It's not every day that the president of a billion-dollar spirits company picks you up in a silver Dodge Caravan minivan.
Yet there’s Maker’s Mark’s Bill Samuels, Jr., pulling into the driveway of my Kentucky bed and breakfast. I feel 8 years old again, headed to soccer practice. Samuels saunters in wearing a red-checkered shirt, gray slacks and a gray vest, his silver hair full and lush. I hope I still have my hair when I’m 70, is all I can think while shaking his hand. “Do we have time for coffee?” he asks. “Are we in a rush?” “We’re on your time, Mr. Samuels,” I say, answering for both myself and Matt, my mustachioed accomplice.
“Then we’re having coffee,” he says, settling into a comfy vintage chair. Cups are poured. I request milk. Matt and I take a couch. “So,” Samuels says, sipping his coffee, “you’re here to learn about our new bourbon.”
Bourbon! When I wore my drinking training wheels, I ordered bourbon (“Whatever’s cheapest, bartender”) doctored with Diet Coke. Oh, youth. Now, I savor bourbon straight up, or perhaps with an ice cube to unleash the woodsy, vanilla flavors. It’s my pre-dinner wind-me-down after a long day toiling at the keyboard. So when Maker’s Mark invited me to visit its historic distillery, I took .2 seconds to accept. Matt tagged along. After all, drinking alone is no fun.
After finishing coffee, we climb into Samuels’ minivan and cruise through the Kentucky countryside. It’s filled with postcard-pretty farms, galloping horses and… army barracks on steroids? “Those are the rack houses,” Samuels says. They’re where bourbon barrels age, each building far apart. “If one building catches fire”—lightning, errant cigarette—“the barrels won’t explode out and set the other building on fire.” Underscoring the point, we pass the rusty ruins of the original Heaven’s Hill distillery. When it burned, it destroyed an estimated 4 percent of the world’s bourbon. Precautions are very, very good.
Except for a few brief stretches, the Samuels clan has distilled since 1783. But when Bill Samuels, Sr., launched what would become Maker’s Mark in 1953, “there was no respect for bourbon,” Samuels says, surrounded by black-and-white photos of family friends with names such as Van Winkle and Beam—you know, the fathers of bourbon. Back in the ’50s, bourbon was harsh and burning, so Senior concocted a smooth easy-sipper. Wife Marge designed the wax-dipped bottle and hand-torn label featuring her calligraphy. It looked different. It drank different. It worked. “We grew by concentrating on the quality of one product,” Samuels says.
While Maker’s Mark has never changed, the industry has. America has entered a golden age for the brown spirit. Hit Char No. 4 or PDT to taste bartenders’ reverence for whiskey and bourbon. While content with the old, dark-spirits-drinkers crave new flavors. It was time for Maker’s to expand the brand—with one stipulation: The new bourbon needed to be as smooth and drinkable as the original. “Bill set out to do the impossible,” says Victoria MacRae- Samuels, the director of operations.
We’re in the tasting room. The president has departed. On the table sits a sample bottle of Maker’s 46. Here’s how it got there: Master distiller Kevin Smith pow-wowed with Brad Boswell, the president of barrel makers Independent Stave. The self-proclaimed “wood chef” struck upon a plan: He’d sear oak staves with radiant heat, so the wood’s innards remained uncooked. The seared staves were then lowered into a barrel of finished Maker’s Mark bourbon. Every few weeks, a tasting panel would taste the progress.
“We’d smell it and go, ‘Oh, man, this is really it.’ Then we’d take a sip and say, ‘This is so not it,’” MacRae-Samuels recalls. Boswell had faith. “You just have to wait,” he said. They did. After two-plus months of seasoning, the seared wood— profile No. 46—worked its oaky magic. Maker’s 46 was born. “It’s not better than Maker’s Mark, it’s different. They’re cousins,” MacRae-Samuels says, pouring us a measure of Maker’s original.
I sip. It’s smooth, sweet and mellow, sliding to my stomach as gently as a falling feather. Next, I test-drive 94-proof 46. The scent of bread baked in a wood-fired oven is sublime, as is the taste. It blooms warm and bright on my tongue, building to a woodsy spiciness that recalls cinnamon. But there’s no burn, only a tempered sweetness that lingers after each sip.
“What do you think?” MacRae-Samuels asks.
“I think,” I reply, rolling the amber elixir around the glass, “I want another drink.”