Raleigh hotel bars pour their hearts into crafting a custom whiskey.
The hotel bar, once the solitary respite of the solo traveler, is now often regarded as an amenity of equal importance to high thread count sheets, a destination in its own right. Here in the City of Oaks, our thriving bar scene means we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to watering holes, but bars at three Raleigh hotels—AC Hotel Raleigh North Hills, Renaissance Raleigh North Hills and Raleigh Marriott Crabtree Valley—are making a mark with their own private label Maker’s Mark bourbon.
The hotels didn’t simply choose a barrel and put their name on it; they traveled to Louisville, Kentucky to participate in Maker’s Mark Private Select program, which invites hospitality professionals to participate in an interactive process to develop a custom whiskey. The Raleigh contingent included Anthony Zinani, General Manager, and Pete Horak, Bar Manager, of Level7, AC Hotel’s rooftop bar, respectively; Ron Salerno, Food and Beverage Director of Raleigh Marriott Crabtree Valley; Executive Chef Dean Thompson of Renaissance Raleigh; Dean Wendell, Corporate Food and Beverage Director, and Chelsea Melvin, Corporate Director of Beverage Operations, of Concord Hospitality, respectively.
After touring the storied distillery and getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the distillation process, the team gathered for a tasting in the aging cellar, a stately room that’s carved out of a hillside. To inform the tasting, the team first decided to create a sipping whiskey.
“You go over color profiles, flavor profiles, what you’re looking for, and mimic that to best of your ability,” explains Zinani. “So, for a sipping whiskey, you want something that’s rich, heavy-bodied and deep in color, something that can stand alone.”
The Maker’s Mark team guided the Raleigh contingent through a tasting of six different bourbons, each with a different style of barrel finish. By law, whiskey must be aged for four years in American oak barrels but can be “finished” in barrels made of different woods and with different toast (or char) levels, which impart additional flavors and characteristics. To combine multiple types of finishes in one barrel and achieve a specific flavor profile, distilleries add staves, the planks used to make barrels, to the finishing process. The Maker’s Mark Private Select program provides five different oak staves to choose from, including seared French cuvée, whose distinguishing flavors are oak and caramel or roasted French mocha, defined by its charred, maple and cocoa notes.
To help participants taste and learn to detect the subtle flavor notes in each style of finish, the Maker’s Mark team set out spices and chocolate to taste alongside the whiskey. Zinani likened the process to making perfume.
“When you crack open these barrels at ten in the morning they’re setting aside three different types of bourbon and three different ingredients and teaching you how to taste it, to breathe it in, so you get that maple, vanilla-y or dark coffee flavor,” he says. “It’s hard to really grasp that stuff if you’re not doing it every day. But the process is awesome.”
“We’d taste a little bit of each, blend it, swirl it in the beaker and taste it,” says Melvin. “We sat down as a team and asked [questions like] ‘What does it taste like?’, ‘What is the mouthfeel?,’ and ‘How does it finish?’ ‘Is it long or short?’ ‘Is it dry, too sweet or tannic?’”
After tasting, the Maker’s Mark team helped advise which staves to use to achieve the desired flavor profile. For example, if a bourbon tasted too tannic or dry, they’d pull back on the French mocha staves and increase the quantity of French cuvée staves to add sweetness and floral notes.
Once they landed on the formula—the specific combination of staves—the team headed for the barrel room where they emptied out a barrel of Maker’s 46, placed the staves inside the barrel and filled it back up with the bourbon to rest for another six to eight weeks. The resulting whiskey is a 120-proof bourbon with a deep amber hue, rounded sweetness and velvety mouthfeel.
“It almost looks viscous; it drinks how it looks,” says Zinani. “To me, it’s got a little bit of nutty flavor to it; it’s wicked rich, it’s sweet on the tongue and it’s got a great finish. Add an ice cube and a touch of water and the vanilla and burnt sugar comes out; it helps balance it out. It’s also excellent with a brandied cherry.” ■