“I was brought up to believe that Scotch whisky would need a tax preference to survive in competition with Kentucky bourbon.” —Hugo L. Black, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, June 1, 1964
There’s a long historical legacy of bourbon in the U.S. Well-known politicians and personalities such as Lyndon Johnson and Mark Twain were bourbon drinkers. On the centenary of the birth of President Harry S. Truman, in May 1984, his daughter, Margaret Truman, remarked to a joint session of Congress: “He was prouder still to be a member of that even more restricted group, Uncle Sam Rayburn’s Board of Education—the Bourbon and Branch Water College of Congressional Knowledge.”
Coincidentally, 1964 is also the year that bourbon was declared to be “America’s Native Spirit” by an act of Congress. From bourbon’s beginnings in Kentucky in the late 1700s until today, this distinctively original American spirit has earned a special place among the whiskies of the world.
Returning in the 1930s after Prohibition, with a number of new bourbon makers setting up their stills in the Kentucky hills, bourbon drinking in the U.S. was steady for the next few decades, but unremarkable. Then the single malt whiskey craze hit in the late 1980s. Bourbon makers took notice. A response was necessary in order not to lose too much market share; Maker’s Mark Kentucky bourbon is a perfect example.
Maker’s Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whisky from the distiller of the same name has a reasonable argument in claiming that it pre-dated the superpremium, small-batch bourbon revolution—as far back as the 1950s.
In 1780, Robert Samuels, a third-generation Scottish-Irish immigrant, arrived in Kentucky. He was a farmer who made whisky on the side. His grandson, T.W. Samuels, began a commercial distillery in 1840 at Samuels Depot, the family farm. Sales went on this way until Prohibition.
In the 1950s, after serving in the U.S. Navy, Bill Samuels, Sr. decided to continue the family business, but with a change. As his son, Bill Samuels, Jr., the current president of the company, tells the story, his father didn’t want to make and sell “pedestrian whisky” or, as his mother called it, “the stuff that could blow your ears off.” So Bill Senior took the 1780 bourbon recipe and burned it in an elaborate family ceremony—also setting the drapes on fire.
The old-style family bourbon was harsh. It had a bite and bitterness with a sour finish. Bill Jr. said it—and other old-style bourbons—were like the “unrefined uncle at the family party.” Bill Sr. experimented with new bourbon recipes in a novel manner. He baked breads in the family kitchen with different grains, using locally grown corn, wheat and barley. It was in this way that he decided to replace rye in his bourbon with red winter wheat. This is the ingredient that gives Maker’s Mark bourbon its soft flavors and mouthfeel.
Visitor dipping Maker’s Mark bottle.
In 1953, Bill Sr. bought a small distillery in Happy Hollow, Kentucky, and began producing his new bourbon. His wife, a collector of 18th-century pewter and French Cognac bottles, created the distinctive four-sided, long-necked bottle out of papier-mâché. She also suggested the idea of the name for the bourbon, explaining to Bill Sr. how pewter makers always placed their ‘mark’ on their creations. As a student of calligraphy, she added more to the original design by creating the hand-torn, hand-lettered typeface label, which is still printed on the distillery’s letterpress. And to top it all off—literally—she suggested dipping the tops of the bottles in red wax. This top has become a hugely successful symbol for Maker’s Mark bourbon. Each bottle is still individually hand-dipped and no two bottles have the same tendrils of dripping wax. Maker’s Mark bourbon was sold for the first time in 1958.
Bill Samuels, Jr. entered the family business in 1982 as the seventh generation Samuels. This was after stints as a rocket scientist (he helped design the fuel injector nozzle for the Polaris IIA) and as a lawyer. Maker’s Mark claims to be the oldest distillery continuously operating in its own site. That site, Starr Hill Farm, was built in 1889 and has been restored. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1980.
Maker’s Mark bourbon is bottled at 90 proof. Each batch is hand-crafted in amounts that are less than 19 barrels in size and with a mixture of 70% corn (from southern Indiana and central Kentucky and never genetically modified), 16% soft red winter wheat that comes from 20 miles or so of the distillery and 14% barley. Bill Jr. said that an aging period from five years, nine months to seven years is “perfect for Maker’s Mark.”
For more information, www.makersmark.com.
Gregg Glaser is the editor of Yankee Brew News and the news editor of All About Beer Magazine. He writes about beer, saké, spirits, cider and mead for many other publications.