taste for bourbon
Mark prides self
in making bitterless whisky
resident Samuels Jr. heads company
that his father founded 50-plus years ago
Helen E. McKinney
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.
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 Makers
Samuels, 65, knows his bourbon whisky well. (Theres no e
in the spelling of whisky at Makers Mark). Taste is the main thing,
and the quality of Makers 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 ODaniel, 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, ODaniel said.
Around 1840, the Samuels family began to make a living from bourbon.
Roberts grandson, T.W. Samuels, built the familys 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 fathers
endeavor. He wanted to produce a bourbon for those who didnt like
bourbon and werent traditional bourbon drinkers, especially women
and young professionals. He brought a degree of sophistication to his
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
In March 1953, Bill Samuels Sr. bought what is now known Makers
Mark Distillery in Loretto, Ky. The property included the 200-acre Spring
Hill Farm, which contained several buildings dating to the early 1800s.
Makers 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 Makers 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.
Theres 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 didnt plan on following in his fathers footsteps.
To him, it looked like a bad idea, he said.
by Helen E. McKinney
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
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 ODaniel,
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. Makers Mark uses up to 20 different colors
of wax for its bottles. All tours begin and end inside a country store-style
Samuels wife, Nancy, also descends from a distilling family. Her
ancestor, Waddy Boone, has the distinction of being one of Kentuckys
Nancy Samuels said that one important aspect of Makers 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.
ODaniel said many factors mandate todays 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 Makers Mark from a dream and
turned it into a reality that has paid off for the Samuels family. Seeing
his fathers dream recognized and having other distilleries see
Makers Marks 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 didnt plan on commercial success,
The companys 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
by Don Ward
of the distillery begin and end
at the country store-style gift shop,
where many items for sale sport
the Makers Mark name.
The couple was recently co-honorary chairs of the Oldham
County Historical Societys 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 hadnt visited us before.
Bill Samuels Sr. sold Makers Mark Distilleries 231/2 years ago
to Englands Allied Domecq Spirits, which was later purchased by
Pernod Ricard. Fortune Brands Inc. purchased Makers Mark in September
2005, and Makers 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 Makers Mark bourbon bar opened at 4th Street Live!
in downtown Louisville. The location in the heart of the city has helped
promote the Makers 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 ODaniel. More
than 95 percent of the worlds 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 ODaniel.
Samuels said his familys tradition of bourbon making has survived
because through trial and error they discovered that they couldnt
do anything else.
Makers 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 Makers Mark is a part, at: www.kybourbon.com.
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