The legend of Maker’s Mark dates back to 1784 when Robert Samuels, a Scottish-Irish Immigrant, arrived in Kentucky and started making Whisky for himself and a few close friends. T.W. Samuels, Robert’s grandson, erected the family’s first “commercial” distillery in 1840, where the first family recipe was distilled and distributed by the next three generations of Samuels.
In 1953, Bill Samuels Sr. (Robert’s great, great, great grandson) decided to make a more distinguished style of Bourbon. With a flair of dramatic departure, he set fire to the 170-year-old family recipe, paving the way for the creation of Maker’s Mark Bourbon. He reinvented the Bourbon recipe to include winter wheat (instead of the harsher rye) while baking bread in his own oven. Today, Bill Samuels Jr. (the seventh generation of Samuels to make Whisky) continues the family’s hand-made Bourbon tradition, and remains true to his father’s innovation of fine Bourbon Whisky and vision of Maker’s Mark.
Interview with President of Maker’s Mark - Bill Samuels Jr.
First off let’s have a little about the history of Bourbon in America. During what is known as the Whisky Rebellion, many of the Whisky making families brought their stills and their prejudices for making Whisky with the native grains into Kentucky. And the grain they had was corn because that is what the Indians had been growing for years. So Bourbon formulas grew up as predominantly corn with rye as the flavor.
We still use corn today but the main effect on the corn used today is where it is grown. We insist on buying it only from within the limestone shelf. This is where all the distillery are located and that’s why they aren’t spread around Kentucky It is the only region in the country where you have the limestone shelf, which is layers of limestone with shell in between. This provides a pathway for the water to run and the more and faster it runs the more hardness it gets and it becomes more alkaline. There is just that one little circle where all the limestone is and all the distilleries are located. Every Whisky made in the country is made in that limestone shelf area. Bourbon formulas grew up out of familiarity and necessity they used corn because that’s what they had and they used rye because they didn’t want to walk away from what they knew. This combination created a very bitter sour product. My dad wanted to make a better tasting Bourbon.
Q: I am curious how prohibition affected your Bourbon. Besides the fact that you weren’t able to make or sell it.
A: It really was after prohibition that we were affected. When the repeal of prohibition came my dad had a big war with his father because it was the perfect time if you were going to improve on the formula. That’s when you do it, just when you are starting up again. They had to rebuild the distillery and if any of the equipment needed tweaking that was the time to do it. But my grandfather would have none of it they were running out of money and he wanted to get it up and running as soon as possible. So my dad lost that argument.
Q: Did your family participate in any of the Bootlegging happening during prohibition?
A: Bootleggers were the transporters and the Moonshiners were the producers. Granted a lot of the moonshine maybe most of it was made in our region by people who had been involved in legal production. But not the owners because they were too conspicuous. I don’t think there was any involvement by the owners or the families of the distilleries and at that time there were several hundred of them just in Kentucky. I think it was the employees those kinds of connections that made the moonshine. Also people would move out of Kentucky because there was so much focus there and they would move to North Carolina into the woods etc where they could hide production easier.
Prohibition absolutely crippled the industry and repeal was as difficult as prohibition. Think about what Franklin Roosevelt did he ran on a repeal platform he won, then he opened the door and said OK Kentuckians you can know start making Whisky and you European and Canadians can now start selling Whisky. Because they didn’t have prohibition, they were able to start in the marketplace with a jump. This was 1934 and we have never caught up. That was essentially the end of Bourbon, because by the time the Kentucky distillers had stock, the market had already changed to imported Whisky’s and Gins. It ended up at the low end of the market and was the commodity Whisky. It was in that environment that dad said I’ll bet you that what America really wants is a better tasting Bourbon and everybody including the banks said thought he was totally crazy. He convinced mom that the best way to get him out of the house was to go and by this little distillery. He talked about it like it was a hobby and he said I am going to go to my friends in the industry and they are going to help me figure out what we have to do to take the bitterness out of Bourbon. They know I am not going to compete with them because it is just going to be a little hobby, we are all good friends and they did. He ended removing the rye and replacing it with red winter wheat and that was over the period of six months of advice and counsel from our friends and mom baking bread with different mash fills and dad tasting the bread for directional guidance. So my mom played a pretty significant role. You might say that was the moment the modern era of Fine Bourbon started when she threw him out of the house because he was trying to boss her around.
My dads’ obsession was not in selling the Bourbon, it was in making it. So when it got towards the period where the Bourbon was becoming mature mom got concerned again that he was about ready to fumble, so she anointed herself director of package design. She had never designed anything but she had great taste and she had three hobbies that were invaluable when it came to doing what she did. The first hobby was that she collected English pewter and was in fact the countries foremost authority on 18th century English pewter. In pewter there is the touchmark which is the mark of excellence a craftsman would put on a particular item of his work. That is where the Makers Mark name came from. The second is Mom was an amateur calligrapher and the lettering on the bottle is her hand lettering which has become the makers mark typestyle it is an international type style know. The third is she also collected cognac bottles from the 19th century and they were all sealed in wax. And she got one of those really simple and functional ideas. She thought what if waxed our bottles and add some pigment to the wax for a visual cue, to make it a little more attractive. Then what if we softened up the brittle wax so it would run and wouldn’t that be a nice touch.
When it came time to show it off, it was fifty years ago in September when she came up out of the basement where she was doing this stuff she made her presentation to my father, my sisters and I. I remember we were all sitting at the dinner table. They didn’t have enough money to hire a glass company to make a mold so for the first presentation she made the bottle out of paper Mache. She never designed anything else and has won all sorts of awards for this design.
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Bill Samuels Jr., remains true to his father’s Bourbon making values – nothing has changed – from the special recipe, to the exacting methods and uncompromising demand for excellence. The process still uses the same iron-free, limestone spring water and carefully selected grains to produce batches of less than 1,000 gallons (just under 19 barrels per batch). From the specially crafted white oak barrels used for aging to the individually hand dipped wax seal – every bottle of Maker’s Mark reflects the personal touch of the people who produce it.
The Maker’s Mark distillery was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1980, becoming the first distillery in America to be recognized as a national treasure. Everyone at Maker’s Mark takes pride in the Bourbon they produce, from accepting a grain delivery to hand dipping the red wax seal on each bottle – a personal touch is part of every drop of whisky. Of the nation’s Bourbon distilleries, Maker’s Mark is the oldest distillery, continuously operating on its own site.