A Journey Down The Whiskey Trail: Makers Mark

Have you ever grabbed a bottle of Makers and wondered about the red wax, or the star and circle? Well, if you are one of the millions of people from around the world who love the sweet flavors that this beauty in a bottle has to offer then I’m sure you have. 

Nestled in the hills of Loretto Kentucky along the banks of Hardin’s creek sits a beautiful plot of land known the world over as Star Hill Farm, home to Makers Mark. Established in 1805 as a gristmill distillery named Burks Distillery, it’s now the home to the oldest working distillery on its original site. It has also been registered as a National Historic Landmark. From its rolling hills and beautifully landscaped grounds, to its historic black and red buildings, visiting Makers Mark is a must when you’re on the bourbon trail.

A Brief Background of The Samuels Family

The Makers Mark story doesn’t get its start in Kentucky, or even here in the United States. It actually begins in the late 1600’s by a man named John Samuels Sr who was a rector in the Church of Scotland. In 1730, after moving to Ireland, John boarded a ship to America with what is now thought to be the first group of Scotch-Irish immigrants to make their way to this country. Coincidence or not, records show that the first distillation of rye mash came from the same group is Scotch-Irish immigrants. In the late 1700’s John’s grandson, Robert Samuels Sr. becomes a farmer is Pennsylvania and starts to distill a rye whiskey for the Pennsylvanian colony. 

In 1779, Robert’s sons, James, William, and Robert Jr, claim 60 acres of land in Kentucky under the 1775 Virginia Corn and Cabbage Patch Act. During this time, Robert Jr was serving in the Cumberland County Militia. When not serving with the militia, he would return home to continue to make his families rye whiskey. During this time, he was even contracted by George Washington to make whiskey for the army. 

In 1844 Williams son, Tailor William (T.W.) Samuels establishes the Samuels family first commercial distillery on the family’s land. A year later he introduced the first bourbon from the Samuels family distillery called TW Samuels Straight Bourbon Whiskey. The family distillery remains operational until 1943 under T. William “Bill” Samuels Sr. When President Roosevelt ordered all distilleries that didn’t have a column high enough to produce industrial grade alcohol for the war effort to be closed, Bill sold the distillery and the rights to its name. He then left and joined the Navy

The Makers Mark Story:

Returning home from World War 2, Lieutenant Bill Samuels Sr. decided to retire to a small farm in Kentucky with his wife Margie. After a while, she decided to give him an ultimatum. Either he was going to get a job or she was going to throw him out of the house. Not wanting to work anymore, he decided to try his hand at making whisky again. Not being a fan of his family’s recipe, he set to create something that was sweeter and smoother to drink. The whisky that his family once made was consider harsh, strong, and was like a punch to the face…. It was bad! Bill Samuels, Jr., often would say, “That shit will blow your ears off.”

His first course of action was to come up with a new recipe. Instead of using rye, which they thought was spicy and too bitter, they chose to experiment with wheat. Not having the time to wait on the whisky to age and mature, Margie decided to make bread with the different types of grains to see how they would taste. They ended up choosing the now famous red winter wheat. In 1953, Bill bought a 187-acre piece of land that housed an old rundown distillery, called Burks Distillery, for $35,000. His plan was to take his new recipe and try and make whisky as a hobby. In 1954 the first batch of Bill’s new Kentucky whisky was distilled, and 19 barrels of new make was set to mature. 

As the story goes. to celebrate the very first batch of his new whisky being made, Bill gathered all of his family, friends, and the other distillers who had helped create this new whiskey. To show his commitment to never return to the family’s history of making rough and horrible tasting whiskey, Bill grabbed an old yeast bucket and in it threw the only copy of their family’s 170-year-old bourbon recipe. He is then said to have poured lighter fluid over the top and dropped in a match. What he didn’t know was that due to the smaller opening at the top of the bucket, the next moments wouldn’t go as he had anticipated. When the fluid ignited, it shot a flame out of the top of the bucket like a rocket booster and just as the flames jetted out of the bucket, his daughter looked over to see what was happening. As she did her hair caught fire, singing her hair and possible catching a few drapes on fire. That appears to have been the first and last family ceremony. One could even say that Bill’s new recipe started off like a rocket!

The Woman Behind The Makers Mark

It is said that because of Margie’s marking and design skills that you buy you first bottle of makers, but it’s because of Bill’s skills in distilling that you buy your second bottle. Over the next five years, Margie set out to create a brand for Bills new whisky that was now sitting, aging and waiting to come to life. Being a school teacher, Margie had no design or marketing background – but what she did have was determination and an eye for detail.

Since Bill Sr. had sold the brand rights to the Samuels name, she had to come up with a new one. Being a fan and collector of English pewter, she saw that each of the prized pieces that she had collected carried the signature of the artist who made it known as a maker’s mark.  A sign of value and quality, she thought that Makers Mark would be a great name for their new whisky. The name Makers Mark was also the first whisky brand not to be named after a person, and the first to be named by a woman.

Next, they needed a bottle. When trying to think of a bottle design, she knew she wanted something that would show off the quality of Bill’s new handmade bourbon. Margie started looking at a small collection of 19th century cognac bottles that were all sealed in wax. She loved the idea and loved the design. Going back to her art skills that she had developed while being a school teacher, she designed the first Makers Mark bottle out of paper mâché. Once a bottle had been made, she began to hand dip the first bottles herself in red wax using a deep fryer from her own kitchen. She chose the color red because she thought that color would stand out on the shelf the best. Not only does Makers Mark still use that iconic red wax to this day, they now own the trademark for “Any color wax dripping down the neck”. While other brands do use wax on their bottles, you shouldn’t see them with those awesome drip lines running down the length of the bottle’s neck.. 

Every bottle needs a label to help tell the world who and what you are and again, there was Margie. She hand designed the Makers Mark type style used on all of their hand torn labels. She added a star in a circle to the label to represent Star Hill family farm (where the family lived), an “S” to represent the family name (Samuels) and the roman numeral IV (4) to represent the four generations of Samuels who were distillers. It was actually discovered later that Bill wasn’t a fourth generation distiller….. he was the sixth. Since the logo had become so iconic, they decided to leave it.

You will also notice that they spell Whiskey without the letter “E”. In honor of their Scottish heritage, they made the decision to spell it Whisky and not Whiskey. Little did she know then, what she had created would become one of the most recognized whiskey brands in the word today. The brand wasn’t the only thing Margie had her hand in. She was also instrumental in the look of the distillery. From the red shutters to the beautiful landscape, she had her mind set to make the Makers Mark distillery a destination to bourbon lovers from around the world. She was so adamant about how it looked that she even made Bill Sr. agree that for every dollar he spent on the bourbon, she could spend a dollar on restoring the ground of the distillery. 

In 2014, Margie was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon hall of fame as the first woman directly connected to a distillery. It’s hard to deny that without her efforts, Markers Mark would not be what it is today.

The Whisky

For the first twenty years or so, you could only find Maker Mark in Kentucky. Now it’s in every bar, liquor store, and restaurant that serves whisky. The first bottle sold in 1958 for around $7, which would have been considered lavish and high priced for the era. They kept that trend flowing all the way through the 60s where they coined the phrase “It tastes expensive… and is.” Now found for around $30, Makers Mark isn’t the most expensive brand on the shelf, but its still one of the most consistent pours on the market. 

All barrels of Makers Mark start at the top of the barrel house which holds the highest in temperature in the Kentucky climate. They spend a minimum of 3 years at the top before coming down to the lower levels to continue their aging. Worth noting is that all of the barrels are still moved and rotated by hand, just like they did when they first started. After being aged for 5-7 years, Makers Mark then focuses more on the taste than the amount of rest when determining what is ready to be bottled.

When Bill Jr. took over as the President of Makers Mark in the 60’s, his father’s only advise to him was “Don’t screw up the whisky!” As we now can see, he didn’t. in 2010 he oversaw the first addition to the Makers Mark brand in over 50 year, Makers Mark 46. A whisky that brand lovers instantly fell in love with. Today Makers is being led by Bill Jr.’s son Rob whose goals are to honor the past and his family’s history while figuring out how to bring his family’s whisky to the world. I’m sure that when the bottle was passed to him, he was told the same thing his grandfather once told hid father. “Don’t screw up the whisky!”

As always, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to read this. I love good conversation and being able to hear about what you enjoy or what you didn’t. Until the next Whiskey (or not so whiskey) Wednesday, if you’re going to enjoy a little smoke & oak just remember, “Life’s too short, enjoy the good stuff”…. and do it responsibly!