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Maker’s Mark is now owned by Beam Suntory, but it was the wisdom of its founder T. William Samuels Sr. that made it the iconic brand that it is today. In 1953 he purchased the Burks’ Spring Distillery. His family had been distilling for generations and he was friends with many distilling families including the Beams, the Van Winkles and other great names in distilling history. There are many stories about these connections and who gave what advice, but that does not matter because in the end the important thing is that Samuels listened and sorted through the advice and made some very wise decisions. He was wise enough to listen to his wife, Margie as well. In doing so he created a distillery that really is the model that other distillers follow today.
The first bit of advice was to create a single brand and make it the best whiskey you can make. Concentrate on making great whiskey and don’t be afraid to price it as a great whiskey. That is exactly what Samuels did. He created a Bourbon that was a wheat recipe, probably because of the influence of the Old Fitzgerald brand at Stitzel-Weller that had a great reputation even back in the 1950s. Next he wanted to keep it in demand so he limited his market to Kentucky and a selection of other markets. He marketed it as a premium whiskey that was worth the extra cost compared to other Bourbons.
Once he created the brand he knew he had to package it in a way that would impress people with the quality. A new bottle design, hand printed labels and a wax seal were created by Margie Samuels to impress the consumers. When the consumer walked into the liquor store or a bar and saw the bottle it looked different and it looked classic and stylish compared to most other brands. Once the package was designed, then it had to be advertised. Maker’s has always had unique and entertaining advertisements.
The marketing plan evolved as the brand grew but was always fun and attracted the consumer’s attention. His son, Bill Samuels Jr. had a huge influence on this marketing with his dry wit creating many fun catch phrases. The red wax was a center of the advertising with many items covered with the dripping red wax highlighting the brand and the bottles.
Finally, Samuels realized that a premium brand had to come from a distillery that was worthy of the premium category. The distillery was well landscaped and buildings attractively designed with details such as the bottle shape cut into the red window shutters. It is a place that people would want to come to for a visit and other needs of tourism were worked into the design. Maker’s Mark wanted to attract visitors.
They created their Maker’s Mark Ambassador program for the consumers. This program was more than just a fan club, it did many things to make the consumer feel part of the distillery family. Birthday cards and Christmas gifts were sent to the Ambassadors. Ambassadors have a barrel with a bottle’s worth of whiskey put into the warehouse when they join and they are contacted when it ready to be bottled so they can come to the distillery and get it. Maker’s Mark Ambassadors are made to feel special and in return they are some of the most loyal fans in the whiskey industry.
All of these programs were created by T. William Samuels and his family. His wife, son and daughter all played a role in the business and helped create the programs that are so successful today. In the 1980s T. William Samuels sold the distillery and brand to Hiram Walker. The Bourbon industry as a whole was still in decline in the 1980s even though Maker’s Mark was an exception. It was the best-selling Bourbon in Kentucky but it was decided that it was better financially for him to sell the distillery rather than make the family pay estate taxes on the distillery when the time came for him to pass it on to the next generation. The family remained an important part of the distillery and probably a large shareholder in Hiram Walker after the sale. Maker’s Mark has passed through several companies before it finally landed as part of Beam Suntory, but the family has always been a part of the distillery. They still play a major role in what happens at the distillery today.
In the Bourbon market of the 21st century many distilleries are looking at Maker’s Mark as a model of what they want to do today. Bourbon tourism and premium brands are the goals of many new artisan distillers. The other major distillers also have noted what Maker’s Mark was doing as early as the 1960s and incorporated some of the same ideas into their marketing plans. You can see these influences at new distilleries such as Peerless, Jeptha Creed and Castle & Key but you can also see the influence at places like Woodford Reserve, Four Roses and Wild Turkey. Maker’s set the bar back in the 1950s and 60s for the modern distillery of today with its tourism, fan clubs and premium brands.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller