All September on VinePair, we’re turning our focus to America’s spirit: bourbon. For our third annual Bourbon Month, we’re exploring the industry legends and innovators, our favorite craft distilleries, new bottles we love, and more.
You could say there’s a little drop of independence in every pour of Maker’s Mark. That’s certainly been true for the Samuels family over the years, though their own history in whiskey stretches well beyond the founding of the Maker’s Mark brand in 1953.
Scottish-born preacher John Samuels moved to the United States in the early 1700s. While intervening generations tried their hands at distilling, it wasn’t until 1844 that his great-great-grandson T.W. Samuels established the family’s first commercial distillery, known today as the Old Samuels Distillery.
Fast forward to the end of prohibition, and T.W.’s grandson Bill felt it was time to start anew. Bourbon had the opportunity to reset, he told his father and then head of the business, Lesley. And Bill had some ideas on how to improve the whiskey. But his dad was less than receptive. “Oh, hell no,” Lesley said. “People are thirsty. They’ll drink anything.”
Bill’s desire to forge his own path proved much stronger than the appeal of producing cheap and cheerful whiskey. He later sold the family facility and went on to buy his own distillery. Along with his wife, Margie, he laid the foundations for what would become one of the most respected names in bourbon.
Similarly, their son Bill Jr. and grandson Rob would each take their own journeys before entering the family business. Bill flirted with aerospace engineering and patent law (as well as a very brief stint as a celebrity chauffeur), while Rob spent years working in the industry for a different company before coming home to Maker’s. Both have since had a hand in introducing new lines to the brand.
Even if Maker’s Mark has been slower to innovate than many others in the industry, it continues to rank as one of the most forward-thinking bourbon producers in the business.
This is the story of the rise of Maker’s Mark, and the tale of the family behind the brand, told by Bill Jr. and Rob Samuels.
Breaking From Tradition
On the day that the first drops of Maker’s Mark entered the barrel — four years before the first bottle went to market — Bill Samuels Sr. held a symbolic ceremony in Loretto, Ky.
Bill: In February of 1954, mom pulled us three kids out of school — the only day I missed in 12 years — and took us down to the distillery. There was probably 60 or 70 people there. Dad was talking about how he didn’t want to defame the family’s history but he said, “We should have started over when we came out of Prohibition.”
To celebrate that moment and to kind of give him the courage to go forward, he had this ceremony where he got an old bucket and he dropped some papers in there. I don’t know if it was the formula or the recipe or something symbolic from the 1700s but he poured some lighter fluid in and set it alight.
Folks of Scottish ancestry don’t normally do that — burn the family recipe and start over. If we look back now, it was not only good for us, it was good for the entire bourbon industry. Somebody had to go first and try to bring connoisseurship to bourbon. That was his contribution, and it was mom’s contribution, too.
Behind the Mark
Bill Samuels Sr.’s formula may have been innovative, and geared more toward quality than most of the industry, but his efforts only make up half of the brand. With her eye for design and intuitive branding, Bill’s wife, Margie, contributed just as much to Maker’s iconic status.
Bill: Mom collected English pewter and was the country’s foremost authority on English pewter from the 18th century. She consulted with museums all around the world. And dad had impeccable taste. They were both experts in Kentucky period furniture and the decorative arts — all the things that would be consistent with bringing good taste to something that was born out of the Wild West.
Of course, mom manifested what she did more with the packaging, the way she restored the distillery, and the landscaping. She made me go to work and do the historic research so it could become bourbon’s first national historic landmark. Dad’s contribution was primarily what’s inside the bottle but she helped with that, too. She was never hesitant about telling everybody what was on her mind.
The Evolution of Maker’s Mark (and Bourbon)
During the early days, Maker’s proved somewhat immune to the general downturn of the bourbon industry, largely because its sales were so small. But as they’ve grown (and more on how that happened, shortly) and bourbon has boomed, very little about the production has changed.
Bill: Bourbon was selling a lot of volume in the ‘60s and ‘70s but it was all at $3.99 a bottle. As the market started to sophisticate, bourbon just was not attractive. Vodka came in and a lot of the fun stuff started, like wine coolers. None of that really affected us. What was worse was that bourbon had a horrible reputation and nothing cool ever emanated out of Kentucky.
It was so small in the beginning, dad would make one 18-barrel batch every two weeks. We’re still making our whiskey the same way, but we’re making tons of it now because we got three distilleries. It’s still 18-barrel batches but we go year-round. Every year, we rotate over 200,000 barrels. The biggest part of the employment at the distillery is in the warehouse. The second biggest is giving tours.
Rob: It’s been the most inefficient way to expand and millions and millions of dollars more expensive than it could have been. But it has ensured consistency over time. We’ve sold every single drop of whiskey we’ve made every year since 1980.
The Jack Daniel’s Effect
When Bill approached college age, there was no family “business” to speak of. “It was just a hobby for dad,” Bill says. “And I was pretty motivated to try to make something out of myself.” His path to working at Maker’s Mark would ultimately be a winding one, with stops as Colonel Sanders’ chauffeur and in aerospace engineering along the way. Bill might have even ended up in patent law, which he studied in the ‘60s, had it not been for another, unlikely influential figure.
Bill: Hap Motlow was my father’s friend that I hung around with when I was in law school in Nashville. He was chairman of Jack Daniel’s, and Jack Daniels’ great nephew, and he became a great friend. I was with him just about every Friday for three years. That’s when I learned the business.
He took me to a lot of the sales and strategy meetings for the company; shared a lot of stuff with me that I really shouldn’t have known. We spent a fair amount of time at the distillery in Lynchburg and I went out on the market with him. It was a good learning experience but I still wanted to be a patent attorney.
I had accepted a job at the Bendix Corporation up in South Bend, Ind. — they make brakes for cars and trucks — and I took Hap to dinner. When I told him what I was up to he quickly put the brakes on it. He said: “You need to go back and spend some time with your dad. Take the bar exam so you can move out if you don’t like it but spend at least one year and try to do for Kentucky whiskey what my family has done for Tennessee whiskey.”
I never understood the significance of what he was saying until about 30 years later when Maker’s started to drag the rest of the industry uphill. I said: “Wow, I wish Hap were alive. He would appreciate that I’m doing exactly what he asked.”
How One Article Changed Everything
When Bill heeded Hap Motlow’s advice and chose Maker’s Mark over a career in law, he began in a hybrid sales and marketing position. There was just one problem with his role: Bill Sr. was diametrically opposed to anything that came close to promoting the brand.
Bill: Dad was doing fine on the production and the last thing he needed was somebody underfoot. What we needed was somebody to go find customers. The issue was that we had to find them in a way that he was comfortable with. His ideal strategy would have been to sit on a rock and wait for the customers to come.
Rob: My grandfather, fundamentally, was not a commercial person. He was not a marketer. What success looked like to him had nothing to do with creating a business; he didn’t have a financial ambition. It was always only about trying to create a style of bourbon that had never been created before.
Bill: With the agency that I’d hired to manage the discovery process of Maker’s Mark, dad would allow us to go out and hopefully secure wonderful endorsements from people — so long as it didn’t track back to us, we didn’t offend people, and it didn’t look like we were tooting our own horn. We translated that into: Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get him on the cover of Businessweek or Forbes magazine or The Wall Street Journal? Of course, how you go do that is the impossible part but we had a small opening with The Wall Street Journal.
The spirits editor was coming to town to attend a meeting. One of his classmates in journalism school was a friend of mine and they met and he got introduced to Maker’s Mark. We had some luck in that it also happened to be the evening when the big news story in town was Maker’s becoming a national historic landmark. He saw that and it intrigued him. My friend called me and said [the journalist] would really like to see it. I said, “If you want something interesting, you should spend some time with my father.”
I knew that was going to be the hard part because dad didn’t do interviews. So I called Jim and told him I had a fraternity brother in town that really wanted to meet him. Dad was a gentleman and he wasn’t going to embarrass anybody while the guy was there but he might kick my ass after he was gone.
They got on tremendously and [the journalist] ended up spending three days down there. It was a story of craftsmanship when the whole U.S. economy was starting to fall apart. Jimmy Carter had convinced us we had to live with less. We had 18 percent unemployment and about 19 percent inflation, but Maker’s Mark was chugging right along. Next thing you know, the story was on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. That’s when we really went to work.
We got about 30,000 letters from people and a huge number of phone calls. We put in extra phone lines and my two sisters worked the phones. Dad and I wrote letters back to these people every Saturday and Sunday for a year. It was about as personal as you could get. And it’s the first time that we had what he really wanted: People wanting to know more about what we did. Right after this, he said, “I think on Aug. 1, 1980, we became a real company.”
Handing Over the Reigns
When Bill Sr. handed over control of the company to his son in the 1970s, he did so with a now-legendary parting message: “Don’t screw up the whiskey.”
Bill: It was jocular but he was dead serious and he knew that my nature, my personality, I’m more reckless than he is. And I think it scared him a little bit, but we’d worked together really closely and I enjoyed that we had a terrific transition. The hardest part about it was he didn’t stay around. If I wanted to get his input, I’d have to go to the house and have a cocktail with him.
Before long, Bill Jr. would have to follow in his father’s footsteps, leaving the company for Rob Samuels to manage in 2011.
Bill: From my father to me and then from me to Rob, I’m really proud of the way the two transitions went. Especially the second one because I can be a little controlling. The day I resigned, I got out of Rob’s face right away. It’s the best thing I ever did.
Rob: When I was younger, I worked summers at the distillery, doing every single job from hand-dipping bottles on the bottling line to rotating barrels with the team in the warehouse. After I graduated from university, I had all the respect and admiration for a family legacy, but did I want to make it my life’s work? That’s a very different question.
It was really important to me that I proved to myself that I love the industry beyond the Maker’s Mark brand and the family legacy. So I went away, worked for a different company in the industry for 11 years, and held a number of different positions.
What I found is that I truly had a great passion for the industry and I was able to work with a lot of really talented people. I never wanted my father to feel like he had to hire a son. My goal was to be invited back at some point. And that day came in 2006. I cherished all the time I spent working with him.
Leaving a Legacy
During his time running Maker’s, Bill Jr. focused on his father’s advice — not screwing up the whiskey — but also not chasing every new fad and trend in the industry. Yet as his own retirement approached, he realized he hadn’t left a physical legacy in the brand, so he started developing Maker’s first new product (Maker’s Mark 46) since the original whiskey launched. In the 10 years since, the brand has introduced three new permanent lines and most recently started offering a unique barrel pick experience.
Bill: If dad had been the production guy and the marketing guy, I could have slid in as an innovation person right away because that’s my inclination — not to follow the crowd. But we didn’t need that at the time, so 46 gave me the only chance I had (or the only chance I chose to take) to see if I could create something in his vision that was exceptional. And it actually worked. So I’m one for one.
We spent a lot of time coming up with the obvious but the obvious was that whatever we did, it had to be yummy. That’s a word marketers would never use but everybody knows what it means. From there, we specified it to say it would be nice if we could figure out a way to ramp up the front mouth flavors by about 20 percent. We call that Maker’s on steroids — that was criteria No. 1.
No. 2 was that we’d like to have a little longer finish. And the other criteria was maintaining the integrity of being able to be called Kentucky straight bourbon — no chemistry, no sugar, and no flavors from other spirits if we use a barrel from another part of the world.
Bill Jr. and the Maker’s team realized their goal by working with the Independent Stave Company to develop a French-oak stave finishing process. It “only” took 46 attempts. That same process also inspired the brand’s Wood Finishing series, launched in 2019, and its barrel pick program.
Rob: Some of our very best customers were vocal about the idea that they wanted to come and buy a barrel of Maker’s Mark. I loved that they were passionate and interested, but I’m also glad we resisted the temptation to create a barrel program like other distilleries because it would not have been true to who we are.
[In our program], you get to go deep and precise in creating your own expression. You can amp up or accentuate the unique defining flavor camps within Maker’s Mark and create a barrel that’s all your own. We’re hosting three or four restaurateurs and package-store owners every day and we just finished building our private select tasting room. It’s tucked in the woods, right on the edge of our 14-acre spring-fed lake. The idea was: Let’s have the tasting experience take place within nature and let’s really celebrate nature’s influence. Sometimes I think people forget that whiskey comes from nature.
While the brand itself is no longer family-owned, does the greater theme of independence ring true?
Bill: I think there’s a lot of truth in it. I’m the family genealogist and I see it all the way from preacher John Samuels. They were all fiercely independent — some of us more obnoxious than others — but we pretty much just blasted our own pathway.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.