Talking Bourbon with Rob Samuels, COO of Maker's Mark
Rob Samuels comes from a long line of whiskey-makers -- the Samuels clan has been distilling as far back as the 1500s in Scotland and was making whiskey in America before the country was founded. Bill Samuels Sr. (Rob's grandfather) began producing Maker's Mark in 1954, and Rob took over as chief operating officer of the distillery about a year ago (that's his signature on the side of every label). We met him for a weekday cocktail at Scottsdale's Culinary Dropout.
Zach Fowle Rob Samuels, maker of Maker's Mark
What brings you to Phoenix?
Tonight we have an event here where we've invited 50, 60, maybe 80 consumers out to try some Maker's and some cocktails. We were actually the distillery in America to welcome visitors -- that was my grandmother's vision -- but we also like to take the distillery out to the people, and that's what this is about. For 25 years, Maker's was kind of a secret, and was really only well-known and celebrated in Kentucky. That was during the late 50s, 60s, 70s, even the early 80s. But since the early 80s, we've grown a little bit in some of the major cities like Phoenix and Scottsdale, so I can come out and do these kinds of things with consumers. It's one of the parts of my job that I love more than anything else.
Tell me about Maker's Mark.
This is the bourbon brand that my grandparents invented. The Samuels family -- my ancestors -- has actually produced and distilled whiskey for almost 500 years. We made whiskey as far back as the early 1500s in Samuel, Scotland, then migrated to America in 1680, settled and started making whiskey in Pennsylvania. They then moved south and settled in what was then the western edge of Virginia, where my namesake, Robert Samuels, settled a land grant in 1784 in a part of Virginia that would later become Kentucky.
We owned a distillery called T. W. Samuels that was passed down for generations. That distillery was like all of the others that were open at the time. There were more than 100, and all those distilleries really made commodity whiskey -- test of manhood, blow your ears off. That was what the market was. My grandfather sold that old distillery, and after he sold it he opened a bank. It was the only bank in the history of America that opened and closed in less than 60 days. He later failed as an automotive dealer, and then my grandmother suggested that maybe it was time to get back into the whiskey business.
When he agreed, he said it was going to be on his own terms, which meant he wasn't going to do what his family had done in the past. He wasn't going to make a similar style of whiskey that the other distillers made. I think more than anything else, his vision was to approach the prospect as a craftsman, to try and bring good taste and bourbon together.
Why was the whiskey of the day so harsh?
It came out of frontier America. Pushing westward on the trail, the cowboy would return home. It was a tough life, and the whiskeys of that era really reflected the harsh realities of daily life. Consumers anywhere in the world interested in good taste and refinement wouldn't even consider American whiskey. American cowboys would drink a rough whiskey to show their manhood.
So how did your grandfather approach making this new bourbon?
My grandfather's vision for success, for him it was really about producing a whiskey that he'd be proud of. The way he thought about it was, he was going to break down each step of the whiskey-making process, and within each step he would attempt to bring together a more full-flavored, softer bourbon. That's why at our distillery, everything we do from the water we use to the grain we use, to how we grind the grain, cook it, distilling, aging, everything -- it was all intended to put those pieces together to deliver a hand-made bourbon with that refined taste profile.
My father, Bill Samuels, was president of Maker's Mark for 40 years, and his greatest achievement far and away is staying true to what we started with. The bourbon made today at Maker's Mark is made exactly the same way it was made in the beginning.