The Classicist: Maker's Mark & Bourbon Heritage Month
Maker's Mark, the top shelf Kentucky bourbon that traces its roots all the way back to 1780, just celebrated September's demarcation as National Bourbon Heritage Month during the 17th Annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival down South. The storied whisky maker isn't resting on its laurels however; they also just kicked off an admirable new campaign to encourage people to vote in the upcoming elections with a 16-city cross country bus tour and two new special limited edition bottlings featuring red, white and blue wax seals.
The story of Maker's, which is handmade in small quantities using water from a spring-fed lake and a mash consisting of corn, barley and winter wheat, goes back to 1870 when third generation Scottish-Irish immigrant Robert Samuels arrived in Kentucky. A farmer by trade, Samuels began making whisky for himself and a few friends. His grandson T.W. erected the family's first "commercial" distillery at Samuels Depot, the family farm, in 1840.
Fast-forward 100 years and the story takes an unexpected turn. T.W.'s great-great-grandson Bill Samuels Sr. was not overly fond of the "secret" family recipe - so he literally burnt it and sold off the distillery, which had become overly commercial. He then spent several years experimenting with different grains until he developed a entirely new bourbon recipe based on locally grown maize (corn), malted barley and soft, red, gentle winter wheat - as opposed to the traditional and harsher grain, rye.
Gallery: Maker's Mark Bourbon
In 1953, armed with his new recipe, Bill Sr. bought and rebuilt a small, old distillery in Loretto, Kentucky (now the oldest operating bourbon distillery in the world) in order to produce it. He selected the property for the clean, natural flavor of its limestone-filtered springs. While he waited six long years for his first batch of bourbon to mature, his wife devised its now iconic name and packaging, including the hand-dipped wax seal. The first bottle of Maker's Mark went on sale in 1958, and the rest was whisky history.
About 25 years ago, Bill Samuels Jr., the family's seventh generation bourbon distiller, took over the business. He has now been joined by his son Rob, who acts as the brand's global ambassador. They confine their bottling to about 600,000 cases per year, in batches of less than 1,000 gallons - a fraction of what most commercial distilleries produce - because, as the understated Samuels puts it, "that's staying within our abilities to not screw the product up." And if you've ever tasted Maker's, you know just how much of an understatement that is.