Distillery Focus

How Maker's made its Mark

When TW Samuels VI first produced Maker's Mark he was dismissed as a crackpot. But he succeeded in changing the image of bourbon forever, and the sector is still benefiting Dominic Roskrow reports
By Dominic Roskrow
To fully understand just how revolutionary Maker’s Mark was when it was launched you have to go back not just 50 years to that time, but further back still. To 1946, in fact, when the classic film It’s A Wonderful Life was released.“There’s a scene in that movie when George goes with Clarence in to Nick’s bar,” says Maker’s Mark’s vice-president for production Dave Pickerell. “George orders whiskey and Nick takes the bottle – there is only one bottle – from the shelf and pours him a whiskey.“Then Clarence asks for a mulled wine and the atmosphere in the bar changes. He changes his mind and asks for a flaming rum punch instead. The piano player stops playing and the crowd parts to let men through to remove him.“Then Nick leans across scowling and says ‘listen, we sell hard liquor here to men who want to get drunk quick.’“That was the image of bourbon back then. It was man’s drink for drinking in bars. And it was a sector in serious decline. “At that time there were about 200 distilleries but they were closing at a rate of about one every six months. Bourbon sold about 19 million bottles but it was falling away at a rate. We now sell about nine million. And in these circumstances Bill Samuels decided he wanted to launch a new whiskey.”Bill Samuels Junior takes up the story.“Truth be told if it had been good times dad would not have been able to buy the distillery. It cost him $36,000. He had sold TW Samuels Distillery and then served in the navy before retiring from the whisky business.“But he was getting under mum’s feet. He decided to start making whiskey again but he wasn’t interested in using the old family recipe.”So he burnt it. Unfortunately he managed to set fire to the drapes and nearly set fire to one of his daughters. Somewhat in disgrace he headed off for the kitchen and started baking bread – lots of it – to find a new way of making bourbon.“He wanted to make a bourbon for non-bourbon drinkers, one which tasted good.Back then we were in Whiskey Row and all the other distillers would show off what they were doing and share ideas.“Dad got a lot of help but they didn’t really understand what he was trying to do.Colonel Beam said ‘I would help you but who wants a sissy whiskey anyway?’ He had the good sense not to get side-tracked when everyone thought he was crazy.”What he created was a bourbon that impacted on the front of the tongue, a sweeter bourbon than was traditional.“He took all the bits that make up bourbon and put them back together in a different way,” continues Bill. “Malt drinkers do not care much for what he made because it is too easy and it has a sweet taste. They don’t take it seriously. But that’s what he made and what he wanted to sell.”If the idea of the bourbon was all that of Bill Samuels Senior, the packaging and early marketing was all his wife’s. It was she who spelt whisky without the ‘e’. It was she who came up with the distinctive red wax top, basing it on old cognac bottle designs. And it was she that came up with the name and label.“Dad didn’t want to put the distiller’s name on the bottle and mum said that all good craftsmen had their names on their product,” recalls Bill.“They argued about it all evening until mum came up with the idea of putting the mark of the maker on the bottle. She collected fine English pewter and said that they only put their name on the finest work. ‘See’ she said to dad, showing him an example, ‘that’s the maker’s mark.’ 'Okay’, said dad, and we all went to bed.”It was only later, though that Bill junior noticed a mistake. It says S IV on the label, but Bill Senior is actually Bill Samuels VI. “I asked dad about it,” recalls Bill. “I said that while mum might have made a mistake or could have been dyslexic, surely he had spotted it. ‘Son,’ he said ‘ by the time we got that far I was so beat up with arguing with your mum I just let her have her way.’ “And so Maker’s Mark was born. Now there was just the small matter of selling it. “My dad had no love of marketing and all that sort of stuff,” says Bill now. “But he had taken a big risk and we knew that now people had to buy this stuff or we were going to starve.“This ain’t no poverty story but even so at times it was tough. Our job was to get beyond the baggage of our heritage and transcend the boundaries. We went through some fairly difficult times to fund this thing.”Bill Junior is modesty itself but his role in the success story that is Maker’s Mark in the years that have passed since the first bottle rolled off the production line in February 50 years ago is immense. Now in his mid 60s, he remembers being taken out of school to see the first Maker’s Mark roll out, and he has been intrinsically linked with the brand pretty much ever since.He’s a charming, kooky and unconventional man who brought to the story the sort of marketing skills that his father so eschewed. His original approach to business and to advertising – which he believes is related to the way he processes information as a result of his own dyslexia – has at times been irreverent, controversial and utterly compulsive and hilarious. As is watching the colour drain from the faces of his staff as he recounts a series of non-printable anecdotes involving dead horses and Catholic priests to a journalist he has known less than 24 hours.Today Maker’s Mark is integrated in to the fabric of Kentucky and when we arrive at the distillery itself, travelling across country through fields that once grew tobacco, it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a delightful exercise in pretty picket fences and red awnings, set in an arboretum.Inside the distillery itself walls are adorned with pistols from the Civil War and a letter to a relative from Abraham Lincoln thanking him for the suggestion that he should stand for President and graciously declining to do so because he doesn’t think he has the right qualities.Now owned by Allied Domecq, Maker’s Mark whisky is made exactly as Bill Samuels Senior wanted it to be made. It immediately becomes clear that it isn’t the easiest or cheapest bourbon to make.“Could we make it any cheaper? You bet,” says Dave Pickerell. “We could save millions right away just by doing the same things as others. Just converting from a rolling mill to a hammer mill would save a few hundred thousand right away. Changing our policy of moving the barrels in the warehouse would save a few hundred thousand more. We could make savings on ingredients.“We could move to a place where there’s a much larger water source because we’re going to be hitting capacity here pretty soon. We could do all those things but we wouldn’t be making Maker’s Mark any more. Thankfully Allied acknowledges that quality is much more important than cost.” The rolling mill is the first crucial element to why Maker’s Mark is so distinctive and different. The bourbon contains 70 per cent corn, 16 per cent malted barley and 14 per cent winter wheat, which replaces the rye used by most distillers.The grains are brought in from local farms and have to undergo intense scrutiny before they are accepted. No genetically modified crops are used (“I don’t know about the science but there’s definitely a customer preference issue,” says Dave) and a complete history of implantation,
fertilisation and growth is required.The hammer mill operates at a third of the speed of sound and suits most bourbon distillers.“Corn is very hard and the better the corn is milled the more starch and therefore alcohol you get,” says Dave. “Productivity wise that’s what you want of course, so turning the corn in to flour is desirable.“The trouble is that a hammer mill produces heat and this torches the grain and scolds it. That in turn produces the bitter taste we are trying to avoid. “Roller mills create a wholemeal rather than a flour but they do it at room temperature. You lose some alcohol but you don’t get the bitterness.”The same cost inefficiency is present right through the distillation process. To preserve the delicate taste of the wheat, distillation takes place through a narrow range of temperatures and first distilled to 120 proof (60% ABV), the lowest in the industry. The second distillation is at just 130 proof (65%).Once made the ‘white dog’ as it is known at one day old, is diluted to 110 proof, and stored in barrels. This is a lower strength than any other bourbon and it means that each barrel will produce less bottles than any of the company’s rivals.“But we believe the lower strength gives more flavour to the finished whisky,” says Dave.The cash investment extends to the warehouse and barrels, too. All bourbon must be matured in new charred American white oak casks but in the case of Maker’s Mark, each is air-dried for nine months including one summer. Hard walnut bungs, as opposed to the softer poplar bungs are used to seal the casks, allowing access to the whisky for tasting during its life.Each barrel starts life at the top of the warehouse, where it is hottest, and where it will stay for three years. After that it is regularly tasted until it is deemed ready to move down to another part of the warehouse for the completion of its ageing.It’s a highly labour intensive process. “It probably costs an extra $5 a barrel and there are about 175,000 barrels each here for six years,” says Dave. “We have to keep about an eighth of our warehouse storage space free to make this possible. It isn’t cheap.”The end result though is one big success story. Try this fact. Maker’s Mark only makes whisky that is already spoken for, so the whisky stored in the warehouse is already sold. And the casks in storage now account for about the half the total number of casks it has ever filled.In other words, Maker’s Mark will sell as much whisky in the next six years as it did in its first 44.Bill and his wife Nancy refuse to allow me to stay at a hotel and make me their guest for my stay. The Samuels homestead, set away from civilisation and overlooking the Ohio River, is at once a warm Kentucky home and fast track history lesson.The family, says Bill, has always been good at saving things, and the walls of the house are covered with old Southern memorabilia, including handguns from the Civil War.I’m not sure it gets much better than sipping Maker’s Mark on the veranda as an evening storm rolls in over the Ohio and listening to Bill’s stories; of how he is related to Frank and Jesse James (“hey, you can’t choose your relatives,” he says); how his great great grandfather negotiated the end of the American Civil War at the family homestead when he persuaded the James brothers and other members of the Quantrill guerrilla army to surrender; and his friendship with singing legend Rosemary Clooney, the auntie of current Hollywood heart-throb George.As the guests begin to arrive for one of Bill and Nancy’s many house parties, Bill stares out in to the twilight and says, “we’ve come a long way, but dad would have been pleased that so many people are drinking his whisky. And that we stayed true to what he wanted to achieve.”And then, in contented silence we drink to that thought.