“I got the opportunity to go to Berkeley to work on the Polaris missile. My career ended when I blew up the missile and it went through the roof of the executive office. My route into bourbon was not through planned desire, but accidental failure. Called up mom, a little bit humbled, and asked if I could still get a job.”
It’s tales like these that make Bill Samuels Jr, son of Maker’s Mark founder Bill Samuels Sr and Marge Samuels, so likeable. His style – sharp, with presence, and well-rounded – fits perfectly with the bourbon that his parents created, and he helped see through to success throughout the second half of the 20th century.
I meet Bill at the Jim Beam Crafthouse pop-up at the OXO Tower in London. We only briefly shake hands but I feel privileged to do so, having missed him during my trek out to the distillery as part of a personal pilgrimage to take in all things Kentucky bourbon last autumn.
The ‘junior’ Samuels is now retired, having been a part of the family business from that moment he blew up a rather important Cold War weapon until a couple of years ago. He takes on a tour of duty from time to time, recalling his times with the distillery and brand.
And he’s full of good quips. According to Bill Jr, bourbon was on a serious decline when his father decided that if he did one thing before he died, it would be to make a good bourbon.
“In the 1950s, no one in their right mind would go into bourbon because they were on decline. We had 400 distilleries after Prohibition and one was closing every week and a half.”
But he was in good company. His and the Beam family had been close friends and neighbours for decades by that point, so Bill Sr gathered a group of local distillery kings – Pappy Van Winkle, Jack Daniel’s great nephew Jerry and Ed Shapiro (founder of Heaven Hill) – into his kitchen to help find the right recipe. The Beams shared yeast and experience, they all taste tested the product. It was, apparently, not very good at first.
He stuck with it though, focused on making a bourbon that would be softer, and hit the front of the palate, since he had an extremely adverse reaction to bitterness.
It would be more than 20 years, however, until success would hit. With the downturn in bourbon, the thing that made Maker’s stand-out was the bottle design with its famous red wax seal, created over a few weeks by Marge Samuels (recently inducted as the first woman into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame) in their kitchen.
It was a chance visit by a Wall Street Journal reporter that changed their fates for good, as Bill Jr explains.
“That Wall Street Journal writer did a piece on the April 1, 1980. That was the day everything changed. Suddenly people were interested. We had top restauranteurs and bars calling us up. The only problem was we had no whiskey. That was when my career as a marketer, or a professional bullshitter, kicked off. I kept the plates spinning for 6.5 years, telling them every couple of months that the bourbon was coming. And they hung on, they stuck with us.”
It was also a turning point for the general bourbon industry, according to Bill Jr.
“Every distillery did the same thing: they took their accountants and killed them. The industry went back to the people who knew how to make whiskey and it became great again. And that’s key: it can can’t be a fad as it spreads beyond the shores of the US, it’s got to have quality.”
It is an important part of not just Maker’s’ goals but the rest of the bourbon world, which is slowly pushing itself outside of its boundaries and onto the world stage. While it’s massively popular in the United States, it’s still got a long way to go globally. And there are many misconceptions about it. For instance, people I speak to often believe that bourbon must be made in Kentucky. It can actually be made anywhere in the US, but over 90% just happens to be made in that state.
I learned all of this during my trip out last October, many stories from which I will be covering over the next few months on this site.
But let me start, since it’s rather apt, with Maker’s Mark.
Bill (Sr) and Marge Samuels bought the plant for Maker’s back in 1953 for the princely sum of $35,000. Located in Loretto, Kentucky, the distillery is set back on a beautiful, well tended bit of land, surrounded by swaying trees that were just hitting their autumn blush during my visit.
There I met with Victoria MacRae-Samuels (no relation), VP of Operations at Maker’s, who told me about the distillery’s history and her own (more on her coming up in the next issue of Whisky Magazine so look out for that).
According to Victoria, the goal of Bill (Sr) and Marge was to create a sippable bourbon that was forward focused on the palate. They achieved this by using a slightly different mash bill, which includes corn, soft winter wheat and barley, but no rye.
We explored this process during a wander around the distillery, which is dressed wonderfully in dark wooden attire, and which attracts thousands of tourists each year.
To start, we visited the roller mill which grinds down the grains. These are then ‘cooked’ (a slightly different process than in single malt Scotch, whereby the grains are cooked to release their sugars) in the mash cooker, which is filled first with lake water, set-back (the remnants of the last fermentation) and corn. A second water follows with the soft winter wheat, before the third round adds in the barley. The process takes around 3.5 hours.
In the next room there are eight open-topped fermenters, original to the property, and another set of stainless steel ones. The mash is added to these, along with Maker’s uses own strain of yeast – the Samuels strain – and left for a long three days. Because they’re open-topped, this was the first time I ever had the chance to reach into a fermenter while it was full – the soggy, oily corn was like grits, and it smelled sweet and appealing, though was not so easy to get off of my hands.
From the fermenters, the wash goes through the first still and comes off at 120 proof (60% ABV). It is then put through a doubler (or, a little pot still) and take it to 130 proof.
The distillery expanded in the late 1990s but as Victoria remarked: “When we expanded we built a mirror distillery, rather than going up in size with the equipment. It doesn’t make sense from an efficiency stand point but does from a quality standpoint.”
Once distillate comes off it goes into the barrels at a fairly low 110 proof (55%). “It means we’re ageing a lot more water in our barrels and again it’s not efficient,” said Victoria.
Each barrel is hand-rotated, and all stay on the top levels for the first three summers, meaning they’ll get a higher exposure to the temperature swings in Kentucky’s seasons, and get more out of the barrel.
The company had three warehouses when I visited with plans to expand that to four at that time. These are all local since, according to Victoria: “They’re kept in the same county because the taxes then go to the county, into the school system etc, so it goes back to the community we live in.”
Maker’s does not have an age-statement but will be matured for around six years generally. For a long time, it only had a very limited release of its classic Maker’s, which I found to smell of raisins and vanilla, and taste of rich cherries, oak spice and raisins on the palate.
But, as Bill Jr explained at the Crafthouse event, he wanted to make his own mark on the brand and create a legacy before retiring. That is where Maker’s 46 fits into the line-up: matured in the regular casks for the same time period, around 150 barrels are then dumped and re-casked into barrels that have French oak staves inserted into them for a further nine week maturation. During our tasting after the tour, Victoria noted that it was a bit like: “Maker’s on steroids. Lingers a little bit longer. And it has seen a tremendous audience in women.” I found it to be more forward on the palate, spicy in a nutmeg way and more floral on the nose than the regular offering.
There is also Maker’s cask strength, which I really like. With its vanilla, red berry and slightly fruit forward nose and a nice dash of chocolate notes on the palate, it’s very moreish.
One thing I did ask was why they hadn’t released any older variants, like many of their competitors had. I learned quite quickly the reason, when Victoria handed me a sample of Maker’s aged for around 10-12 years. To put it lightly: it’s fairly awful. There’s more red fruit on the nose but something like butyric acid laying underneath and the palate tasted like sweaty feet and off cheese.
“That’s why older is not necessarily always better. Especially for Maker’s. It does not age gracefully. That’s just the nature of the beast,” she summed up.
After the casks are emptied, Maker’s goes to the bottling line, where empty bottles are first rinsed with matured Maker’s, before being filled and hand-dipped with the famous red wax. Employees can do about 23 of those lovely bottles a minute (!) and it was a sight to see.
As a note: the labels are also punched out and arranged by hand. It’s all very quaint, despite the brand’s growing size.
My time at Maker’s gave me my first taste for bourbon. For a long time, I’d gone by the statement that I wasn’t a massive fan of this style of whiskey. But, my trip to Kentucky changed that for good, as I’ll highlight in the coming pieces on the region. I hope it encourages you, too, to try a bourbon (or two) and understand more what this great industry is all about.
For more information about Maker’s Mark, visit: https://www.makersmark.com