Fleeing President George Washington’s highly unpopular Whisky Tax, and in search of pure, iron-free water, farmers in the frontier state of Kentucky began distilling what came to be known the world over as bourbon. Among them was one Robert Samuels, great-great-great-grandfather of Bill Samuels, Sr., the creator of Maker’s Mark. A family birthright was established.
Robert Samuels’s grandson T.W. Samuels established the family’s first commercial distillery, on the family farm near Samuels Depot, Ky.
Confederate irregulars led by William Clark Quantrill (including Frank and Jesse James - about whom more is to come) surrendered on the front porch of the Samuels family store, thus going down in history as the last Confederate soldiers to surrender in the War Between the States.
Yes, it’s true – Frank and Jesse James are relatives of the Samuels family. (Some have speculated this is the real reason Maker’s Mark is priced just a little higher than your average whisky.) In any event, you can see Frank James’s .36 caliber 1851 Navy Colt cap-and-ball revolver on display when you visit our little distillery.
With Prohibition coming to an end, the Samuels family faced a new set of challenges. Family patriarch T. W. Samuels was intent on rebuilding the family distilling business more or less along the same lines as it had operated before the ban. His son Bill Samuels, Sr., saw reopening as the perfect opportunity to improve on the product.
After vigorous discussion, the elder Samuels carried the day. And the old formula went back into production.
After 10 years of doing things the good old way, the good old business failed. Consequently, the distillery was sold to outside interests. Bill Samuels, Sr., served as a naval officer in World War II. He retired to the family farm in Bardstown, Ky., in 1945.
Early in 1953, Bill Samuels, Sr.’s wife, Margie, had an announcement. Bill Samuels, Sr., needed to get out of the house and get a job. Necessity being the mother of invention, this rekindled his interest in creating a different and better bourbon.
Later that year, Bill, Sr., bought the historic Burks Spring Distillery in Happy Hollow, Ky., and began in earnest to create his dream.
After lengthy experimentation - much of it in the family’s kitchen - Samuels made his first batch of Maker's Mark in February 1954 with a new grain formula, which eliminated rye, replacing it with red winter wheat as the flavor grain. During this period, the Samuels family ate a lot of home-baked bread, yeast being the best predictor of a whisky’s taste profile.
Bill’s wife Marjorie Samuels emerges as the family’s master marketer.
Marjorie was a fan of fine pewter pieces, which were known for the mark their maker put on them. (Hence our name.) But to truly embrace the name, she felt that we needed our own special mark. This led her to create the SIV symbol, which stands for “Samuels - 4th generation.”* She also collected antique cognac bottles that were commonly dipped in wax. She thought that signature look would be a great idea for our bottle. And her creativity didn’t stop there: Marjorie completed the Maker’s look by creating our distinctive typeface herself.
*Turns out Bill and Marjorie were good at creating bourbon, but not so great at genealogy. Bill, Sr., was actually the sixth generation of the family to carry on the distilling business. Oh well, at least we got the whisky right.
At last! In the Fall of 1959, Maker’s Mark was finally available for market after six summers of aging. The first bottle was four-fifths of a quart and sold for $6.79 a bottle. Like every single bottle of Maker’s Mark to this very day, it was hand-dipped in our signature red wax.
The first case sold to Keeneland Racetrack in Lexington. 250 cases were sold in year one, all within the state of Kentucky.
Our company made its first profit. Nearly one thousand dollars - but that’s only because Bill wasn’t drawing a salary.
That same year, Bill’s son, Bill Samuels, Jr., also joined the company. Bill, Jr.’s previous stints as a rocket scientist and lawyer proved excellent preparation for the whisky business.
Bill, Sr’s daughter, Leslie, was hired in the Spring of 1968 to develop the first visitor’s program at the distillery. This became the catalyst for what would, over time, grow into the Kentucky Bourbon Trail®.
Bill Samuels, Sr., decided that Bill Samuels, Jr., was to become president (just of the distillery, not the whole country, thank goodness). His only advice - “Don’t screw up the whisky.”
Maker’s Mark became America’s first alcoholic beverage facility to be designated a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of Interior. It was at this event that Maker’s Mark happened to catch the eye of a certain The Wall Street Journal reporter.
The Wall Street Journal featured Maker’s Mark on its front page. This was the first time a privately owned company was so featured. The brand gained instant credibility in major urban centers and fine watering holes across America and around the world.
As a result of the interest in Maker’s Mark created by The Wall Street Journal article, five new telephone lines were immediately installed and all available family members were pressed into duty answering phones. Both Bills (Sr. and Jr.) spent a good part of the next two years answering letters from people asking where they could find a bottle of Maker’s Mark. This marked the beginning of 28 years of double-digit sales growth for our little handcrafted whisky.
The distillery expanded its capacity to meet growth expectations. And did so in true Maker’s Mark fashion: like no one else. Extra capacity wasn’t achieved by upsizing equipment or by making the process more efficient. It was achieved by replicating the existing 19th century equipment. So instead of one large, efficient distillery, we in effect created two identical, highly inefficient ones. Typical.
After 10 years of industry experience, Rob Samuels, son of Bill Samuels, Jr., and grandson of our founder, joined Maker’s Mark in January 2006 with the challenge of developing an international reputation for Maker’s on par with the one we enjoy in the U.S.
The first mature bottle from the 2002 distillery expansion was finally ready for bottling, thus relieving several months of product shortage.
Our second big idea in 56 years: in response to innumerable requests over the years from our drinkers, our Master Distiller created Maker’s 46 - a slightly bolder, spicier interpretation of our classic handcrafted bourbon. The limited stock sold out in weeks without even a drop of advertising.
One era ended, another begun. After serving as President of Maker’s Mark for 36 years and guiding the growth of our whisky from a regional curiosity to a worldwide phenomenon, Bill Samuels, Jr., announced his retirement from day-to-day operations. He became Chairman Emeritus as his son Rob took his place as Chief Operating Officer. Meanwhile, things are about to get noisy around the grounds of the distillery, as another badly-needed expansion gets underway.