This article originally appeared in National Geographic Assignment.
Whiskey historian Oscar Getz spent a lifetime assembling an impressive collection of whiskey memorabilia covering American whiskey from it’s beginnings in the 1600’s all the way up to the decade post Prohibition. Situated in an old brick building near distiller’s row in Bardstown the museum is home to pieces of George Washington’s original rye whiskey still, has a tribute to Abraham Lincoln’s days as a tavern keeper and features every sort of American whiskey memorabilia you can think off. Located in Kentucky it naturally leans pretty heavily towards bourbon whiskey, ninety seven percent of which is produced nearby.
Many people make two mistakes when they think of bourbon whiskey. One: that all bourbon comes from Kentucky. And two: that bourbon comes from specifically Bourbon County Kentucky. Bourbon by United States law is: “Whisky produced in the U.S. at not exceeding 80% alcohol by volume (160 proof) from a fermented mash of not less than 51 percent corn and stored at not more than 62.5% alcohol by volume (125 proof) in charred new oak containers.” Which simply means that bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States. Ironically, today’s Bourbon County produces no bourbon whiskey at all.
As I looked through the exhibits following the history of whiskey from the migration of the Scots-Irish to the Americas following the potato famines of the early 1700s. Their settlement in Pennsylvania, the founders of which were Quakers (who had also sought religious freedom in the New World) and as such were much more tolerant of their Presbyterian and Catholic beliefs. The United Kingdom of Britain then was a new invention, created in 1707, and the Irish and Scots were still getting used to the whole idea of having an English King, much less an English church. Once in the New World, these settlers set to work, farming the land and making their drink of choice “uisgebeatha” or “water of life” often shortened to “uisce” or “whiskey”.
As I followed the story told in exhibit and diorama the journalist in me thought, wouldn’t it be great to meet the descendants of these people? With that thought in mind I headed off to the historic Makers Mark distillery situated a few miles away in Happy Hollow, near Loretto, Kentucky. My trip to Bardstown was really a preamble to a whiskey tasting that had been arranged for me at Makers Mark with Chief Operating Officer Rob Samuels. This liquor journalism thing was starting to work in my favor.
Rob Samuels looks even younger than his 36 years and is not what people might envision as the face of a bourbon company. Bourbon is an industry often defined by names like Booker Noe (grandson of Jim Beam) and Pappy Van Winkle. Names which conjure up a completely different image than the clean cut college educated Samuels (graduate work at the University of Chicago and one year at Harvard business school).
After a tour of the distillery we sat down in a little room overlooking the visitor’s center on the sprawling 650 acre site which is now a historic landmark. Formerly the Burks Mill and distillery the site has been making whiskey (except during Prohibition) since 1801. Makers Mark has operated there since 1953.
In front of us were three glasses of Makers Mark whiskey. One unaged, another the fully matured version, and the new Makers 46 (additionally aged with French oak staves).
We talked a little bit about production, how Makers is also made with wheat and without rye (unusual for bourbon whiskey) and how it is aged for 6 to 7 years (bourbon only needs to be aged for two years to qualify legally) and various other aspects specific to Makers Marks. Business talk.
As Samuels raised the glass of clear unaged whiskey to his lips, he signaled me to do the same. The burn of the whiskey resonated on the back and sides of my tongue, which Samuels explained, was one of the drawbacks of unaged whiskey.
“My grandparents settled here on this site in late 1952 and were guided by a vision to do something different than most any distiller in the world had ever attempted, much less distillers here in Kentucky,” said Samuels his boyish face shining. “Makers Mark history and the Samuels family history at this site began in 1952, but my ancestors have produced whisky for almost five hundred years.”
The corny sweet taste of the unaged whiskey lingered in my mouth.
“We’ve traced our lineage all the way back to Samuelstown Scotland near St Andrews, my ancestors were farmers and with some of their grain produced and distilled whisky in Scotland, Scotch whisky.”
The Samuels family left Scotland, migrated and settled in America in the early 1700s settling first in Pennsylvania. There they again farmed the land reserving some of their surplus grain to produce and distill rye whiskey until about 1784.
Samuels again lifts the small tasting glass, shaped rather like a voluptuous woman, he pauses to take a drink, and then sets it back down. “It was my namesake, Robert Samuels, who lived in Cumberland County,” he says. “He had fought in the Revolutionary War as a captain in the Pennsylvania Militia, and just as things were heating up with the taxation on whisky in that part of the country, he decided to move south.”
“Now taste fully matured Makers Mark,” he said pointing at my glass. “You’ll notice you taste it more on the tip of your tongue,” he said. As I sipped I remembered the Whiskey museum and felt the sensations nearer the tip of my tongue.
Those Pennsylvania settlers had grown their grain and made their whiskey, until a British tax on molasses set a series of events into motion. Rum was then the most popular and profitable spirit in these “British” colonies. Molasses was used to make rum and by taxing it heavily the costs skyrocketed. Other more punishing taxes on sugar and tea would eventually lead these “Americans” to rebel against the British King (one George William Frederick better known as George III- who, oddly, was of German descent), and set up a whole new nation called the United States of America. According to Oscar Getz himself, “No individuals, no group endured more hardships, and fought more bravely nor with greater distinction in the Revolutionary War than did the Scotch-Irish.”
Their reward? A tax levied on their whiskey by the English descendants of the new fledgling United States government and enforced by a former British army officer named George Washington. They again rose in revolt, refusing to pay the tax while tar and feathering federal officials. Washington assembled a militia and marched into western Pennsylvania. Most of the rebels in this “Whiskey Rebellion” (1791-1794) simply disappeared, with many heading for the wilds of Kentucky.
The shining amber of the fully aged Makers Mark shone in Samuels’s glass bringing me back to the present.
“At that time Kentucky didn’t exist,” said Samuels. “Modern day Kentucky began as Bourbon County Virginia, and the governor of Virginia had named it Bourbon County in honor of the Bourbons, the French royal family who had supported America as we separated from Mother England.”
A lifting of the third glass and another pause.
“The governor decided to give away for free land grants to families who would agree to move south, mostly Scots Irish from Pennsylvania, and those families only had to agree to grow the native grain, which was corn, and build a house. Most of those families were given up to 1000 acres of land.”
That governor assumed that if families moved there and built a life, they would defend it against attacks by the Native Americans. A successful process which later would virtually define the United States’ entire westward expansion
“So Robert Samuels moved south and in the first year of his settlement paid tax on a little bit of whisky,” said the more modern version.
The newer Rob Samuels took a long sip closing his eyes. “You see this flavor is even more present on the tip of your tongue.”
I noticed the pleasantly tingling sensation and the much richer flavor.
“There were horrific battles between the early settlers of this region and the Native Americans,” says Samuels “The name Kentucky actually means bloody battleground in Cherokee.”
It was actually T.W. Samuels, who built the Samuels family’s first “legal” distillery in 1840, on the original 1000 acre land grant. He was not alone and by 1844 there were more than a 100 commercial distilleries throughout Kentucky.
“But really all of those distilleries produced equally horrible whiskey,” says Samuels setting down his whiskey glass again. A glass containing a pleasantly sweet and smooth whiskey.
“The early American whiskies really did reflect the harsh realities of life at that time in America,” said Samuels. “The cowboy, the frontiersman, who would push westward from the trail, return home and drink their sorrows away.”
“In fact,” he said. “The most successful whiskey distiller at the time promoted the fact that his whiskey would blow your ears off,” said Samuels gesturing emphatically.
“Our family’s whiskey was as bad if not worse than all the others,” he said looking at the glass on the table. “But still it was a successful business that was passed down for generations.”
Rob Samuel pauses again, “It was my grandfather [Bill Samuels Sr.] who sold the family distillery. He simply didn’t…” Samuels pauses again. “He simply didn’t have the passion for it.”
At least not initially, after his grandfather sold the Samuels distillery, he opened a bank (the only bank-according to Samuels-in the history of America, that opened and closed in less than 60 days), later he failed as an automotive dealer, and it was Rob Samuels grandmother who suggested (we’re guessing kindly) that perhaps he should think about getting back into the whiskey business.
Jim Beam once allegedly told Rob Samuels’ father, Bill Samuels Jr. “Stick to making whiskey, son. Your family is distinguished by its incompetence at doing anything else.”
When Bill Samuels Sr. agreed to get back into the whisky business it was on his terms. Which to him meant it was going to be more about quality than quantity. Within the laws of making bourbon he broke down each and every step of the process, sparing no expense, not as a business man but as more of a craftsman. He handmade the bourbon with a fine but full flavored balanced taste profile. His vision for success was no more complicated than to produce a handmade bourbon that he could be proud off.
For 35 years Makers Mark in its trademark bottle with the red wax top was the most expensive bourbon whiskey on the market. Their marketing slogan was “It tastes more expensive…and is.” Makers Mark however was not an immediate success. But over half a century later it is, selling a million cases annually and paving the way for dozens of premium bourbon brands. The distillery in Happy Hollow sometimes sees upwards of 1500 visitors a day and is a registered National Historic landmark. But all that is business.
The last time Rob Samuels saw his grandfather, they had lunch at the Pendennis Club in Louisville before he headed off to college (the Pendennis Club is famous as the birthplace of the old fashioned cocktail). “He just started talking and sharing stories, you know, he wasn’t feeling well, he was dizzy all the time,” says Samuels, pausing as emotion enters his voice. “He shared with me how proud he was that he never wavered from his vision.” Another pause. “He died two months later” says Samuels quietly, his eyes focusing on nothing for a moment. “I’m just glad that he got to see his brand having success in New York, San Francisco…some of the nicer cities,” Samuels said.
Samuels calls his grandfather the Robert Mondavi of bourbon, making an apt comparison (Mondavi didn’t invent California wine but he definitely improved its quality and its image). And as I drove back through the winding roads of Kentucky, towards my six hour flight home, a thought occurred to me. You can go to the Oscar Getz Museum in Bardstown and read about the history of American whiskey, or you can take a short drive to the Makers Mark distillery, where the Samuels family has, and still, lives it.