Field Trips: Maker's Mark Distillery
Keeping Marjorie Samuels’ vision, and the land, alive in Loretto
All photos by Amanda Schuster except where noted.
Marjorie Samuels might not have guessed that by the dawn of the 21st century, the Kentucky bourbon industry would draw thousands of out of town visitors a year. However, in the 1950s, she somehow had a sense that the new distillery she had just purchased with her husband was something worth showing off in ways others hadn’t been before. Decades before the words “bourbon” and “tourism” ever appeared in the same sentence, Margie gussied up the distillery’s campus in a grey and red color scheme and created the name “Maker’s Mark” (a stamp of quality used by pewter metalsmiths to mark their best work), using the e-less whisky spelling as a nod to the family’s Canadian ancestry, and sealing the deal with a distinguished dip of bright, red wax. In the hills of Loretto some good distance from major towns, her influence, which eventually earned her a place in the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame, loudly and proudly announced “Hey, y’all! There’s bourbon up in these hills!”
Marjorie Samuel’s original vision is still kept very much alive at the distillery, with a few changes, including the ability to now legally serve visitors tastes of the product—with its distinctly soft, wheated recipe created by her husband Bill. Their son Bill Samuels Jr. took the reins of the business in 1975, further propelling the brand into whisky stardom with a marketing savvy that included a series of cheeky ad campaigns (if you were around at the time you might recall the billboard that appears as though the bottle in the sign is pouring whiskey directly into a tanker truck on the highway below), and introducing Maker’s 46, the first new product variation in over 50 years.
I visited the distillery in February, and apparently missed Bill Jr. by mere minutes. While he can still often be seen on the Star Hill campus, he retired as the company’s president in 2011. His son Rob is now head of the operation, doing his grandmother’s vision for the distillery proud. “My grandmother was a woman ahead of her time and by opening the distillery to visiting friends and family, she has been credited with creating bourbon tourism as we know it,” says Samuels. “Today our tours still allow visitors from all over the world to experience our historic landmark distillery much like my grandparents’ friends and family did, but with culturally rich enhancements, like the stunning glass artwork by famed artist Dale Chihuly.” There are artful touches in places most distilleries keep fairly plain. At Maker’s, I witnessed how the whisky sleeps beneath a gorgeous, brightly-colored glass Chihuly installation. In the fermenter room, a fetching stained glass window by another artist with the Maker’s SIV symbol (S for Samuels, IV for Samuels Sr. as the 4th generation distiller) looks onto the campus. Over in the visitor’s center, more brightly-hued paintings and mosaics greet the crowds. “We want to make sure that every addition to the campus retains that hand crafted touch that makes stepping onto it feel like home.”
Protecting the bourbon means protecting the land
To conserve the land the Samuels have invested in over the years, Maker’s Mark hired Jason Nally as resident Environmental Champion. If that title sounds a bit fishy, consider Nally grew up in one of the farms adjacent to Starr Hill and holds a degree in Wildlife Management from Eastern Kentucky University, then interned at the KY Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Resources and the Nature Conservancy before holding government roles in wildlife protection and teaching the non-government sector about conservation. His job is to protect the ecosystem surrounding the distillery in the land that has long been his home. He founded the White Oak project to promote healthy forestry for decades to come. He is also in charge of protecting the limestone-filtered lake the property sits on, where he personally gave me a tour of the grounds and its grass plantings. He explained how he purposely lets it grow tall to manage proper filtration and runoff.
Nally is also working on a vegetable and herb garden, which will provide supplies for the distillery’s own on-campus bar and restaurant, Star Hill Provisions, overseen by Loretto’s own Chef Newman Miller. Like Nally, he grew up just down the road from the distillery. “The most important thing for us at Star Hill is making sure that our food is ‘of the place,’” says Miller. “That means sourcing as many fresh, local ingredients as possible and cooking and mixing drinks in a way that is distinctly Kentucky. Our Old Fashioned for instance, is made with Maker’s Mark Cask Strength and stirred exactly 100 times, because that’s the way my grandmother always did it, and I know it’s going to come out perfectly every time.”
I can attest it is indeed a fine Old Fashioned. I happened to be visiting on Valentine’s Day in time for a special dinner that was open to the public, however, I was told by the “regulars” at our table that just because it was a day celebrating romance, each dish from Miller’s kitchen is always made with the same amount of love and attention to detail. For instance, the brined quail wing that was perfectly tender in the right places and crunchy in the others, or the short rib with an insanely great whisky reduction sauce that didn’t feel too heavy--even the dual desserts of bread pudding in whisky sauce and dark chocolate pudding didn’t induce that “bluch” feeling (that’s a real word in my family) that can come after devouring a big meal. “For our dishes, I love using things that you can only get here. Believe it or not, I get my sausage from a local gas station here in Bardstown, because it’s simply the best around,” explains Miller. “Whenever possible, we get our produce from some of the distillery employees who actually operate their own small farms outside of their work at Maker's Mark. This way we know where everything is coming from, we know it’s fresh, and most importantly, we know it’s going to be delicious.”
And now for some whisky!
It wasn’t all biodiversity lectures and fancy food the day I visited—this was about whisky, after all. Before dinner, I had the opportunity to spend time with newly hired Master Distiller Denny Potter, who after years at Heaven Hill, has returned to the distillery where he originally worked with the late, great Dave Pickerell and Kevin Smith, eventually becoming Assistant Master Distiller in 2008. After some time working at Cruzan Rum in the Caribbean, he transitioned to Heaven Hill in 2013 until the role at Maker’s came up again in late 2018 with the departing Greg Davis. Potter did seem very much at home during my visit as he showed me around the buildings, including the state-of-the-art limestone cave cellar, a peak at the old letterpress label stamp machines in action and the wax bottle-dipping process. Whisky, of course, has a way of making people happy, but there was a noticeable bounce in his step.
After getting to dip my bottle (and indulging in a few pre-dinner Maker’s chocolate truffles temptingly placed on offer), I was given the opportunity to taste some barrel samples with Potter and Private Select director Jane Bowie. Maker’s Mark isn’t one of those whiskies that releases special variants on the regular. It’s Bowie’s job to make sure blends are consistent with the house style. The samples are tasted blind so there’s no prejudice based on the whisky’s age or barrel finish, and the provenance isn’t revealed unless it is chosen for a final blend. Hundreds of samples are tasted, and even if there is rousing, mutual fondness for the flavor of a particular whisky, it might not make the final cut because the flavor strays too far from what can be used to create the house flavor profile. I tasted a few rejects as well as some that were in the running for a Private Select bottle. I fell deeply in love with one of the samples (Potter took a liking to it too). In just under an hour, it was easy for me to proclaim, “F yeah, this is the one!” But this was Valentine’s Day after all. As they say, sometimes if you love something, you must set it free. I learned that whisky might not even be in the running. Final blends for Private Select releases can take weeks after all the proposed samples are tasted and evaluated.
My heart wasn’t broken for long, though. It was nigh on dinner time. But first, a round of Old Fashioneds with Potter, Bowie and assorted company by the fire. A hard days’ work was done. Cheers to Margie Samuels, love, and bourbon!