When the subject of the America’s Native Spirit and the history of bourbon whiskey are discussed it is impossible to leave out the role of the Samuels family. This family has earned the title of the family with the longest history of operating a distillery, and is now on the 7th generation while the 8th has also joined in the family business. Thus, in September 2007, Bill Samuels Jr., spoke about the family’s role in producing bourbon and their role in Maker’s Mark Kentucky Bourbon, he is quick to refer to the reason the legend continues.
Why the Legend Continues
Bill Samuels Jr. grew up as a part of a whiskey making family. During his life, he has been a part of both his own distilling family as well as a group of other makers of the top brands of bourbon makers. Samuel’s next door neighbor for years and his godfather is none other than Jim Beam himself. To this day, Bill Samuels keeps every premium bourbon stocked in his home bar, because other premium distillers are likely to stop by and he prefers to offer them their own whiskey during the visit.
Bill Samuels family began distilling whiskey in 1783, when Robert Samuels started producing whiskey for personal use and for gifts to close friends. T.W. Samuels built the first commercial distillery in Samuels Depot in Kentucky in 1840. There have only been two breaks in the family’s production of whiskey, during Prohibition and during a 10 year period between distilleries in the 1940s. According rumors, Prohibition did not stop Samuels and Beam from always having a personal supply available. Bill Samuels Sr. is said to have burned the family recipe and started over from scratch to transform what is known as bourbon whiskey.
Bill Jr. can remember the day his dad recorded the deed for the new distillery in 1953, that is now known as the Loretto, Kentucky Maker’s Mark Distillery. Beginning at age 13, Bill Jr. worked summers in this distillery, and after completing law school and looking at other lines of work, he decided to spend a year working at the distillery. With the encouragement of the great nephew of Jack Daniel, Bill Jr.’s one year has turned into 40. When he took over the distillery as president his father gave him two rules. 1.) Do not screw up the distillery, a reference to an accident made when Bill Jr. was the a senior design engineer that involved an office building and a rocket, and 2.) Find customers. Heeding these warnings, he has carried on this family tradition safely and led Maker’s Mark to to become the leader in the market for premium bourbon.
Making the Mark:
According to Bill Samuels Jr., someone had to be dumb enough to believe producing a smooth charactered bourbon would create something others would see as special.
Those who are old enough to remember the taste of “old bourbon” in comparison to what has been produced from the 1980s after Bill Samuels Sr. literally burned the family recipe can appreciate what he did. What Bill Sr. did may not have been the best strategy for marketing at the time. Most professionals in marketing would have cringed at his bold move and called it disastrous. In essence, his desire was to remove the bitterness from his new bourbon. At the time, most people were happy with the status quo and not asking for a better tasting bourbon. However, with the help of other distillers who looked at Bill Sr.’s desire as a hobby and not something that would make any difference in the commercial market, a new generation of bourbon was born. This benchmark setting whiskey was named Member’s Mark and soon other distilleries followed suit creating their bourbon without the bitter flavor in the latter decades of the 20th century. Today, the old idea that bourbon is a rough, old product has been buried for the most part by all the Kentucky distilleries due to the work of the Samuels family.
The influence of the Samuels family has not been limited to the men. Marge Samuels, Bill Sr.’s wife brought a hand designed bottle to the dinner table for this new product. This bottle is still used for Maker’s Mark. She was inspired by her collection of fine pewter and cognac bottles. In selecting for pewter, she knew to look for the mark of the maker, as a distinguishing feature of the finest collectables. Thus the name, Maker’s Mark was born. Marge also insisted that bottles be sealed in was as cognac bottle were. While her husband protested due to the labor required, that red wax top continues to adorn bottles today. Even with advances in technology that could do this job, each bottle continues to be hand dipped today. In addition to the bottle’s shape, she also designed the hand torn label that continues to be adorned with her own handwriting. In 1958, the first bottle of Maker’s Mark sold for $7.
The tradition began by the previous generation continues still today. Bill Samuels Jr. pays honor to the way the brand was established. Maker’s Mark is described as a bourbon with big flavor finishing at the front of one’s tongue, yet sweet and soft with vanilla. It is one bourbon a consumer can hold on the tongue to experience, according to Samuels. When asked why the distillery why special bottelings of the whiskey are not offered like other distilleries, Samuels says it is only bottled at one proof, which is the right one. There is no need to find new marketing opportunities by releasing new collections every few years. He prefers concentrating on the original and since it is the way it should be, there is no need for a front-finishing bourbon. Currently, the demand for Member’s Mark in the USA along outweighs the supply, so there is no international presence. Samuels prefers his bourbon in the tradition established by his father, and why change something that is already the best.