A tour of Maker's Mark
In the 1950s, Margie Samuels had a vision for the family bourbon business. That vision can be seen today in the village-like distillery grounds of Maker’s Mark, designed to “look as good as the whiskey tastes,” said Distillery Marketing Coordinator Roy Lee Wigginton as he showed me around the distillery grounds.
Margie also designed the signature shape of the Maker’s Mark bottle, the label, and even the famous red wax seal. The idea for the name was inspired by the “mark of the maker” on her pewter collection pieces. The spelling of “whisky” is based on the family’s Scotch-Irish heritage. A red wax seal adds the finishing touch. To this day, Maker’s Mark is the only bourbon brand designed completely by a woman.
The bottle Margie Samuels designed has helped make the Maker’s Mark brand iconic, bringing visitors to the distillery in droves, where they can walk the picturesque grounds, do a tasting to learn about how bourbon ages, and enjoy bourbon pulled pork at the cafe.
The distillery still stands on the original 19th century foundation, though it underwent one expansion in the 1990s, and is undergoing another at the moment, to allow the distillery to meet demand for the product
The distillery, originally a grist mill dating back to 1805, was purchased by the Samuels Family in 1953 for $305,000. Bill Samuels Sr., the founder of the Maker’s Mark, wanted to create smooth, high-quality bourbon, unlike the “cowboy whisky” his family had distilled for decades.
“He had a very specific vision in mind for what he wanted his whisky to taste like and how he wanted it produced,” said Roy Lee about Bill Samuels Sr. “And our goal every day we come into work is to maintain that.”
Visitors to the distillery are greeted by two shiny copper stills and two 10,000 gallon cookers, in which water from a spring-fed lake is mixed with red winter wheat, barley, and the key component of bourbon, corn. The grain and water are cooked together at a slow rate.
Next door to the cookers is the fermenting room. Yeast from the original Maker’s Mark yeast strain is added to the cooked mash. All of the yeast is from the original strain, which is kept cryogenically frozen in multiple locations. Using the original strain gives the bourbon some of its signature the flavor. Each fermenter gets 200 gallons of yeast, so the distillery keeps trillions of yeast strains on hand.
The fermenters are over 100 years old. They are open on top, and visitors can watch the yeast in action.
“Day one is the most active,” said Roy Lee. “Day two is like a stale beer. Day three is what we call distiller’s beer.”
From the fermenters the mash moves on to the column still — with a height of 5 stories, it is the tallest point of the distillery. From the column still, the liquid moves on to pot stills. Even straight from the still, the clear alcohol, dubbed “white dog”, has a distinctive bourbon flavor, though with more of a kick than the final barrel-aged product. The white dog in the bottle can only be bought in the Maker’s Mark gift shop on-site.
Maker’s Mark goes through a variety of taste tests by a panel of about 25 people extensively trained for the task; Roy Lee is one of them. The product is tasted in both its raw state and its aged state. The aging time varies barrel to barrel; the tasting panel is what ensures the consistency of the product. Once approved, the bourbon can then move on to bottling.
The barrels are rotated as they age in the warehouses. Kentucky experiences hot summers and cold winters, which aids in the aging of the bourbon because of the way the barrels expand and contract with the temperature. The warehouses are wooden, with a central hallway, open earth below the barrels, and have a dark metal roof. There are no other temperature controls in the warehouses aside from the construction details.
“In the summer, it can be almost 40-50 degrees warmer up on the top floor, as opposed to the lower floor.” Roy Lee said.
Bill Samuels Sr., when he founded Maker's Mark, stipulated that the oak of the barrels be aged outside over several months, and over a Kentucky summer, before they were charred, as he thought the oak added too much bitterness to his ideal whisky.
The labels, also designed by Margie Samuels, are still die-cut by a 1930s hand operated press, which is what produces the finished, scalloped edges of the label. The label printers can produce 60,000 - 65,000 labels per day, depending on the size of the label.
Maker’s Mark does special collector’s bottles; a few are on display in the label-making space, but Roy Lee showed a hidden cabinet back in the bottling and dipping area filled with special bottles, all of which are only sold in Kentucky when they have a limited release. The distillery keeps plastic containers filled with a variety of colors of wax for dipping the special bottles. In the same room, Maker’s Mark keeps reference bottles of every barrel; if there are ever customer complaints, these bottles allow the team to double-check the product.
Some new additions to the distillery are the recently acquired glass sculptures. The Spirit of the Maker, by renowned Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly, is made up of 1,300 individual sculptures inspired by Maker's Mark bourbon, and is backlit and displayed in the barrel room at the end of the tour. In the gift shop, a sculpture by Kentucky glass artist Stephen Rolfe Powell greets the visitors, and directs them to an area where they can dip a souvenir bottle of their own.
Sunday: 11:30am —3:30pm (March through December)