It all started with Washington and whiskey. When our country was still in its infancy, George Washington urged Congress to enact a tax on American-made whiskey. The subsequent implementation of that tax led to the Whiskey Rebellion and, eventually, a mass exodus of distillers from the easternmost states, including Virginia. One such distiller, Robert S. Samuels, followed his comrades to the limestone-rich lands of Kentucky, where he and his brothers-in-arms created a new kind of whiskey called bourbon.
The Samuels family continued distilling whiskey without event for generations. In the mid-nineteenth century, third-generation distiller T.W. Samuels took over operations of the Samuels Distillery in addition to his existing responsibilities, which included High Sheriff of Nelson County and persuading local soldiers, including his nephews Frank and Jesse James, to finally give up the fight against the Union.
T.W. enjoyed the operation of distilling so much that he decided to open a commercial distillery in order to engage in production full-time. The first commercial Samuels Distillery opened near the family’s farm; the original buildings still stand today, located a stone’s-throw from the Jim Beam Distillery. Again, the family-owned distillery sank into habit for decades, neither growing nor faltering in their production of small, locally-loved batches of whiskey.
Operations came to a screeching halt in 1919 with the enforcement of the Prohibition. When the ban lifted over a decade later, Leslie B. Samuels was ready to re-open the distillery using the same family recipe that had been handed down through the generations. His son, Bill Samuels, Sr., suggested a different plan: create a new recipe and technique, one that focused on the quality of the product rather than the frequency of batches. But Leslie, eager to resume operations after such a long hiatus, brushed aside the suggestions of his son and commenced distilling as before.
The results, like most whiskeys of the time, were far from palatable. With a hungry consumer base ready to wrap their tongues around that long-forbidden fruit, distillers did not allow their whiskeys to age properly, resulting in a product that was nearly as rough as the illegal ’shine of the Prohibition. But it was profitable nonetheless, and Leslie, like his associates, continued turning out the bitter brew.
It wasn’t until Bill Sr. took charge of the distillery that the modern Maker’s Mark—and modern bourbon—was born. Intent on revolutionizing their whiskey, Bill Sr. sold off the old distillery and used the profit to purchase the historic Burks Spring Distillery in 1954. In a symbolic adieu to the past, Bill Sr. dramatically burned the one existing copy of the family’s 170-year-old recipe (managing to catch the drapes on fire in his enthusiasm). From that moment forward, there was no turning back—though the road ahead was far from certain.
As Bill Sr. began his trek down the long road to Maker’s Mark, he had but one goal: to produce a quality bourbon that was easy on the palate. His commitment to craftsmanship, rather than profit, was the key to Bill Sr.’s success—but he had a lot of help along the way. Unlike many more competitive communities, the bourbon community had long banded together as aides in the art of distilling. When Bill Sr. set out to revolutionize his family’s recipe, he had help from the best whiskey distillers this country has ever seen: Pappy Van Winkle, Hap Matlow, Jerry Beam and Ed Shapiro (co-founder of Heaven Hill). These four men served as advisors to Bill Sr. as he rewrote the recipe, prompting him to later admit modern Marker’s Mark would never have existed without them.
Help came from even closer to home, as well. Margie Samuels, Bill Sr.’s wife, was instrumental in the aesthetics and marketing of Maker’s Mark from its inception. From its name, inspired by her collection of English Pewter and the “maker’s marks” she loved to discover hidden on fine pieces, to dipping the bottles in red wax—an operation she originally performed in her deep frier—Margie was behind many of the most unique and lasting aspects of the company. She even designed the very Maker’s Mark emblazoned on every bottle: a circle and star rim (for the family’s old Star Hill Farm), an “S” for “Samuels,” and finally, “IV,” because Bill Sr. was thought to be a fourth-generation distiller (later, his son discovered he was actually a sixth-generation distiller, but by that point the mark was already set).
After endless experimentation and six years of aging, Maker’s Mark released their first bottle in 1958. Locals raved about the quality of the bourbon, but it remained a locally-kept secret for years. When Bill Sr. passed the business to his son, Bill Jr., in 1975, he offered one admonition: “Don’t screw up the whiskey.” Bill Jr. certainly didn’t do that, but he did engage in a new marketing scheme that would finally bring the bourbon to a national market. Formerly a rocket scientist, Bill Jr. found countless creative ways to publicize his family’s product, from dressing up as Elvis to juggling bottles. Bill Jr.’s antics and his devotion to his family’s whiskey eventually earned Marker’s Mark a spot on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and national acclaim.
Today, Maker’s Mark is an internationally-renowned bourbon, but many of their traditions and habits remain the same. They still use the same unique strain of yeast that’s been in their family for 150 years; they still hand dip every bottle in their signature red wax; they still print every label in-house on a 1935 Chandler & Price printing press; and, unlike most bourbons, they still age their whiskey to taste, not for a set period of time. The next generation of the Samuels family has already picked up the proverbial torch and continues the tradition their great-great-great-ancestors set down centuries ago: to distill great whiskey—with or without tax.
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