Sixth-generation distiller Bill Samuels Sr. purchased the Burks’ Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, for the sum of $35,000 in 1953. Setting his only copy of the family’s 170-year-old bourbon recipe on fire, Samuels experimented with different flavouring grains for a new mash bill by baking loaves of bread – saving years of ageing time. Substituting the traditional rye grain with red winter wheat, the hot bite of rye gave way to a delicate sweetness that has been the hallmark of Maker’s Mark ever since. Samuels is reported to have said “Give me a bourbon that won’t blow my ears off.”
Samuel’s wife, and co-founder of the brand, Margie, aimed “to bring good taste to tastes good.” She developed every part of the brand’s iconic imagery: the shape of the bottle, the look of the label, the signature wax seal, and even the name itself. Inspired by the ‘maker’s marks’ that pewter whitesmiths put on their best works, Margie created her own mark by combining a star for Star Hill Farm, the family home, an ‘S’ for Samuels, and the roman numeral ‘IV’ to reflect her husband’s status as a fourth-generation distiller. While Bill Samuels Jr. later discovered that his father was actually sixth-generation, the mark became part of the fabric of the brand. Margie was also responsible for the investment in the distillery, making sure that for each dollar invested in the bourbon, another would go to restoring the distillery’s building and grounds. For all her efforts, Margie became the first woman involved with a distillery to be inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.
A family concern
In 1975, Bill Samuels Jr. took over as president and embarked on a campaign to promote the little-known bourbon, eventually helping Maker’s Mark become one of the world’s most recognised bourbon brands. In 2010, Bill Jr. created Maker’s 46, the brand’s first major new product in 50 years, using an innovative wood-stave-finishing technique. The following year, Bill Jr. retired at the age of 70, with his son Rob Samuels succeeding him as Chief Distillery Officer. While Rob continues to make sure the whisky isn’t ‘screwed up’, the Maker’s range has evolved to include the original Maker’s Mark, cask strength releases, Maker’s 46, and Private Select – a series of customised expressions crafted with the wood-stave-finishing technique pioneered by Bill Jr.
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