Bill Samuels, Jr. is the seventh generation in a long line of bourbon makers – and his bourbon is Maker’s Mark. His father Bill Sr. started the brand in the mid-1950s, and the very first bottle was sold in 1958, featuring the iconic squarish shaped bottle dipped with red seal wax by his mother Margie in her kitchen. This small batch Kentucky straight bourbon was also unusual in that, unlike most, this bourbon is made from wheat instead of rye. The recipe was conceived by Bill Sr., and it remains unchanged today.
But today, this bourbon brand is the fifth best-selling straight whiskey in the U.S., according to the Cheers On-Premise Handbook 2007. It rose from the pack of other straights in the late 1990s, and has achieved steady growth since then. In 2006, Maker’s Mark notched 666,000 9-liter cases. In 2007, it grew to 720,000 9-liter cases (preliminary figure) for an 8.1 percent increase. While this brand is clearly on the fast track, its president attributes hard work and “word of mouth” as the reasons for its growth. Indeed, the brand enjoys something of a cult status in certain circles. It is currently supplied by Beam Global Spirits & Wine. Here, Samuels discusses how the brand got started and grew, and he lauds the many friends and others who helped make the brand the success it is today, including Jim Beam, who he says was his godfather.
The Beverage Information Group (BIG): Please give me an overview of your responsibilities as the President of Maker’s Mark Distillery.
Bill Samuels: My responsibilities at Maker’s would be similar to any company CEO: 50 to 60 hours per week with about one-third of that time spent on the road and another 20-30 hours spent with community and charity responsibilities. If there is one area where I might be more engaged than other company CEOs, it is in the marketing of the brand. This is not because I have any particular skill or aptitude in this area but rather because when I came into the company over 30 years ago my father didn’t want me hanging around the distillery. He thought I might mess the whisky up! So my job was to “go find customers” and that’s pretty much the way it is today.
BIG: Maker’s Mark is the fifth best selling straight whiskey in the U.S. today. What are the key factor(s) that enabled this small-batch brand to break from the pack to achieve this success?
Samuels: If we are to lay a claim to whisky it is not in being America’s fifth best selling straight whisky. It would be for reinventing bourbon by being the first to bring good taste and understated sophistication to a dying spirits category (in the 1950’s when Maker’s was launched). Therefore, I would suggest that the key factor in our success was my father’s courage in taking this bold step back when no one in America was clamoring for a good tasting bourbon. Someone had to lead the way with being first. Dad took all the risk and I get all the credit. Not bad.
BIG: Maker’s Mark uses a recipe of wheat, instead of rye. How was this recipe developed, why wheat rather than rye and how does that make the bourbon different?
Samuels: Looking back this has always been my favorite part of the Maker’s Mark story and not just because the outcome was delicious and commercially successful, but rather about how it came to be. When my father decided to get back in the business in the early 1950’s (all of his forefathers dating back to the Revolutionary War had owned and operated bourbon distilleries in Kentucky) he reached out to his friends for help, not for financial backing as this was to be a very small venture, but rather for technical advice and counsel. For dad’s aspiration was to create the first bitter free bourbon, a bourbon that would be clean and crisp while finishing right at the tip of the tongue.
The problem was – my father wasn’t sure how to do it. To the rescue came the likes of Lyons Brown of Brown-Forman, Ed Shapiro of Heaven Hill, Jerry Beam of Jim Beam, Hap Mottlowd of Jack Daniels and Pappy Van Winkle of Old Fitzgerald. Legends all and nicer men no industry has ever seen. I remember them all with great fondness. These are the men, dad’s friends and soon to be competitors, who helped him through the critical process of designing the product that would lead bourbon into its golden age. Has there ever been an industry with leaders that so unselfishly reached out to help a member in time of need like ours? I doubt it. And you know, the friendships among Kentucky’s bourbon distillers continues to this day. We think it’s a good thing.
BIG: Back in the 1950’s, bourbon was solely men’s territory. But your mother, Margie Samuels, changed that and actually designed the bottle – the trademarked red wax dripping down the bottle, its squarish shape – even the name itself. Tell me a bit about your mom and what influenced her in creating all those distinctive bottle details.
Samuels: Mom played a bigger role in helping dad “usher in the modern age of bourbon” than she ever gets credit for. Dad was so focused on what he was doing at the distillery, crafting this new taste in bourbon, that he gave very little attention to the all-important packaging and branding issues. As those first brands were reaching maturity, mom panicked by the lack of activity in this area and took over. Within six months she had created an icon and was headstrong enough not to let my father change a thing. Maker’s Mark was her first and last attempt at package design. Not bad for an amateur.
BIG: The brand enjoys somewhat of a cult status in certain circles. For years it was marketed with the tag line, “It tastes expensive . . . and is.” How is Makers Mark being advertised today – who creates the ads, and what is the brand message you’re trying to convey today?
Samuels: Pretty much all of our marketing (what there is of it) is focused on staying connected with brand fans, even the Maker’s advertising, which is targeted to friends. Our objective – to get a smile. We have a wonderful 35-year relationship with a Louisville, Ken. agency, Doe Anderson. They are an integral part of our team and as much as it kills me to admit it (since most folks think I’m the creative genius around here) it’s really Doe that does the heavy lifting.
BIG: Please indicate who the Maker’s Mark customer is – do loyal consumers mostly skew male versus female (and also is bourbon attracting more women these days)? What about age group, mostly urban, suburban or rural, and what are the largest consumption regions in the U.S. for the brand?
Samuels: Based on the mail we get, and we get a lot, I would have to say that those who are the most passionate about Maker’s tend to be a lot younger than me (I’m 68), well educated and living in or around metropolitan areas. Again, our mail would indicate that about 25% of our fans are women (we love it). And geographically, with the exception of Kentucky, which has always been Maker’s crazy, our brand is emerging pretty much simultaneously all across the country -- remember it is a pretty small brand.
Brand recognition, awareness, quantitative distribution measures and other traditional success indicators have never been paid much attention to…since pushing our brand up there to the trade and onto consumers has not been a focus. We were simply too small, too underfunded and too stupid to pull it off. With us its always been about creating a product that “wowed” – allowing a few influencers to stumble onto it (fortunately, many bartenders did) and wait for conversations to begin. It really was that simple because we really did believe we had something worthy of being discovered.
BIG: Which arena is more challenging in terms of brand recognition/acceptance -- retail liquor stores or restaurant/bar operations, and why? Also, how is Beam Global Spirits & Wine supporting the brand in these arenas since it became involved with Maker’s Mark?
Samuels: Looking back over many years there can be no doubt that the greatest facilitators of this discovery were America’s restaurateurs, bartenders and package store owners. We have been so fortunate. For Beam Global, they have truly been a gift from heaven. They know bourbon, they have great respect for Makers and they tolerate me. What more could one ask for? And besides, the man Jim Beam has a very special place in my heart. He was my godfather.