Business Times – 11 Apr 2008
The drink is very much alive and kicking, says CHRISTOPHER LIM
DANCE club-goers in the early 90s will remember swilling Jack Daniel’s bourbon whisky, typically mixed with Coca-Cola. And some might remember actor Kevin Sorbo, of Hercules fame, declaring ‘This ain’t a Jim Beam’, while pouring out some anonymous imposter whisky onto a bar counter in a television commercial for Jim Beam bourbon.
Many whisky drinkers from that generation have moved on to what they perceive to be more upmarket and sophisticated whiskies, like single-malt scotch, especially big names like The Macallan and The Glenlivet.
But premium bourbon Maker’s Mark has just been launched in Singapore to challenge misconceptions, and let the market here know that bourbon is very much alive. However, you can’t buy it. Production is so limited that South-east Asia is only allocated 600 cases and Singapore is only getting a measly 200 cases.
Since you can’t buy it in a retail outlet, you’ll have to head to a bar – specifically St Regis’ Astor Bar, which official importer Beam Global Spirits & Wine has chosen to launch Maker’s Mark there. But other bars are likely to follow suit.
There’s only one version, with a signature red wax seal, and Astor Bar prices the whisky at $178 per bottle before GST, about $20 per cocktail, and $18 for a single-shot.
Of course, if you really want to get hold of a bottle, there are unofficial channels. Whisky specialist Quaich Bar, for example, has been carrying Maker’s Mark for quite a few months now. So has Japanese outlet Coffee Bar K, which even has rare versions of Maker’s Mark that have either been discontinued, like the high-alcohol content black wax version, and the mint julep cocktail premix topped with green wax that’s only sold in the US state of Kentucky and Japan. But we’re talking about small quantities, so the official Singapore launch marks real availability and visibility.
So why is Singapore getting a comparatively significant portion of the South-east Asian allocation? ‘Maker’s Mark’s entry into Singapore is in direct response to the rising consumer demand for premium brands,’ says Kristian Harmston, Beam Global Spirits & Wine’s regional manager for South-east Asia.
Brand ambassador Ray Radford points to Singapore as a trendsetter in the region – one of the criteria Maker’s Mark uses when picking a market. ‘We’re here because the brand sees Singapore as an enormous gateway opportunity,’ he says.
‘Our whisky is in perpetual allocation, much to the dismay of people, so we’re very particular about the markets we choose to introduce the brand. Singapore is a spot where things evolve outwards, and we feel that as Maker’s Mark gets discovered here, it will get discovered throughout Asia,’ he adds.
The bottom line is that this is a fairly exclusive whisky, and worth a try for several reasons. Most importantly, it doesn’t taste like a typical bourbon. ‘Founder Bill Samuels actually set out to make bourbon that didn’t taste like a bourbon,’ says Mr Radford.
‘Maker’s Mark is actually the most unusual bourbon there is. Bourbon is made with at least 51 per cent corn, plus other grains,’ he explains. ‘Most bourbon makers use rye. We use soft winter wheat.’
Mr Radford uses the analogy of bread made from different grains to illustrate the sweetness of Maker’s Mark. ‘It’s like a sandwich,’ he says. ‘If you have a cheese sandwich on rye, it will have a bit of a bite and tangy tartness. If you have the same sandwich with wheat bread, it will be sweeter in your mouth.’
The distillery’s refusal to declare an age for its whiskies flies in the face of traditional whisky snobbery, and is unusual in a premium whisky where age is often equated with quality assurance.
‘Maker’s Mark is made to a taste, not an age. When you’re storing bourbon, the whisky ages at different rates. Rather than pull out a row of barrels and aim for an average taste among them, we taste each barrel and bottle it when it tastes just right,’ says Mr Radford.