Distillery Focus

A Mark of Difference

With its instantly recognisable red wax sealed bottle, Maker's Mark has a story to tell
By Dave Waddell
It's easy to get press if you do new innovative things. (But) if you're an old hedgehog doing what it's always done..." Dave Pudlo, Distillery Education Director, master storyteller and the man who very kindly cut short his weekend to show me around Maker's Mark, Loretto, is too damn good at his job to finish the sentence. Instead, eyes alight, he waits (again, kindly) as I begin to unpick the theatre of his metaphor: Nobody - not Pudlo, not Rob Samuels, President and CEO, Greg Davies, master distiller, or the retired and yet ever-present Bill Samuels Jr - really thinks of Maker's Mark as being so familiar as to be unworthy of news.

Familiar, perhaps. Unworthy, no. In fact, Maker's Mark has made good hay from the singularly familiar, its primary selling point being that it has found Bourbon's Holy Grail: namely, since its founder T. William 'Bill' Samuels Sr., having in 1953 bought and restored the Burkes Spring plant on Star Farm, ceremoniously burnt the family's 170 year old Bourbon recipe, and so precipitated - with the strike of a match, a number of intense bread making experiments, his wife Marjorie Samuels's eye for bottle design, for identity and brand, and some proper start-up help from friends in the know - a super premium wheated Bourbon specifically made, says Pudlo, to 'taste full flavour, but front tongue and mouth watering'. In other words, and on the advice of luminaries such as Hap Motlow, Jere Beam, Ed Shapira and Pappy Van Winkle, all of whom offered to share yeast samples, one perfect whisky, made one way, forever. Which isn't, of course, the whole story. I've left out the generations of Samuels who subsisted on that old recipe Bill Sr burnt - including Bill Samuels Sr himself, who worked with his grandfather and father at the TW Samuels Distillery. Plus it bends historical fact. All evidence, for example, points to the recipe being burnt ten years earlier, the much more prosaic reason being Samuels Sr's decision to retire from whisky making, having failed to raise enough money to buy the then for sale family distillery. Also, the real origins of its replacement aren't as homely and bread-centred as one would suppose. More than help with strains of yeast, there's little doubt that Van Winkle's Stitzel-Weller Distillery passed the ins-and-outs of its wheated Bourbon recipe onto Samuels Sr. Certainly, as whisky writer Chuck Cowdrey says, the Stitzel-Weller distillery was very much at the forefront of his mind when it came to having Vendome make the stills, and Elmo Beam, Maker's first distiller, had worked there, so rather than reinvent the whole world, Samuels Sr, it seems, took the highway of common sense, fine ideas and self-belief: he consulted his friends, borrowed what he could, mined the skill-set of America's preeminent distilling family and went on to make a new, expensive and very different Bourbon. The strength of this, the Maker's story, is that what we are talking about here, to subvert Pudlo's analogy, is one seriously precocious hedgehog; for its sweet, soft, nearly no finish, front-of-mouth loving whisky was genuinely something else. Samuel Sr's microscopic level of attention to every aspect of production flew in the face of a decade raised on semi-industrial whiskies. He was different. He laid out his well researched mono-stall. He pressed Go - once. He set in motion a method for making a whisky that has not, ostensibly, and until the recent introduction of Maker's 46, changed in nearly 60 years. Here it is. Water from the farm's limestone spring. Locally sourced grains, milled by a roller and not a hammer mill - which, if used, say Maker's, would lend a certain unwanted bitterness to the grain. A mash bill that stands at 70 per cent corn, 16 per cent red winter wheat and 14 per cent barley, its high wheat content one of the main reasons for Maker's signature sweetness. "A low and slow cook," says Pudlo, in open cookers (and tackled in a style common to nearly all Bourbons: that being, a portion of sour mash or 'setback' - acid-heavy slurry from the previous distillate - added to the water, together with the corn and a dose of 'pre-barley', then brought to the boil, after which the temperature is intermittently dropped to allow, first, for the wheat, and then for the rest of the malt, the overall pace and range of temperature the enemy of heavy cogeners). An amalgam of three strains of yeast, propagated on site. A three to four day setback regulated fermentation. A double distillation, the first in a 16 plate rectifier, the second in a doubler, the final distillate a relatively small batch worth 19 barrels. A diluted-to-110-proof new make, matured in yard cured new oak barrels, on a rotation basis, for between 6 to 7.5 years. Bottled on site. Maker's Mark. Thus a whisky that (and despite, from Elmo Beam and his successor Sam Cecil right through to Dave Pickerell, Kevin Smith and Greg Davies, a long line of master distillers) stayed true to a process that, on the face of it, meant never experimenting, never doing anything new, never making anything but Maker's Mark the Maker's Mark way. As Pudlo explains, what Samuels Sr wanted was a one great Bourbon. What he did not want was it being introduced to various key corrupting 'multipliers', alternatives to the singular truths of Maker's water source, recipe, grain preparation, cooking methods and distillation process, wood policy and warehouse practice. "Our math is so simple: 1 x 1 x 1 x 1 x 1 x 1 x 1 = 1." Do the maths. Change nothing. We are done with innovating. This is funny, and typically provocative, and practically speaking, as everyone at Maker's knows, only properly true in the abstract. Time and space are real things. Seasons change, as do people, the quality of grain available, equipment. Making whisky's by no means an exact science. Recipes are living organic things. Quantities of things are not pure numbers. Crazy to say, given its size, and its potential for being binary's perfect gift, Maker's remains proudly non-computerised. It's a whisky, a complexity, a profile, managed by the know-how and skills of real people, by the stills men, the rickhouse workers, the in-house team of tasters that do what no machine, however sensitive, can do: feel, sense, drink Bourbon. Meaning, of course, that the story of the one, like a book, is more than its front cover, its blurb and pictures. Open it up, start reading, and things get properly interesting: What, for example, could be more interesting, as Bill Samuels Jr says, than Maker's being worth just 10 per cent to its cooperage's business, yet owning '60 per cent of the wood lying in the yard'; or choosing for 'structural reasons' to use barrels made up from 32 staves - and not the usual 34; or employing the only barrel rotation system in Kentucky Bourbon; or helping pioneer tongue and groove barrel heads; or walnut bungs; or having to select 150 barrels - sourced from different warehouses, and different floors - from which to blend for that single 60 year old taste? How else to explain, for example, Dave Pickerell - who can tell by taste a whisky to within a tenth of its proof, and who knows as much about the biochemical structure of Bourbon as I do the sounds of my mother's voice - putting in a 14 year stint, if all he had to do was press buttons, tick boxes and count a few barrels? "Any idiot," says Pudlo, "can make whisky. But how can you make it taste exactly the same every time? That becomes very, very complex." Therein lies artistry. Pickerell's no idiot.

There's more. Part of its success lies in the very art of Maker's storytelling. Whatever it's light-hearted complaints, Pudlo's hedgehog doesn't need press - at least not to the degree that its competitors might. It has (or had) Bill Samuels Jr. It has Doe Anderson, the Louisville based agency responsible for Maker's advertising campaigns. Together, these two have spent the past 40 years constructing one of America's most recognisable Bourbons, and in such a way as to have us imagine that, like his father had always wanted, Maker's is today an 'American icon' by dint of word of mouth. Not absolutely true. Taking as creative springboard Bill Samuels Sr's gentlemanly dislike for advertising, and for money saving shortcuts, Maker's has paved the way for a form of storytelling: answering fans' letters in the newspaper, the gutsy logic of the 'tastes expensive and is' campaign, the legendary Wall Street Journal 'model of inefficiency' exclusive in 1980, the award winning brilliance of all those self-deprecating outdoor boards, the 'It Is What It Isn't' TV spot push, the Maker's 46 internet launch - that sees the over-the-fence humour in everything, even in something as serious as a Bourbon called Maker's Mark. It's a story so successfully told, so perfectly pitched, that Maker's is today a brand big and confident enough to sometimes, and famously, advertise without its name, the patented red seal a national semiotic treasure. Big enough, even, to ride the recent stock dilution debacle, apologise and see a 44 per cent spike in sales. "We have had," says Samuels Jr, "double digit growth for nearly 34 years." Maker's makes its press. All of which begs the question. A strong product, with a great story, doing extremely well: why, then, Maker's 46? Why change? Because if all the above are aspects - motifs, fine tunings - of the one, then the 46 constitutes a radical departure from an interior logic that has, until 2010, avoided the dreaded multiplier. Why change? For Bill Samuels Jr, it began as a joyous exercise in false ego, "as a joke. Rob (Samuels) was coming in and I didn't have a legacy." Todd Spencer at Doe Anderson and Kevin Smith point to the weight of consumer opinion, the distillery and Samuels Jr inundated with questions as to the possibility of the distillery ever coming up with a new expression. Maker's is owned by Beam Inc. Jim Beam aren't short of a new idea when it comes to their own output, and Victoria MacRae-Samuels, now Maker's Mark's Vice-President of Operations, is the woman who, under the late Booker Noe, was responsible for the science behind many a new premium Beam expression. Her appointment in 2008 will no doubt have signalled the prospect of a new mathematics. Also, as the strategic thinking behind its It Is What It Isn't campaign shows, 2009 represents something of a year of change, certainly in the marketing department. According to WINS, the agency recruited by Maker's to help identify new consumer targets, 'growth had slowed to low single digits' (yes, I know, but either WINS is exaggerating for effect or they're telling the truth), the reason being a mature and therefore static group of loyal fans, prompting for the very first time in the distillery's history a TV based campaign aimed at the so-called 'swing' drinker. Only natural, therefore, and I'm only speculating, that the 46 should be born of a time of significant change. Whatever the truth, I like it. The whisky, yes, but that's not the point. Many love the 46. Some remain steadfastly loyal to the original. Others like both, equally so, for different reasons. One or two argue either that the methodology is flawed, allowing for a slight bitterness, or even that Maker's have missed a trick, and ought to have gone the whole hog, dumped the corn, changed up completely and brought out an entirely different category of whisky - thereby preserving the single Bourbon status and doing something new. It's a world of opinion out there (and a good job too), but an expression finished, during only the winter months, for between 10 and 14 weeks, in a specially modified barrel containing 10 freestanding seared French oak staves is different, radically so, and as such very much deserving of our attention. To paraphrase from its own story making archive: A Bourbon that tastes even more expensive - and is, by $10 a bottle. It's brave (we all remember Coca Cola, so we all know how brave). And it's exciting. Very. 10 French oak staves?! Wow. It's an adventure into the future. So, to return again to that 'old hedgehog doing what it's always done...' I've been had. The wonderful Dave Pudlo's set me up. I've finished his sentence - as he knew I would. Maker's Mark is, and always has been, different. It began by aiming to produce a Bourbon unlike any other. It then took the highly original course - certainly in the world of Bourbon production - of making and selling just one whisky. It sold the whisky not just off the back of its own material virtues, but in the most carelessly careful way imaginable, using storytelling techniques that have earned it accolades normally reserved for the marketing departments of the likes of Nike and Apple. It continues to demonstrate how a small batch production facility can produce 1 million plus cases a year. And, when finally it made one become two, it came up with a method of finishing that may as well have come from the moon. It may still need a bit of help with its multiplication tables, but this old hedgehog is as familiarly unfamiliar as it gets - as well Mr Pudlo knows.

Tasting Notes

Maker's Mark - Flame orange

Distinctive caramel aroma. Hint of vanilla. Smooth and complex. Sweet, succulent mouth feel. Finishes at front of tongue.

Maker's 46 Rich seared-oak flavour. Caramel and vanilla notes linger on the front of the palate. Big mouth-watering oaky finish.

Fact Box

Maker's Mark Distillery 3350 Burks, Spring Road, Loretto, KY 40037 Tel: 01 (270) 865-2881 www.makersmark.com Tours of Maker's Mark Available from Monday through Saturday, 9.30am to 3.30pm; and on Sunday, March through December, 11.30am to 3.30pm

Further Reading

For an all round inside-outside view of the distillery, its myth making, history and significant characters, compare Bill Samuels Jr's light-hearted My Autobiography with Chuck Cowdrey's chapter on Maker's A Good Story in his Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey - both great reads.