It’s a brand of steady reliability, iconic appearance, and signature taste. But how did Maker’s Mark turn a family recipe based on loaves of bread and a bottle dipped in…
It’s a brand of steady reliability, iconic appearance, and signature taste. But how did Maker’s Mark turn a family recipe based on loaves of bread and a bottle dipped in red wax into a global brand that changed bourbon? We find out.
Imagine you’ve got your hands on the only copy of a 170-year-old family recipe for making bourbon. Do you a) make several copies and create lots of lovely bourbon; b) hide it away in the garden like a mad greedy squirrel so nobody else can ever learn it; or c) burn it to a crisp along with a set of drapes.
Maker’s Mark founder Bill Samuels Sr. did the latter. Not deliberately of course, but after disaster struck he became a sixth-generation distiller without a mashbill to make bourbon. Which is something of a stumbling block.
His wife Margie, however, had a clever idea. To save time and money, she suggested they bake loaves of bread with various grain combinations instead of distilling them to find the flavour profile they desired.
It was this process that led to the creation of the Makers Mark mash bill that was first produced in 1954 and is still used today. The eventual recipe was made with a desire to challenge the notion that bourbon was harsh and that people shouldn’t have to learn to love whiskey.
That’s why Samuels Sr. decided to eschew the traditional choice of rye as part of his mashbill and instead opted for soft red winter wheat. It proved to be one of many flavour-based decisions that ended up setting Maker’s Mark apart.
Making the flavour
The core of the mashbill is 70% corn which is rounded out with Maker’s signature ingredient (16%) as well as malted barley (14%). The brand continues to partner with local, family farms in Loretto, Kentucky to source its grain, including a 60-plus-year relationship with the Mattinglys for corn and the Petersons for wheat.
A roller mill is still preferred over a hammer mill, it’s a slower more labour-intensive process but the family believes it allows them to be precise with how each grain is processed. An heirloom yeast strain that’s more than 150 years old is still favoured, which ferments in tanks that are original to the old Burks Distillery (which Samuels Sr purchased in 1953 for $35,000).
Maker’s Mark is also the only Kentucky bourbon distillery with its own water source and watershed, with Kentucky limestone filtering out iron from its water and leaving them with pure calcium- and magnesium-rich water.
The whiskey is double distilled in Vendome Copper & Brass Works stills that are an exact replica of the original, and the whiskey is aged to taste, not time. Generally, however, Maker’s Mark whiskey spends six to seven years inside number-three char virgin American white oak barrels that are seasoned outdoors for nine months by the cooperage, a lengthy process but one preferred for its ability to remove some bitter woody tannins.
The distillery still rotates its barrels by hand. Each spends a minimum of three hot Kentucky summers in the top of the rackhouse where they are exposed to the greatest temperature variations before every batch is tested to determine where in the warehouse it would be optimal to be hand-rolled next. The whiskey is then filtered and diluted to a considerable 45% ABV. For four days in February 2013 this strength was reduced, presumably to save money, but the backlash was so strong that Maker’s reversed its decision.
Margie Samuels: making her mark
While the name Bill Samuels might be the one people associate with Makers Mark the most, the shape of the bottle, look of the label and even the name itself are all thanks to Margie Samuels, the first woman associated with a distillery to become a Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Famer.
She was a shrewd marketer who ensured no two bottles were exactly alike. “Margie was smart enough to know that the whiskey had to look the part too and that it needed a home as good as the whiskey itself,” says Nicole Sykes, brand ambassador for Maker’s Mark. “I don’t think she knew what she had created at the time. Marketing wasn’t her background, neither was whiskey making. But she had such an enormous impact”.
Her mark was certainly considerable. The distinctive bottle shape and red wax was inspired by her collection of 19th-century cognac bottles and she hand-dipped the first bottle in the family deep-fat-frier herself. The labels are another of her ideas, and are still cut on a hand-operated, 1935 Chandler & Price printing press, while Margie came up with the name after being inspired by the ‘maker’s marks’ that pewter whitesmiths put on their best work.
Her own mark features a star for Star Hill Farm, the Bardstown farm where the family resided, an ‘S’ for Samuels, and the Roman numeral IV to symbolize her husband’s status as a fourth-generation distiller. It was later discovered that Bill Samuels Snr. was actually a sixth-generation distiller (the first in the family to make whiskey was Robert Samuels in 1783), but the mark has stuck.
It’s often said at the distillery that, while the whiskey Bill made kept people coming back, it was Margie that was the reason most folks bought their first bottle of Maker’s Mark. “I still notice the bottle if I’m watching a tv show or a film because it’s so eye-catching. It’s genius,” Sykes says.
Margie, who of course had the idea to bake the mashbills into loaves of bread, was also a pioneer of bourbon tourism. “For every dollar her husband made, she demanded a dollar back to make the distillery a real home for the bourbon,” Sykes explains. “She really created a sense of community in the bourbon world. Without her the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and to be frank premium bourbon, wouldn’t be where it is today”.
A family tradition
Over the years a number of brands have owned Maker’s Mark, beginning with Hiram Walker & Sons in 1981 and then Allied Domecq in 1987 before it eventually ended up with its current owners Beam Suntory in 2014.
But the running of the distillery has remained in family hands, with Bill Samuels Jr. taking his father’s legacy as far as April 2011 when his own son Rob Samuels took over. He’s been around the distillery since the ripe old age of nine and has worked at virtually every position in the distillery.
This family link means you don’t see “loads of crazy things coming out of the distillery,” as Skyes puts it, because Maker’s Mark is a “family tradition”. She continues, “it’s easy to communicate what the brand is all about because we’re still doing the same rituals as we did in the 1950s, despite the growth of bourbon around us. We’re still staying true to hand rotating the barrels, hand-dipping the bottles, using the roller mill. There’s an old joke at the distillery that goes, ‘If we could make it any faster, we wouldn’t.'”
Many similar-size brands have flocked to the trendy world of endless flavours, RTDs, and experimental casks, but Maker’s Mark has remained relatively steady for a brand of its size. Maker’s Mark 46 was the first new major product in 60 years, and even then the original recipe is used. The extra dimension comes from inserting seared French oak staves into the barrels.
The distillery launched a single barrel lineup in 1997 and over the years has had some cask strength editions, as well as a few limited-edition releases with signature labels. The only time it truly departed the Maker’s style, however, was its Mint Julep Liqueur.
Keeping the family tradition intact, Maker’s Mark has retained its position as one of the go-to choices for many a bourbon lover thanks to its reasonable pricing, consistent profile, and genuinely iconic look. It’s no mean feat to make a difference while sticking to your guns, but by doing just that Maker’s Mark has changed bourbon, being at the forefront of its premiumisation, pioneering marketing, and tourism while retaining its signature style.
Maybe we should all start burning the family recipes and popping bread in the oven…