Looking Back: Bill Samuels Jr on Maker’s Mark

Bill Samuels Jr is the son of Maker’s Mark founder, former President of Maker’s Mark and Maker’s Mark Chairman Emeritus. During his visit to Sydney in 2013 to launch Maker’s Mark 46, I had the privilege of a one on one candid interview with Bill Samuels Jr. This article is part of the ‘Looking Back’ series.

Bill Samuels Jr – Photo © Cocktails & Bars

About Bill Samuels Jr

As a teenager, Bill Samuels Jr drove Colonel Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken to business meetings. At college, he pursued an engineering career and studied rocket science and solid propellants then went on to work on the Gemini and Polaris missiles. Later, he switched careers, headed to Washington D.C., studied law and politics and was an intern at the White House.

When he returned home, his father put him in charge of marketing where he earnt his stripes before he was granted responsibility for making the bourbon in the mid-1970s.

Corinne Mossati: Maker’s Mark has been in production since 1953. How different is the whisky now compared to the early days?
Bill Samuels Jr: Our number focus at Maker’s Mark is consistency. It’s about every barrel, every batch being consistent. And if you do that, you’ve got to have an extensive library that you can go back and check against. We still have samples from the early 60s. Without question, consistency has been maintained in my 50 years.

Has the operation changed in any way?

The big thing that’s changed is the non-contact stuff. We have more efficient pumps and motors, the roadways are better but we’re very protected of the contact piece. We still have the same cooker, we still get our grains from the same sources as we did back in the 1950s. Anything that touches the whisky is off limits to efficiency. On the other hand, did save mum’s contribution with the red wax. We still dip all the bottles by hand with more modern equipment to assist the bottling than we did the 1959s. All that is exterior to the whisky.

What was the inspiration behind creating Maker’s Mark 46? Was it a legacy you wanted to leave behind or did you have an objective for creating the new whisky?

It started as a joke about seven years ago. I was kidding our master distiller that I’ve been working hard for 45 years and didn’t have a legacy. We got talking… how do you improve on perfection? What if we tried to intensify the flavour, lengthen the finish all the while keeping the flavour in the front of it. Finally, we wrote it down then it became a challenge how to do it. To be honest, it wasn’t much different than the way we built the Polaris missile. Very disciplined, very organised and very outcome-driven.

Is there one outstanding highlight or a singular memory of your time with Maker’s Mark that will always be special to you?
Oh man. I would say the most humbling memory is the one I refer back to the most. When I came into the company, I was having the hardest time understanding my father’s perspective. It seemed very backwards. It seemed like he wasn’t interested in being successful. When I finally, finally understood what he was trying to do… and I didn’t figure it out. We had to hire an advertising agency to get him to open up to explain his dream and how he would like his baby to emerge on the scene. It was the most important learning of my life. When we asked dad so many open-ended questions, and all the pieces came together, the light bulb went on. Maybe it wasn’t as dumb as we thought.

Emotionally, he had it all figured out. We took the discussions and interviews and built them into our first marketing plan and tore up everything up till then. Before, everything I put together as a way forward went in the garbage can. We went outside the office, set the garbage can on fire. That was the turning point and it was all because we stopped and listened. And it brought us much closer together.

Now that you’ve retired, how will you occupy your time?

Well, I have a bunch of grandchildren and they’re all young babies and we spend a lot of time with them. I am very active in the community and always have been. Currently, I’m chairing the capital campaign at Bellarmine, just finished chairing the board at another university. I’m on the board and executive committee of the Chamber of Commerce. I still spend 40 hours a week at Maker’s. I still receive every trade customer that comes to Kentucky. They come to the house for cocktails. I do tours at the distillery once a week and sign 1046 bottles every Thursday for sale in the gift gallery.

You’ve handed over to your son, Rob. What are the biggest challenges ahead for him in the role?
I think there’s one: we need to be as successful globalising Maker’s as we have been creating it into an American icon. It is clearly a major US icon brand. We need to get over the fact that we make so much money in the US and let simplicity go. And my son is 100 % on there.

There was a lot of social uproar recently about lowering the proof of Maker’s Mark in the US. Was it a genuine shortage or a marketing ploy?

Oh man, that was a disaster! It’s horrible. It’s been short. In the US, the shelves are empty.

It seemed like the decision was out there and within a week it was reversed.

It was six days! We had 230 000 emails in less than a day, mostly from fans, and they were mad. Rob and I listened to them, and realised they’re mad because they care. Maybe they’re right. I had worked on making sure the profile was the same. It was possible to keep same flavour and lower the proof, because when you lower the proof you don’t get the anesthetisation to a degree, so you generate more flavour and we slightly modify it and the filtration system. I loved the whisky we created. We got back encouraging answers from research. Then we did one other thing that saved our life. The Maker’s way is to tell people what we’re doing not try to sneak it to them. We sent it at noon on Saturday and that’s when the shit storm came, within hours. They all said the same, “Don’t screw with my whisky”.

At first you’re wounded. It takes a lot to get over it.

But you acted very quickly…

It took us 6 days to flick it. The best part of it, the happy part was that we listened. Every time I ran into an ambassador that sent us a hate mail, they believe it was their email or phone call that caused us to turn it around. In a sense it was. It was being embarrassed at not knowing what is important to our customers. We thought we knew, but we just blew it. It was a screw-up.

There are many ways to make a living. The riskiest is to try and make chicken salad out of chicken shit. It’s very high risk. I think we set the record for turning it around but it wasn’t a gimmick at all.

Where would you like to see Maker’s Mark in 10 years’ time?

Well, we got a funny perspective on this. We don’t believe we can influence anybody. We spend our time listening and finding people who decided they love Maker’s and go talk to them. The good folks of Australia have decided that you can drink something with good bourbon other than coke. And you’ve got these wonderful bartenders with bourbon and whisky bars. These are not gimmicks, they’re real. We visited 5 or 6 of them yesterday and they could hold up to any in the world. They’re smart, they know how to do cocktails. It’s totally changed so the interest in stuff we do and the other distilleries that make the fine products, there’s a lot more of it.

I always tend to go where people pull us as opposed to make markets. We make sure they have all the encouragement they can have from us to tell their friends about what they love.

“Bill Samuels Jr on Maker’s Mark” is part of the ‘Looking Back’ series which takes a historical lens to key industry personalities. The article is based on an interview originally published on our sister website Gourmantic.

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