The history of Maker’s Mark starts with John Samuels Senior who was a rector in the Church of Scotland at Samuelston, a small hamlet sixteen miles from Edinburgh, most noted for being where John Knock preached his first reformation speech. The remains of an old gristmill from the period can still be seen there. In 1702/3 John moved to Londonderry in Northern Ireland as part of the movement to convert the Irish to Catholicism. In 1713, John travelled on the first shipload of Scottish Irish immigrants to America. Was it just coincidence that the first recorded distillation of a grain mash (rye) in what was to become the U.S.A. was by members of this group of emigrants?
John Samuels Junior
Little is recorded about John Samuels Junior, the rector’s son but church records of his will show that part of the estate he left to his son Robert Samuels Senior included a whiskey still.
Robert Samuels Senior
Robert Samuels Senior became a farmer and rye distiller in south central Pennsylvania. A copy of a tax bill dated 1779 from the Pennsylvanian colony for a 60 gallon still owned by Robert Samuels now hangs on the office wall at Maker’s Mark Distillery. Robert had three sons, James, William and Robert Samuels Junior.
Robert Samuels Junior
In 1779 James and William Samuels claimed 60 acres of land in Kentucky on Robert Samuels Junior, their younger brother’s, behalf under the terms of the 1775 Virginia Corn and Cabbage Patch Act. A captain of the Pennsylvania Militia during the American Revolution, after mustering out in March 1784, Robert moved his family and still to settle on their assigned land near the Bardstown area. Robert became a captain in the Cumberland country militia and served six or seven seasons of six months each, returning between each to grow corn and make whiskey. During this period he was contracted by George Washington to make whiskey for the army.
Serving as Nelson County High Sheriff, his son William continued to run the family’s distillery as part of his farming operation. Interestingly records show that William was called with his father Robert to testify in 1819 as distillers at the case of a man charged with distilling illicitly.
Tailor William (T.W.) Samuels
In 1844, William’s son, Tailor William (T.W.) Samuels, established the family’s first ‘commercial’ distillery near Samuels Depot, Kentucky, on the family farm. A year later he introduced the family’s first bourbon to be branded under the name ‘TW Samuels Straight Bourbon Whiskey”.
He was a strong willed successful man and major land dealer, who, like his father, became Nelson County High Sheriff. In 1865 he asked for a pardon on the James Gang’s behalf and accepted their surrender on the front porch of his general store. As this was the last pardon to be granted to confederate soldiers he could be said to have played a part in the ending of the Civil War.
William Isaac Samuels, although employed by his domineering father, T.W., at the family’s distillery is noted for his role in the community rather than the distillery. He was a successful livestock breeder and founded a school, but perhaps most notably in the story of Maker’s Mark, he moved into the big house next door to Jim Beam. In 1898 he succeeded his father as proprietor of the T.W. Samuels Distillery but suffered an untimely death the same year.
After his father’s death, Lesley Samuels took over the running of the T.W. Samuels Distillery and he ran it until prohibition forced its closure in 1920. He was a very smart man who graduated with distinction from Richmond College and is credited with founding the first independent school district in Kentucky.
Lesley became the mayor of Bardstown and as the first State Highway Minister, is directly responsible for the local road network emendating from the town, where coincidently he also owned an automobile dealership. In anticipation of Prohibition’s repeal in 1933 Lesley built a new T.W. Samuels Distillery in Deatsville, a location nearer to the railroad tracks than the site of family’s original distillery. Like his father he did not live on the farm but took over the family residence next door to Jim Beam on what was termed ‘Distiller’s Row’.
Bourbon had started as a new frontier spirit to be knocked back in saloons by thirsty cowboys and it was yet to really develop into the more refined spirit we know today. The end of Prohibition saw smoother Canadian and Scotch whiskies flood into the American market and these started to change the American public’s perception of what a good whiskey should taste like. Bourbon distillers like Lesley were perhaps a little too quick back into whiskey production and consequently their products where harsh in comparison.
As the new distillery was being constructed, his son Bill Samuels, who had only graduated from college in 1932, tried to convince his father to produce a smoother style of bourbon but Lesley being more conservative insisted they stuck to the family’s old tried and tested recipe.
Tailor William (Bill) Samuels Senior
Tailor William (Bill) Samuels Senior inherited a minority share in the T.W. Samuels Distillery when his father Lesley died in 1936. He ran the distillery until 1943 when Roosevelt ordered all distilleries that did not have a column high enough to produce industrial alcohol for the war effort to be closed. Bill sold the distillery and the family trademarks and went into the U.S. Navy as a Lieutenant. He served for three years before returning to the family home next door to Colonel Beam and his wife Mary, where he helped to care for the elderly couple until the Colonel finally died in 1947.
Bill then moved away from Whiskey Row with the intention of retiring as a gentleman farmer in Bardstown. He quickly found he was not suited to the life of a farmer and started talking about creating a new bourbon whisky, one that was smooth enough to appeal to younger palates. He sought to change the family’s whiskey recipe to suit the new generation of drinkers and canvassed help from friends in the industry, including Hap Motlow (Jack Daniel), Jere Beam of Jim Beam, Ed Shapira of Heaven Hill, Pappy Van Winkle, and in his words, “that smart bunch at Brown Forman”. All of them provided yeast samples while Van Winkle also sent samples of distillate. With their advice and the encouragement of his wife Margie he set out determined to not only distil whiskey again, but to make a whiskey with more finesse.
Although uncommon, at the time there were a couple of bourbons in existence that used wheat rather than rye as the flavouring grain, one example being Pappy Van Winkle’s Old Fitzgerald. Bill thought such a mash bill would create the kind of bourbon he was after and experimented with the idea. Not wanting to wait the time needed to age bourbon, he famously based his blend of grains on the results of tasting loafs of bread backed using various grain combinations. As a result he substituted soft red winter wheat for the more traditional, spicier, bitter tasting rye. Having settled on his new mash bill he ceremoniously set fire to the only copy of the family's 170-year-old recipe in front of his family.
Convinced he had a recipe to make a new, smoother style of bourbon he now needed a distillery in which to make it, so in the fall of 1953 Bill purchased a 200-acre plot, which included the small rundown Burks Spring Distillery in Happy Hollow, near Loretto, Kentucky. In February 1954 he distilled the first nineteen barrel batch of his new ‘new’ formula whisky. Over the preceding five years while the whisky was ageing, his wife Margie Samuels set about creating an identity for the new whisky, a task made harder as Bill had sold the family name so this could not be used.
Margie collected fine English pewter, which then as it does today, was stamped with a maker’s mark to identify the manufacturer and this proved the inspiration for the Maker’s Mark name and the family’s mark which has a star for the old family Star Hill Farm in Bardstown, an ‘S’ for the family name, and ‘IV’ to signify fourth generation, (Bill) Samuels Senior’s place in the family line of commercial distillers (since T.W. Samuels in 1844). Thus, Maker’s Mark became the first Bourbon not to be named after a person.
Margie was something of a calligrapher and a collector of cognac bottles, she designed the hand-lettered typeface, the hand-torn labels, the squarish bottle, and inspired by cognac, the dipping of each bottle in red sealing wax. She even developed the natty pull-tap, which is still used today to break the wax seal. Although there are many other bottles of spirit that are wax sealed, the long tendrils of wax on each bottle of Maker’s Mark are unique and remain protected by U.S. trademark number 73526578. The first bottle of Maker's Mark was bottled and hand dipped on 8 May 1958 and they are still hand-dipped to this day.
Loyal Maker’s Mark fans very notably voiced their horror when it was announced in 2013 that the strength of Maker’s Mark would be reduced to 43% alc./vol. in an effort to fulfil booming demand for the bourbon. The Samuels family were quick to react to the backlash and hurriedly abandoned the plans.
The continuing shortfall between production and rising demand let Maker’s Mark to announce a $67 million distillery expansion plan in late February 2014. The announced addition of a third still to the existing distillery is expected to increase capacity by 50%. The building of new warehousing was also announced to accommodate the increased capacity.