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How Maker's Mark Whisky Redefined Barrel-Aging To Beat Kentucky's Heat: We Take A Peek Inside With Rob Samuels, Managing Director & 8th Generation Maker

"My earliest memory at the distillery was with my grandfather, who reinforced to me that it was about the people."
 
– Rob Samuels, Managing Director and eighth-generation whisky maker of Maker's Mark.

 

 

Iconic and instantly recognizable are these bright red wax seals on trapezoidal bottles of bourbon – even casual drinkers would easily identify the brand. Maker's Mark is amongst the most well-known bourbon brands in the world, beloved for its wheated mashbill that was specially developed by Bill Samuels Sr., the sixth-generation bourbon-maker in his family.

Bill Sr. had a vision of creating a high-quality bourbon richer and smoother than all others. In a symbolic act of rebellion, he threw his family's 170-year-old bourbon recipe into the fire in 1953 to mark the end of low-end commodity spirits and the beginning of a new approach to make better bourbon.

 

Maker's Mark's founders, Bill & Marge Samuels.

 

Although recipe-burning seems to run in this family, the late Bill’s “flavor vision” has served Maker’s Mark very well. The distillery continues to faithfully follow his bourbon-making approach, taking great efforts to maintain consistency in its maturing whiskies. They've also been very intentional about product lines, focusing on a rather limited range; quite unlike other American distillers that seem to churn out a seemingly endless array of variations.

That said, over the years, they've very gradually expanded their lineup with offerings like Maker's Mark 101 Proof, Maker's Mark 46 and the Wood Finishing Series. The most exciting new chapter was unveiled recently when Maker's Mark announced its oldest expression yet – the Maker's Mark Cellar Aged. The typical Maker's Mark is about 6 years old. The Cellar Aged is almost double the age – a blend of 87% 12-year-old and 13% 11-year-old bourbon.

 

 

Why is this significant? You see, apart from a record-breaking age, Maker's Mark had been adamantly holding off making older bourbons out of concern of its whisky becoming over-oaked (turning dry and too tannic) under the famously hot Kentuckian climate. That’s until now – it seems they've found a way to do so.

The Maker's Mark Cellar Aged was recently launched in Singapore and Japan – the only two Asian markets where the Cellar Aged is available. Rob Samuels, the Managing Director and eighth-generation whisky maker of the Maker's Mark family, was present to grace the product launch in Singapore.

And guess who got to nab an exclusive interview with Rob? Yours truly. We talked about his earliest childhood memories of working at Maker's Mark, what it's like maintaining his grandparents' vision and legacy in the 21st century, and a behind-the-scenes peek into their unusual R&D process to perfect their flavor profile. Hint: it involves baking bread.

Here's my full conversation with Rob.

 

"What if we took 6-year-old barrels of Maker's Mark, place groups of barrels into our limestone whisky cellar, slow down the maturation, the extraction of all the heavy tannins, but continue the oxidation?"
– Rob Samuels, on the inspiration for the new Maker's Mark Cask Aged

[88 Bamboo]: I imagine you’ve known Maker’s Mark Whisky pretty much all your life, especially since it was created by your grandparents in the 1950s and it’s been a very much a family-led operation since then.

What are some of the early impressions that struck you about how Maker’s Mark does things differently, as compared to other American whiskey makers? Do you have any interesting impressions or memories of your grandparents or parents’ work at the distillery?

[Rob Samuels, MD of Maker’s Mark]: When I was growing up, in the late 70s and early 80s, bourbon was still a regional category in America. It was interesting because even though Maker's Mark was still in its infancy, there were pockets of people who were over-the-top passionate and excited about Maker's Mark, like the great chefs and the first true professional bartenders in America.

Everything I remember growing up was my grandparents, and my mother and father, they lived the business nonstop. My earliest memory at the distillery was with my grandfather, who reinforced to me that it was about the people. He was proud of the process and everything in the distillery, but it was about the people. I remember how proud he was that he never wavered from his vision.

 

 

It's hard to imagine today, but when Maker's Mark was created, the American whiskey and bourbon market was declining. My dad tells the story of when he joined Maker's Mark, every distillery in Kentucky was tearing warehouses down because they couldn't afford to maintain them. Literally, the industry had declined for about 3% a year for two or three decades. So Maker's Mark is recognized as the first craft distillery in America.

I spent summers working at the distillery, worked every single job in the distillery, couldn't keep up on the bottling line – trying to hand-dip bottles *Laughs* I don't think I had the eye-hand coordination. I tried to keep up but I wasn't successful!

 

 

My earliest memories were of the quality of our team and the people and how much they loved the brand. When we talk about our vision for the future, even though my grandparents are no longer with us, their legacy, their vision is still our North Star and influences everything. They started with 11 team members in 1953. I was sharing earlier that, in Kentucky, after Prohibition was repealed, from 1935 to 1995, so for 60 years, Maker's Mark was the only new licensed distillery created in Kentucky in 60 years. Last year, there were 15 new licensed distilleries. Their vision, their legacy, they are credited for reimagining what bourbon could be, elevating bourbon, premium bourbon as a category just did not exist.

My grandfather was very patient, the most patient human being that ever lived, and was willing to wait for customers interested and willing to seek out beyond mainstream to discover what he had created. They complemented each other in such a beautiful way. He obsessed over flavor every single step of the process, purposefully inefficient in pursuit of the flavor vision. It was my grandmother who did everything else. Before distilleries had ever formally hosted visitors, she was the one who said, "Let's not design the distillery like an engineer designs a manufacturing site." She was the one who said, "Let's design the distillery to be more personal. Let's set it up in a way so we can swing open the doors and let those that are interested come in and experience it." And then, of course, she's the one that created the name, designed the bottle.

 

The Maker's Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky.

 

We actually still have the very first bottle of Maker's Mark, dated May 8, 1958, signed by my grandfather. We have two bottles of whisky; I think there's only three bottles of whisky in existence signed by my grandfather. We have the last bottle of T.W. Samuels that we made, made from a distillery we had on our original land grant that was in our family for 160 years. He and my grandmother actually walked away from that distillery because it made commodity whiskey, like all the other distilleries. He signed the first bottle of Maker's Mark, but it looks exactly like this one. It has never changed. He believed through a full sensory handmade process, that would help achieve the flavor vision of rich, creamy, balanced, full-strength bourbon straight out of the barrel you could hold on your tongue without blowing your ears off, without that “test of manhood” bitter profile that so long had defined American whiskey and bourbon.

We just brought out my grandmother's handmade English pewter collection, which was the inspiration for the Maker’s Mark brand name and making the mark. Like the craftsmen and women that produced the handmade pewter would always make a mark. My dad had half of her pewter, and then his sister had the other half. She passed away recently and left me her half of the pewter in her estate. So we brought my dad's half and the other half together, and it's on display at Maker's Mark now, just before our guests walk into the bottling plant, where folks get to see every bottle being hand-dipped.

 

The Margie Vestibule at Maker's Mark Distillery honours Rob's grandmother, and showcases her entire remarkable pewter collection.

"We've actually done a study a number of years ago – we believe one year of aging in a barrel warehouse in Kentucky is equal to almost three years of aging in a barrel in Scotland. So, in essence, we can't control the intensity of the seasons."

[88B]: Speaking of flavor, American whiskey makers really emphasise monitoring the quality of maturation rather than the numerical age of a spirit. Bourbons going beyond two decades are much more uncommon, lest they become over-oaked, in which case a high age simply does not equal better taste.

Yet as Bourbon brands turn to audiences in the international markets – some are Scotch drinkers who use age as a proxy for quality – how would you demystify the fallacy of “higher the age the better”?

[Rob]: Yeah, so, if you've been to Kentucky, we have summers that are just as hot as your summers here. Our winters are very, very cold. We have 25 to 40 days most winters that get down around freezing. We use fresh, first-use casks. And we've actually done a study a number of years ago – we believe one year of aging in a barrel warehouse in Kentucky is equal to almost three years of aging in a barrel in Scotland. So, in essence, we can't control the intensity of the seasons.

 

A scene of winter at Maker's Mark Distillery by oil painter, Mary Hagy.

 

Since day one, the guiding light was the flavor vision. The tasting panel in the beginning was one man, and we believe since the Prohibition was repealed in America, we think Maker's Mark might be the only new bourbon brand created in Kentucky since Prohibition that did not borrow whiskey to get started. Imagine the idea that they purchased, paid $35,000 in 1952 for several hundred acres of land!

They’re off the beaten path, but they were intentional about the property they chose because of the water source. And today, we believe we're the only distillery in Kentucky that owns our own water source. So, you know, the distillery today is a National Historic Landmark. The distillery itself – where every drop of the whisky is made, every bottle is hand-dipped, every label is printed and torn by hand – makes up less than 2% of our property. We manage almost 600 acres as our natural water sanctuary. So we have two spring-fed lakes, with today, we pull almost 100,000 gallons of water every single day, out of our spring-fed lakes directly into the production process. And we own all of the watershed.

 

Water is sourced from the natural limestone shelf by the distillery, which provides calcium- and magnesium-rich water suitable for yeast to flourish.

 

So, you know, their commitment was to the flavor vision. And even though they're no longer with us, their vision was very much the guiding light for the whisky that you'll taste today.

"Part of our founder's taste vision was getting this bitterness out of the whisky. We've never tasted Maker's Mark older than 7-and-a-half years; that's the tipping point where it becomes over-oaked."

[88B]: With now an older variant of Maker’s Mark being the Cellar Aged, how have you managed to balance crafting a Bourbon that is higher in age, with crafting a desirable flavour profile that comes through with that longer ageing?

[Rob]: So many brands innovate through their marketing department. We innovate by always starting with what was, again, my grandparents' inspiration: everything starts as a flavor vision.

With the Cellar Aged, we can't push age in the traditional ways, because that would pull too much out of the barrel. The tannins take over, and it becomes one-dimensional. And it's counter to our founder's taste vision. But through the curiosity of our team, and several years earlier, we had created, I think, the only limestone whisky cellar anywhere in the world of whisky. So we've actually created a naturally temperature-controlled space for all of our French oak finished products, Maker's 46, and then our custom barrel program, which is called Private Select.

 

The top floor of a rickhouse at the Maker's Mark Distillery where whiskies are aged no more than 7 years (Source: Courier Journal)

 

Maker's Mark is aged on average 6 years, 1 month, and 2 days old. But pretty quickly, there's about an eight to nine-month window of time when it becomes eligible to be bottled, when it's fully mature. But another 7 to 9 months before it becomes over-oaked. Then one of our team members, just in a casual conversation, said, "What if we took 6-year-old barrels of Maker's Mark, place groups of barrels into our limestone whisky cellar, slow down the maturation, the extraction of all the heavy tannins, but continue the oxidation? Could we create layers of complexity? Could we complement the vanilla and the caramel and the baking spices with ripe, intense fruit characteristics? Could we develop a really wonderful, long, velvety finish?" And that's what you'll taste today.

 

Maker's Mark built the country's first-ever limestone whisky cellar.

 

"We [previously] would never entertain that idea of a barrel program because if we rolled out 5 to 10 barrels for you, we think our taste consistency from one barrel to the next is closer than maybe any distillery in the world."

[88B]: Most Kentucky distillers allow huge flavour variation to naturally occur to their barrels in different parts of their rickhouses – and then they create many product lines ex post facto.

Yet Maker’s Mark has an impressive dedication to consistency. You famously are the only bourbon maker that rotates barrels as they age to ensure every batch is exactly the same. You are also much more cautious about product line extensions.

What is it about the Maker’s Mark’s philosophy that gives you such a different perspective on Bourbon-making? 

[Rob]: Cautious? *Laughs* It’s a good word… it's intentional! 

[88B]: Yes, intentional is probably a better word.

[Rob]: Well, I hope fans can come visit and see for yourself. Each and every step of the process was intentional and contributes in a meaningful way to the defining flavor aspects of Maker's Mark, starting from the water we use. We don't love the term "small batch" just because there's not a real definition for that, but my grandparents believed that if they were to produce their whisky in smaller amounts through each step of the process, it would improve the quality and consistency over time. So, on average, our batch size is equal to 22 barrels per batch. I actually have my grandmother's tasting notes. In 1952, they started tinkering and baking loaves of bread in the family kitchen, experimenting with different varietals of grains.

 

Soft red winter wheat is the key ingredient that made Maker's Mark stand out from the beginning.

 

They wanted to remove the bitterness, the abrasiveness out of the whisky, and they attributed rye as a big part of making it a little abrasive. They embraced soft red winter wheat, a roller mill, slow cooking, propagating the yeast on-site, and lower alcohol volume through distillation to retain the grain character and flavor through the process. And then, as you mentioned, rotating the barrels. In 2023, we rotated 400,000 barrels. We have a team of 45 people; all they do every day is rotate barrels. And then the way we've expanded, I don't know if it has ever been done before, which is we've built three identical distilleries. We have the original distillery from the mid-1950s. And then in the mid-1990s, we built a second distillery that is identical, same equipment, same process, ensuring consistency over time. 11 years ago, we built our third distillery, so we have identical triplets.

And we're a single source of supply, meaning every drop of whisky that's ever been in one of our bottles, we made it! And every drop of whisky ever made in our distillery has never been from anywhere other than a bottle of Maker's Mark. It's so common in the industry. I don't know of any other distillery other than Maker's Mark that hasn't bought, sold, or traded whisky at some point in their existence. And we've never done that.

 

Maker's Mark Private Selection allows bars and restaurants to purchase their customized take on a Maker's Mark by selecting the wood-finishing staves within which the whisky would be aged for an additional 9 weeks.

 

The last 10 years, almost every distillery in Kentucky has had a barrel program where you could visit a distillery, have a tour, have a tasting, at some point, they would roll out a handful of barrels, you taste the differences, and you get to buy all the whiskey out of that barrel that you think is better than the rest. We [previously] would never entertain that idea of a barrel program because if we rolled out 5 to 10 barrels for you, we think our taste consistency from one barrel to the next is closer than maybe any distillery in the world. Could we have sold barrels in that same way? Yes. I know that to be true because, guess who was getting all the phone calls from our customers wanting to be a part of a barrel program at Maker's Mark? But it would not have been true to who we are to have a barrel program in that way. But that inspired us to create a barrel program in a way that was true to our founders' vision, which led us down the path of creating the Private Select Custom Barrel program, where the great restaurants and bars of the world get to actually design and create your own perfect expression.

"Each growing season when we harvest... just like my grandparents, we'll bake loaves of bread, and of that experimental plot of 30 different varietals, we'll pick two, three, or four that we're most excited about. That's what we'll grow the next season across our 400 acres on Star Hill Farm."

[88B]: My favorite part of Maker’s Mark lore is your grandparents’ creative experimentation with bread to decide on the ideal mashbill for Maker’s Mark whisky. As you mentioned, they baked several loaves of bread using different ratios of grain and chose the bread they loved the most.

Is the tradition of bread baking still alive at Maker’s Mark Distillery today? Have you channeled your creative grandparents’ spirit and explored any unusual methods to find inspiration or to test a new recipe?

[Rob]: It's so interesting you ask that. I think if you were to spend several weeks in Kentucky and visit all the distilleries, talk to the folks that work at distilleries, and consumers that are really knowledgeable and interested, most all of the conversations are about the manufacturing process. What are the steps in the process that you do differently to help shape, refine, or define the character and flavor profile of the whisky? But it was a number of years ago when we started thinking about the whisky in your glass as agricultural product, and trying to better understand where the flavor comes from. Ultimately, whisky comes from nature. Pretty quickly, you get to the ethics of it all.

 

Dubbed as the man who saved a billion lives, scientist Dr. Norman Borlaug developed special strains of high-yielding crops that led to bumper crops which helped to feed the impoverished in countries like Mexico, India and Pakistan.

 

Now, we've sourced our red winter wheat from the same group of growers since the beginning. There are 26 growers in central Kentucky that farm on our behalf. But there was a pivotal moment, like 50 years ago, when a lot of the flavor was taken out of wheat.There was a scientist named Norman Borlaug, who won a Nobel Prize for crossbreeding wheat that for the first time was shelf stable. And he's credited for saving a billion lives because you could then ship wheat all over the world and feed the starving population. But this took a lot of the flavor out.

So right now, on Star Hill Farm at our distillery, we are working to put the flavor back in. If you were on site with us, each growing season we grow about 400 acres of modern wheat varietals. Right now we have 30 different modern varietals of wheat; they're all in the pursuit of flavor. And we're also trying to prove that at the biological level, the soil health actually contributes in a significant way to flavor intensity.

Each growing season when we harvest—so for winter wheat the seeds go in the ground in the winter and we harvest in the summer— just like my grandparents, we'll bake loaves of bread, and of that experimental plot of 30 different varietals, we'll pick two, three, or four that we're most excited about. That's what we'll grow the next season across our 400 acres on Star Hill Farm. We do bake loaves of bread!

The flavor range that you can achieve through these modern varietals is much broader and much more intense than we ever imagined. But so much of the emphasis with wheat breeding has been on yield, almost at the expense of flavor. I'll give you an example. David Van Sanford is the director of wheat at the University of Kentucky. He's spent his 32nd or 33rd year as the director of wheat. And when we first started working with David Van Sanford at the University of Kentucky, trying to understand the potential for flavor intensity, he said, "Rob, you're the first company that has asked us to focus on flavor." He basically spent his entire career focused on yield optimization!

We have a mash bill that is 70% corn and 16% soft red winter wheat. We grow 400 acres of agriculture each year on our farm, but there are also 26 growers who cultivate 50,000 acres in central Kentucky on our behalf. And now, all of our corn and all of our wheat are certified by a third party called Regenifide as regeneratively grown corn and wheat. So, 86% of all of our ingredients are certified as regeneratively grown and sourced. I think it's the first distillery in the world to achieve this!

[88B]: And all these corn and wheat are already used in the current editions of Maker’s Mark whisky?

[Rob]: Yes. So, 50,000 acres of corn and wheat are grown in central Kentucky on our behalf. The barley which makes up 14% of our mash bill is not, but we're working on that right now. We work with all 26 of our growers to continue moving towards and embracing regenerative farming practices, which include not tilling too heavily, rotating crops, and minimizing fertilizers and chemical inputs. And that's better for the environment, it's better for human health. And ultimately, we believe it leads to more flavor.

[88B]: We’d be really excited to try future editions of Maker’s Mark and see how the flavor evolves over time.

What can you tell us about the future product lines that might tweak other aspects of whisky production?

[Rob]: Stay tuned, stay tuned!

But for now, let's taste the whiskies. I think this is the first time we've ever brought the over-oaked Maker's Mark out of the distillery. I was in Tokyo earlier in the week, and now here in Singapore, but we snuck a bottle of this over-oaked Maker's Mark. It's 12 years old, conventionally aged, and is exactly the same age as the Maker’s Mark Cellar Aged. Again, we all know that under-aging whiskies is detrimental to the taste profile. Under-aged whiskey often tastes sour on the sides of your palate.

 

We're given a side-by-side sampling of a conventional rickhouse-aged 12 years old Maker's Mark and the Maker's Mark Cellar Aged as a demonstration of the effects of cellar-aging.

 

We believe over-aging bourbon is maybe even worse than under-aging, which is why up until now, we had always resisted the idea. In your left glass, you have a Maker’s Mark aged for 12 years in one of our traditional warehouses. On the right, you have the Maker’s Mark Cellar Aged (aged conventionally for 6 years, then another 5 to 6 years in a limestone cellar).

I will warn you that the nose of the Overaged is actually quite nice, and it will try and fool your palate.

[88B]: *We tried the Overaged Maker's Mark*

[Rob]: So, it's dry yeah? it's one-dimensional. The tannins have just dominated.

Part of our founder's taste vision was getting this bitterness out of the whisky. We've never tasted Maker's Mark older than 7-and-a-half years; that's the tipping point where it becomes over-oaked. But let's just for fun, compare it with the Cellar Aged; it's exactly the same age as what you just tasted. But the Cellar Aged was 6 years in a traditional warehouse, 6 years in our limestone whisky cellar at 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

[88B]: *We tried the Maker's Mark Cellar Aged*

Yeah, this is very different. This is much cleaner, much fresher, much more luscious. This is a very interesting comparison between the Cellar Aged and the Overaged.

[Rob]: “Luscious” is a great word. Yeah, the Cellar Aged - it's like layers and layers. I love that the ripe fruit is so much more prominent, the stone fruit especially. And then that long, velvety finish. And you don't have all the astringency that you have with the Overaged.

[88B]: We do get a lot of these heavy tannins in many other American whiskies. I've tasted a lot heavier, especially those that age for a longer period of time.

[Rob]: And some of those that are really much older, oftentimes they will filter it to make it even drinkable.

So with your interest in bourbon, have you ever been to Kentucky?

[88B]: We'd definitely love to visit sometime.

[Rob]: It's a pretty special place. As I mentioned, my grandmother is credited with inventing bourbon tourism, and because we're off the beaten path, she always would say, since it's a bit of a commitment to get there, we need to work hard to exceed expectations.

Rob Samuels and Kentucky University Dean Nancy Cox plant seedlings at Star Hill Farm.

 

We’ve started building out little trail systems through nature. We take groups now up to the water source, over to our American White Oak Research Repository, into the modern wheat fields. We have a truffle dog, we have an orchard. So, would love to have you visit sometime!

[88B]: Yes, I think we would really enjoy it! And thanks so much for making time for us, Rob, it's been a privilege!

@CharsiuCharlie