ON THE EVE OF HIS RETIREMENT, THE TASTING PANEL SPENDS TWO DAYS BEHIND THE SCENES WITH BILL SAMUELS JR.
This is an extended version of the story that appears in our June 2011 issue. —Ed.
As Bill Samuels Jr. walks onto the stage to give his final words as Maker's Mark President, his stringy pinkish, reddish orange polyester wig glistens in the spotlight and his purple vest beams flashing lights like a Christmas tree. He could have easily been mistaken for a Van Halen roadie, but those who know the man understand that his eclectic nature requires a few, let's say, creative costumes from time to time.
He tips his small glass of Maker's Mark to the crowd of brand ambassadors who've come from all over the country to see him in Lexington, Kentucky, and says, "This party's about you all and not me"—even though it's his retirement party.
Bill Samuels (center) with passionate fans at his retirement party.
Maker's Mark brand ambassadors are the loyal customers who share their Maker's Mark passion with friends in tastings. It's one of the first loyalty programs, which recruits passionate fans to spread the word about spirits.
As soon as Samuels appears on the stage, the crowd erupts in cheers.
"We love you, Bill," a deep voice echoes.
"Don't go," a woman yells.
Samuels looks into the sea of faces, pausing for a few seconds, as if he's taking it all in, and jokes about the rain—there's nearly a monsoon showering the party tents. With the wig brushing against his cheeks, it's hard to see his emotion, but his voice slightly breaks when he says, "It's been a long career, a hell of a time," he says.
He looks at his glass one more time, tipping it toward the crowd and gives his final words: "Let's have a cocktail."
He steps off the stage, with no security to keep the hundreds of people inching toward him just to say thanks for all he's done. Bill doesn't mind. He wants to greet every one of them, to tell them thanks for making his Maker's Mark possible.
They put their arms around him. Ladies kissed his cheek. And old friends relived memories the two of them only knew. He stayed for as long as he could, nearly midnight, greeting anybody and everybody who came his way.
Perhaps one man captured the mood best: "I feel like I'm about to meet Jesus Christ."
A Distinguished Lineage
Samuels comes from a long lineage of whiskey makers. They have been distilling whiskey since 1783, but it was T. W. Samuels Sr. who put their name on the bourbon-making map. He bought an abandoned Victorian distillery in mid-1800s in picturesque Happy Hollow, Kentucky, and set to work on making his dream of crafting handmade bourbon a reality.
After Samuels Jr.'s father, Bill Samuels Sr., sold the T. W. Samuels brand (now produced by Heaven Hill), his mother wanted Bill Sr. to get out of the house and do something. So he decided to do what he knew best: make whiskey. But this time, he desired a forward-finish bourbon using a corn and wheat mashbill that would become the smooth taste we know as Maker's Mark.
The godson of Jim Beam and distant relative to Jesse James, Bill became his family's seventh-generation whiskey producer. His father gave him the keys to Maker's, Bill recalls: "Dad said, 'Just don't fuck it up.'"
Hiram Walker & Sons bought Maker's Mark in 1981. Six years later, Allied Domecq purchased Maker's, and in 2005, Fortune Brands acquired it. Amidst all the acquisitions, the constant was a steady Samuels, who never really followed any of his parent companys' rules, always doing his own thing without asking permission.
That rebellious nature certainly paid off for this classic whiskey. The brand has sold out for 21 years in a row, Samuels says, and the distillery receives about 100,000 visitors a year. Samuels is also largely credited with bringing bourbon back from obscurity with humorous initiatives that changed spirits marketing. In addition to focusing on local markets with bold billboard campaigns such as Chicago's "da bourbon" series, he and Louisville's Doe-Anderson advertising agency created one of the first relationship marketing strategies that resulted in the August 1980 front-page story in
The Wall Street Journal.
Within a day of the story being published, Maker's Mark received thousands of phone calls and letters. Samuels harnessed that energy all the way to the White House, where his Maker's Mark was a preferred drink in Ronald Reagan's liquor cabinet. And when Reagan debated Walter Mondale for the 1984 presidential election in Louisville, the president requested a bottle of Maker's Mark be left on his hotel pillow. "I swear he drank the whole damn bottle. That had to be his worst debate of his career," Samuels says.
He's full of great stories like this. Around the time Reagan was kicking back Maker's, Samuels's team was also maneuvering to have Maker's Mark served in Delta Airlines' first-class section. To encourage Maker's Mark consumption, a creative ad read "When you fly Delta Airlines prepare to meet your Maker's." Before it had been printed, a Delta plane crashed and the ad was pulled while the magazine was at the printer.
There's also the story of his only racehorse, Distiller, who lost every race he ran and "died of an inferiority complex," Samuels says.
But the best tale of all, the one most near and dear to his heart these days is the story of Maker's 46. "I was starting to do some retirement planning a couple years ago, and I'm thinking, s***, I haven't done anything. I don't have a legacy," Samuels says.
So, he and then Master Distiller Kevin Smith worked to make "Maker's Mark on steroids," he says, with the aim of a product that hit on the front of the tongue, with a longer finish and a deeper, richer aroma than the original Maker's.
Maker's 46 was the first new product for Maker's Mark in 50 years.
"We jerked around for about a year, using the original Maker's, and had 123 experiments," he says. "We didn't come up with anything, because every time we got more acid. We were about ready to give up."
Then, Smith recommended bringing in Independent Stave's Brad Boswell, a "wood chef," whose cooperage makes all of Maker's Mark's barrels. Samuels recalls: "Brad's cooking steaks at home for his family and said, 'What if I cook these little insert staves that we're playing with the same way I'm cooking these steaks, Pittsburgh style. We could sear the little staves and maybe lock in the tannins. It would caramelize the wood sugars on the surface so we'd get more vanilla, we'd get more caramel, but it doesn't penetrate.'"
They quickly learned you can't sear American oak because it's too porous, Samuels says. Then, Boswell made the perfect seared French oak stave, and the product was delicious, he says. "We were so excited about the way it tasted. I mean this is a big, bold, long-finish bourbon," Samuels says. "There's zero bitterness. It's the damnedest thing you ever tasted."
Maker's 46, which was named after Boswell's wood profile, was the first new Maker's product in more than 50 years and was absolutely genius, says Matthew J. Shattock, President and CEO of Beam Global Spirits & Wine Inc., a Fortune subsidiary. "Maker's 46 is a reflection of Bill's extraordinary creativity—that he could come up with a new concept working with other partners such as the cooperage," he says.
For Shattock, working with Samuels has been one of his career highlights. "This man is known for his intelligence, has a youthful energy and is so inquisitive about the world," Shattock says. "He behaves like a man a third his age."
So What Happens Now?
To learn where Maker's Mark goes from here, it's best to go back where Bill Samuels Sr. sold his first case-the legendary Keeneland Race Track in Lexington. Every year, Samuels celebrates his brand's long-time legacy with Keeneland by making a bottle in their honor and signing them before the crack of dawn on the day of the Maker's Mark Mile, a race of top young Thoroughbreds.
This year, Maker's Mark bottles commemorated the track's 75th anniversary and were dipped in gold wax. Both Bill and Rob Samuels were signing bottles along with the presidents of Keeneland and the University of Kentucky.
"Rob's the rookie here. Hurry up down there," Bill hollers at his son.
Even if you couldn't figure out they were related by looking at their uniquely shaped stern chins, you could most likely figure it out watching them sign bottles. They both tilt their heads slightly to the left, smile and cradle the bottle, signing it with their gold pens.
Bill says he's signed about 250,000 bottles in his lifetime. On the day of the Maker's Mark Mile, they signed about 500 an hour and more than 2,000 total. "This is Rob's job now," he says.
This year, Maker's Mark bottles commemorated the legendary Keenland Race Track's 75th anniversary and were dipped in gold wax.
Like his father, Rob has a natural business sense and although he's probably not ready to don a purple wig anytime soon, he did wear tennis shoes with his designer suit at the track.
"Rob's got a tremendous track record in our company of working in both the United States and internationally," Shattock says. "The Maker's future is not just going to be in the US; it's going to be international. Rob is going to lead us into being a truly big global brand."
"I think the succession plan really has been stretched out over 16 years," Rob says. "When I graduated from the University of South Carolina, Bill gave me the best advice he's ever given. He said, 'Don't go to work at Maker's Mark, go out and learn the business. Get outside Kentucky and see if you enjoy it. See if you like the industry'—which I didn't know if I would. I knew I always had a deep love and affection for what my grandparents invented, their passion, their dream. From a distance, I always loved to watch my father in action because he was living it. This has consumed his life and been at the heart of his life for 43 years. Growing up, I saw that and I respected that. So, I knew I loved Maker's Mark, but I didn't know if I had an affection or a passion for the industry and not just Maker's Mark."
Rob has wanted to run Maker's Mark since he was ten. After a Maker's Mark Christmas party one year, he typed a letter saying, "If I were President of Maker's Mark, I would give my employees three weeks of vacation," according to his mother. But, the title was never pushed on him.
Rob wanted to find his own way. Although he flunked calculus his freshman year of college, Rob overcame dyslexia and worked everyday jobs in high school and college. He never wanted to be treated special and desired to earn everything. That's one of the reasons why he went to college at South Carolina, to be anonymous, where he worked at a Subway all through school.
Now that he's taking over Maker's Mark, as his father did once for his father, he believes he's been groomed the right way.
Rob Samuels, photographed at Keeneland Race Track in Lexington, KY, is taking over leadership of the Maker's Mark brand from his father, Bill Jr.
Turns out he did.
Two Maker's in a Pod
Observing the two Samuelses work a crowd is almost like watching them sign bottles—they're near carbon copies of each other. Their upright posture with shoulders back is nearly the same. They move from table to table, shaking hand after hand, introducing one friend to this distributor or that retailer, always talking about how special whoever is to Maker's Mark. They both go out of their way to make others feel important.
They're also both quick to keep the conversation off themselves and on the brand itself. They both say it's not about the person, it's about the brand. And they are both quick to compliment one another. "Not many people could thrive like he has after taking over for their father, especially when they're as strong-willed as me," Bill says.
As for his opinion of his father, Rob's quick to talk about how Bill never compromised the quality of Maker's Mark and never purchased juice from another distillery. And now that he's in charge, he plans to do things his own way. But there's one fella he plans to call from time to time: Maker's Mark Chairman Emeritus Bill Samuels Jr., who'll likely be spending more time with his grandkids, who call him Pa-pah.
"It would be crazy not to have him as a resource after 43 years just because he looks at the world in a different way than most people," Rob says.
Just a Few More Bottles to Sign
Back at distillery, a day after Bill's crazy costume retirement party, hundreds of brand lovers have driven to Loretto to buy a bottle displaying Bill's likeness on the label. The frigid temperatures and steady hard rain could not keep these people away from hand-dipping their own bottles to be signed by Bill.
Bill Samuels Jr., who retired in April as President of Maker's Mark, signs one of his last bottles of bourbon.
An older lady with gentle blue eyes and soft gray hair was smiling from ear to ear as she handed Bill her bottle. "So, what are you going to do now?" she asks. He'd been asked this probably a few hundred times by now, and he answered everybody pretty much the same. "S***, I don't know," Bill says.
Meanwhile, he's wearing a hat with the words RETIRED: PLEASE TELL MY WIFE.