Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review: Maker's Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky

As a self-identified student of philosophy, it's kind of my job to argue with people. And, around the campus, there's no shortage of folks to argue with. Hard sciences folks who can't really see why physicalism is a problem? Check. Aspiring "theory" types from literature departments? Check. Dedicated world-saving humanists critical of philosophy's frequent political neutrality? Check. Constructivist social scientists? Check. Theologians? Check. Hippies? Check. I like all of these people, and I like debating with them. Almost everyone I've met, when the topic of philosophy comes up (and it inevitably does when I mention what I work on), are willing to keep the open mind and attentiveness to die Sache selbst required of any real discussion. Honestly, I'm probably more of a stubborn stick in the mud in these debates than any of them.

There's another kind of person, though, that I tend not to like. I don't much interact with them and I probably shouldn't condemn the whole lot with a broad stereotype, but (for the purposes of this review) I will anyways.

On the far east side of the campus is my least favorite building in the entire neighborhood. It's the School of Business, and inside and out it looks like a bizarro Macy's (and obviously I have a problem with the Macy's part, not the bizarroness). When I'm forced to go inside, usually because someone I know would like to have lunch at the School's cafeteria, I can never quite shake the sense that I'm trespassing into a professional services ad. Polished, well-dressed people are everywhere, smiling, laughing, and shaking hands like a guy from Robert Half International is about to take their picture. It's a nightmare world of young professionals in collars, golf shirts, and dress skirts, tired and grizzly market researcher-looking types, and balding male betied professors reviewing drafts for their PowerPoint slides. I do not belong among these people. If the doctoral student working on philosophy has any natural enemies, then, at least one of them has to be the MBA.

First of all, for an MBA graduate school isn't something taken up for the love of knowledge or anything of that sort. It's a capital expenditure. They may actually learn something there, but that isn't the point: they are there entirely on the promise of future benefits. These folks are on their way up the economic ladder; they'd like nothing better than to get to the top faster. But how?

The MBA, if s/he is worth consideration as such, has mastered the art of appearing competent. Their entire mode of being is geared towards impressing others. So far as I can tell, this is not even something they're necessarily even aware of: they really believe that they know what they're talking about, that they're not just passing around terms like "paradigm" or "value-added" as so many old coins. In classes and over lunches they inherit a cache of methods, concepts, and most importantly cliches (as an MBA you should be able to rattle off many dozen sayings about how "what doesn't kill you catches the worm" or whatever); they probably have little idea of where any of it comes from or whether any of it is true, but this isn't particularly important. It looks impressive, it sounds convincing, and that's what matters. Business not going well? Clearly what's needed is team-based organization!!

Sure, MBAs can also throw together a cost-benefit analysis and present it in PowerPoint if you want them to, but that isn't really what they're all about. The essence of the MBA is what the Greeks called δεινὸς λόγος, skillful discourse. You might see this on full display if you can catch them in a mistake - say, if they call a market move the wrong way. Watch them dance, watch them finesse the facts (or hint at how they did, in fact, have some strong suspicions that things might have gone the other way), watch them quickly and subtly move on to what they did get right. I don't think they see this as fibbing so much as just how conversation normally proceeds - as if any discussion whatsoever were a job interview. If they're able to convince you (and themselves) that P is the case, then P is the case. Everything comes down to this moment of convincement.

Now, if MBAs ever drink Bourbon - and perhaps they shall do so more and more, given that vodka is becoming démodé - the bourbon they're likely to drink is Maker's Mark. I mean this not just as a kind of conceptual connection, but also as an empirical fact.

Of course, we've all seen Maker's Mark on store shelves - the ubiquitous hammer-shaped bottle with the tan paper label and the red wax seal. Heck, more than likely you've got yourself a bottle stashed away somewhere. But if you pay attention to MM for awhile, certain facts about it may strike you as rather strange. The side of the label claims that it's "America's only handmade bourbon whisky - never mass produced"; the blurb continues in this style, making repeated claims as to the smallness and the traditional nature of the distillery as well as to the care put into the product. That sounds great and all, but, well... put it this way. I said before that we'd all seen this bottle on the store shelves, right? But how? How can that be possible? I have never, EVER been to a liquor store that didn't have a couple of bottles of MM on sale; I've seen it in grocery stores, in gas stations, and just about everywhere that one can buy alcohol. We're talking thousands of stores. How can it be said that this bourbon, which is more common than Danielle Steel novels, isn't mass produced? Exactly what definition of "mass-produced" are they using here?

Ah, well. Let's look at the bottle itself, which - let's be honest - looks amazing. It's simple, rustic, and appealingly fashionable at the same time, like Hugh Jackman. To find a bourbon that looks cooler, I think you could step up to Blanton's (which comes in a grenade with a horse on top) - but this is surely the niftiest bottle in its price range. It is, of course, rather strange that a (supposedly ) small mom and pop operation like the Maker's Mark Distillery actually has its own bottles (with logos and everything), but we'll let that slide. Get some of the wax off the top, and... oh boy. You get a screw top with a plastic cap, rather than a cork. What's that doing here?

Never mind that, though, let's get some of this into a snifter. Mark, of course, pours a pretty standard bourbon color - a beautiful deep bronze. Even in a glass it looks fantastic. The smell, though, is even better, so stick your head in and breathe deep. I get oak, sweet corn, caramel, honey and maybe just a tiny touch of pomegranate. There's a little bit of heat, but nowhere near as much as the 45% ABV would suggest. This is, with no doubt, an epic smell, one of my favorites on the planet. It might be the best smell in the bourbon biz altogether - or at least, if there's a bourbon that smells better than this, I can't recall trying it.

So up until this point, things are going well - but now I have to actually drink the stuff. I take a sip. At first I get a typical sweet bourbon tingle. This quickly evolves into a pleasant honeyed oak flavor. And then... nothing much else happens. At all.

I wish I were kidding, exaggerating for dramatic effect, but I'm not. There's not a damn thing beyond that one flavor, which carries the whole way through. Even the aftertaste is quite brief. Sure, there's also a little bit of a burn as it goes down - one of the few things that's interesting - but even the burn is quite mild, especially for something that's 90 proof. Praying that there's more here, I've now added a few drops of water - which just makes it taste like watered down honeyed oak. Astonishingly, even this brings out no more tastes, because there's just nothing else to bring out. This is all Maker's Mark will ever be.

As a result, I find Maker's Mark infuriating. How could something that looks this cool and smells this impressive be so unbelievably bland when you actually sit down and drink it? Honestly, if I just wanted something to sip I'd take Beam or Evan Williams over this in a second; neither is my favorite bourbon, but at least they've got some character. However, I'm not the target audience here. The MBAs have no soul, and as a result of this they love Maker's Mark! Having made it through college getting sorority girls drunk with Ten High and coke, they're now ready to move up in the world. What an awesome bottle! What a great smell! And it's so smooth!! Yup, it's got everything an aspiring young professional could want (and that's if they drink it neat at all, which is unlikely so long as there's a bottle of 7-Up handy).

So in the end they share an affinity, Maker's Mark and the MBA. Both of them are all about the initial impression, not any real substance. Mark looks like it should be a great whiskey; it even smells like it. But it isn't; not by a long shot.

Grade: C+
Summary: Superficially captivating, profoundly lame. Think of it as a mediocre bourbon with whitened teeth and fake tits.

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