Bill Samuels, Jr.: Innovating by Tradition

March 26, 2017

Most bourbon distilleries release new products on a regular basis, developing large portfolios or peppering the market with rare and limited releases. In contrast to that trend, Maker’s Mark released just one bourbon for over 50 years. It seemed a surprise and a break with tradition when Maker’s 46 launched in 2010, followed by Maker’s Mark Private Select in 2016. But that’s not how it looks to the man who made them.

Distiller sat down with Bill Samuels, Jr., Chairman Emeritus of Maker’s Mark, to learn about the bourbon’s history, traditions and innovations.

Establishing Tradition

“This was my father’s hobby,” Samuels explains, describing the origin of Maker’s Mark. “His interest in commercializing it was zero. It was all organoleptic. He wanted to see if he could improve the whiskey that the family had been making over the years.”

Bill Samuels, Sr. wasn’t isolated in his mission. Unlike any other industry, bourbon distillers assist each other directly; Samuels, Jr. credits Pappy Van Winkle, Jerry Beam and Hep Marlow among many others with helping his father achieve his vision.

And then there was his mom.

“She was interested in helping him – and she did help him a little bit on the chemistry side because she had a chemistry degree and she was a super honors graduate at U of L [University of Louisville] – but where she really helped him, together they were the ones that started to connect connoisseurship to bourbon,” says Samuels.

Bill Samuels Maker's MarkMaker’s Mark Whisky Pours

Margie Samuels performed a trifecta of genius marketing for her husband’s bourbon: the name, the label and the signature red-wax dip. (For her extraordinary contribution to the bourbon industry, Margie Samuels was posthumously inducted into the Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2014.)

Their developments – a quality bourbon, soft and easy on the palate with no bitterness, combined with stand-out packaging – became the foundation on which Maker’s Mark built to become one of the largest bourbon brands in the world. But it wasn’t an automatic success.

The First Innovation: Creating Conversation

Bill Samuels, Jr. joined his parents in 1967, thirteen years after his father had started his new project. The bourbon was excellent but Samuels had a serious problem – no one cared.

“People just did not go to bourbons when they were interested in the finest,” Samuels says. “Hell, it wasn’t even bottom shelf.”

Samuels hit the road to ‘raise awareness’ but with a very basic goal: create a conversation about bourbon.

“All the public speaking that I did talked about bourbon. Talked about bourbon’s tradition. And it was always to the ad clubs, the chambers of commerce. It was never to traditional bourbon drinkers.”

With partner Doe-Anderson Advertising, he also launched a striking and surprising visual marketing campaign.

“The ad campaigns had nothing to do with selling whiskey. They had to do with getting people to smile … and the billboards, the objective was ‘How many people can we get to run into the guard rails?’,” Samuels explains.

He continues, “I spent ten years on the road before we had distributors, just getting ready for a miracle and the miracle was the Wall Street Journal.”

Sparking Maker’s Mark

The bourbon world changed on August 1, 1980. That’s the day the Wall Street Journal ran an article titled “Maker’s Mark Goes Against the Grain to Make It’s Mark” which extolled the inefficient and time-and labor-intensive process of making the bourbon. It included highly complimentary quotes from politicians and competitors, including James Thompson, chairman of Glenmore Distilleries Co., and Kentucky Congressman Tim Lee Carter who had recently praised Maker’s Mark on the House floor.

The article ignited the conversation.

Samuels says, “It started a firestorm … every good restaurant in the country had to have a bottle of Maker’s Mark on that day.”

The Second Innovation: Success in Shortage

The sudden, explosive demand for his product was overwhelming. “We got 35,000 letters that first week. We had to put in the extra phone lines … Dad and I spent every Saturday and Sunday answering letters. Answering people personally,” Samuels reminisces. “And all of a sudden you’ve got distributors – the same distributors who wouldn’t give us the time of day three days earlier – were now flying to Kentucky.”

Beyond the volume of inquiries, Samuels had another challenge – shortage. Samuels made two important decisions; first, don’t change the product and second, nurture the conversation.

Bill Samuels Maker's MarkMaker’s Mark Barrel Warehouse

“Once that Journal article hit, we had to make sure the discipline was in place for no shortcuts. We’re not buying any whiskey from anybody, which is the norm. We’re not doing it,” Samuels says. “Growth didn’t explode, conversation exploded. Because there’s a six year lag time if you’re not buying whiskey. It’s how do make the shortage work for you instead of against you?”

Maker’s Mark maintained their pricing and controlled distribution strategically to major urban areas, keeping the remarkability and excitement alive as more product became available over the next decades.

The 50 Years Following

This highly controlled strategy lasted through to bourbon’s dark times of the 70s through the 90s – when brands were being discontinued and distilleries were closing at a rate second only to Prohibition – and made Maker’s Mark one of the few brands not only to survive but to thrive.

Then the modern bourbon boom came bringing with it a world of innovation with experimental, special and rare releases the new normal. But Maker’s Mark still only had one product.

Samuels describes the company’s thinking, “We reached a conclusion, that had no foundation in fact, it just seemed like that we’re not ever going to be as good as others at throwing sh*t against the wall. We’ve got a very tightly defined product niche, all based on organoleptics. Our goal was to stay steady, get through the storm where innovation was all that mattered.”

With that mindset, one wonders where the idea and impetus for Maker’s 46 came from.

“46 had really nothing to do with violating that single-minded focus. But it was kind of a joke. And the joke was, Rob [Samuels] is coming into the company, and his first question to me was when was I going to retire?” explains Samuels. “So I went to our Master Distiller [Kevin Smith] in kind of a jest, and said I’m going to retiring in about three years and I need to have a legacy … and he took me seriously!”

The 3 Rules to Follow

As two technical people, Samuels and Smith first developed the criteria for the product they wanted.

On a whiteboard at the distillery they wrote ‘What would winning taste like?’ and over the course of six months, developed and summarized it into three simple rules:

1. It has to be yummy
2. Intensify, subtly but noticeably, the nose and the flavor without changing anything
3. A long finish but no bitter aftertaste

Bill Samuels Maker's MarkBill Samuels Jr.

“Dad had to move everything to the front of the palate. Which means it didn’t have a finish. Crisp, clean, gone,” he says. “So we said, wouldn’t it be interesting if we could have a long finish but no bitter aftertaste. … Kevin and I knew that the third one was impossible because bitter and long finish are the same thing. But we didn’t let that get in the way.”

So the scientists started their experiments. After nine months of failure, they had an insight.

The Final Innovation: Engaging Expertise

“We were about ready to quit and Kevin said, ‘I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we go talk to somebody who knows what the hell they’re doing and they can help us.’”

The natural fit was the team of wood scientists at Independent Stave Company (ISC), the cooperage that had been making the barrels for Maker’s Mark since 1953.

Beyond making bourbon barrels, ISC has a much larger division making wine barrels where scientists had spent years studying wood, wood shaping and wood cooking including time, temperature and heating method variations for vintners. For six months, the ISC scientists worked on the new bourbon challenge then held a tasting on the day after Thanksgiving.

Samuels remembers, “They nailed it. And we said, ‘How in the hell did you get that long finish?’”

The process involved searing air-dried French oak slats then putting ten of them into a fully mature barrel of bourbon for about nine to ten weeks. The searing caramelized wood sugars and vanillins in the surface and locked in the tannins which would otherwise produce bitterness. French oak was also one more important component.

“French oak also has something American oak doesn’t have which is cinnamon. The cinnamon hits you right on the sides about the mid-point back. That’s where the finish comes from,” Samuels says. “We were astounded. It’s not a great big long bitter finish but it does go back and it rebounds. And it’s soft enough where it doesn’t deter from the distinctive Maker’s Mark flavor but it certainly adds another dimension we had not had before.”

Next: Maker’s Mark Private Select

With the success of Maker’s 46 came a new opportunity. Maker’s Mark had never created a single barrel pick program because their barrels are rotated during aging making them too consistent to be of interest individually. But the experiments that led to Maker’s 46 offered the possibility of a different kind of single barrel program.

Bill Samuels Maker's MarkMaker’s Mark Whisky Barrels

After analyzing all of the variables and results of the experiments, they found five stave types with different combinations of wood origin, shape and cooking method, including time and temperature variations, that produced striking but complementary flavors when used to finish Maker’s Mark. Barrel customers are offered the opportunity to mix-and-match those five staves types and finish a barrel using a completely customized combination.

“People get to make their own and they don’t get to screw up our whiskey in the process. They get to enhance it based on their own palate preference,” Samuels says.

The process was limited to the winter months until recently with the completion of the Maker’s Mark cellar, which allows year-round temperature-controlled maturation for the Private Select barrels. But it’s still an intentionally limited program.

Samuels says, “We won’t let anyone buy a barrel unless they come to Kentucky and go through about a six hour process. There’s no shortcuts.”

Innovation is the Tradition

‘No shortcuts’ could be the Maker’s Mark motto as much as anything.

From Bill Samuels, Sr.’s determination to produce a bourbon with a specific, soft and easy drinking profile to Jr.’s persistence in raising the profile of not just his bourbon but the spirit category as a whole to the decision not to change the product after the ‘Wall Street Journal miracle,’ the story of Maker’s Mark has been one of a tradition of innovation within tightly focused visions.

Samuels agrees. “All that stuff Mom and Dad thought were important in the Fifties, they’re still being applied but in different ways. The values are the same,” he says.


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