Tom Bethel is the maître d’ and resident bourbon expert at Higgins, my favourite bar and restaurant in Portland, Oregon. Like all true professionals in the business of social arts, Tom has the effortless skill of making his guests comfortable, laying the foundation for a perfect evening of drinking, eating and conversation. Higgins is a busy place, so Tom often suggests a pre-dinner drink in the bar. It is one of those rare establishments where, no matter if the place is packed, the waves of the madding crowd will miraculously part, leading inevitably to an empty seat and a
smiling bartender.If Tom is still hanging around, a good maître d’ is never far from his guests, the conversation invariably turns to spirits. “Try this,” he says, as the bartender rolls his eyes, “with three small ice cubes and a splash of water.” He sets a bottle of Maker’s Mark Kentucky straight bourbon on the bar and heads back to work the front of the restaurant. Within 20 minutes, one more innocent has been converted to the great social lubricant of Kentucky.Tom lives up the street from me and, with the pure and unselfish motive of reducing unemployment in the Highlands, I have plied him with Highland Park, Mortlach, Ardbeg and even my precious The Macallan 18. All of Scotland’s phenols and esters, her fusel oils and aldehydes, have had little effect. Tom is an unreconstructed Maker’s man, and an evening with him leads inexorably onto his front porch, to polish off a bottle of the stuff.I was in Kentucky earlier this year and decided to set out on a pilgrimage, to discover for myself how the Maker’s spirit could take hold of an erudite and personable individual like Tom, transforming him into a missionary for this icon of the South. I rented a car in Louisville and proceeded to get hopelessly lost on the winding roads that lead to Loretto, the closest community to Maker’s Mark. I was about to turn back in frustration when I rounded yet another rolling Marion County hill, and there below me, in a broad and fertile hollow with sycamore trees standing sentinel, stood the organic cluster of buildings that comprise Maker’s Mark distillery.Maker’s Mark occupies Kentucky’s oldest whisky-making site, dating back to 1805, and is the only distillery in the nation to be designated a National Historic Landmark. The black and red trim buildings straddle the banks of Hardin Creek, the stream that dissects the serene valley floor of Star Hill Farm. On the road leading down to the creek, the visitor passes The Quart House, believed to be America’s oldest remaining ‘retail package store’. In a period before the dark hell of Prohibition, Marion County neighbours would swing by in their horse and buggy and have their quart jugs filled from the whisky barrels inside.A special southern alchemy takes place at Maker’s Mark, an alchemy that creates a truly hand-made whisky, America’s first premium, quality bourbon. The site is a repository of all that is noble about bourbon’s history and heritage.Bill Samuels Jr, president of Maker’s Mark Distillery and seventh generation Kentucky bourbon maker, was my spiritual guide through this heritage. His family has spent over $2 million meticulously refurbishing the distillery and restoring the grounds. “Restoration of the Maker’s Mark plant has been a labour of love for over 30 years,” he informs me, “so that the state of Kentucky could have a living museum of its first industry. The buildings give a sense of place and a flavour of time, authenticity and ancestors.”Bill, a charmingly candid Kentucky native, is imbued with bourbon culture and Kentucky pride. I asked him about the success of Maker’s Mark, a brand that actually increased sales in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a period when distilleries closed and other bourbons struggled. “We deal in customer service, individuality and product quality,” he explains, “all the things the big companies expound but haven’t the guts to do anything about. In our case the whole focus is on what’s going on at the distillery. Marketing has always taken a backseat to that.”His ancestors are Scottish-Irish, the fearless Presbyterian pioneers who provided the backbone of the American Revolution. In the first half of the 18th century, the Scottish-Irish families began their migration west from Pennsylvania and Virginia to Kentucky, and many brought with them their small hand-crafted wooden stills and mash tubs.The Reverend Elijah Craig, a Presbyterian turned Baptist minister, is often credited with ‘inventing’ bourbon in 1780s Kentucky. According to Bill Samuels, however, “bourbon was not invented; it evolved out of these Early Scottish-Irish families. Elijah Craig was a neighbour in Pennsylvania of Robert Samuels, my great-great-great-great grandfather. Robert migrated to Kentucky in 1780 and was a farmer by trade who made whiskey for himself and his neighbours. Of these early Kentucky families who were making bourbon whiskey, about 95 per cent were Scotch-Irish.”Robert Samuels’ grandson, Taylor William, established the family’s first commercial distillery in 1840 at Samuels Depot, the family farm. TW (Bill) enjoyed a long career as a distiller and created the first brand of Samuels’ bourbon. Taylor William passed the family’s bourbon recipe to his son, who in turn passed it down through his family and subsequent generations until it reached Bill Samuels Sr, who decided to reinvent bourbon.When Prohibition ended in 1933, the family enterprise needed outside money to help get it back in operation. Bill Samuels, Sr, although he became a major stockholder and was in charge of production, lost control of the company. Bill Sr eventually left the company but stayed in the industry, waiting for the opportunity to put his visionary ideas into practice. In 1953, Bill Samuels Sr finally found what he was looking for. He bought the Star Hill Farm, 200 acres of fertile farmland with an old country distillery on site and a deep, spring-fed lake on the hill above it. Bill Sr had no interest in making and selling the pedestrian bourbon of his competitors, so he scrapped the old family recipe and set out to create a premium sipping bourbon.“My dad’s goal was to create a bourbon that was more refined, palatable and yet full of flavour,’ explains Bill Jr, “something that didn’t have the hot aftertaste traditionally associated with bourbon. The purpose was not about money; it was about bringing good taste to bourbons, and he designed it for a palate of one, himself.” Bill Sr experimented with different grains for his bourbon, developing a recipe based on locally grown corn, winter wheat (softer and gentler in flavour than traditional, spicier rye) and malted barley. Mrs Samuels, meanwhile, came up with the name, Maker’s Mark, based on the tradition of English pewter makers who put their mark on their finest pieces. The symbol or mark of Bill Samuels still decorates every bottle of the whisky, as does another, Mrs Samuels’ innovation of the hand-dipped wax seal that spills down the neck of the Maker’s Mark bottle.By 1958, the first barrel of Maker’s Mark handmade whisky (spelled without an ‘e,’ a tribute to the Samuels’ Scottish-Irish ancestry) was ready for the market. Sales of the early Maker’s were gradual and local, spreading slowly by word of mouth among the whiskey connoisseurs of Kentucky. “By 1980 Maker’s Mark had become a Kentucky icon,” Bill says, “and then the Wall Street Journal ran a front page article about us that year, and the phone rang off the hook. The article was huge for us; it created consumer interest outside Kentucky and gave the brand credibility.”Bill Samuels Jr joined his father at the distillery in the late 1960s. “Dad put me in marketing to keep me away from the money,” he says, “and there was no money for marketing.” But Bill’s self-deprecating humour belies a canny and cerebral businessman who has inherited his father’s vision for the brand. Like his father, Bill Jr eschews the machinations of marketing companies and focus groups that would steal the soul from his classic brand. The few quirky and clever print advertisements that do appear are written by Bill himself.The distillery today is running at full capacity, producing around 300,000 cases a year. “For the last four years we’ve been on a roll,” says Bill, “with 25 per cent increases in bars in the urban markets.” But there’s no danger of Maker’s Mark becoming a Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam in terms of size. The distillery still adheres to its small batch (under 19 barrels per batch, 38 barrels per day), hand-made philosophy. “It’s staying within our abilities, not to screw the product up,” says Bill.I asked Bill what ‘hand-made’ meant in the bourbon business, and he directed me down the creek, to visit the master distiller, David Pickerell. Bourbon distilleries tend not to be tranquil, small or particularly pretty places. But standing on the original, polished wood floor of the distillery with David, I could see that things were done differently here, in scale and practice. The grist mill hummed quietly beside the shining copper beer still; an antique telephone and clock graced the walls; ancient cypress fermenters filled to the brim could be glimpsed in the next room; and the distillery cat snoozed next to the grain cooker. In this serene, traditional environment, David shared his whiskey knowledge.“The remarkable thing about Maker’s is that the bullshit is all real,” he candidly explained. “The whisky really is hand made, but not just with the hands, the rest of the senses are involved too, and there are value judgements made throughout the process of making this whisky. Before I came to Maker’s I designed automated distilleries, but I’ve become a convert to hand-made whiskey. Automation would ruin Maker’s Mark.”The mashbill for Maker’s is 70 per cent corn, 16 per cent wheat and 14 per cent malted barley. “We use soft, red winter wheat instead of the rye that nearly all the other bourbons use,” said David. “The wheat softens and mellows the whisky, taking the harshness and bitterness away. And we’re the only distillery that uses an old roller mill that grinds the grain gently. Other types of mills grind it too finely, which creates heat that scorches the grain and causes bitterness.”He went on,“Our fermenters do not have cooling coils in them so we have to pay attention during fermentation. Coils change the character of the beer. With our fermenters we get a better beer crust (grain cap) on top, which can be four inches thick. Maker’s is a genuine small batch whisky. We use the smallest amount of ingredients per batch, and each fermenter represents a separate batch.”We then leave the yeast to do its work and head back to the copper beer, or patent, still. “The beer still is one of the smallest in operation,” explained David, “and we do a true double distillation. The first distillation comes off the still at 120 proof (60 per cent alcohol by volume), the lowest in the industry. The low proof helps preserve the wheat flavours and aromas. This first distillate then goes into the doubler still as a liquid, and comes out at 130 proof. With a lower proof you get more grain character coming over, and our fresh distillate has a remarkable sweetness to it.”David then suggested that we take a wander through the meticulous grounds of Maker’s and here, in a landscape dotted with black metal-sided warehouses and 120,000 barrels of slumbering spirit, he described the ageing of the whisky, “The wood staves for our barrels are air-dried outdoors for nine months, and the process must include one summer. This helps take the astringent tannins out but leaves the vanilla in, giving sweetness to the whisky. The fresh distillate goes into the barrel at 110 proof instead of the more common 125 proof for bourbons. With the lower proof you get more extractives from the wood. We use more barrels this way, which is expensive, but the whisky ages better.“We’re the only distillery to rotate barrels in the same warehouse. Our metal-sided, wood racked warehouses range in size from three to six storeys and hold 3,000 to 20,000 barrels. When you place a barrel on the top rick of the warehouse, it’s like cooking on a high burner and you get lots of extraction from the wood. At the end of August after three summers we sample each lot of barrels and move them to a lower level where it’s more like a simmer, and this allows oxidation to take place. By gradually rotating the barrels we achieve an overall uniformity.”Most distilleries would be satisfied with bottling their mature whiskey and packing it off to market, but not Maker’s Mark. David wanted to show me the bottling hall where the final, hand-made signature takes place. On the way, he explained the importance of bottling Maker’s at 90 proof. “If you bottle below 86 proof, you have to chill filter the whisky, and this takes out some of the vanilla and caramel flavours.” In the bottling hall, a bevy of Kentucky women hand dips each bottle in red sealing wax. To relieve boredom, a different woman dips every hour, and David claims he can recognise the personalised dipping techniques of each woman on Maker’s bottles around the country. “Visitors have dipped just about everything in the wax,” said David. “We had a group from Texas last week who dipped their hats in it.” To relieve the bottling hall congestion caused by dipsomaniac tourists, the company has installed a dipping booth in its gift shop. The 40,000 visitors who make the pilgrimage to Star Hill Farm each year can buy a bottle and do their own dipping.My pilgrimage ended in the distillery office, sipping Maker’s Mark with Bill and David. I asked them what characteristics they look for in a glass of their whisky. “I look for an unequivocal sweetness,” reflected Bill, “a tightly focused taste profile on the tip of the tongue. You don’t want a sour grip on the sides. Wood equals acid, and too much age gives bourbon that acidic, bitter taste on the sides of the mouth.”“The finish is important,” added David. “Maker’s is sweeter than other bourbons. It has more caramel and vanilla, and has an afterglow down in the chest. There’s no fire alarm because we get rid of bitterness with the wheat, the wood and the roller mill.”Bill Samuels left me with this final comment: “The story of bourbon making in Kentucky is entirely a story of families. Almost every one of the state’s first families made the spirit. And whatever success we have had is based on people drinking Maker’s Mark and spreading the word to family and friends.”My friend, Tom Bethel, would agree with that.