September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, and to celebrate Splash Magazine sat down with bourbon maker Rob Samuels, to chat about the passion and ideals behind his family’s longstanding brand, Maker's Mark.
At first glance Rob Samuels, Chief Operating Officer of Maker’s Mark, looks like a typical businessman, but when as soon as he speaks its clear to see he is a Southern gentleman with a passion for keeping tradition and making what he loves, whiskey.
The story behind Maker’s Mark begins in In 1954, at a small Victorian distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, Bill Samuels, Sr., made the first 19 barrels of a totally new whisky, using pure, iron-free, limestone spring water and a mash consisting of yellow corn, barley and red winter wheat that, when aged-to-taste over the next six years, would become Maker’s Mark bourbon.
“My great grandparents in the 1950 shared a vision that lead to the creation of Maker’s Mark. They wanted to break the long held social beliefs related to whiskey making,” says Samuels. They wanted to break all the rules associated with making American Whiskey. Our family had made cowboy whiskey, taste the manhood really bad whiskey. All of the distilleries at the time made the same type bottom shelf, that’s just what the market was at that time.”
Makers may be a high-end brand now, but no one would ever imagine that the creators of the robust, soft tasting whiskey came after the demise of several failed ventures.
“After two failed two businesses within about a year, The first generation of Samuels’ grandfather decided to get back into the bourbon business and that’s when Maker’s Mark was born.
“He [my grandfather opened the first commercial bank in America that opened and closed in sixty days,” explains Samuels. “A lot of the distilling families distinguished themselves by their incompetence in everything else. And y grandfather was no exception to that.”
When he agreed to return to the whiskey business he vowed that this time it would be on his own terms, He would not focus on quantity, he was going to focus on quality within the laws of making bourbon he was going to approach the venture not as a traditional business man, but as a craftsman.
He was going to make “hand made bourbon with a refined full flavor taste profile.”
“They purchased a 650-acre site called Rolling Hills, a site they saw as a magical site to make their dreams come true; on that site there is a 14-acre natural spring lake. It’s an exclusive water source. Today we believe that Makers Mark is the only distillery in American in US that utilizes water from a natural source,” says Samuels.
Maker’s Mark has come a long way and after many generations its really amazing to see that the person in charge of guarding the family Brand is someone who is equally passionate and devoted to the venture his family began decades back.
According to Samuels, every step of the process of making Maker’s Mark was designed to impact the taste in a very specific way. And that’s the greatest accomplishment. Here we are 60 years later and the bourbon this company makes today is made exactly the same way that it was made in the beginning.
"We had a period in the early days during the sixties and seventies where Maker’s was only a Kentucky brand. We were only celebrated and beloved by Kentuckians. Till this day if you come down and eat and drink with the locals, it is Maker’s they’re drinking.,” says Samuels with pride.
As time passed things began to change and so did the supply and demand for this particular whiskey. There were an increasing number of consumers that were interested in quality over quality.
“Every year we sell every drop we make, and every drop of water comes from our original natural spring lake,” states Samuels. “We produce nineteen barrels per batch while the industry average is 250 barrels per batch.”
What does this mean? To the consmer, this means that time, dedication and passion are spent on this whiskey and that real people not machines are carefully supervising the making process to insure its unique taste. Every other distillery in America uses pressure cooks but so fast and efficient but so fast and efficient that it can shock the grain an ultimately impact the taste.
“At Maker’s Mark we use the roller mill to grind the grain. In one two distilleries so that allows us to get to the starches without scorching he grain. Every other distillery in the world uses steel on steel, which are fast an efficient. However it generates heat, which scorches some of the grain.” Samuels says proudly.
Technology has advanced beyond expectations to the point where there is actually someone in a room somewhere in a distillery pushing buttons on a computer making whiskey, Maker’s Mark doesn’t work that way, they prefer the traditional way.
“We have real people who use their senses to guide each step of the way of the process. There’s a tasting panel made of 15 individuals that are in charge of tasting the 19 barrels multiple times," he explains.
What has kept Maker’s Mark alive so long? Samiels will atest that it was the taste and his familie’s determination to make it taste amazing.
They – his family- broke all the long held beliefs and rules and made it possible to make a bourbon and great taste together. Maker’s Mark was created for people who didn’t like bourbon, who didn’t like whiskey. Cause people that like that abrasive traditional whiskey weren’t going to like the softer, full-flavored balanced bourbon that we were creating.”
Maker’s is the only 90 proof whiskeys that I know of that you can hold it on your tongue and its not aggressive.,” he adds.
Even now the consumers who fall in love with Maker’s Mark aren’t traditional whiskey drinkers Premium beer drinkers, premium jinn and wine drinkers that enjoy it.
In keeping with their tradition of excellence, Samuel’s grandparents made it a mission to create a name and design bottle that would reflect the evidence of the hand made bourbon.
Samuels' grandmother belonged was a passionate collector of English pouter and noticed that craftsmen always used it to make a distinct mark, and the mark was always made by hand. Since her husband was a ‘craftsman’ that had gone to the greater lengths than any distillery to make his mark. Maker’s mark opted to make each of their bottles with an S for Samuels, the !V stands for the four generations that came before his grandfather, the star is for Star Hill Farms -where it is made-. Each of the three breaks in the circle imprinted on the bottle represent the three instances in the history of America when it’s been illegal to produce and sell spirits. (Prohibition, World War One and the Civil War). Finally, each bottle is sealed by the hand dipping it in red wax.
“We have the most inefficient bottling line in the industry,“ laughs Samuels, "We really do but its all those quirks that make us who we are. This brand really came from the heart and soul of the distiller and his wife. And we’ve jut been the guardians.”
The inefficiency also works towards their benefit since everything about them spells quality, care, and passion.
As recently as 2012 Maker’s Mark had to fight to keep their unique look and brand their own. But early this year, The United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit today upheld a U.S. District Court ruling protecting the registered trademark for Maker’s Mark’s signature dripping red wax seal.
The ruling is a decisive victory for Maker’s Mark (NYSE: BEAM) in a trademark dispute dating to 2003, and upholds an injunction prohibiting Jose Cuervo International, Inc., its affiliates and Cuervo’s United States distributor Diageo North America from the use of a dripping red wax seal on any Cuervo tequila product.
“This decision is a resounding affirmation that our unique dripping red wax seal is a trademark of Maker’s Mark and is off limits to competitors,” said Samuels. “My grandmother dipped the first bottle of Maker’s Mark in red wax, and it’s been our signature trademark ever since.”