An Interview with Bill Samuels Jr., President of Maker's Mark Bourbon

The Legend Goes On

Collectors Bottles of Maker's Mark - Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey
Bill Samuels Jr. shows off his collection of specially labeled Maker's Mark bottles. Photo Credit: © Shannon Graham

When one speaks of bourbon whiskey and the history of “America’s Native Spirit,” the Samuels family is almost always included. Rightfully so, as the Samuels claim the title of the longest running distilling family, now on the 7th generation with the 8th having joined the family business. When, in September of 2007, the occasion of the first National Bourbon Heritage Month came along I had the opportunity to speak with number seven in the lineage, Bill Samuels Jr., about his family’s whiskey (now Maker’s Mark), the historical significance of bourbon and, as Samuels puts it, why “The legend goes on.”

The Legend Goes On:
Bill Samuels Jr. grew up in the whiskey business. During his lifetime he has been surrounded by, not only his own distilling family, but members of the other big bourbon makers. The Beam family lived next door to the Samuels’ for years, Jim Beam himself is Samuels’ godfather, and to this day Samuels keeps every premium bourbon in stock in his home bar because you never know who will stop by and he likes to offer his fellow distillers their own whiskey during their visit.

The Samuels family has been distilling whiskey since 1783, when Robert Samuels began producing whiskey for his personal use and close friends. In 1840 T.W. Samuels built the first commercial distillery at Samuels Depot in Kentucky and, after Prohibition and a 10 year stint between distilleries in the 1940’s (the only 2 times in the family lineage that the Samuels did not produce whiskey, although some say Prohibition didn’t stop Samuels and Beam from keeping a personal supply ready), Bill Samuels Sr.

burned the family recipe, started from scratch and made the bold move of transforming what was known as bourbon whiskey.

Samuels can remember the day his father, Bill Sr., recorded the deed to the new distillery in 1953, now known as the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. Three summers (beginning at 13) of Bill Jr.’s childhood were spent working at the distillery and, after law school and exploring other lines of work, he said he would spend one year at the distillery.

Thanks to some encouragement from Jack Daniel’s great nephew, Bill Jr. has turned that year into nearly forty. When Bill Jr. took over the company as President his father had two rules for him. One, “don’t screw up the distillery,” referring to a little accident Bill Jr. had when a senior design engineer involving a rocket and an office building. And two, “find customers." Heeding his father’s warnings, Bill Jr. has safely carried on the family tradition and led Maker’s Mark to the top of the premium bourbon market.

Making the Mark:
”Somebody had to be stupid enough to think that if you produce a bourbon with a smooth character, that you could create something that would be special.” - Bill Samuels Jr.

If you knew what “old bourbon” tasted like in comparison to most produced from the 1980’s until today than you can appreciate what Bill Samuels Sr. had in mind when he burned (literally) the family’s bourbon recipe. What Bill Sr. wanted to do was not the best marketing strategy of the time; in fact, most marketing professionals would have cringed at such a bold move, thinking it disastrous.

Essentially, Samuels wanted to take the bitterness out of his new bourbon. Bill Jr. says that, at the time “nobody wanted a better tasting bourbon.” But with the help of other distillers who thought Bill Sr.’s new endeavor a hobby and nothing that would make it commercially, the new Samuels’ bourbon was created. Maker’s Mark was an appropriate name for the benchmark-setting whiskey and led to the other distilleries following suit, with non-bitter bourbon in the later part of the 20th Century. Collectively the bourbon industry of Kentucky, spurred by the Samuels family, buried the idea that bourbon is a “rough, old product.”

The men of the Samuels family were not the only ones to play a significant role in the family’s bourbon production. Bill Jr. remembers the day his mother, Marge Samuels, brought a bottle to the family dinner table to show her husband her hand-designed bottle for his new bourbon. As far as Bill Jr. can recall, Marge was the first American woman to fully design a bottle, the very design still used by Maker’s Mark. Her inspiration was her love for collecting fine pewter and cognac bottles. When searching for pewter she always sought out “the mark of the maker,” a trait that distinguished the finest pieces and the name Maker’s Mark seemed appropriate to her for her husband’s new spirit. Marge also thought the bottles should be sealed in wax, as is the custom for cognac bottles, a point sorely disputed by her husband because of the labor involved in hand dipping each bottle. The red wax tops that adorn bars today prove that she won and, despite advances in technology that surely could have done the job, each bottle is still dipped by hand. Mrs. Samuels also designed the bottle’s shape and the hand torn label that still bares her handwriting. In 1958 the first bottle of Maker’s Mark was sold for a hefty sum of $7.

The tradition, as set forth by the previous generation, continues to this day. Bill Samuels Jr. honors the way his father established the brand. He describes Maker’s Mark as a bourbon with “big flavor that finishes to the front of the tongue,” that is soft and sweet with vanilla. “It’s one bourbon that you can hold on your tongue and experience,” says Samuels. When asked why his distillery does not offer special bottlings of their whiskey like many others do, he emphatically states that “it’s bottled at one proof, the right proof.” He sees no need to find new marketing opportunities with the release of this collection or that one every few years. Instead, he says that they prefer to concentrate on the original and that it is not necessary with a front-finishing bourbon because it’s already “the way it should be.” Besides, the demand for Maker’s Mark in the United States alone outweighs the supply, a reason why the company has not had an international presence. Samuels prefers his bourbon the way his father made it, and why should you mess with such a good thing.

Drinking Maker's Mark and National Bourbon Heritage Month >>

Drinking Maker’s Mark:
So you may wonder, how does someone with such a long lineage of bourbon distillers in his family prefer to drink the family’s product? Bill Samuels Jr. has three preferred drinks. The first to be mentioned by any good bourbon man from the Loiusville area is the “hometown” cocktail, the Old-fashioned, and a Maker’s Mark and water is another favorite. But it was Samuel’s version of the Manhattan that stood out the most.

He calls it a “salute to the Old-fashioned” and starts with an 8:1 mix of Maker’s Mark and sweet vermouth. However, Samuels finds that the customary dash of bitters does not mix with the delicate flavor of his bourbon and, instead, he prefers a cherry juice.

The same advice is given when mixing Maker’s Mark with anything. Samuels suggests that, since Maker’s Mark is bottled at 90 proof, a true appreciation of the bourbon is found when diluting it slightly, just to the point of reaching 70-75 proof. If you’re accustomed to highly diluted whiskey drinks, take the ratio down when mixing Maker’s Mark. Being sensitive to the balance of the more delicate bourbon will create a better drinking experience. Sound advice from a man who knows bourbon, not only the one he produces.

Maker's Mark Cocktails:

Also try this fantastic spiked fudge recipe- Forget Me Not Fudge

National Bourbon Heritage Month:
Bill Samuels Jr. sees the 2007 designation of September as National Bourbon Heritage Month as “recognition of the craft and heritage for the United States’ first distilled spirit.” It’s a well-deserved respect and appreciation for a product that has been an integral factor in generations of the country, especially those in Kentucky.

“On a personal level it legitimizes what we’re doing,” says Samuels. It has been a long road, marked with opposition, especially in a conservative state where many still believe that drinking is a sin. But the bourbon distillers have played a major role in promoting responsibility and moderation, not the party atmospheres of spring breaks and Mardi Gras.

Bourbon enthusiasts, or as Samuels puts it “bourbon crazies,” flock to Kentucky to take in the aura of the whiskey they love so much. Samuels sees the consumer’s appreciation growing more and more and likens it to the popularity boom of Napa Valley wines in the early 1960’s. The recent recognition is not limited to individual bourbon lovers. In 1980 the Maker’s Mark Distillery became the first distillery to be placed on the list of National Historic Landmarks, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized the distillery in 1999 as “The World’s Oldest Operating Bourbon Whiskey Distillery” and 2004 marked the brand’s 50th anniversary with Kentucky designating February 25th as “Maker’s Mark Day.” Also in 2004 the Maker’s Mark Distillery became a stop along the newly formed American Whiskey Trail.

Surely the appreciation for fine bourbon whiskey will not falter and for the Samuels family “the legend goes on.”

Maker's Mark is available throughout the United States and retails for around $30 per 750ml bottle. Visit the Maker's Mark website.