Our Bourbon Series concludes with Maker’s Mark, one of the world’s most beloved wheated bourbons. Rob Samuels, chief operating officer – and grandson of the brand’s founder, Bill Samuels – shares Scottish roots, ‘ageing to taste’, and the story behind the bottle’s iconic red wax seal.
Founded in the 1950s, Maker’s Mark may be among the youngest of the traditional bourbon brands, but there are old hands behind the stills. In fact, the Samuels family has been distilling whiskey for more than 500 years.
While plenty has changed since the first barrels of Maker’s were decanted and bottled, the company has remained resilient in its approach to whiskey-making. Maker’s Mark may have gone global, but the distillery’s small-batch, hand-crafted ethos rings true to this day.
Rather than scaling up stills and fermenters when the bourbon boom struck, the company decided to build a second distillery, identical to the first, right next door. Every bottle is still hand-dipped in red wax, the labels are still hand-torn, and the whiskey is still made 19 barrels at a time.
“Every drop of whisky that’s ever been in one of our bottles, we made,” Samuels tells us, as we taste through the range. “And every drop of whisky made in our distillery has never been anywhere other than in a bottle of Maker’s Mark.”
Our family first started making whisky in Scotland, distilled from grain in the late 1500s. We distilled from rye in Pennsylvania for a century, and it was actually my namesake, Robert Samuels, who settled on a land grant [in Bourbon County, Virginia] in 1784 – before Kentucky even existed. It was his grandson, Taylor William Samuels, who built our family’s first commercial distillery. That distillery, T.W. Samuels, was passed down through the generations and it was the distillery that my grandparents inherited when they were very young.
My grandparents brought the T.W. Samuels distillery out of Prohibition, it was the fifth distillery to reopen. They led it for a handful of years before they decided to sell it, because they weren’t inspired by the distillery. In many ways, they viewed it as a commodity, very deserving of the bottom shelf. After selling the T.W. Samuels distillery, [my grandfather] floundered around. He failed as a banker, he failed as an automotive dealer, and it was my grandmother who whispered in his ear that he ought to think about getting back into the whiskey business. When he agreed, he said it was going to be on his own terms.
In the beginning, our tasting panel at the distillery was one man: my grandfather. Today, we have 18 women and seven men. Maker’s Mark is produced 19 barrels per batch, and we taste every batch five times on average. Our tasting panel tells us when to bottle. Of course we talk about what you taste – caramel, vanilla, raisin, chocolate – but we spend a little more time talking about where you taste. Everybody in the world tastes bitterness on the back of their palate, sour along the sides and sweet towards the very front. Our founder’s taste vision was to dance right on the very tip of the tongue. We’ve never bottled younger than six or older than seven and a half. If we leave Maker’s Mark in the barrel for too long, even just a handful of months, it starts to drift towards the back.
In addition to the Maker’s 46 finishing stave, we created four additional finishing staves as part of our custom barrel programme. They’re all cut differently, cooked differently, treated differently, and uniquely accentuate the flavours and characteristics that live within Maker’s Mark. If there are five different finishing staves, and 10 staves in a barrel, it means there’s more than a thousand different combinations. Even if you change one particular finishing stave, the average palate can pick up the difference. Keeneland Race Course purchased the very first case of Maker’s Mark that was ever created in 1959, and they also made the very first custom barrel.
My last conversation with my grandfather is one I will never forget. In 1992, as I was heading off to University, he took me to lunch at the Pendennis Club, where the Old Fashioned cocktail was invented in the 1800s. After we sat together in the dining room, he gazed out the window and talked about what he had created. He was in business for seven years with employees and distillery overheads before he sold the first case, and he waited another 20 years before there was any demonstrated demand for his whiskey outside the commonwealth of Kentucky. There was a hell of a lot of pressure put on him to go where the market was, but he wouldn’t budge. He talked about how proud he was that he stayed true to who he was and where he started.
Many thanks to Rob Samuels! If all this talk of bourbon (and the hot weather) has got you a bit thirsty, give a Maker’s Mark StarHill Spritz a try!
12.5ml fresh lemon juice
12.5ml passionfruit Syrup
Top with sparkling wine