His Bourbon Floors 'em at the Ritz, but Bill Samuels Rarely Strays from His Old Kentucky Still

updated 05/09/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/09/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

First the wine expert pours the amber liquid onto his palate. Then he pours out the purple prose. "Its finish is elegant," says Richard Elia, editor of the Quarterly Review of Wines. It "coats the throat. It talks back in the most wonderful way. It's got perfume. It's got power."

This alcoholic ambrosia wasn't produced in some French château but in Happy Hollow, a spit 'n' a holler from Loretto, Ky. And it isn't wine. It's bourbon, sippin' whiskey, warm liquid velvet called Maker's Mark.

"We get so doggone many people fussin' at us because they can't find our whiskey," says Bill Samuels Jr., president of the Maker's Mark Distillery. His bourbon is about as coveted as Château Lafite—he makes only 137,000 cases a year, versus four million for big Jim Beam. The reason: Maker's Mark is made like no other bourbon. It is served in the Paris Ritz; even Fidel Castro has asked for it.

Maker's Mark is produced in a national landmark, an almost-century-old distillery near the birthplace of such sippin' stars as Jim Beam, Old Forester, Early Times and Old Grand-Dad. Samuels remembers sitting, earlier in his 42 years, on the real-life Jim Beam's knee when both families lived on nearby Bardstown's "Whiskey Row," where bourbon barons lived.

Samuels' family has been making its brew since his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Robert mustered out of the Revolutionary Army and set up a still 200 years ago. After Prohibition (when the family ran a newspaper and briefly sold autos), the T. Samuels Distillery became one of the country's largest. In the 1940s Bill's father sold out because he didn't want to "fix it, make it, sell it as fast as you can as cheap as you can," Bill Jr. recalls. "He was much more interested in doing something well."

So, in 1953, Bill Sr. started Maker's Mark and "reinvented" bourbon making. Bill Sr., now chairman of the board, taught his son the family tradition in 1967 after Bill Jr. studied civil engineering and law. He explains, "It's hard to get whiskey out of your blood when you've got as much in it as I do."

Samuels goes through the same steps as other distillers, but he adds special touches. To start with, he uses wheat instead of the usual rye—"not unlike the taste distinction between wheat bread and rye bread," he says. "It's more mellow." Only locally grown grain will do, since the rainwater that nurtures it "marries compatibly" with the limestone water Samuels gets from a nearby spring-fed lake. The wheat, milled at Maker's Mark, is cooked slowly and mixed with cooked corn and malted barley. They all simmer until the grains' starches turn into sugar, then they're moved to cypress fermentation vats—giant, gummy hot tubs—where yeast is added. For four days the mixture bubbles like lava as the yeast consumes the sugar, turning it into alcohol.

Then the mash is distilled twice—a "doubling" most bourbons don't get these days. This extra step, in an old copper still, boils away impurities like fusil oils and aldehydes, which add bite both to bourbon and to hangovers.

The clear liquid is filtered through charcoal, then poured into charred white-oak barrels. It stays in there for six years, picking up a caramel color and a warm, smooth flavor from the charred oak. The barrels are placed in a three-story warehouse painted black to absorb the hot Southern sun; heat helps the aging. And about every two years the quarter-ton barrels are rotated, moving down from the top floor (it gets up to 100°) to the bottom (as cool as 70). Other distillers avoid this by mixing batches from each floor. Shortcuts.

Then it's time for the final taste to see whether its "bloom" has "a nice, round aroma" and whether it tastes good ("the good burp," whiskeymen call it). It's cut to 90 proof with tasteless water (deionized, demineralized, distilled), poured into bottles on a 1940s-vintage production line, sealed with wax (Samuels' mother thought that would look classy, like French cognac), and shipped to a relatively few, select stores.

Maker's Mark is now owned by liquor giant Hiram Walker (the Samuels family sold the company in 1981); even so, the ad budget is a minuscule $500,000. The slogan: "It tastes expensive...and is." But not that expensive—$11 a bottle, versus $10 for Jack Daniel's in a Manhattan store.

Samuels loves his business, but he accedes to wife Nancy's demands that he spend weekends with their four kids, ages 7 to 15, on an Ohio River houseboat. His company, with $9 million a year in sales and 40 employees, is growing, but at a stately, Southern pace: only 10 percent annually, partly because there's only so much of that special spring-fed water. In bourbon making, like bourbon drinking, slow and easy is the way to do it. "There's a place," says Samuels, "for guys like us." It's near the heart of bourbon lovers everywhere—about 10 inches above, on the tastebuds.

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