Bottle #1: Maker’s Mark

Jan 3, 2023

On my reveal video I talked about Maker’s Mark coming out in the 80s, and — yes bourbon fans, you’re right – that’s not technically true. But that is when it blew up and became the national brand that helped steer bourbon back to being America’s favorite whiskey.

The thing that tipped the scale was a 1980 article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, titled “Maker’s Mark Goes Against the Grain To Make Its Mark.” After that, their phone never stopped ringing. But before that, the company had spent much of the previous 25 years trying to get anyone outside of Kentucky to notice them.

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It wasn’t necessarily their fault. The post-World War II period was not kind to American whiskey. They’d barely begun to recover from Prohibition when the distilleries were shut down again, this time to make torpedo fuel. They start building supplies back up after that, but quality was poor and Scotch imports soared. In the 1950’s the whiskey is finally starting to get good again – some say great — but Louis Rosenstiel of Schenley Distilleries massively overproduced ahead of the Korean War, fearing a rerun of the torpedo fuel days. When that didn’t materialize, his whiskey glutted the market, lowering prices, and driving smaller distillers out of business. Bourbon was cheap and no one was buying it, as young people turned to hip new spirits like vodka and tequila. (Nobody wants to drink what their parents drank.)

Into this mess walks Bill Samuels. He’d been born into a distilling family and had run the T.W. Samuels Distillery until it was forced to close in 1943 because of that whole torpedo fuel thing. He sold everything off, went and helped with the war, and came home to live a quiet life as a farmer. But that didn’t suit him, and he soon started on a mission he’d been thinking about since just after Prohibition – creating a new, better bourbon whiskey that would appeal to modern palates.

The story is pretty well known – Bill recruited industry friends to help him develop his new recipe, and his wife Margie baked 150 loaves of bread to test the various potential mash bills, because that was faster than waiting for bourbon. On the basis of this he decided to use red river wheat instead of rye as his secondary grain. Other tweaks involved adjusting the way the mash was ground and cooked and even how the barrels were made, all with the eye towards creating a better tasting whiskey.

Land was purchased, whiskey was made, and once it was in barrels in 1954, Bill famously gathered his whole family together and burned his father’s recipe. A new era in bourbon was being born. But it would have a very long gestation period. While the whiskey was aging Bill’s wife Marge Samuels would set about creating the brand identity. The torn label, the red wax hand-dipped neck, even the distinctive shape of the bottle were all thanks to Marge’s ingenuity. But while today we can see all the ways that these should be great for marketing, the brand was saddled with the bad reputation the bourbon industry had given itself and a populace that had left bourbon behind. They struggled to find a market outside of Kentucky.

But gradually things began to take a turn for the better. Maker’s Mark was the first company to adopt a strategy that is common today – charge a lot of money for something so that people will pay a lot of money for it. They were determined to change bourbon’s “cheap” reputation, so the tagline of their 1965 advertising campaign was “It tastes expensive… and is.” Air travel was booming in the 1970s and mini bottles of Maker’s, probably looking just like mine, made their way on to the plane. And then in 1980 came the Wall Street Journal article, and the bourbon world would never be the same again.

My bottle? It’s from 1994, maybe 1995. Bourbon bottles are easy – they emboss the year the bottle was made right into the glass on the bottom.

Want the whole Maker’s Mark story? Check this out.

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Bottle #1: Maker’s Mark

Jan 3, 2023 |

On my reveal video I talked about Maker’s Mark coming out in the 80s, and — yes bourbon fans, you’re right – that’s not technically true. But that is when it blew up and became the national brand that helped steer bourbon back to being America’s favorite whiskey.

The thing that tipped the scale was a 1980 article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, titled “Maker’s Mark Goes Against the Grain To Make Its Mark.” After that, their phone never stopped ringing. But before that, the company had spent much of the previous 25 years trying to get anyone outside of Kentucky to notice them.

It wasn’t necessarily their fault. The post-World War II period was not kind to American whiskey. They’d barely begun to recover from Prohibition when the distilleries were shut down again, this time to make torpedo fuel. They start building supplies back up after that, but quality was poor and Scotch imports soared. In the 1950’s the whiskey is finally starting to get good again – some say great — but Louis Rosenstiel of Schenley Distilleries massively overproduced ahead of the Korean War, fearing a rerun of the torpedo fuel days. When that didn’t materialize, his whiskey glutted the market, lowering prices, and driving smaller distillers out of business. Bourbon was cheap and no one was buying it, as young people turned to hip new spirits like vodka and tequila. (Nobody wants to drink what their parents drank.)

Into this mess walks Bill Samuels. He’d been born into a distilling family and had run the T.W. Samuels Distillery until it was forced to close in 1943 because of that whole torpedo fuel thing. He sold everything off, went and helped with the war, and came home to live a quiet life as a farmer. But that didn’t suit him, and he soon started on a mission he’d been thinking about since just after Prohibition – creating a new, better bourbon whiskey that would appeal to modern palates.

The story is pretty well known – Bill recruited industry friends to help him develop his new recipe, and his wife Margie baked 150 loaves of bread to test the various potential mash bills, because that was faster than waiting for bourbon. On the basis of this he decided to use red river wheat instead of rye as his secondary grain. Other tweaks involved adjusting the way the mash was ground and cooked and even how the barrels were made, all with the eye towards creating a better tasting whiskey.

Land was purchased, whiskey was made, and once it was in barrels in 1954, Bill famously gathered his whole family together and burned his father’s recipe. A new era in bourbon was being born. But it would have a very long gestation period. While the whiskey was aging Bill’s wife Marge Samuels would set about creating the brand identity. The torn label, the red wax hand-dipped neck, even the distinctive shape of the bottle were all thanks to Marge’s ingenuity. But while today we can see all the ways that these should be great for marketing, the brand was saddled with the bad reputation the bourbon industry had given itself and a populace that had left bourbon behind. They struggled to find a market outside of Kentucky.

But gradually things began to take a turn for the better. Maker’s Mark was the first company to adopt a strategy that is common today – charge a lot of money for something so that people will pay a lot of money for it. They were determined to change bourbon’s “cheap” reputation, so the tagline of their 1965 advertising campaign was “It tastes expensive… and is.” Air travel was booming in the 1970s and mini bottles of Maker’s, probably looking just like mine, made their way on to the plane. And then in 1980 came the Wall Street Journal article, and the bourbon world would never be the same again.

My bottle? It’s from 1994, maybe 1995. Bourbon bottles are easy – they emboss the year the bottle was made right into the glass on the bottom.

Want the whole Maker’s Mark story? Check this out.

Watch me taste this bottle with Neal Bodenheimer.

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