History of Maker’s Mark Cask Strength

One thing that bourbon and non-bourbon enthusiasts have in common is that they both know and are familiar with the classic brand and unique bottle shape of Maker’s Mark. Although the cask strength version wasn’t introduced into the market until quite some time after the original product was, it has a lineage and a history that make this bourbon unique in its own way.

The cask strength Marker’s Mark was introduced in 2014 as a line extension of the brand under eighth generation Samuels family member Robert Samuels. It is essentially the original Marker’s Mark, but as it would taste directly out of the barrel or cask, without adding water after aging, thus it is at cask strength. The bourbon is distilled and aged at the Marker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. Corn from the Mattingly family, wheat from Peterson Farms and barley from Europe are brought in and broken down on a roller mill. Water for the mashing and distillation process comes from limestone filtered water from a ten acre lake located on the distillery’s property. The mash bill on this offering is the same as with all offerings from this distillery, it is 70% corn, 14% malted barley and 16% winter wheat. A yeast strain that has been in the Samuels family for generations long before the brand was created, is used to help ferment the sugars from the grain before distillation. Once the yeast have converted the sugars into alcohol, the liquid is then distilled twice to help remove impurities. The distillate is then proofed down with some of the limestone water to 110 proof to be prepared for barreling.

Brand new char level number 3 American oak barrels that have been seasoned outdoors in the elements for at least nine months and at least one full Kentucky summer are then filled and sent to be aged. Char levels on barrels range from levels 1-4 and the higher the char level the more the wood is charred. Seasoning of wood is a process of letting the wood rid itself of sap and other tannins that would otherwise make the whiskey bitter by allowing it to be outside for a period of time so undergo this process. During the duration of the aging process, barrels are hand rotated from top to bottom floors. Since heat rises, the top floors of the warehouses tend to be warmer than the bottom levels, therefore barrels that are stored at higher levels will age quicker due to the heat forcing the aging distillate further into the wood. After spending a minimum of three summers on higher level floors and when a tasting panel at the distillery determines readiness, the barrels are hand rotated to lower floors where the cooler temperatures will slow down the aging process. Although there is no age statement, it is believed to be around 6-7 years old once fully matured and ready to be bottled. Makers Mark has often claimed that it ages to taste not to time, so once its tasting panel decides that it has aged to the desired taste then the barrel is ready for bottling. The proof on each bottle is dependent on the batch, but often ranges from 108-114 proof. Since each location in the warehouse is unique, no two barrels are alike, so various proofs are produced. The proof and batch number can be found on the label of every bottle, so check yours so that you can find the unique facts about your bottle.

Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is non-chill filtered meaning it bypasses an extra filtration step done by chilling the aged distillate and passing it through a series of filtrations. This process removes compounds in the whiskey that can cause cloudiness in lower proofed distillates, however it does also remove some of the compounds that can take away from the flavor of the whiskey. Each bottle is packaged with the iconic hand dipped red wax and labeled from a hand operated machine. When the cask strength was initially introduced, it was only available at the distillery through the gift shop, but then later in 2016 got a global release. Maker’s Mark is owned by Beam Suntory, the same owners of the infamous Jim Beam brand. According to the profile of the product by the distillery the aroma boasts of vanilla, smoky charcoal and oak while on the palate the vanilla and smoke come through along with spice.

Although the brand may not go back to the early days before prohibition like some distilleries do, there is a vast amount of history that has been created since the inception of the Makers Mark brand. Taylor William “Bill” Samuels, Sr. first introduced the world to Maker’s Mark bourbon in 1958 to give the market a premium, yet subtle spirit that wouldn’t “blow your ears off.” However, the story of how the iconic brand came to be started many generations before Bill was born. His family lineage dates back five generations before he started being in the distilled spirits business. Ancestors of the Samuels family were distilling in Scotland and after immigration to North America began rye distillation in Pennsylvania. Taylor William “T.W.” Samuels was a third generation distiller of the Samuels family born on January 9, 1821. T.W. was more than just a distiller, he was also at one point the Nelson County High Sheriff. T.W. and his wife Lavinia Osburn (September 22, 1822 – September 12, 1901) gave birth to a son named William Issac “W.I.” Samuels on December 17, 1845. The father and son duo later commercialized the family’s distilling in 1844 in Deatsville, Kentucky by opening the T.W. Samuels & Son Distillery (DSP-KY-145). T.W.’s son helped his father with the distillery and later took over the family business sometime in the 1880’s. The distillery produced two unique brands, the Old Deatsville and T.W. Samuels. Taylor passed away at the age of 77 on January 25, 1898 and was buried at the New Salem Baptist Church Cemetery in Nelson County, Kentucky. William passed away the same year at the age of 52 on July 22, 1898 and was buried at the Bardstown City Cemetery in Bardstown, Kentucky.

After their passing the family business was inherited by Leslie B. Samuels, the son of W.I. Samuels. Leslie was born on January 29, 1872 to William Samuels and Emma Dorcas. In 1898 he began operating the family distillery, keeping his father and grandfather’s legacy alive. In 1909 a fire broke out at the distillery destroying warehouses, barrels and even a portion of the distillery. Despite the setback, he continued to manage the distillery until the beginning of prohibition in 1920 causing the closure of the plant like many other distilleries. Leslie married Mary Louise “May” Terrell (May 4, 1878 – July 20, 1922) and the two had one child, Taylor William “Bill” Samuels Sr. on April 16, 1910. When the end of prohibition was in sight, Leslie built another distillery nearby the original one and began operations back again. The new distillery was up and operational on April 28, 1934. Leslie passed away at the age of 64 on February 17, 1936 and was buried at the Bardstown City Cemetery. Eventually hard times came back around and the distillery that Leslie had built shut down in 1952 after the company’s products came out of taste for the market at the time.

Bill met Majorie “Margie” Mattingly (born 1912) at the University of Louisville and the two got married in 1937. Margie herself also had distilling in her bloodline. Her father was a co-founder of Mattingly & Moore Distillery that produced Mattingly & Moore bourbon, Morton’s Spring Rye and Belle of Nelson. Together Bill and Margie gave birth to Bill Samuels Jr. on June 14, 1940 in Louisville, Kentucky. Bill Sr. took an early retirement after spending four years in the United States Navy as an officer and was living off of the proceeds from the family farm. Bill Sr. was never satisfied with the family’s whiskey recipe, so with the only copy of the 170 year old family whiskey recipe, Bill burned it so that it could never be made again, leaving T.W. Samuels’ whiskey to be left in history. While in the process of burning the recipe, he also accidently burned a set of drapes and risked burning down his entire home. With encouragement from Margie that he find something to do after his early retirement, he set off with $35,000 and his eyes on an abandoned distillery. On October 1, 1953 he purchased the Burks Distillery, which originated in 1805 as a gristmill and then expanded to a distillery. Charles Burks first built and operated the gristmill on Hardin Creek and shortly after opened a distillery in conjunction with the mill. Charles had two sons, Charles Jr. and Samuel and they helped their father with the distillery operations beginning in the 1830’s. Eventually Charles, Charles Jr. and Samuel all passed away leaving the distillery to Richard Burks, but he was unfamiliar with operating a distillery so it is believed that he traded the distillery to Sarah and Nancy, the widows of Charles Jr. and Samuel. It is believed that operation continued until the time of the Civil War. In 1889 George R. Burks, the great grandson of Charles Sr., resurrected the distillery and operated it until 1896. In 1896, George began to lease the distillery to M.H. Chamberlain & Company. George eventually took the place back, creating Burks’ Spring Distilling Company and then sold his interest to J.H Kearns and J.E. Bickett in 1905. With prohibition on the horizon, Kearns got out of the business, selling his ownership to Bickett. The distillery survived prohibition by using the land for livestock and farming. By 1937 prohibition was over, the country was wet again and the distillery was back distilling, this time under Frank Bickett, J.E.’s son. Ownership changed hands again in the 1940’s when the distillery was sold to Arthur Cummins. Arthur transferred ownership to Ed Kaiser and the distillery was renamed Glenmore Distilleries. Shortly after the property was sold once more, this time to Dave Karp and he renamed the distillery Old Happy Hollow Distillery. The distillery produced brands called Red Head, Burk Springs and Kin Folk. Dave then sold the distillery to Bill Samuels Sr.

With time ticking and not enough time to create successful recipes that would have enough time to age, Bill Sr. had to get creative. He decided to test his mash bill recipes by using them to bake loaves of bread. His creative thinking saved him years of trial and error. Here is where he came up with replacing the typical rye addition in a mash bill and replaced it with wheat. After testing was concluded the iconic Makers Mark mash bill of 70% corn, 14% malted barley and 16% winter wheat was created. Distillation at his new facility began in February 1954 at a production of about 18 barrels a week. It was during this time that the many iconic brandings of Marker’s Mark were born and behind those creative ideas was Margie. She developed how the bottle should be shaped, how the label should look and even came up with the red wax topper idea. Every bottle of Maker’s Mark has a hand dipped red wax topper on the cork. Margie began this tradition in her kitchen in an electric fryer where she would melt the wax and hand dip each bottle herself. The red wax is a patented trademark of the brand. The Maker’s Mark name itself was another great idea of Maggie. She took note of how pewter whitesmiths would mark their work when completed, this was the mark by the makers, and thus the name Maker’s Mark was born. On every bottle there is also an iconic letter S, with a star and the Roman numeral four. The S stood for the Samuels family, the star represented Star Hill Farms where the family was from and the number four represented that Bill Sr. was the fourth generation distiller of his family. Through later research the family discovered that Bill Sr. was actually a sixth generation distiller and not a fourth, but the IV stayed unchanged.

In Bill Sr.’s journey to bring the best bourbon to the market he often sought the advice of Pappy Van Winkle, W.L. Lyons Brown, Jerry Beam (son of Jim Beam) and Hap Motlow (Jack Daniel’s great nephew). In Bill Sr.’s personal life he served on several boards such as the Bellarmine College board of trustees and was on the board of advisers for the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce.

Although distilling was also in Bill Jr.’s blood, he didn’t take to the family business right away. Jim Beam was not only the Samuels’ next door neighbor and godfather to Bill Jr., but he also helped convince Bill Jr. to go to school for engineering. Enjoying math, science and looking up to his father also being an engineer, he decided to attend Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, Ohio and study aerospace engineering. After completing his undergraduate degree he continued his education at Berkeley College. During this time he worked as an aerospace engineer on the Polaris missile helping to design the fuel injector nozzle. In the early 1960’s, Bill Jr. reached out to his father about returning home and working at the distillery. They agreed that if Bill Jr. went to law school to diversify away from engineering he could come work at the distillery. Back to school it was, this time at Vanderbilt. Near the Vanderbilt campus was Jack Daniel’s corporate office and Bill Jr. began spending time with his father’s friend Hap Motlow. Hap was the chairman at Jack Daniels and he began educating Bill Jr. on the whiskey industry and this helped further peak his interest. When the end of law school came Bill Jr. had accepted another job, but Hap talked him into going work for his father at the distillery for a year to give it a try and if he did not like it then he could go look elsewhere. In 1967, Bill Jr. returned home and began working at the distillery and he never looked back.

The distillery was listed to the United States National Register of Historic Places in December 1974. The following year, in 1975, the title of president of Maker’s Mark was passed down to Bill Jr. from his father who began taking a step back in the company. Bill Sr. still remained chairman and CEO until 1981. In that same year, the company was sold to a Canadian company, Hiram Walker and Sons. The Hiram Walker and Sons Distillery is most notable for its creation of Canadian Club Whiskey. The brand remained in their portfolio until 1987 when Allied Domecq purchased the brand. Another change of hands for the distillery came in 2005 when Fortune Brands took ownership. The ownership was short lived and in 2011 was sold once more to Jim Beam.

During the time of the distillery sales, the world lost the brand’s creator. At the age of 82, Bill Sr. lost his battle with lung cancer at his home in Louisville on Friday October 2, 1992. He was buried at the Bardstown City Cemetery. Almost a decade after his passing, Bill Sr. was inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame in 2001. Margie had passed away a few years prior to her husband on January 30, 1985. Although the husband and wife duo who introduced the world to Maker’s Mark were gone, the legacy and the family name and tradition continued on as Bill Jr. continued to run the company.

Bill Jr. and his wife Nancy brought into this world one daughter, Samantha, and three sons, Taylor, Mark and Robert. Rob Samuels began working at the distillery at a young age doing various jobs and learning about the family business. He eventually moved away from Kentucky to attend the University of South Carolina from 1992-1996 and earned a Bachelor’s degree in applied sciences. For nearly a decade after his graduation he worked outside of the family distillery learning more about the industry with a hope to one day return. That day came in 2006 and Rob returned to the distillery to work with his father. He continued his education at The University of Chicago from 2006-2008 earning his graduate degree in business. He then attended Harvard Business School from 2009-2010 in the General Management Program. A year after his graduation, his father decided to retire and Robert took over as Chief Operating Officer of Maker’s Mark. Now under new management, the brand began releasing various new products such as the casks strength, private single barrel select and even the 46 cask strength. The release of the cask strength bourbon was a result of the bourbon enthusiasts wanting a full strength version of the original product. With the growing demand, a brand that was always hesitant to release a new product into the market did so and satisfied the market. To this day eighth generation Rob Samuels continues to keep his family legacy alive and holds the values of his grandparents alive through each and every offering of Maker’s Mark. So as you enjoy your glass of Maker’s Mark Cask Strength, remember that behind each and every sip there is a long lineage of distilling history from one of the longest generational distilling families in the bourbon industry. The history is just as bold as Maker’s Mark straight out of the barrel. No matter how you enjoy your bourbon, you are sipping more than just what’s in your glass, you are sipping history.

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