LORETTO — Bill Samuels Jr. didn’t get his family into the whiskey business. His great-great-great-great grandfather did that.
He didn’t create the recipe for Maker’s Mark bourbon or the marketing philosophy behind it. His father did that.
Samuels didn’t think up the name Maker’s Mark, design the bottle and label or add the iconic red wax that drips down each bottle’s neck. His mother did that.
And he didn’t start bourbon tourism by restoring the old Marion County distillery and inviting customers to visit. His parents and sister did that.
But as Samuels steps down as president and chief executive of Maker’s Mark, there is a lot he can take credit for. He turned his parents’ little company into an icon and helped create a more flavorful version of their bourbon. Along the way, he rewrote the rules of marketing and set Kentucky’s bourbon industry on a path to growth and success.
Samuels will hand over the reins of the company to his son after Friday’s running of the Maker’s Mark Mile at Keeneland. Rob Samuels, 36, has led the distillery’s international growth efforts for five years, after a decade of sales and management experience with other liquor companies. He also has done business graduate studies at Harvard and the University of Chicago.
A father-to-son transition might seem strange for a company that hasn’t been family-owned since 1981, when high inheritance-tax rates prompted the Samuels family to sell to the first of three corporations that have owned it. Fortune Brands, like its predecessors, sees no reason to mess with the Samuels family’s success. The company has had annual double-digit sales growth for more than two decades.
“His grandparents created the gem,” Samuels said as his son sat across an antique table in the distillery’s office. “I was able, with a lot of help and some luck, to take it to icon status in the United States. His job is global icon status.”
Global icon status is quite a leap from what Samuels found when he joined the company in the early 1970s, after law school at Vanderbilt and a couple of years working in the aerospace industry.
The Samuels family had been making whiskey since Robert Samuels came to Kentucky in 1784. After their distilleries were shut down during Prohibition and World War II, Bill Samuels Sr. and his wife, Margie, decided to get back into the business in 1951 with a new recipe.
He created a smoother bourbon by using wheat instead of rye. She chose the name and created the packaging. They restored the historic distillery and invited customers to visit. By the 1960s, Maker’s Mark had a loyal following in Kentucky, but it was unknown and unavailable almost everywhere else.
When Bill Samuels Jr. became president in 1975, he knew Maker’s Mark needed to grow. But there were two big problems: Bourbon had lost national popularity, and his father refused to advertise.
His father wanted customers to discover Maker’s Mark themselves, then recommend it to friends. An excellent product, he was certain, would sell itself. “I was convinced he was an old fuddy-duddy,” Bill Samuels Jr. said.
With help from Jim Lindsey of Louisville’s Doe-Anderson advertising agency, Samuels studied his father’s business philosophy to try to create a growth strategy they could both live with.
That strategy paid off in August 1980, when The Wall Street Journal published a front-page feature about the craftsmanship of Maker’s Mark. The article generated thousands of letters and phone calls, giving the distillery an interested customer base that the senior Samuels was comfortable appealing to.
Maker’s Mark promotions are now considered landmark examples of relationship marketing. They have a personal feel, from advertising copy written like friendly letters to humorous plays on the bottle’s patented red wax.
Samuels not only changed advertising theory; he changed bourbon. Once other distilleries noticed the success that Maker’s Mark was having with a better-tasting product, they developed their own premium brands. Bourbon, like single-malt Scotch, increasingly attracts connoisseurs around the world.
As he neared retirement, Samuels decided he wanted a greater legacy “than not screwing up what my parents created.” He began wondering whether it would be possible to create a bourbon that brought out more of the natural flavors of the charred American white oak barrel without getting bitter.
“We wanted the Maker’s taste profile on steroids,” said Samuels, who worked secretly for a couple of years with master distiller Kevin Smith and cooper Brad Boswell.
The result is Maker’s Mark 46, which went on sale last year. To achieve Samuels’ goal, seared French oak staves are inserted into a barrel of Maker’s Mark during the last two or three months of the six-year aging process.
That achievement made Samuels feel better about retirement — not that he really plans to retire. At age 70, Samuels is a bundle of nervous energy that he tries to keep hidden behind a folksy, laid-back demeanor.
“I told Rob I would help around here,” he said. “And I told my wife I wouldn’t stay home, since she wasn’t going to tolerate it anyway.”
Samuels plans to work at least 30 hours a week as a brand ambassador.
“My first job was to write Bill’s new job description, which was interesting,” Rob Samuels said.
Bill Samuels, who has long been active in civic and charitable efforts, has a couple of big ones on his to-do list: he is chairman of the Bridges Coalition, a group lobbying for renovation of the Ohio River bridges at Louisville, and he is leading a $100 million capital campaign for Bellarmine University.
Bill Samuels Jr. said he thinks his son will be a better leader than he was. His fascination was always with ideas, he said, whether related to marketing or product development. “I’ve never considered myself a creative person,” Bill Samuels said. “But I am spectacular at giving creative direction.”
But will Samuels struggle with his son the way he struggled with his father?
“Dad always said that even when he was boss, I was trying to tell everybody what to do,” Samuels said. “People say, ‘You’ll never be able to take a subordinate role,’ but I’m going to prove them wrong.”
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Milestones in Maker’s Mark History
1784: Robert Samuels begins distilling in Kentucky; each generation of his descendants follows suit.
1840: T.W. Samuels opens the family’s first commercial distillery in Nelson County.
1951-1954: After the family’s distillery is shut down during Prohibition and again during World War II, Bill Samuels Sr. gets back in business. He ditches the family recipe and creates a new one, using wheat instead of rye to give his bourbon a smoother taste. Samuels and his wife, Margie, buy and restore an old distillery near Loretto. She names the bourbon Maker’s Mark after the craftsmen’s marks on the fine pewter she collects. She designs the bottle and label, and she creates the dripping red wax seal that becomes the Maker’s Mark signature.
1959: Maker’s Mark goes on the market for $7 a bottle.
1967: The company makes its first profit.
1968: Samuels Sr. hires his daughter, Leslie, to develop a visitor program at the distillery. The concept eventually grows into the Kentucky Bourbon Trial.
1975: Bill Samuels Jr. becomes president and CEO. He and Jim Lindsey of Louisville ad agency Doe-Anderson begin creating a marketing strategy designed around Bill Sr.’s dislike of marketing. The strategy emphasized craftsmanship and personal recommendation.
1980: The Wall Street Journal publishes a front-page feature about Maker’s Mark, which Samuels credits with creating national interest in high-quality bourbon.
1981: Fearing then-high inheritance taxes, the Samuels family sells the distillery to Hiram Walker & Sons.
1987: Hiram Walker sells Maker’s Mark to what becomes Allied Domecq.
2005: Allied Domecq sells Maker’s Mark to Fortune Brands, where it becomes part of Beam Global Spirits & Wine.
2006: Samuels Jr.’s son, Rob, joins the company as global brand manager after working for a decade in sales and distribution for other liquor companies.
2010: Maker’s Mark 46 goes on sale. Maker’s Mark begins a $110 million expansion that will increase capacity by 50 percent. Sales surpass 1 million cases after double-digit sales growth every year since 1980.
2011: Samuels Jr., 70, hands over the role of president and CEO to his son, Rob, 36, but will continue working as a brand ambassador.
Sources: Bill Samuels Jr., Maker’s Mark, Whiskey.com, news reports