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Maker's Mark Makes 50

Jack Bettridge
Posted: March 26, 2004

(continued from page 1)

When Maker's Mark turned 50 this year, it was hard to determine whether that anniversary (in Bourbon years) made it a youngster, a senior citizen or, as it would with humans, middle-aged.

It's a conundrum because while the first barrel of the brand's whisky (Maker's Mark's spelling) was filled in 1954, many others factors belie a straight accounting of the Bourbon being merely middle-aged, as its year of origin would indicate.

Certainly older and younger brands exist, but Maker's could first claim seniority by pointing to its lovingly restored distillery in the picture-book hollow in Loretto, Kentucky. Of the 2,000 distilleries that were licensed in the state in 1810, this is the only one still operating, albeit in entirely spruced-up condition.

Furthermore, when Bill Samuels founded the company following a decade's hiatus from the industry (he had been general manager of the now-defunct T.W. Samuels Distillery), it was with the express intention of returning to the methods and quality standards of the handcrafted whiskies made a century before disenchantment with the state of the spirit had prompted the first gap in whisky production by a Samuels family member in more 150 years. A declining market following the interruption of whisky making by Prohibition had put other nations' whiskies in the forefront of American tastes, and the lack of demand had caused a drop in quality for Bourbon that Samuels could not abide by.

If. however, Samuels started the venture with the notion of returning to the old ways armed with a yeast culture that predated Prohibition, the first thing he did was to burn the old recipe. And that was the event that leads David Pickerell, the vice president of production, to claim that Maker's is also the youngest Bourbon on the market. While Pickerell (who helped Samuels's son, Bill Jr., torch a copy of the original recipe at the company's anniversary celebration) allows that new brands have been hitting the market quite regularly recently, he reasons that Maker's is the only one that is entirely new. That's because other venerable whiskies that have since entered the superpremium Bourbon market of late are offshoots of the standard whiskies made by their producers. The mashbills (grain recipes) are the same and production methods are unchanged. Those companies have improved their whiskies for the most part by cherry-picking the best barrels from their enormous supplies. (The one exception might be Woodford Reserve, but it has yet to release a whiskey entirely made from spirit run through its copper still at Labrot & Graham.)

Samuels started entirely from scratch in 1954 with a mashbill that replaced the rye that is usually in the mix of corn and barley with winter wheat. The change, while unusual, was not completely unheard of. What was probably more earthshaking was the diminutive level at which Maker's began production. To Samuels, handmade meant creating Bourbon in miniscule batches of 19 barrels in a day's run. And those barrels, rather than being set up in a warehouse to rest unmoved until bottling, were rotated around the rickhouse to be exposed to the wildly varying temperature environments.

Pickerell defends the practice by making an analogy to baking a pumpkin pie: "You start it at 425 degrees for 15 minutes and then you turn it down to 350 for 45 minutes and then you check it to see if it's ready. You slice it with a knife to see if it's cooked on the inside and if it's not you put it back and keep checking." Similarly, Maker's goes to a hot part of the warehouse for some three years, being taste-tested all through this period, which is called phase extraction, and then it is moved to cooler climes, where it mellows (and gets constantly monitored) for another two or three years.

The product of the low-yield and labor-intensive process was a whisky that eventually turned the Bourbon world on its ear. The Samuels family labored in relative obscurity of a few decades making an extra-high-priced spirit--it was the single-malt Scotches that first appeared in the United States in the 1960s that got most of the attention of connoisseurs looking for a better dram. Then, in 1980, the Wall Street Journal ran a landmark front-page article that recognized the high quality of Maker's Mark. Suddenly, America could be proud again of its only original spirit and the artisans who make it. A run on Maker's followed as well as a rush by other Bourbon makers to create superpremium products. While they didn't all follow Maker's methods they came to the same destination: a quaff of improved quality. And today, whatever his taste preference, every whisky lover owes a debt of gratitude to Bill Samuels for raising the Bourbon bar a half century ago.

Another substantial part of the package was the package itself, a sort of trapezoidal bottle with a free-form wax seal at the stopper. It was designed by Samuels's wife, Margorie, who also gave the whisky its name for the marks typically stamped on the pewter pieces, which she collected. In this case, the maker's mark was an S for Samuels, with the Roman numeral IV for the number of generations of Samuels that had made whisky (this is actually a miscount, it should have been VI), enclosed in a circle with a star for the Star Hill Farm at which it is made.

When the son, Bill Samuels Jr., joined the company, he put his genius for promotion to work, stumping his Bourbon throughout the world and, with the help of clever graphics artist Marty Jewett, an irreverent but also arresting series of advertisements, most of which made use of the familiar red wax seal.

But for years, while the marketing took off, production plodded along at that same turtle pace of 19 barrels a day and eventually shortages occurred. The company resisted the temptation to up production for a long time. And for the most part it also didn't issue even more precious ultra and hyper premiums as the other producers had done. The philosophy was always to make all the whisky at the same high level of quality. Pickerell points out that the company has no lower-priced brands in which to use spirit that didn't turn out well and so the pressure is to make it all good. Nevertheless, product is occasionally deemed substandard and dumped down the drain, a heartbreaking solution at best.

Corn entering the distillery, Pickerell says, "knows what it's going to be when it grows up," and that leads to a production environment where "quality is everything to everybody. Anyone who is working here walks around making value judgments. We live on value judgments."

Recently, demand has finally coaxed Maker's into doubling production (don't worry, it's still not at a stratospheric level) and that's been much of Pickerell's responsibility at Maker's. Before he was there, he had helped modernize Heaven Hill's huge facility in Bardstown, but when he went to enlarging the National Historic Landmark that is Maker's Mark's plant he was charged with the responsibility to retain its character and the same ethic of handcrafting. So while Maker's uses the latest methods for analyzing spirit "tasting is still king" and while they are considering "modern marvels" ways to deal with byproducts like spent mash, the overall look of the place must still be the jewel box that it is.

One of the main problems, Pickerell reports was that infrastructures -- roads, water lines, electric lines, sewage -- all needed to be improved. "We were the little engine that could and suddenly we needed a caboose."

The irony for Pickerell is that more than his changing Maker's Mark in doubling its capacity, it has changed him in terms of his mindset. "I was all ready to change things a few years ago by eliminating manpower and now realize we need everyone we have and I think, 'How can we keep it the same and just make their jobs easier?' he says. "My job's really easy: just don't screw up what we already have."

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