Behind the Scenes of Maker's Mark Distillery

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    Louisville, Kentucky

    Whiskey Barrel Wagon at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery
    A wagon full of whiskey barrels sits on the grounds of Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery. Shannon Graham

    To finish off the first National Bourbon Heritage Month in September of 2007, I traveled to the Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey distillery to meet the people and see the operation behind one of my favorite bourbons.

    Maker's Mark is a hand-crafted bourbon distilled in Loretto, Kentucky that portrays the sweet, non-bitter flavor Bill Samuels Sr. was looking for when he reinvented modern bourbon in the 1950's. During my stay I was able to speak with Maker's Mark President, Bill Samuels Jr.,...MORE and then Master Distiller, David Pickerell. Both gentlemen are a wealth of bourbon knowledge, stories and history and a true pleasure to have a conversation with.

    This image gallery is filled with the picturesque scenes of the distillery along with all the details of creating such a distinguished distilled spirit.

    Welcome to Bourbon Country

    Low storm clouds clearing from the sky greeted the morning as we made our way from Louisville to Loretto, where the Maker's Mark Distillery is located. Clay "Beany" Smith has been driving tours for 30 years, now almost exclusively for the distillery, and has to be written in the history books as one of the jolliest, most entertaining drivers in the world. Beany is a friend to everyone he meets and is a long time companion of Bill Samuels Jr. and Fred Noe (of Jim Beam).

    A ride on Beany's bus is an experience, one filled with knowledge, jokes, folk lore and good times.

    As we drive out of the city it's apparent that Louisville is proud of its people, art and, of course, the bourbon that comes out of the hills, or knobs as they're often referred to. Faces of the famous that call Louisville home dot the cityscape with enormous murals; the likes of Muhammad Ali, Diane Sawyer and Colonel Sanders watch over the city while down on the streets reminders of the Kentucky Derby and bourbon industry are everywhere.

    Louisville is proud of its heritage, as is everyone we met there; Kentucky hospitality is at its best in this area.

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    Bourbon Country

    The bar at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery
    The bar in the gift shop at Maker's Mark Distillery is a moody, comfortable lounge with a large, illuminated Marker's Mark bottle on the bar back. Shannon Graham

    Just a few miles out of the city, signs of the best of the bluegrass region become more apparent, it would be difficult to forget where you are. Tourism signs abound pointing out equestrian and bourbon attractions left and right.

    Our road to Maker's Mark is due to be a long one, but it doesn't take long to come across one distillery, then another and another. The first is the home of Jim Beam bourbons.

    The distillery looms in a picturesque valley with industrial authority that cries out "Beam...MORE is here". The distillery of Four Roses hides down a small, windy road canopied with oak and black walnut shortly before we make an approach to Bardstown.

    Beany points out a back road that also leads to Bardstown where you'd be able to find the original homesteads of the Samuels and Beam families. Always neighbors and good friends, these families and many of the other bourbon families are close and have relied on each other throughout generations.

    In Bardstown, we pass the two brick homes, side by side, where the Noe family resides and Beany notes that if "Freddy were in town we'd probably be playing pool upstairs".

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    Bardstown, Kentucky

    Outside a Rick House at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery
    The rick houses at the Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery are used to store barrels of bourbon during the long aging process. Shannon Graham

    Just past The Old Talbott Tavern, an old stagecoach stop in Bardstown, is My Old Kentucky Home, a Georgian-style mansion that was once home to Stephen Foster's uncle, Judge John Rowan. It was at this home that the songwriter wrote the ballad "My Old Kentucky Home", which is now Kentucky's official state song.

    Back out in the country, the rick houses (barrel aging warehouses) of Heaven Hill Distillery loom over the landscape, scattered along the hills like fortresses. The distillery has recovered...MORE nicely from a disastrous fire in 1996 during which the original distillery, five rick houses and even the creek below were ablaze.

    And on we go to Maker's Mark.

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    Arriving at Maker's Mark

    Outside the Still House at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whisky Distillery
    The still house at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery includes a tall tower which accommodates the 5-story continuous column still. Shannon Graham

    Traveling to Maker's Mark is not for the faint of heart. At an hour and a half out of Louisville, there are up and down hills as well as curves to the left then the right where one could easily get lost. The trip is worth every mile as you turn that last corner and are greeted by the dark, gigantic rick houses that overlook the valley, and it's with this sight you know you've successfully navigated the knobs and found Maker's Mark distillery.

    It's inviting, homey and emits a sense of peace...MORE and security. Charcoal brown buildings, each adorned by red shutters with the distinct shape of Maker's Mark bottles cut into the panels, scatter the valley with purpose and prestige.

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    Maker's Mark Heritage Lives

    Design Plans for Maker's Mark Distillery - Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey
    A copy of the original map and design plans of Bill Samuels Sr. for his new Maker's Mark Bourbon Distillery established in 1953. Shannon Graham

    Recently remodeled, the visitors center tells the Samuels' family story, concentrating on the recent generations of Bill Samuels Sr., who created Maker's Mark, and his son, ​Bill Samuels Jr., who ran the facility.

    Family photos, tools of the trade and heirlooms of the family heritage fill the small house and give add to the nuance of the distillery grounds. On the desk of the old office lie copies of Bill Samuels Sr.'s plans for his new distillery, which he bought from the Burke family in 1953.

    Det...MOREails, details, details! For Samuels, his new venture was all about the details and, because he was redefining bourbon, the details needed to be worked out to the finest degree, especially given the fact that he had to wait for aging to know if the new plan was a success or a complete failure.

    A surprise also awaits visitors to the room and I won't give it away completely, but let's just say the family pictures are far beyond those "thousand words" of the old saying; these speak to you in a special way. To find out exactly what I mean you have to visit for yourself.

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    Finding the Right Recipe

    The kitchen in the visitor center at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery.
    The visitor center at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey distillery includes a 1950's style kitchen with samples of grains on the shelves. Shannon Graham

    The tidy kitchen, decked in baby blue with red accents, is straight out of the 1950's. Above the vintage white stove jars of grain lay in wait on the shelf for the next loaf of bread which will not be made in this particular kitchen.

    No, this kitchen is meant to symbolize the hours, days and weeks that Bill Samuels Sr. and his wife, Marge, spent developing their new bourbon. After burning the long-standing family recipe in a grand fashion that almost burned down their home in 1953, it was the...MORE goal of Samuels to create a non-bitter bourbon and, with the help of Marge and fellow distillers, he created what we still drink today in each bottle of Maker's Mark.

    Bill Samuels Jr. does not remember much about this time other than "Mom baked a lot of bread and it was intense". In a kitchen such as this, loaf after loaf went into the oven and came out until the perfect grain recipe was found: corn, red winter wheat and barley.

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    Image Is Everything

    The kitchen in the visitor center at Maker's Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky.
    The kitchen in the visitor center at Maker's Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. Shannon Graham

    On the far wall of the kitchen is a small, inlaid cabinet with a glass paned door behind which sets a collection of pewter. Marge Samuels was a collector of these fine pieces and she new that a quality piece always had a maker's mark on the bottom, thus she wanted to use Maker's Mark as the brand name to show distinction and hand craftsmanship.

    While her husband was perfecting his distilling technique for the family's new bourbon whiskey, Marge was busy developing the bourbon's look. A...MORE thin sketchbook of potential bottle designs outlines her thoughts for the bottle's shape, where she decided to go with a cognac-like figure.

    The cognac influence also led her to the wax seal, which is still a signature of Maker's Mark. She dipped her new bottle in a pot of hot red wax, lifted it and spun it around to create the tendrils that drip down the side. To this day the job is done by hand and no two bottles have the same wax seal.

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    The Oldest Bourbon Distillery

    An antique voting machine used as an example for those voting for the repeal of Prohibition.
    An antique voting machine used as an example for those voting for the repeal of Prohibition sits in Bill Samuels Jr.'s home amongst many other pieces of history. Shannon Graham

    The past is all around as you stroll through the distillery grounds; a wagon filled with whiskey barrels, an old mill stone found over top a Civil War era sword, iron benches on the front porch and the Victorian house on the hill that was home to the Burke's. It was the Burke family who owned this distillery until Prohibition shut them down and ruined the family business.

    David Pickerell, then Maker's Mark Master Distiller, says that it was not Prohibition but Repeal that ruined the bourbon...MORE distillers' chances of competing in the market once the United States went wet. "If the government had given distillers notice a few years before Repeal they would have had time to start back up again and have product ready when Repeal went through," says Pickerell.

    Instead, the necessary aging of bourbon slowed down production once it was legal again and many families did not have the capital to risk, so left the business. The Burkes and their Happy Hollow Distillery were just one of the many that lost the battle.

    Originally opened in 1805, the Maker's Mark Distillery is the oldest, continually operating bourbon distillery and the Samuels family the oldest, continually operating bourbon distillers (aside from no commercial production during Prohibition and shortly after). The two make a perfect match with such a heritage.

    Yet, even with this lineage, it took the Samuels years to recover from a dry market and, as with almost every Kentucky distiller that wanted to get back in the business, it took outside investment to get up and running again.

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    Defining a Region

    Still house and beer well at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery
    The still house at Maker's Mark Distillery houses a 5-story continuous column still and the large beer wells outside are a temporary holding tank for fermented distiller's beer before it goes through the stills. Shannon Graham

    Why is it that this part of Kentucky is filled with bourbon distilleries? Very simply put, because everything they needed was right there, and it was the best of everything. Limestone is a distiller's dream because it filters the iron out and adds calcium to the water of the area.

    Iron in water supplies ruins the final bourbon. To understand its detrimental effects, David Pickerell suggests doing an experiment at home.

    1. Fill a glass with cheap bourbon (you're going to throw it out so don't...MORE use the good stuff) and place an iron nail inside.
    2. After just a few days you'll see the bourbon turning colors, and eventually you'll have a black liquid where your bourbon once was.

    Pickerell also strongly suggests that you do not drink the result of this experiment, no matter how brave you are. It's also this limestone filtering and rich soil that is the right combination for growing bluegrass, which is perfect for the Thoroughbred horses that share bluegrass fame with bourbon.

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    Five Bourbon Necessities

    Whiskey Creek & Distillery - Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey
    Whiskey Creek passes by the distillery building and was created as a diversion channel to prevent flooding at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. Shannon Graham

    Water is important for any distillery and almost every distillery is near a water source (if you notice most brands of alcohol will flaunt their water source); the Kentucky limestone is perfect for creating clean water. Yet there are a few other factors that have influenced this region's bourbon industry. David Pickerell lists five: water, climate, wood, corn and heritage.

    1. The cold-colds and hot-hots of Kentucky's weather are ideal for aging whiskey, as  each season brings different aspects...MORE into the liquor and all are necessary for developing a great, aged alcohol of any sort.
    2. If you're going to age, you need barrels and you need wood to create those barrels. The Bluegrass region is filled with oak trees and is an ideal barrel-making location.
    3. Corn was the original reason that bourbon caught on in this area. After the first homesteading act of the United States that required corn to be grown in this rich-soiled region, the settlers realized they had no way to use all their corn and no practical way to get it to market before it spoiled. The next best thing was to make corn whiskey, a product that not only used all of the corn but could take the long journey to New Orleans, which at the time was the closest feasible port from which to distribute goods.
    4. It has been the heritage that has kept the bourbon business booming in the area. From the time when those of the Whiskey Rebellion resettled here the bourbon has been flowing out of the hills and the people of the region take great pride in this colorful history and will likely never let it die.
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    Definition of Bourbon

    Bill Samuel Jr.'s Bar - Maker's Mark Bourbon Whisky
    A well-stocked home bar at the home of Bill Samuels Jr. of Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey. Shannon Graham

    What defines a bourbon? David Pickerell uses the ABC's to explain the legal definition of bourbon.

    • A- American Made – Bourbon can be distilled anywhere in the United States, but it has to be made in this country alone. It just so happens that almost every bourbon is distilled in Kentucky.
    • B- Barrel – Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
    • C- Corn – All bourbon must be distilled from at least 51% corn. Different distilleries use different recipes, some more corn, some add rye, barley,...MORE wheat and other grains, but all are required to use at least 51% corn.
    • D- Distilled Proof – When bourbon leaves the still for the last time, just before barreling, it cannot exceed 160 proof.
    • E- Entry Proof – Bourbon needs to be no more than 125 proof when it's put inside the barrel. If a distiller produces a higher proof out of the still they will cut it with water until it reaches 125 proof.
    • F- Filling Proof – This is your bottling proof and all bourbons must be at least 80 proof although many will exceed this requirement and it's common to find bourbon whiskeys anywhere between 90-127 proof.
    • G- Genuine – Unlike many other distilled spirits, bourbon cannot have any artificial colorings or additives added to it anywhere in the process. This also includes natural coloring agents like caramel, which is often used in other types of whiskey.

    Bourbon Aging Requirements

    Notice that Pickerell's definition of bourbon doesn't include any aging requirements. Even though there is no minimum, it's a common preconception that bourbon must be barreled for at least two years.

    Pickerell has dispelled this theory, even amongst fellow distillers, by creating a dummy brand of whiskey he dubbed White Dog. Made just like Maker's Mark, Pickerell barreled his fake label, rolled it down the barreling line and emptied it. Technically White Dog is bourbon, even though the clear spirit spent less than a day inside a barrel.

    There are labeling standards for bourbon, however. At two years the label can use the state's name in which it was distilled and be called straight, e.g. Kentucky Straight Bourbon. After four years of aging the label does not need to have the state's name imprinted on it.

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    Start Off Right

    Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery
    Inside the front steps of the distillery house at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distilery. Shannon Graham

    Every great product starts with quality ingredients and Maker's Mark pride themselves on the grains they distill from.

    Each of the grains are tested, overseen and handpicked by the distillery to ensure they're starting with the best. The farmers who produce the grain are screened to ensure they are not using genetically modified seed, have any genetically modified varieties growing nearby that could cross bread or overuse pesticides and other practices that can taint the grain.

    The distillers will...MORE also handpick fields from a contracted farmer that they want to use even before the harvest. The corn for Maker's Mark is grown in Indiana and Kentucky and is inspected visually as well as for moisture (more than 14% water and it's rejected).

    The grain recipe for Maker's Mark is 70% corn, 16% red winter wheat and 14% malted barley, but they're not concerned about anyone duplicating their product because it's the entire process that makes this bourbon special.

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    Bourbon Grains

    Bill Samuel's Jr.'s Bar - Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey
    One of the bars at the home of Bill Samuel's Jr. of Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey. Shannon Graham

    Before the grains can be cooked, they need to be milled and, prior to the widespread use of electricity, every distillery used water to operate their mills, which is another reason why you'll find a creek, stream or river near every distillery you visit.

    Running through Maker's Mark distillery is a small waterway that is reverently called Whiskey Creek. However, this is not the water source; it is only a channel built by the Samuels family to divert any floodwater that comes their way.

    The...MORE grinding technique at Maker's Mark is another diversion from standard operating procedure among distilleries. When the hammer press was invented distillers were drawn to the efficient device that literally hammered the grain to a fine powder. That didn't do it for Maker's Mark and Bill Samuels Jr. says it was a tough decision during which they consulted local bakeries.

    The bakeries denounced the new grinding technique because it added too much heat to the grain and that was one thing the Samuels had been avoiding at all costs. Instead of being super efficient, Maker's Mark decided to stick with the roller mill press which creates a ground grain of the perfect consistency and allows the sweet flavors of the wheat to shine through.

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    Cooking the Grains

    Wood fermentation tanks at the Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery.
    Wood fermentation tanks at the Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery. Shannon Graham

    Red winter wheat is Maker's Mark "secret" ingredient. It's really no secret but it makes the difference in their recipe.

    This grain is hardy and very heavy. If you were to hold two jars of the same volume, one containing red winter wheat and the other barley, the wheat jar would be significantly heavier.

    This particular variety of wheat adds the soft, sweet flavor that is a signature of this bourbon, but it also makes the cooking process more challenging. The majority of the time whiskey...MORE distillers will pressure-cook the grain before fermenting because it's easy and economical but wheat cannot be cooked under pressure. Instead, it needs to be handled gently.

    Bill Samuels Sr. realized this and had to work out the process of cooking his choice of grains.

    • Corn is added to a soup stock of clean limestone-filtered water and leftover distillers beer in large white cooking tanks and is heated up to no more than 212 degrees.
    • A cooling process is started after that and once the brew reaches 160 degrees the red winter wheat is added.
    • As the cooling continues the final grain, barley, is added and the mix is allowed to cool naturally overnight.
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    The Fermentation Room

    Fermentation tank at the Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery.
    Fermentation tank at the Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery. Shannon Graham

    After the mash is cooked and cooled yeast is added and it pours into large fermentation tanks.

    This is no ordinary yeast; it is the one element that lives on in the Samuels family bourbon from before the time Bill Samuels Sr. burned the original family recipe. Bill Samuels Jr. says that the particular yeast strain dates back to sometime around the Civil War. Back in those times, many distillers fermented their bourbon outside and the natural elements of the area added flavors and aided the...MORE reaction of the yeast, which is creating distillers beer during this stage.

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    Where the Yeast Is Busy

    Fermentation tank at the Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery.
    Fermentation tank at the Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery. Shannon Graham

    The large rooms of the distillery which hold the wood fermentation tanks, some of which are over 100 years old, are bright, airy and very warm with the inviting smell of very sweet, heavy beer.

    The cracks and pops of the fermenting brews are faint as the yeast works its magic on the soup stock. Rising and falling, fermentation is much like creating bread dough, except in this case it would not make good bread because it is allowed to fall too often. As the adult yeast grows, new yeast cells are...MORE created. Each tank is a living, breathing vat of liquid that already hints at the flavors of Maker's Mark.

    Inside these tanks, the mixture is amazingly warm as gasses escape and the fermentation process completes. Even at this stage (and every stage) the distillers use what David Pickerell refers to as sensory evaluation: touching, tasting, observing the soon-to-be bourbon to ensure everything is going according to plan. It is this literal hands-on approach that makes this particular brand of bourbon truly handmade and the reason every batch tastes perfect.

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    Distillers Beer

    Distiller's beer pours into the beer wells at Maker's Mark Distillery.
    Distiller's beer pours into the beer wells at Maker's Mark Distillery. Shannon Graham

    Behind the distillery, more large tanks are waiting empty in the drizzly air of the day. These tanks have no special purpose other than to hold the distillers beer from the time it has completely fermented and removed from the tanks until a still is available.

    Just like all good distillers, Maker's Mark distills only the heart of the brew so the temporary outdoor storage has no effect on the final product. So, it's off to the stills.

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    Double Distillation

    Copper pot stills at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whisky Distillery
    Copper pot stills at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whisky Distillery. Shannon Graham

    The stillroom is always the best place of a distillery for the simple fact that there is usually so much shiny copper and this is where that thick distillers beer is transformed into what some may call white lightning. Maker's Mark does not discriminate against either type of still and employs both a continuous column still and a more traditional copper pot still.

    The double distillation begins in the five-story column still that houses 16 plates for the liquor to drop down, down and down, until...MORE it reaches the bottom. The now-clear alcohol that leaves this still is 120 proof.

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    Copper Pot Stills

    Copper pot stills at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whisky Distillery
    The copper pot stills at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery are the second distilling vessel for the bourbon. Shannon Graham

    After leaving the column still, the center part of the alcohol is taken out and poured into one of four copper pot stills. This second distillation will remove any remaining impurities from the liquor while leaving many of the desired flavors that the distillers try so hard to maintain throughout the process.

    A small taste (not even a sip) of what could be called moonshine reveals a hot, burning alcohol, but the characteristics of the brand are still there. It is amazing how throughout the...MORE process you can taste the flavors of Maker's Mark, even in this unaged, clear 130 proof liquor.

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    Preparing for the Barrel

    Empty bourbon barrels waiting to be filled at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery.
    Empty bourbon barrels waiting to be filled at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery. Shannon Graham

    At this stage, one may think the virgin bourbon is ready to go into the barrel, but this is not so.

    Before the now-130 proof alcohol is barreled, it is filtered in large, steel tanks and reduced, or cut, to 110 proof. Only then is the liquor poured into the custom-made oak barrels.

    The room was quiet at the time because of lunch breaks so the ominous pounding customary to a barreling room was noticeably absent, a disappointment for me because it's a sound I've come to look forward to on...MORE each distillery tour. However, it was explained that the gentleman whose job it is to seal each barrel is quite an artful master who normally makes three precise swings with a metal-headed hammer to secure the walnut bungs into the perfectly sealed holes.

    The enclosed barrels are now ready to wait out the years in one of the distillery's many rick houses.

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    The Importance of a Barrel

    A cut bourbon whiskey barrel is used to demonstrate the charring inside at Maker's Mark Distillery.
    A cut bourbon whiskey barrel is used to demonstrate the charring inside at Maker's Mark Distillery. Shannon Graham

    The two elements that concern, and need to be maintained, in the distillation process in order to ensure consistency and quality are grain character and wood character.

    Now in the barrel, the clear distilled spirit will pick up it's final flavors over the years inside barrels that meet the distillery's strict standards. Outside the barreling room stand the lonely rejects, those barrels that have the slightest imperfections and have not made the grade to be deemed worthy of holding the bourbon.

    Davi...MOREd Pudlo, Bourbon Specialist, points out one imperfection after another: this one has sapling wood in it, this a knot and that one has a compromised seam. Coopers, or barrel makers, work in a difficult, perfectionist trade and even if a barrel can pass the test to hold a liquid without leaking, many are returned for repair because of the slightest abnormality.

    It is understandable, however, because these barrels need to be able to hold their precious cargo for years and a leak of any kind is unacceptable. On average Maker's Mark rejects 10-25 barrels per load.

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    The Barrel's Construction

    Aging whiskey barrels at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery.
    Aging whiskey barrels at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery. Shannon Graham

    Maker's Mark seems a little finicky when it comes to making their bourbon, but this is what makes it what it is. The barrels are no exception and require one extra step from the cooper in Lebanon, Kentucky.

    Before a barrel is constructed each of the staves, or wood planks, are aged outside for 9 months. This extra step helps prevents tannins from tainting the bourbon as it ages and those tannins cause a bourbon to go bitter. So it's only logical that if your goal is to create a non-bitter...MORE bourbon you will take this extra step to ensure tannins are not added anywhere in the process, especially when you're so close to being done.

    Once the new oak barrels are constructed they are charred for 40 seconds to create an inner layer that creates the perfect caramelizing core for the bourbon to seep in and out of throughout the coming years.

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    Rotation Is Key

    This model is designed to show visitors the theory Maker's Mark uses to rotate their barrels.
    This model is designed to show visitors the theory Maker's Mark uses to rotate their barrels while aging. Shannon Graham

    Rows of barrels are carefully placed on their sides in one of the three-story rick houses to wait out the days, months and years, but they are not left alone. After approximately 3 summers in the barrel, the aging whiskey is tested and rotated to another area of the large buildings.

    A quick climb up the stairs reveals the reason this is so important. The top of the rick house is filled with a sweet, soft aroma, similar to sugar cookies right out of the oven, and the air is dry and warm. As you...MORE descend, the air becomes damp and loses some of those inviting scents, until you reach the lowest level where the humidity is nearly overwhelming.

    If a barrel were to stay on one of these three levels for the entire aging process each barrel would be completely different, or at least similar to those on that same level. It's the rotation that ensures consistency throughout the years and Maker's Mark has a well-defined order of rotation for every one of its barrels.

    Prime real estate is on the center floor where there is a happy medium of humidity and temperature. This is often where specialty bourbons like Booker's (Jim Beam Small Batch brand) are selected. Since Maker's Mark prides itself on producing only one bourbon*, they have developed this rotation strategy to ensure consistency amongst all barrels.

    *Note: Maker's Mark did finally release a second bourbon, Maker's 46, in 2010.

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    How Old Is Maker's Mark?

    Rick house at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery
    Outside a barrel storage warehouse, or rick house, at Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey Distillery. Shannon Graham

    If you look at the Maker's Mark label you will see something missing: an aging date. So how many years does this bourbon stay in the barrel?

    David Pickerell's answer is "until it is fully matured". That is not very helpful to those who want to know all the facts about what they are drinking but it's a testament to the handmade process at Maker's Mark. Barrels are usually aged for 5 years and 9 months at which time they are "considered eligible" and tested for taste....MORE Some bourbon is ready at this point, but some is left to wait a little longer.

    Maker's Mark has a panel of regular tasters whose job it is to sit down with a few small glasses of bourbon and determine whether it is ready to be bottled. Once it is decided that 150 barrels from the six warehouses meet the flavor standards, they are ready for bottling.

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    On to Bottling

    Bottles of Maker's Mark are being filled with bourbon at the Loretto, Kentucky distillery.
    Bottles of Maker's Mark are being filled with bourbon at the Loretto, Kentucky distillery. Shannon Graham

    For all the nuance and heritage surrounding the distilling process up to this point, the bottling is as modern as could be.

    Inside this building - that from the outside looks likes every other - the fluorescent lights are bright and the machines are moving at a fast pace. This is the first sign of modern production in the entire distillery. Empty bottles are sent down the line in smooth progression and at a rapid pace. The now-perfect, caramel-colored spirit is poured inside each cognac-shaped...MORE piece of clear glass one by ​one, and sent down the line.

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    On With the Labels

    Bottles of Maker's Mark on the assembly line after filling.
    Bottles of Maker's Mark on the assembly line after filling, they will be labeled, capped and dipped in red wax next. Shannon Graham

    The labels, which retain the original design of Marge Samuels' first bottle, are applied to the filled bottles on the assembly line.

    According to Bill Samuels Jr., his mother came to the family's dinner table one evening with the bottle she designed to show his father. Her first hand-torn label was adorned with Mrs. Samuels' own handwriting and is still the typeset used today.

    The label gives the bottles a look of distinction and continues to convey the feeling of a homemade product even though...MORE the process has been modernized.

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    And a Little Wax Seal?

    Each bottle of Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey is dipped in a wax seal.
    Each bottle of Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey is hand-dipped in the signature red wax. Shannon Graham

    Have you ever placed two bottles of Maker's Mark side by side? Have you noticed that the wax seal is never the same? This is because, to this day, an actual person dips each bottle that reaches the shelf in hot red wax.

    It's a tedious job, one that takes a little practice to get just right (okay, a lot of practice) and to ensure that none of the workers on the assembly line becomes worn out by one job they rotate positions every 30 minutes.

    The process of dipping seems simple, but after my attempt...MORE in the gift shop at dipping my own bottle and nearly submerging the entire thing, I have a ton of respect for these women who make a living at this and put the finishing touch on each Maker's Mark bottle.

    Bottles are dipped upside down for 4 seconds in the red cauldron and brought up to the side before they are quickly spun around a few times to create the trademark tendrils of wax that drip down the sides. It's amazingly quick work. and even as the conveyor belt continues on its way, not one bottle is missed between the four dippers.

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    Ready for the Shelves

    Packaging Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey
    Bottles of Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey reach the end of the bottling line and are packaged in cases and sent out for distribution. Shannon Graham

    After dipping, the bottles continue down the line and through a short box, where fans quickly cool the wax. Although the wax is still warm and it's not recommended to touch the bottle with bare hands, this stops the wax from dripping further and it is cool enough that the bottles can be added to the empty cases that will be sealed and sent around the country.

    Because Maker's Mark is handmade in small batches, they do not have the large international market of their competition, but that...MORE doesn't seem to bother anyone. Bill Samuels Jr. says he likes it this way and if they were to step up production to meet global demand the integrity of the brand would be lost. Sometimes small is better.

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    The Master Dipper

    Mary Thompson sealing limited edition bottles in red wax at Maker's Mark Bourbon Distillery
    Mary Thompson of Maker's Mark Distillery seals a special edition bottle by dipping it in the signature red wax. Shannon Graham

    If you've been around the drinking world for a while you may have seen some Maker's Mark special promotions. Sure, the advertising is outstandingly creative but it's the wax-dipped novelties that are too much fun.

    Mary Thompson is in charge of specialty dipping and it's said she has and will dip almost anything. From baseball gloves to chalkboards, almost no object is beyond Thompson's dipping ability. The day we arrived she had two larger sized gourds that were waiting for her red wax...MORE treatment. She is what you might call the Master Dipper.

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    Giving to the Community

    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. Shannon Graham

    Charity is important to Maker's Mark and the Samuels family. It was a requirement of Bill Samuels Sr. had of his son when he took over the family business: "You're going to get involved, but don't do anything you don't want to run."

    Bill Samuels Jr. takes that to heart, as does his son who is currently in marketing for the company, and has raised millions of dollars over the years for various organizations. These fundraisers usually involve a specially designed label on limited edition...MORE collector's bottles which commemorate some event: a university basketball championship, the Kentucky Derby winner, the Republican National Convention, etc.

    Bourbon enthusiasts and Maker's Mark fans are more than willing to spend a little extra for one of these special bottles to help out a good cause. Samuels says everyone wins and it benefits the community.

    About Bill Samuels Jr.:

    • Scholar, Master Distiller and President of Maker's Mark bourbon whiskey
    • 7th generation bourbon distiller
    • Studied rocket science and solid propellants at Case Western Reserve University and UC Berkley
    • Studied law at Vanderbilt University
    • Almost 40 years working at Maker's Mark

    Read an interview with Bill Samuels Jr. about Maker's Mark, his family heritage and National Bourbon Heritage Month

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    How About an Empty?

    Empty bottles of Maker's Mark bourbon whiskey are a limited edition.
    These limited edition bottles are empty aside from a label signed by Bill Samuels Jr. Shannon Graham

    Bill Samuels Jr.'s favorite charity bottle, and one that Mary Thompson was dipping that day, did not contain one drop of bourbon. Years ago when an organization asked for a fundraising bottle, Samuels had no bourbon to spare and no time to bottle any. So he stuck a hand-signed label inside the unmarked, unfilled bottle, capped it and sealed it in wax. It was a hit and they ended up raising the same amount of money, if not more, as they would had there been any bourbon inside.

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    See the History for Yourself

    Bottle of 10 Downing Street Bourbon - Maker's Mark Bourbon Whiskey
    A Bottle of 10 Downing Street Bourbon Whiskey in front of a family portrait at Maker's Mark President Bill Samuels Jr.'s home near Louisville, Kentucky. Shannon Graham

    As a stop on the American Whiskey Trail, Maker's Mark Distillery is open to the public for tours year-round. It's a picturesque stop on a journey through Kentucky that any bourbon enthusiast is sure to enjoy. Visit the Maker's Mark website for all the details about your visit.