Raise a glass. Today is National Bourbon Day. It’s a day to pay tribute to our ancestors – mostly Scotch and Irish – who began distilling the spirit in the mid-18th century.
Here’s a bit of a history lesson: The Bourbon name comes from Bourbon County, Ky., founded after the American Revolution. This county was great growing corn and by 1785, hundreds of small distilleries were producing, selling and trading whiskey - or "whisky.''
The story goes that surplus whiskey was shipped along the Ohio River to New Orleans for sale. The barrels were stamped with the words “Old Bourbon,’’ what residents commonly called Bourbon County.
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed an Act of Congress that designated bourbon as “The Official Spirit of America.’’
Today in Kentucky, there are 10 major whiskey makers produce hundreds of brands, including many of the top-priced single-barrel, small-batch, and cask-strength variations.
Among those is Maker’s Mark, whose roots go back to to 1784 when Robert Samuels, a third generation Scotch-Irish immigrant, settled in Kentucky. Robert Samuels’ grandson - T.W. – built the family’s first commercial distillery in 1840 and sold Kentucky straight bourbon whisky.
Prohibition shut down the distillery but it re-opened in 1933 as T.W. Samuels Co. The company was sold in 1943 but in 1952, Bill Samuels, Sr., began work on a new family recipe by baking bread in his home oven. Samuels rightly figured that soft red winter wheat the harsher rye in whisky mash.
In 1953, Samuels founded Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretta, Ky. The first batch of Maker’s Mark was ready in 1959 and the rest is well, whisky history.
In 1999, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized Maker’s Mark Distillery as “The World’s Oldest Operating Bourbon Whisky Distillery. In 2011, Maker’s Mark achieved one million cases. Also in 2011, Bill Samuels, Jr., retired and turned the company over to his son, Rob Samuels, who as chief operating officer, keeps Maker’s Mark’s “Bourbon Revolution’’ going strong.
Here’s my conversation with Rob Samuels:
SP: How do you describe the “Bourbon Revolution?’’
RS: “The Bourbon Revolution is a term we’ve been using to describe the incredibly successful trajectory of America’s native spirit over the past 60 years. Back in the early 50s, my grandfather and founder of Maker’s Mark – Bill Samuels, Sr. – had a dream to create a bourbon for the first time that actually tasted good.
"As a fourth generation distiller, he literally burned the 170-year-old Samuels family recipe, a family milestone that ''ultimately led to the creation of Maker’s Mark as we know it. At that time, any bourbon produced would have been considered a commodity – cheap and poor quality. Maker’s Mark was the pioneer of handcrafted bourbon, transforming the category and paving the way for modern distillers – within and outside of Kentucky.’’
SP: To what factors to you credit the rise in popularity of whiskey (whisky) and bourbon drinks the past few years?
RS: “I think it’s a combination of factors – a renewed interest from consumers to purchase and consume products that are truly American. Further, bartenders – who have, in many ways, built the Maker’s Mark brand - have done a wonderful job educating consumers about classic cocktails and the slew of innovative whiskies that have debuted over the past few years. This also plays into the larger trend of ‘premiumization’– in whisky and the overall distilled spirits space. Lastly, I think that the conversation around sipping whisky – the elements of nose, taste, finish, color, history, etc. – is something that no other spirit category has claim to.’’
SP: What are some of the myths or misconceptions about whiskey and bourbon that you find people have?
RS: The biggest by far would be that bourbon has to be made in the state of Kentucky. The Bluegrass State is certainly the most ideal place to produce bourbon – due to its harsh winters and hot summers - coupled with the abundance of natural limestone that affects the water taste and ultimately the whisky flavor. Also, about 95 percent of all bourbon produced happens here - there are actually more bourbon barrels than people in Kentucky. However, the spirit can in fact be made anywhere in the United States.
“Another misconception about whisky is that longer aging yields better quality. At Maker’s Mark, we age to taste, which means that there is no specific window of time that our bourbon sits in the barrels - generally it is between six and eight years - because it is only ready to be bottled when it tastes ready. We have a taste panel at the distillery whose sole job is to ensure this consistency. To debunk this myth, we even allow visitors to the Maker’s Mark Distillery to see this first hand by tasting an over-aged version of Maker’s Mark to compare with an under-aged version of Maker’s Mark as we know it, and Maker’s 46.’’
SP: How do you work with restaurants – at hotels or standalone – to increase the visibility of your products as well as the popularity of whiskey and bourbon drinks?
RS: “Maker's Mark is a brand built by bartenders so educating them on a regular basis is important at all of our key accounts. Additionally, Dave & Buster's recently rolled out a Maker's Mark Grille menu, an incorporation of our bourbon into food that really showcases the versatility.''
SP: You launched Maker’s 46 in 2010 as the first new bourbon in company history. How has the success of Maker’s 46 influenced the marketplace and added to the popularity of bourbon/whisky drinks?
RS: “Maker’s 46, which is Maker’s Mark that’s been aged an average of 100 days longer (during the winter months) with the addition of seared French oak staves to the barrel, is truly different than any other whisky on the market. At 94 proof, it is a bold bourbon that delivers depth and complexity, both in its flavor and the conversation surrounding it. Unique innovation is happening throughout the category and products like Maker’s 46 continue to keep consumers engaged.’’