A taste for bourbon

Maker’s Mark prides self
in making bitterless whisky

Prospect resident Samuels Jr. heads company
that his father founded 50-plus years ago

By Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

LEBANON, Ky. (January 2006) – With Jim Beam for a godfather and mentor, Bill Samuels Jr. must have known from an early age that his life would be entwined around the bourbon industry, no matter how hard he fought it. His life has now come full circle, and Samuels is at peace with that.

Jan. 2006 Cover

January 2006
Edition Cover

For Samuels Jr., bourbon is in his blood. He comes from a long line of bourbon makers and proudly carries on the tradition his father fine-tuned into a distinct, marketable taste known as Maker’s Mark.
Samuels, 65, knows his bourbon whisky well. (There’s no “e” in the spelling of whisky at Maker’s Mark). Taste is the main thing, and the quality of Maker’s Mark is recognized worldwide. Were he still alive, Bill Samuels Sr. would be “tickled to death” over the popularity of his bourbon, said Samuels.
“So many fans are just fanatical” over the taste, he said. Traditional bourbon, concocted on the Kentucky frontier by early settlers, had a bitter taste that would “blow their belts off,” said Samuels. But his father changed all of that.
Samuels is a seventh-generation bourbon maker. His ancestor, Capt. Robert Samuels Jr., traveled to Kentucky from Rye Township, Pa., in March 1780. Robert Samuels Jr. decided that in addition to farming he would make enough corn whisky for his own satisfaction and for that of his neighbors.
“Bourbon is the signature industry of Kentucky, with a history dating from the early 1780s when the first settlers of Scotch and Irish descent arrived through Cumberland Gap and down the Ohio River,” said Ed O’Daniel, president of the Kentucky Distillers Association. The association is a trade association organized in 1880 to “represent the interests of the industry with respect to government, trade and public relation matters,” O’Daniel said.
Around 1840, the Samuels family began to make a living from bourbon. Robert’s grandson, T.W. Samuels, built the family’s first commercial distillery. His recipe remained in the family for six generations until Bill Samuels Sr. decided he could do more with bourbon and developed a new recipe.
His goal was to make bourbon that tasted good, said Samuels of his father’s endeavor. He wanted to produce a bourbon for those who didn’t like bourbon and weren’t traditional bourbon drinkers, especially women and young professionals. He brought a degree of sophistication to his brand.
In the early 1950s, Bill Samuels Sr. created bourbon made from locally grown corn, winter wheat and malted barley. He had the foresight to replace the rye with red winter wheat, giving it a much smoother, gentler taste. “Dad was cautious,” said Samuels, but he was also an entrepreneur.
In March 1953, Bill Samuels Sr. bought what is now known Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Ky. The property included the 200-acre Spring Hill Farm, which contained several buildings dating to the early 1800s. Maker’s Mark Distillery sits on 800 acres and contains a deep, cold spring-fed lake. It is this pure limestone spring water that is one of the key ingredients in producing Maker’s Mark bourbon.
Bill Samuels Sr. aged his first experimental batch of bourbon for six summers, from 1953 until it went on the market in fall 1959. During this time, Samuels’ wife, Margie, began experimenting on the overall look of the bottles by dipping the tops in red wax at home and designing a label for the bottles.
There’s no question that between the two of them, bourbon and the bourbon industry was reinvented, said Samuels. “They had a pretty good partnership,” he said.
Samuels joined the family business in 1967 and spent 30 years as president. But he didn’t plan on following in his father’s footsteps. To him, “it looked like a bad idea,” he said.

Maker's Mark employees

Photo by Helen E. McKinney

Maker’s Mark employees work the line
in bottling the finished product
at the distillery in Loretto, Ky.

Samuels attended Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio, graduated from the University of California-Berkeley with a degree in physics, and attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., where he received a law degree. He went from the aerospace industry to a stint as a patent attorney, and spent two summers as a White House intern.
But he did come back to the fold and used his marketing abilities to grow the company. The labor was divided between Samuels and his father, with Samuels taking care of the outside work and his father the inside job of making the whisky and managing the money.
“Distilling Kentucky bourbon has been a tradition for six to eight generations among many early Kentucky families,” said O’Daniel, who is also a former Kentucky state senator representing the part of the state where most of the distilleries are located. “Descendants of several of these families are continuing the trade up to the present.”
During his many speaking engagements throughout the year, Samuels Jr. refers to a 1980 Wall Street Journal article that really put the small distillery on the international map. What began as a simple grist mill in central Kentucky was suddenly thrust into the limelight because of that article, Samuels said.
“The calls really started coming in, and we had to make immediate plans to ramp up our production to meet the demand,” he said.
Today, the company produces about 700,000 cases of whisky a year, all made on the premises. Maker’s Mark uses up to 20 different colors of wax for its bottles. All tours begin and end inside a country store-style gift shop.
Samuel’s wife, Nancy, also descends from a distilling family. Her ancestor, Waddy Boone, has the distinction of being one of Kentucky’s first distillers.
Nancy Samuels said that one important aspect of Maker’s Mark is that the company has always operated as a family business. Together, her husband and his father, “made it work. His dad worked hard and believed in it,” she said. And her husband carried on this tradition, expanding the company worldwide.
O’Daniel said many factors mandate today’s bourbon production. Straight bourbon whiskey is required by law to be distilled from grains consisting of at least 51 percent corn (but not more than 80 percent) that may be combined with a mix of malted barley and rye or wheat.
Bourbon must be aged in new charred oak barrels at not more than 125 proofs, and Kentucky straight bourbon whisky must be aged a minimum of four years. If produced under four years, the age must be stated on the label.
Recognition and respect have grown Maker’s Mark from a dream and turned it into a reality that has paid off for the Samuels family. Seeing his father’s dream recognized and having other distilleries see Maker’s Mark’s success at a time when it made no sense at all, is rewarding for Samuels.
“Not letting growth get ahead of product integrity,” is a source of pride for him. “We didn’t plan on commercial success,” he said.
The company’s first Louisville office was at the Louisville Airport. The main whisky warehouses and bottling operations are still in Nelson County. After his father sold the family home in Bardstown, Samuels lived for the next 30 years in Louisville.
He and Nancy moved to the Prospect-Goshen area of Oldham County in the early 1990s.

Maker's Mark Gifts

Photo by Don Ward

Tours of the distillery begin and end
at the country store-style gift shop,
where many items for sale sport
the Maker’s Mark name.

The couple was recently co-honorary chairs of the Oldham County Historical Society’s 2005 Gala. Nancy called this “a real honor.” She said that since the couple resided in Oldham County they, “should do our part” to promote the county.
They were asked to be co-chairs because of the current theme of the J. Chilton Barnett whiskey jug collection and “because they have expressed an interest in community cultural and natural history preservation,” said Oldham County History Center executive director Nancy Theiss. “Their presence added support to our mission and they attracted people to our event that hadn’t visited us before.”
Bill Samuels Sr. sold Maker’s Mark Distilleries 231/2 years ago to England’s Allied Domecq Spirits, which was later purchased by Pernod Ricard. Fortune Brands Inc. purchased Maker’s Mark in September 2005, and Maker’s Mark now operates as shareholders with Jim Beam.
“It is better than before,” he said. The management team at Jim Beam understands and appreciates the business and its value to the bourbon industry, he said.
Recently, a Maker’s Mark bourbon bar opened at 4th Street Live! in downtown Louisville. The location in the heart of the city has helped promote the Maker’s Mark name, officials say.
Kentucky has a definite monopoly on the industry. All bourbons are made in Kentucky, establishing the industry as “a big economic bang for Kentucky,” said Samuels.
“Although bourbon can be produced in any state, consumer preference for Kentucky bourbon has become so prevalent that Kentucky has become virtually the only state making bourbon,” said O’Daniel. “More than 95 percent of the world’s production is Kentucky bourbon.”
The state has the right combination of climate for aging, water filtered through layers of underground limestone, wood for making oak barrels and skills developed by generations of Kentuckians who have perfected the art of making bourbon for more than 200 years, said O’Daniel.
Samuels said his family’s tradition of bourbon making has survived because through trial and error they discovered that they “couldn’t do anything else.”

• Maker’s Mark Distillery is located at 3350 Burks Spring Rd., Loretto, Ky. For more information, call (270) 865-2099 or visit: www.makersmark.com. Find out more about the Kentucky Bourbon Trail program, of which Maker’s Mark is a part, at: www.kybourbon.com.

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