Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The History of Maker's Mark, by Sam Cecil



Sam Cecil's 1999 book, The Evolution of the Bourbon Whiskey Industry in Kentucky, is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in whiskey history. I use it constantly. The book is best when Cecil writes about places where he worked, such as Maker's Mark and T. W. Samuels.

The Makers story starts with Charles Burks, who built a grist mill and distillery on Hardin's Creek in 1805. Although Burks died in 1831, his family kept the place going and in 1878, George Burks joined the company and began to rebuild the facility, adding a bottling house and a manager's residence. When Prohibition came in 1920, the family moved to Louisville, selling the 200 acre property to a farmer, Ernest Bickett.

The distillery still had whiskey in storage, of which it was relieved by George Remus, the notorious 'King of the Bottleggers.' Bickett's tenant, Bill Shockency, thereafter used the empty warehouse as a hay barn. The Bicketts revived the distillery after repeal, then sold it, after which it had a succession of owners.

For all of the years before and during Prohibition, and for several years after repeal, the distillery had no electricity. A small steam engine ran the mechanicals. In 1943, a spring-fed lake was built above the distillery and the line from it to the distillery delivered enough static pressure to operate the cooling coils.

Bill Samuels Sr. bought the property on October 1, 1953 for $50,000. Production began in February of 1954. Eighteen barrels were produced on that first day. In that first year they filled 1,527 barrels. It jumped to 2,550 in year two.

Elmo Beam, the eldest son of Joe Beam, was the first master distiller. Samuels knew him from the old T. W. Samuels Distillery and he came out of retirement to start up what they were then calling 'Old Samuels.' Elmo Beam died on April 5, 1955.

Like many of today's new distilleries, Samuels sourced whiskey to get cash flowing, to start building relationships with distributors, and to work out the kinks in the bottling operation. Some of it came from what is now Beam's Booker Noe Distillery, then owned by Barton.

With the time to bottle the first whiskey distilled at 'Old Samuels' approaching, Samuels learned that he no longer owned the rights to his own name. French and Shields, a St. Louis advertising agency, was hired. In the Spring of 1957, they presented the name and packaging for Maker's Mark bourbon. After some test batches, regular bottling began in August, 1958.

After a slow start the company began to pick up steam. In 1981 it was sold to Canada's Hiram Walker, which was subsequently acquired by England's Allied Lyons.

Cecil concludes the article with a personal note, about his acquisition of an original bottle of Burk's Springs.

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