Maker's Mark: The Story of Bourbon's Savior

Pappy Van Winkle lived by the motto, “We make fine bourbon. At a profit if we can, at a loss if we must, but always fine bourbon.” But toward the end of his career, simply making fine bourbon was not enough. By the late 1960’s, vodka had invaded, and bourbon’s reign was nearing an end.  

Inspired by characters like James Bondwho liked his vodka martinis “shaken, not stirred,” for an even more watered down tasteyoung Americans rebelling against the habits of a previous generation that led them into two futile wars would reject their father’s bourbon for lighter fare. Van Winkle’s Stitzel-Weller Distillery was forced to sell to a conglomerate called Norton-Simon. Other American distilleries would attempt to produce a new category of product called “light whiskey”, which never caught on. Sales of bourbon dipped, and was eventually overtaken by vodka during the American bicentennial in 1976. The Founding Fathers were turning in their graves.

But while many distilleries downsized, went out of business, or got gobbled up by conglomerates, one distillery was being built, with the help of Van Winkle and many others, on the premise that a premium product could continue to stand out in the crowd. For many years, this distillery made fine bourbon at a loss. And then, it made fine bourbon at a profit. Eventually it would be the blueprint for bourbon’s comeback.

“Everyone wants to go back and rewrite bourbon history so they sound smart,” says Bill Samuels Jr., Chairman of Maker’s Mark Distillery and son of Bill Samuels, Sr., the founder. “But a lot of it was luck.”

The Samuels family is a long line of whiskey producers that starts with Robert Samuels, a distiller in George Washington’s army. After the war, Samuels set up a farm in Kentucky and, like many other frontiersmen at the time, began distilling his excess crop into whiskey, which was less likely to spoil and was easier to transport for sale. His grandson, Taylor William Samuels, converted the farm into a commercial venture in the 1840’s, creating the T.W. Samuels & Son distillery. (The T.W. Samuels name may sound familiar to bourbon aficionados, and maybe to heavy drinkers as wellit’s now a bottom shelf bourbon produced by Heaven Hill.) Taylor’s older brother, Reuben Samuels, married the mother of Frank and Jesse James, and ended up raising the future outlaws. T.W. himself was the sheriff of Nelson County during the Civil War, and had ties to many of Quantrill’s raiders. This is a family that is firmly entrenched in Kentucky history and lore.

T.W.’s grandson Leslie continued the family’s distilling tradition after Prohibition, entering into an financial arrangement with Robert Block in 1933 to restart the business. Samuels became the distillery manager, and Block the president. The partnership was short lived, however: Leslie died in 1936, leaving his son, Bill Samuels, Sr., to manage the distillery. Block then sold the distillery in 1943, forcing Samuels into early retirement. Bill was officially out of the family business. Luckily, he had made a considerable sum of money in the sale.

Ten years passed, and Samuels schemed to return to the whiskey business. He noted that his father had made a critical error when restarting the family distillery by producing whiskey in the same style that was produced pre-Prohibition: it was too hot and rough for the evolved American palate. As a result, it got gobbled up by conglomerates that saw smaller distilleries for their production capacity to funnel whiskey to the big established brands that they already owned, or as competition that they would shut down shortly after acquisition. For any new project be a stand out in the marketplace, Bill was going to have to produce something different. “Let’s make a bourbon for people who don’t like bourbon,” Bill Samuels, Jr. recalls his father saying.”

The fanciful story goes that the elder Samuels and his wife Marge experimented with grain recipes in their kitchen while baking many loaves of bread and decided that a wheat-heavy recipe produced the best bread, and thus best bourbon. This story, and many others in whiskey lore, is told with a tongue firmly planted in one cheek.

 "Artifacts" on the public tour of Maker's Mark Distillery play up the bread experimentation in the Samuels kitchen. 

"Artifacts" on the public tour of Maker's Mark Distillery play up the bread experimentation in the Samuels kitchen. 

In reality, although Samuels had extensive distilling experience, he needed help developing a new bourbon with his desired flavor profile. Luckily, the Samuels household was located in Bardstown, KY, a sort of nexus of whiskey luminaries. He formed an advisory committee that included Jerry Beam (son of Jim Beam), Ed Shapira (one of the five brothers that started Heaven Hill, located in Bardstown), Daniel “Hap” Motlow (a descendant of Jack Daniels), and Pappy Van Winkle. While all four advisors helped Samuels develop the sweeter flavor profile that he desired, it was at Van Winkle’s Stitzel-Weller Distillery, which was already producing a wheated bourbon, where he found the yeast and engineering know how to get set up at Star-Hill Farms, a property that he had purchased about a half an hour drive south of Bardstown in Loretto, KY. Bill Samuels, Jr. still remembers taking his first drink on one of those consultations“two fingers” of bourbon before lunch with Pappy himself.

The new wheated bourbon was going to be light, and required special barrels for aging. Luckily for Samuels, the Korean War had just ended. In the lead up to the war, all of the major distillers maxed out their production and ordered supplies in bulk, fearing another government-ordered switch to distilling industrial alcohol for the war effort a la World War II. When the order never came, piles of wood sat outdoors at cooperages across the country. So when Samuels tapped the Independent Stave Company for a solution to their barreling dilemma, wood that had already been air dried for a year out in the open, which contains fewer tannins than kiln dried wood, was readily available. The new project could begin barreling whiskey right away.

“We’ve never seen anyone as commercially naive be as successful as he was,” said Bill Samuels, Jr. about his father, describing him as a “products guy”.

Producing a good bourbon was one thing, selling it was another. Luckily for the senior Samuels, his wife Marge was a design and marketing genius, contributing the shape of the bottle, the dripping wax design, the name of the brand, and the emphasis on building a loyal customer base through tourism by setting up the first visitors center of any bourbon distillery in America. As their son began his task of marketing and selling the new Maker’s Mark product, it became evident that he had inherited all of these talents from his mother.

Sticking with the concept that Maker’s Mark was an premium product, Bill Jr. made two moves that helped grow the fledgling brand. First, he ran advertising that to this day contains one of the most famous slogans in whiskey marketing history: “It Tastes Expensive... And Is.” Maker’s Mark wasn’t actually that much more expensivebut consumers are programmed to associate higher price with higher quality. It was an affordable luxury, and developed a cult following. Eventually, he got the product onto airplanes, the preferred transportation method of the elite. Affluent consumers would then end up in their hometowns all across the United States and ask their local liquor stores and bars for the tasty bourbon that they had never seen before, except in a metal tube cruising through the air at hundreds of miles per hour.

These marketing efforts garnered one final lucky strike for the Maker’s Mark brand: a front page article in the Wall Street Journal in 1980 about a plucky little distillery that was going against the grain, developing a premium product for a small devoted following when every other distillery seemed to be going in the other direction. Orders skyrocketed afterward and they have never been able to keep up ever since, recently eclipsing 1 million cases a year in 2011.

It’s easy to look at a liquor store or bar shelf today in one of the major cities and scoff at the idea of Maker’s Mark being a premium product, as it now shares space with hundreds of other bourbons that are aged longer and feature all sorts of curious gimmicks. Bourbon had always been a working man's drink, so without Maker’s Mark’s popularity explosion due to that Wall Street Journal article, it’s hard to say how much of the premium sector would have developed on its own. There had always been overaged enthusiast bourbons, like Very Very Old Fitzgerald, but they were extremely limited, and often sold in gimmicky porcelain decanters for gifting because there was no other way to move the product. The Maker’s Mark phenomenon of being a readily available affordable luxury was unique.

In 1984, Ancient Age Distillery (renamed to Buffalo Trace in 1999) introduced the first single barrel bourbon, Blanton’s, which came with a metallic horse stopper atop a unique round bottle. Several years later, Jim Beam would introduce its excellent Small Batch CollectionKnob Creek, Baker’s, Basil Hayden, and Booker’swhich were gussied up, extra-aged, and extra-proofed versions of its basic mashbills in Jim Beam White Label and Old Grand Dad. The category was off to the races, lifting up the entire bourbon industry as consumer interest for these new affordable premium products skyrocketed. Years later, bourbon's sales would once again overtake vodka's.

And because circles do sometimes complete themselves, we must mention one more product to result from the explosion of interest in premium bourbon started by Maker’s Mark: in 1995, a product line began as a limited bottling at the Old Commonwealth Distillery that was extra-aged even for “premium” standards. A 20-year-old bourbon in a market that barely had another product break 10 years of age, it earned a rating of 99 in the World Spirits Championships in Chicago and garnered much of the same press that rocketed Maker’s Mark into stardom 15 years earlier.

The product’s name was Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve.