Born into a distilling dynasty, Rob Samuels is the eighth generation to work in the family firm of Maker’s Mark.
Rob Samuels is trail-runner thin, with prominent cheek bones and a quick smile. In typical American fashion he wore chinos and a pale blue button-down shirt, tucked in when we met during the Whisky Live festival in 2010. Samuels is the President of Maker’s Mark Distillery, based outside Loretto, Kentucky, alongside a creek in the aptly named Happy Hollow.
Maker’s Mark is possibly the smallest bourbon distillery in the USA (though since 2005 it has been owned by Fortune Brands, the world’s fourth largest premium spirits company). And while the Samuels family have a long-history of bourbon making going back to their Scottish roots, Maker’s Mark is a relatively young brand. “The early American whiskeys – bourbons – were abrasive and harsh; stuff that would blow your ears off. Maker’s Mark was invented by my grandparents to appeal to consumers who didn’t like bourbon. We’ve even before Kentucky existed and trace our whisky making roots all the way back to Scotland where as early as 1530, the Samuels family were farmers in Scotland producing Scotch whisky. (Hence the spelling on Maker’s Mark is the Scotch spelling.) We, as a family, owned a distillery called TW Samuels, and we made a whisky for more than 120 years from a recipe that was passed down through generations.”
Meet the Family
The Samuels are steeped in bourbon and “wild west” folklore – one member of the family was the step-father of the notorious James brothers, Jesse and Frank. The Samu- els moved to America in 1680 and settled in Pennsylvania, where they farmed and made whisky. After the whisky rebellion Robert Samuels packed up and moved south to set- tle in Bourbon County, Virginia.
“He settled on a 1 000 acre (400 hectare) lot of land that was given to him. All he had to do was agree to grow corn and build a house. But, as with everything in life, nothing’s for free. There’s always strings attached. The strings attached to that land grant was that the people on this remote western edge of the county would fend off the Native Americans rolling in from the west.”
Bourbon County, Virginia, 10 years later in 1791 become Kentucky. TW Samuels built the family’s first commercial distillery in 1840. By then there were more than 200 commercial distillers in Kentucky, and really all of those produced equally horrible whiskey. As Samuels said: “With all the early American whiskies, the market was the cowboy. It was a harsh life and the whiskies reflected that harsh life. Our family whisky was no worse than all the others but it was still a thriving business.”
Ironically, the taste of Maker’s Mark was developed by Samuels’ grandfather, Bill – the man who sold the 120-year-old family-run business. He decided he wanted to be a banker. “Bill didn’t sell the TW Samuels distillery because he was rude or disrespectful towards his family. He simply did not have a passion for it.” Nor did he have an aptitude for banking. Samuels reckons his grandfather’s bank is the only one in the history of the US to open and close within 60 days. He fared no better when he went into the automobile business: it lasted six months before it went bust.
“All the distilling families in Kentucky are really famous for their incompetence at everything else. There are numerous stories of distillers going off and trying something else and failing miserably and my grandfather was no exception. It was my grandmother who, after having watched him fail at his bank and fail at his auto dealership, encouraged him to get back into distilling.”
Grandmother Marge Samuels was smart; the first woman ever to graduate from the University of Louisville engineering school – and first in class too. She met Bill Samuels Snr., also an engineering major: he graduated at the bottom. “Whenever they had a disagreement –not very often – she’d subtly remind him who graduated first in the class…,” says Samuels.
Back in business
But Bill Samuels said if he was going to get back into the whisky business it would be on his terms. “This meant he was not inter- ested in quantity; he was going to focus on quality. He was going to try for the very first time to bring together bourbon and good taste. Within the laws of making bourbon he’d break down each step of the process and spare no expense to craft a bourbon by hand that would get rid of that abrasive bit- terness of traditional American whiskey.”
In 1953, Bill and Marge Samuels bought a 640 acre (258 hectares) site in the rolling hills of Kentucky alongside a 15 acre spring- fed lake and set out to “chase his dream”. It is still the only distillery in America that has never utilised city or county water at any stage of the bourbon making process. Marge Samuels supervised the layout and design.
“I really marvel at two things: the first being was it even possible to make bourbon that tasted good, because no distillery had ever attempted to make bourbon with a fine taste profile – a premium-tasting, premium- positioned, hand-made bourbon? And, second, if it was possible, would consumers ever give a damn?”
But Bill Samuels was not a business man, he was a craftsman. “His measure of success was to make a bourbon he’d be proud to share with his friends. Maybe, one day, it would be celebrated in the nicest restaurants in the big cities in the South and the rest of the US.”
Bill Samuels started out making 19 barrels a day, and to this day, the batch size remains 19 barrels. By comparison, the average distillery in Kentucky produces over 250 barrels per batch and will make several batches per day. But the real change that Bill Samuels made was in the use of grains. All bourbons use three grains but must contain a minimum of 51% corn (maize). Traditionally, the two other grains are malt and rye. Rye is the flavouring grain that American distillers use and is what gives bourbon its abrasive taste characteristic.
“What my Marge and Bill did, in their family home, was they baked loaves of bread and experimented with potential flavouring grains. The decided that in place of rye they were going to use a soft red winter wheat, whole flavoured and balanced. But there is no bitterness.”
Maker’s Mark does not use any genetically modified grain – and never have – and all the grains are sourced within 100 miles, except the malt which comes from the Dakotas. Maker’s Mark is 70% corn, 16% red winter wheat and 14% malt. Samuels says that for the past three or four decades they have bought all their red winter wheat from a group of nuns in Loretto – the Sisters of Loretto – and apparently pay them in whisky.
The other big change Bill Samuels instituted was to cook his bourbon slowly and not pressure cook it. “When I say Maker’s Mark is hand-made, I mean it’s people who make Maker’s Mark. Even today, in the age of technology, there is no computer in our distillery. We’re the smallest distillery in America and we’re the only distillery that makes only one brand and we have more employees than any other distillery in Kentucky,” says Samuels. When he was appointed Chief Operating Officer, he promptly changed the title to Chief Inefficiency Officer. “My job is to make sure we don’t become efficient and we are the most inefficient distillery in the world.”
Distillers in Kentucky all build warehouses in a similar manner: six stories high, built on the side of a hill to get direct sunlight and to trap heat and humidity so there’s very little ventilation. Each batch size of 19 barrels starts on either the fifth or sixth floor which is where the intense ageing occurs because the heat rises. Samuels said one year of ageing in Kentucky “is the equivalent of four years ageing in Scotland. After two summers, they move those 19 barrels to the middle floors of the warehouse and then after a farther two summers, move them to the bottom. Samuels says Maker’s Mark is “the only distillery in the world that rotates barrels”.
The distinctive Maker’s Mark bottle (based on early cognac bottles), the name and the red wax seal were all products of Marge Samuels’ creative mind. “Because my grandfather was a craftsman — who leave their mark — she said he should call it Maker’s Mark. Each bottle is hand sealed by one of 10 women (who do almost a dozen bottles a minute).”
Samuel spent his summers as a child working in the distillery. “I am the eighth generation in whisky,” he says proudly. “And I always had respect for that, proud of my grandfather and proud of my father for not wavering. I never wanted my father to feel he had to hire his son so I spent 10 years doing other stuff in the industry. My goal was to get him to invite me back.”
He did so in 1996. And as bourbon began to look up, he started to look for new markets. South Africa is one of 12 countries where Maker’s Mark is available. His strategy is the same in each country: bottle by bottle. “This is not a brand you build over night. My grandfather did not like traditional marketing. Slapping the consumer on the rear end with a big message was not his style. We want to talk to consumers as friends and only if they’re interested. Once they are, we’ll share the heart and soul of what we do.”
Samuel drinks Maker’s Mark as a double over ice. “My grandmother liked it with a splash of ginger ale, but either way it has a unique, taste flavour.”