The Maker’s Mark Story
Talk about a secret family recipe! The Samuels family started making their special brew in 1784 in the frontier wilds of Virginia known as the Kentucky Territory. Robert Samuels, a distiller for George Washington’s army, mustered out of the Pennsylvania militia that year and came to Kentucky with a land grant, a “corn writ,” which was the first form of homesteading in Kentucky. He set up a small farm, started producing whiskey, and also provided distilling services for his neighbors who grew too much grain to feed it all to their cattle. In 1786, Bourbon County was established, covering virtually the entire northeast portion of the Kentucky Territory, and the corn-based brews of all Bourbon County farmers became known as bourbon. In 1792, Kentucky became the 15th State of the Union and Bourbon County was broken up into smaller counties, but the name “bourbon” stuck for these regional brews. Robert’s secret recipe was passed down through the family for the next six generations.
In the 1840s, Taylor William Samuels, Robert’s grandson, turned his father’s farm distillery into a commercial operation, known as T. W. Samuels & Son, at Samuels Depot, KY. He was known as the “High” Sheriff of Nelson County. His older brother, Dr. Reuben Samuels, had married Jesse and Frank James’ mother and raised the boys. When the Civil War was supposedly over in 1865, William Clark Quantrill’s band of Confederate irregulars, including Jesse and Frank James, had other ideas. They continued to attack Union sympathizers throughout central Kentucky. Eventually, Quantrill was shot and his irregulars were chased to the hamlet of Samuels, KY, taking refuge at the home of T.W. Samuels. They got what they were looking for. A pardon was worked out on July 25th that ended up being the final surrender of an armed Confederate band of the American Civil War.
In 1898, T.W. was succeeded by his son, Leslie B., who operated the brewery until the distillery and six warehouses were destroyed by fire in 1909 with a loss of $100,000, including 9,000 barrels of whiskey. In 1913, the Star Distillery Co. of Cincinnati purchased control of the company, buying out the Samuels’ family interest except for Leslie’s. He remained as manager until the plant closed in 1920.
During prohibition, most of the buildings were razed for salvage, but the company was reorganized in 1933 as the T W Samuels Distillery Co. with Robert Block, president, T.W. Samuels, VP, and Leslie B. Samuels, manager. A new plant was built with 600 bu capacity and 19,000 bbl warehouse capacity. Leslie died in 1936. His son, T. W. Samuels (Bill Sr.) assumed the position of manager until 1943, when he decided to strike out on his own and “reinvent” bourbon. To prove his resolve, he burned the 170-year-old Secret Family Recipe!
By 1951, Bill Sr. devised a recipe in the family kitchen based on locally grown maize (corn), malted barley, and winter wheat – a departure from the traditional harsher grain, rye. This new Secret Family Recipe was developed without a distillery. Bill Sr. baked bread in the family kitchen, experimenting with different grains until he came up with the perfect blend. In 1952, his wife Marge designed the now-famous red wax-dipped bottle and named the whisky Maker’s Mark. As a collector of fine pewter, Marge had always searched for “the mark of the maker.” She was also a collector of cognac bottles, many of which were sealed in colorful wax. It was these two things that lent themselves to the Maker’s Mark packaging still used today.
In 1953, Bill Sr. purchased the former Burks Spring plant near Loretto, KY, on Star Hill Farm and restored it to operation as Maker’s Mark. In 1958, the first bottle of Maker’s Mark was dipped, sealed, and introduced at $7 a bottle. Two decades later, Bill Sr. and Marge's son, Bill Jr., assumed the role of president and CEO of Maker’s Mark and today continues to carry on the family tradition from the distillery in Loretto, KY – declared a National Historic Landmark in 1980 – as a subsidiary of Fortune Brands.
Maker’s Mark has become world famous and enjoys somewhat of a cult status among its enthusiastic aficionados. Due to its ever-increasing popularity, Maker’s Mark was forced to expand in 2000 and 2001, duplicating in exact detail the Loretto distillery as it had been restored in the 1960s and doubling its whiskey making capacity. Tours of the Loretto “village” are a must-see attraction of any visit to the Louisville area.