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.