mom comes upstairs with this bottle dipped in wax and his dad saying, "now how in hell and I going to put that into mass production if this thing actually gets successful?" And she says, "You're a genius, you'll figure it out." And to this day we still hand dip everything.

In the Maker's Mark 46 press kit, it says, "After many bad ideas, Kevin came to the conclusion that the foundation for our new bourbon would be our fully matured Maker's Mark." Can you tell us what some of the bad ideas were?

That was kind of fun, because coming in on the tail end of that, Kevin and I have known each other for the better part of 12 or 13 years now. When he was being promoted, Kevin contacted me and we talked quite extensively. It was kind of funny how everything just plays out in this industry but he was talking about all the different things that they were experimenting with, different sizes of barrels, different types of wood, location in the warehouse, trying to finish it indifferent barrels, and it was always the same end result. You lost what the winning is all about it. Winning is about the flavor forward that is Maker's Mark, that's what separates us from all other bourbons.

Every time, the flavor started to move toward the bye, which is going to give you that astringency, give you that burn, that bitterness, which is exactly what they did not want. And that's the whole premise for what is Maker's Mark, is we want a great tasting bourbon.

What worked, then?

They actually tried, what we're doing with the 46 process, they were actually doing it during the summer months, it just wasn't working. They decided to do one more batch, put the tin seared French oak staves in there and they did this right at the very end of October and then right around Christmas time of 2009, they decided to taste it, Bill was ready to scrap everything, Kevin pulled it out and decided to taste a little bit. What they found was that during the summer months, which is when they did the bulk of their experiments, the extraction and reaction happened so fast that you missed the flavor and the finish.

Because of the heat?

That heat drives that reaction. The barrel begins to breathe and then ignite, then it contracts when it gets cool. It's that breathing of the barrel, that really make everything happen. So when he tasted it, now we have this big vanilla nose and the flavor portion of that, the caramel explosion, but the wood crescendo that came on. The flavor had a nice long, clean lingering finish. Most people describe it as slightly cinnamon, spicy. Very clean, very forward on the palette. What we did, it's like tasting an older bourbon but without the tannic acid.

Can you tell me a little more about the distillery?

We have a little over 600 acres we manage as a natural preserve. We're in the process right now of going back and planting in a lot of fields native grasses. We actually are reducing our carbon footprint. Something else I'm in charge of is our energy production facility. We take the stream as it comes off the still, we take our backset -- bourbon is by nature a sour mash, meaning a liquid portion of a previous distillation, it's not a rancid sour, it's a sweet sour - from there once we get our backset, we then pump that back and separate the solids to go to animal feed, and this liquid fraction we feed it to a biodigester, and it produces methane, we clean it, compress it, pump it up to reduce our natural gas usage.

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