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Underground Spirits and Beer

Maker’s Mark Bourbon and Bill Samuels, Jr.

Christine Graham • 12/15/09        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share

Bourbon and Whiskey

The consumption of fine spirits continues to grow as does the consumption of fine wines.  More and more people who enjoy quality wines and good food, are also learning the pleasures of great spirits.  Whisky refers to liquors distilled from grain, including Scotch, Irish, Bourbon, Tennesse, Rye and Canadian.  While Scotch spells whisky without an “e,” most of the American liquours spell whiskey with an “e.”  The classic whiskeys of the USA, Bourbon, Tennessee Sour Mash and Rye, rich in heritage and tradition, as well as style and flavor, are as American as apple pie and the flag.  Bourbon is the true American spirit as declared by Congress in 1964.  The American whiskey industry is tightly regulated.  All three whiskeys use the same ingredients (water, corn, grains and yeast), but the proportions vary.  Bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn and rye must be at least 51 percent rye.  Tennessee Sour Mash differs from Bourbon in that it is charcoal-filtered.

Kentucky is the traditional home of the Bourbon industry, but Bourbon can legally be produced in any state in the U.S. and Virginia is also an important distilling center.  Legal requirements for Straight Bourbon, the product of a single distillery, call for it to be undiluted with neutral spirits, made predominantly from a fermented mash of corn, distilled at not higher than 160 proof and stored at not more than 125 proof, in new, charred barrels for a minimum of two years.  Most Bourbons range from 60-75 percent corn, with barley, wheat and rye also being used.  Nothing may be added to Bourbon except distilled water to adjust the proof.  No color or flavor enhancements may be added and it must not be bottled below 80 proof or 40 percent alcohol.  Barrels are generally white oak from Kentucky, Indiana or Missouri.  The average aging time is usually from four to eight years.   There are close to 100 Bourbons, with most being Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskeys and most produced by about 10 major distilleries.

Both Are Noted for Their Distinctiveness and Individuality

Maker’s Mark, a showcase distillery situated on beautiful Star Hill Farm in Loretto, Kentucky, has been producing elegant, refined, mellow, yet still full-flavored Bourbons ever since Bill Samuels’ father burned the traditional Bourbon recipe over 50 years ago.  T. W. Samuels, Sr., a sixth-generation distiller of Scots-Irish descent, began making Bourbon according to his own formula (with a little assistance from Pappy Van Winkle and the Beam family), substituting soft, mild, winter wheat for rye in order to impart a smooth, clean, rich taste.  It is the only Bourbon using pure, iron-free limestone spring water that comes from a spring-fed lake in the middle of their property.

Bill Samuels, Jr., continuing the legacy of his father, is President of Maker’s Mark.  Jim Beam’s godson, formerly a physicist and a lawyer, Bill is arguably the best marketer in the Bourbon business.  His sense of humor is evident in the irreverent ads Bill wrote himself.  Bill has traveled the world promoting Maker’s Mark and his efforts, along with the distinctive flavor and premium quality of the Bourbon, have led to an ever-increasing demand for the product.  Albeit a welcome headache, this has also presented a problem for America’s smallest and oldest active distillery.  Award-winning Maker’s Mark, a genuine small batch Bourbon, is now an icon brand, considered one of the America’s benchmark spirits, a premium Bourbon leader, Kentucky’s most popular brand and renowned the world over.

A Visit to Maker’s Mark Distillery in Kentucky

Some years ago, I was in Kentucky visiting several Bourbon distilleries.  My first stop was Bardstown, the Bourbon capital of the world, where more Bourbon is produced per square mile than anywhere else.  Bardstown is a charming town, with a wonderful history and I wanted to experience some of the flavor of the area before heading out to Loretto.  However, I had apparently copied the directions incorrectly and did not realize that I had been circling the police station several times in a suspicious manner (driving the wrong way).  Luckily, a typically gracious southern gentleman stopped me before the police did, asked where I wanted to go, and then headed me in the right direction.

The way to Loretto, 17 miles southeast of Bardstown, takes you on small, winding country roads through the beautiful rolling Kentucky hills and green pastures.  Eventually, I found Maker’s Mark located along a meandering creek, in a very picturesque area, Star Hill Farm.  Originally started as a gristmill in the early 1800s, Maker’s Mark has been designated a National Historic Landmark.  Star Hill Farm still has a “Quart House,” a small building where whiskey from the distillery was sold at retail, a toll house and two bonded, 19th-century warehouses.  The old Burks family residence, another building restored by the Samuels family, sits on a small hill above the distillery.  The distinctive, open-rick warehouses are all painted black with bright red shutters, each carved with the shape of the Maker’s Mark bottle.

I was really looking forward to meeting Bill Samuels, having heard a lot about him, all positive and, as I learned, all true.  A tall, lean man, with an engaging personality, he is colorful, astute, interesting, talented, has a fine sense of humor and is extremely energetic and passionate about Maker’s Mark, Bourbon, history and life.

We met in Bill’s office, the walls of which are covered with American history – a fascinating collection of old and new photos (including one of Jesse James in 1864), framed historically significant papers, a terrific gun collection (including Frank James’ gun), and more.  Bill related some great stories and revealed that Jesse and Frank James were distant relatives by marriage.  Bill’s wife, Nancy, is a descendant of Daniel Boone.

History of Maker’s Mark

Bill’s father purchased and restored the abandoned country distillery owned by the Burks family, with its ramshackle group of buildings and a stream running between them, in 1953.  T. W. Samuels, Sr., was a southern gentleman, interested in creating a taste to satisfy himself not others, and not concerned with the process of selling.  He developed his own formula, substituting rye, with specially selected soft, mild winter wheat in order to impart a smooth, gentle, clean, yet rich taste.  The fermenting vats are made from cypress, not stainless steel.  Samuels also chose to use walnut bungs which can easily be removed enabling one to taste the whisky (Maker’s Mark spells the word without an “e”) at each step of the aging process in order to decide when and where to move each barrel around the warehouse for perfect aging.  The barrels are made from wood that has been air-dried for one year.  In 1958, the Bourbon was fully matured and ready for bottling. While Bill Sr. had created the product, his wife, Margie, came up with the name and designed the packaging. The handmade label has an S for Samuel with the Roman Numeral IV for the number of generations  (it should have been VI as Bill Sr. was sixth generation).  The distinctive bottle with a long neck and square base is sealed with the famous, hand-dipped red wax. The labels are handmade, printed on an old press at the distillery and cut by a manually operated machine.

Bill gave me a tour of the operation and the Farm, after which I stopped in the gift shop.  Visitors can take home a commemorative bottle of Maker’s Mark they dip themselves into red wax at the gift shop, so I made my own unique red wax seal – a great souvenir.  In addition to the regular memorabilia, I also bought a cookbook, That Special Touch, dedicated to cooking with Bourbon in simple yet elegant recipes.  Back home, I discovered that cooking with Bourbon adds a rich, woody, nutty taste that is smooth and never overpowering.  The book, by Sandra Davis, offers recipes from appetizers to entrees, to desserts and drinks, including Bill Samuels’ recipe for a Special Mint Julep.

The Oatmeal Bourbon Cookies were so good, especially after doubling the quantity of Maker’s Mark, that we eventually stopped baking them and just ate the dough.


Sandra Davis’s recipe for Oatmeal Bourbon Cookies is 1 cup margarine, ½ cup brown sugar, 1 egg, ¼ cup water, 1 yellow cake mix, 3 Tbs. Maker’s Mark, 3 cups quick cooking oats, and 1 cup nuts.

Bill’s recipe for a Perfect Manhattan is one part sweet Vermouth, five parts Maker’s Mark, and ½ tsp maraschino cherry juice.  Shake in a shaker over ice, pour into a stemmed glass and garnish with a cherry – delicious!

Handcrafted, Small-Batch Bourbon

Bill believes that when a craftsman creates a company, as opposed to an entrepreneur, the product becomes a manifestation of the personality of the founder.  Bill Sr. wanted to produce a  refined, mellow, sipping Bourbon at a time when most Bourbons were harsh, coarse, bitter, heavy and minimally aged.  He raised the bar on Bourbon with his emphasis on quality.  His practice of producing small quantities of handcrafted, premium-priced bourbon using traditional methods changed the world of American whiskey.

The main reason for Maker’s Mark’s continued success is its operating philosophy developed by Bill Sr. and steadfastly maintained by Bill Jr.  The chief characteristics of Maker’s are elegant taste, handcrafted quality, great attention to detail, integrity and good value.  Maker’s Mark Distillery makes only one product so as not to diminish the brand.  Every barrel is important.  Bill believes in staying close to his customers, careful not to “rip them off” with higher costs and concerned about “not screwing up the next bottle.”

Initially, sales of Maker’s Mark were local, growing gradually.  This all changed in 1980 when The Wall Street Journal printed a front  page article on Maker’s Mark, creating consumer interest on a national level and greatly enhancing the credibility of the brand.

The same level of craftsmanship is still practiced today.  Barrels rest for six years in open-rick warehouses, with the whisky constantly monitored, smelled and tasted at each step of the aging process in order to determine when and where to move each barrel around the warehouse to achieve an overall uniformity.  Rotation of the barrels is gradual going from higher, hotter areas to lower, cooler areas and from the outside to the center.

Expansion of the Distillery

A $14 Million expansion in 2002 was necessary to meet the expanding demand, doubling capacity from 34,000 barrels to a maximum of 68,000 barrels to be reached gradually over the next few years.  Bill said that, in order to maintain the integrity of the brand and to preserve the distillery’s historic image and high quality, it was essential to replicate the existing 19th century equipment and building structures.  To accomplish this, Bill and his Master Distiller, Dave Pickerell, decided to add the new distillery onto the old one.  Replication of the equipment was more problematic.  Maker’s crushes grains with an old-fashioned roller mill because it does not heat the grain as much as a hammer mill.  It was impossible to find another one so Bill said they had to submit a design to a supplier of milling equipment for a commercial bakery.  It took 1 ½  years to complete the new “old” mill, which is the only one in the world.  The expansion also included a new copper still, cooker and fermenters, all exact replicas of the existing ones, so that Maker’s Mark now has two side-by-side distilleries exactly the same.

In addition to the regular bottling, Maker’s Mark frequently releases limited edition, commemorative bottlings of the same premium quality, small-batch Bourbon dedicated to specific events and Kentucky luminaries, such as Kentucky Derby winners.

Tasting Note of Maker’s Mark

Maker’s Mark Bourbon. (Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky, 90 proof)

The brilliant amber color has glints of orangish-topaz and copper.  Aromas of caramel, vanilla, tangerine, cinnamon, plum and molasses are intermingled with maple, buttered popcorn and honey.  Dry, slightly dusty, cedary flavors with leather and sandalwood precede plum and rich caramel, vanilla, butterscotch and popcorn.  It is rich, soft, distinctive, complex, balanced and refined, ending in a sweet, smooth, spirity finish – one of the best straight Bourbons from Kentucky.

Outstanding. 3stars

While Maker’s Mark is a premium Bourbon, its price point is in the middle, averaging about $25 for a 750ml bottle.  Considering the quality and consistency of Maker’s Mark, it is an excellent value.  The limited edition bottles of Maker’s are highly collectible, selling out immediately.  However, these bottles can still be bought on ebay.

Maker’s Mark is the most well-known of the wheated Bourbons, which are generally smoother and sweeter than those made from rye, such as Van Winkle, Weller, and Old Fitzgerald.  We will be writing about these and other Bourbons, including Woodford Reserve, Old Turkey and more, in upcoming articles, as well as other spirits, including Rum, Tequila, Gin, Vodka, Scotch and more.  Stay tuned!

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3 comments for “Maker’s Mark Bourbon and Bill Samuels, Jr.”

  • These days I only drink bourbon with sweet potato pecan pie. By the way, there is a very fine sppp at The Palace Cafe in Santa Barbara, and there is bourbon to pair with it.

  • Thanks for your comment. It is most appreciated coming from such a respected wine writer as yourself. Bourbon makes a great aperitif or after-dinner drink with a fine cigar.

  • Excellent article Christine, almost makes me want to give up the vino and stick to Makers Mark.

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