“Don’t Screw up the Whiskey”: A Day With Maker’s Mark

 Jonathan Soroff takes a close personal look at the makers of Maker’s Mark bourbon.

A devout bourbon drinker, I’ve pulled more than my fair share of red-wax seals off of bottles of Maker’s Mark, so when Bill Samuels, Jr. invited me to spend a day with him at his family’s distillery in Loretto, KY, the answer was, “Hell, yes!”

Tall and spry, Samuels has a slight limp that’s compensated for by a John Wayne swagger, not that you need to look to the movies for iconic male figures to get a sense of the man. One of the first things Samuels points out in the main office is a pistol that belonged to Frank James, the outlaw Jesse James’ brother and accomplice. Samuels’ great-great aunt was married to Frank, who, like his brother, was among the last Confederate soldiers to surrender arms in the Civil War. They did it on the front porch of the Samuels family store, and in a photo on the wall, the aunt is one of a handful of people pictured at Jesse James’ funeral, because, Samuels says, “Everyone else was afraid they’d get arrested if they showed up.”

A seventh-generation whiskey distiller, Samuels’ office is a museum of history from Kentucky’s frontier days—letters from presidents, a checker board that Thomas Jefferson played on, and the desk on which Steven Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home.” Samuels himself is a font of historical facts, and listening to him is a wildly entertaining blend of colorful anecdotes, scientific marginalia pertaining to making whiskey, and the sly wit of a southern gentleman with a shrewd business sense.

Samuels, Jr. took over the distillery from his father, who founded Maker’s Mark in the 1950s. Before Prohibition, T.W. Samuels had been a popular whiskey, and after the 21st Amendment, Bill Samuels, Sr. approached his father with the idea of refining the family formula. The idea was met with a dismissive, “The American people will drink what we give them,” but as it turned out, the old man was wrong. By 1933, his newly reopened distillery had gone belly-up. Bill Samuels, Sr. served as a naval officer in World War II and then lived off his holdings until the 50s, when, as his son tells it, “My mother was sick of having him around the house and told him to go out and get a job.”

Despite having been a protégé of Kentucky Fried Chicken king “Colonel” Harlan Sanders, Bill Samuels, Sr. chose to follow in the family footsteps. The idea for the name Maker’s Mark (and its logo) came from the stamps on the pewter his wife collected, and she also suggested that the bottles be sealed with red wax, the way antique cognac bottles had been. More curious, though, was the cast of characters involved in developing the brand’s distinct flavor. Unlike most industries, bourbon makers have always been a tight bunch, and the Samuels family lived on Whiskey Rd. in Bardstown, KY, alongside a Who’s Who of distillers. Samuels put together an Advisory Committee that included his neighbor from across the Street, Jerry Beam (as in “Jim”), Hap Motlow (whose father ran Jack Daniels), Pappy Van Winkle and Ed Shapiro (of Heaven Hill).

The Beams alone have been making whiskey since the folks drinking it wore powdered wigs and swore loyalty to the Crown, and with the exception of the discovery that aging new whiskey in charred oak barrels would mellow and improve the flavor, bourbon had been made pretty much the same way ever since. Hence, the elder Samuels’ rebuke to Bill, Sr.

He and his Advisory Committee, several trained as engineers, approached the creation of the new whiskey scientifically, by examining the way the tongue perceives flavor. In developing the new brand, the biggest change came from eliminating rye and replacing it with red winter wheat as the flavor-imparting grain. By 1959, they were ready to sell their first batch of what became America’s first premium bourbon.

Bill Samuels, Jr. joined the company in the 60s, after studying rocket science and working as a lawyer. In 1968, his sister, Leslie, created the first visitors program, sensing the potential for tourism and laying the groundwork for Kentucky’s famous “Bourbon Trail.” By 1975, the old man was ready to hand over the reins to Bill, Jr., his only advice being: “Don’t screw up the whiskey.”

Apparently, he didn’t. In 1980, Maker’s Mark became the first alcohol production facility to receive National Historic Landmark status. The same year, the company appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, the first time the newspaper featured a privately owned company this way. And every year since, Samuels says, they’ve seen double-digit growth.

Touring the distillery with him is like walking around Disney World with the guy dressed up as Mickey Mouse, but even folksier. On a Monday morning in early Spring, there are a surprising number of tour groups, the faithful with cameras slung around their necks, curious to see how Maker’s Mark is made. Ambling among the various buildings, Samuels stops to chat, joking with employees and reducing the tour guides to either awed silence or carnival barker mode, as they announce, “Ladies and gentlemen, this here is Mr. Bill Samuels, Jr.!”

The visitors, many of them European, are visibly impressed, and Samuels enjoys the attention, cracking jokes, posing for photos and signing bottles of whiskey. In 2011, after 36 years in the business, he announced his retirement and his intention to leave his son Rob in charge. But he didn’t call it quits before creating his own legacy. With the help of his Master Distiller, Samuels was determined to do what his father had: create a distinctly new whiskey that targeted specific taste receptors on the tongue. Eventually, they came up with Makers 46, and their initial batch, in 2010, sold out in weeks, without the slightest bit of advertising.

But two things are as certain as mint juleps on Derby Day. One is that the Samuels clan are savvy promoters. The other is that Bill Samuels, Jr. might have handed the keys of the kingdom over to his son, but the distillery remains his old Kentucky home.

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