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Pursuitist Exclusive Q&A with Rob Samuels, Chief Operating Officer at Maker’s Mark

Pursuitist Exclusive Q&A with Rob Samuels, Chief Operating Officer at Maker’s Mark

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Pursuitist chatted with Rob Samuels, an eighth generation whisky maker and current Chief Operating Officer of leading Kentucky Bourbon manufacturer Maker’s Mark. This year, the brand is celebrating its 60th anniversary, and it’s also the golden anniversary of Congress declaring Bourbon to be “America’s National Spirit.”

While Maker’s Mark isn’t a luxury spirit in terms of its price point (an affordable $24.99 per bottle), the distilling process and brand philosophy are very much in line with an artisanal, luxury brand. When Bill Samuels Sr. (Rob’s grandfather) started the Maker’s Mark brand back in 1954, he envisioned a spirit unlike the “blow your ears off” whisky his family had been making for generations. Maker’s Mark—named after the ‘mark’ that artisans leave on their finest pieces—was designed to be a whisky sold and sipped at fine restaurants and establishments throughout the South. Developed from a recipe based on the finest local ingredients, it was Mrs. Samuels (Rob’s grandmother) that decided on not only the brand’s name, but its label, bottle shape, and distinctive hand-dipped red wax seal.

Today, Maker’s Mark is credited not only with starting the Bourbon Revolution, but also with maintaining an artisanal method of production despite purchase by larger spirits brand Jim Beam and Beam’s subsequent sale to Japanese company Suntory for more than $13 billion in early 2014.

We discussed Samuels’ passion for this quintessentially American spirit, what’s new at the distillery, and how the brand is celebrating their 60th birthday. Read on for the Q&A below.

Congratulations on turning 60! What has changed about the way you make bourbon in the past 60 years? 

I think back about the original vision and idea for Maker’s Mark– my grandfather, when he was very young, chose to follow his dreams and create a handmade bourbon he would be proud of. He thought maybe one day he’d be featured in nice restaurants and hotels of the South. Today, we’re proud to make bourbon with the same kind of “purposeful inefficiency” – a term the Wall Street Journal coined about our process— that my grandfather did.

What are you most proud of achieving?

Sixty years ago, [our whisky] meant little to anyone outside a small radius. Now it means something to everyone all over the world.

The distilling process seems pretty labor intensive, but the output is large and the price point quite reasonable — how are you keeping costs so low? 

My grandfather’s goal was never to be the most expensive bourbon. He was always adamant about treating each and every customer like a friend. Could Maker’s release and overly “Gucci-fied” bourbon? Yes. But [we] wouldn’t be your friends very long. The Wall Street Journal summed it up really nicely by calling it “purposeful inefficiency.” There’s value to having people run the roller mill or the still vs. computers – it has a direct influence on consistency. How do we keep costs low? Those areas that don’t define the elements of the brand, we just don’t focus on.

You’re celebrating your 60th anniversary with a glass installation by artist Dale Chihuly. Why?

As I was thinking about what would be an appropriate way to celebrate that vision and the uniqueness, I wrote a two-page handwritten letter to Dale Chihuly, an artist who has transformed his field much like our founder did. I asked him if he’d create something unique and reflective of the soul of Maker’s, and he agreed.

The result is hundreds of hand-blown glass pieces that define the ceiling in a warehouse that defines the brand. The installation celebrates the uniqueness of Maker’s Mark.

{The image below depicts Samuels (right) and Chihuly (left) posing with the new installation at the distillery.}

Maker's Mark COO, Rob Samuels (right), and Artist, Dale Chihuly (left)  

Let’s talk a little bit about you. Have you always wanted to join the family business?

I always had a lot of admiration for what my grandparents created. She [my grandmother] was at least 50% responsible for what we know as the product today. I’ve always been in awe of the team … our culture … we’re the only non-union distillery, a family team culture and environment, and also my father who built the brand beyond Kentucky. My goal was always to earn my own stripes and be invited home to work alongside the team.

Let’s test your loyalty to the spirit. Have you always been a bourbon drinker? When you’re not drinking bourbon, what’s your drink of choice? 

For years and years, bourbon is all that I drank, 100%. Occasionally now I have a glass of red wine.

Bourbon, and craft spirits in general, are enjoying quite a turn in the spotlight. Why do you think that is?

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We see a next generation consumer and customer all over the world interested in handmade craft and authenticity. That’s what you see with Maker’s. Here, everything is real – it’s not a marketing storyline.

Many other categories of spirit can’t always say that. People are attracted to the authenticity in the process.

For bourbon novices, this seems like a bit of a hard spirit to sip–or at least a manly one–how do you suggest people drink Maker’s Mark? 

If you really explore the defining elements, serve it neat, maybe with water. There’s not a right way or a wrong way to enjoy it. My grandfather liked it on the rocks, my grandmother with a splash of ginger ale. You have versatility with Bourbon. You see that with customers – they drink it one way one day and another the next.

What’s your favorite collector’s bottle? Any great luxury bottles of Maker’s that we should scout?

All of Maker’s commemorative bottles have been aligned with causes. Most all [of our partnerships have been] here in Kentucky. That’s a pillar of what the brand is – giving back to the community.

A favorite is one you can only get at the distillery. It’s Maker’s White, served just off the still. It’s hand signed by my father, who also signs every bottle of Maker’s 46. At the distillery, you can also dip your own bottle.

That’s great. What’s next? Will you expand your product line?

We’re breaking ground on our third distillery, opening in 2015. We decided to do it in the same process we always have – we’re embracing that same purposeful inefficiency that has gotten us where we are today. [With regards to expanding,] we don’t know. If something, from a taste perspective, is really unique, we’ll consider it.

The Spirit of the Maker 3 The Spirit of the Maker 5

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