Bourbon Country: 8 Lessons from our Private Tour of Maker’s Mark

We recently had the opportunity to take a private tour of Maker’s Mark. Our tour guide was Bill Samuels, Jr., who ran the business his father started and catapulted it into the global brand it is today.  He is one of the the most understated, humble, exceptionally impressive people around. Minutes into the trip, he had already mentioned his mother and the history of Kentucky multiple times. It was a precursor to what our tour was really about: family, business and history.  Bourbon, really good bourbon, was the sideshow.

These are my 8 lessons from the day (and the only test was to sample the bourbon at the end!)

  1. Kentucky History. Those that settled the rolling hills of Kentucky before us were adventurous explorers. Brave enough to cross Daniel Boone’s trail through the Cumberland Gap and settle this land.  Led by a land grant from Patrick Henry when Kentucky was still part of Virginia. They grew the crops, primarily corn, that were native to this region. They found creative ways to cultivate and use it. Fueled by the limestone and shale that runs under the land they found the hard water had its advantages when it came to making bourbon (Sidenote: Limestone is also attributed with playing a critical role in driving Kentucky’s status as the Horse Capital of the World. Limestone has naturally occurring phosphate minerals which are believed to produce strong bones in horses.) They participated in the shaping of our nation and the principles that still guide our country.

Limestone Creek

2. The value of a quality product, persistence and belief in that product.  At the core of Maker’s is one man’s, Bill Samuels, Sr., desire to make a better bourbon. That’s it. That is all he set out to do. With $35,000 he bought the land to develop his retirement project that now ensures his children and his children’s children’s retirement will not be in question. In his quest, he found that he was not the only one who appreciated a quality bourbon. Sure branding played a role, but this simple concept is often overlooked: the power of a quality product and the persistence to develop the best product. All the branding in the world won’t beget a sustainable product for nearly 60 years if that product isn’t quality.

Tasting Mat

3. Strong Women. Several minutes into our tour, Bill mentioned his mother.  I commented that she sounded like a strong women.  His response: Are you kidding me?!  She was a ball-buster!  We had to salute her as we came down the stairs in the morning.  She is the master-mind behind the iconic bottle design, using paper mache to construct the first mock-up. She created the famous red wax after tinkering with her counter-top deep fryer. She believed in her design so much she stuck buy it even when its impracticalities created barriers.  How would people open the wax?  Call 3M and tell them to develop a pull tab that will withstand the heat!  How would they find someone willing to make a new and different bourbon bottle?  At the time, all Bourbon bottles were the same shape (think about the uniformity of aluminum beer cans – bourbon bottles used to be the same way.) Call the manufacturer and tell them to make an exception!  She graduated first in her college class. She raised three children. She developed the globally recognizable trademark brand. She is one of the few females inducted into the Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame.  Well-behaved women seldom make history.

IMG_0075

4. Friendly competition isn’t just a term of art, it’s a way of life in the bourbon world. Time after time, Bill spoke of the camaraderie amongst the bourbon makers.  Their willingness to mentor and help one another.  He was mentored by a member of the Motlow family (Jack Daniel’s) while attending law school at Vanderbilt (whose office was conveniently located out the backdoor of the law school), with influences while growing up from Pappy Van Winkle. As an adult he paid it forward, by mentoring members of the Brown family (think Woodford Reserve and Old Forester).   Neighbors helping neighbors. If one is stronger, we are all stronger. As the bourbon industry has shown exponential growth, maybe they are on to something with this way of thinking.

Copper

5. The trickle down economy and regional impact of a successful industry.  From cooperages making the barrels to store the bourbon while it ages, to the neighbors growing the corn, (like terroir of wine, it is believed good bourbon is tied to how close the water and the crops are to each other) to the bottle manufacturers producing the bottles, to the transportation taking the bourbon from the distillery to locations globally, to now tourism. The commerce around this single product is about more than the 100 employees at Maker’s. This single product and the economy it drives is powerful.

Outside Distribution

6. Humans run all workplaces. When Suntory bought Beam Inc., Maker’s was valued at $2.6B dollars. Otherwise stated, $2,600,000,000. Despite that towering value, there were hand-written notes in the kitchen reminding others to mind their manners. Type-written notes taped to the wall advising employees to mind their time sheets. Friendly employees waving and saying hello as we passed. It was refreshing and warming. This large global brand was human at its core like the rest of us.

Workplace

7. There is always room to give back. Each year, Maker’s runs commemorative bottles and donates a portion of the proceeds to a particular charity.  This has resulted in over $7.9m charitable dollars raised. The bottles often feature a notable figure to benefit a particular organization with a specially designed bottle for the run. The bottles attract loyalists to the brand and loyalists to the figure and organization. The most notable story reflecting some loyalists strongest loyalty is the Tubby Smith bottle. When Tubby Smith coached the Wildcats, Tubby and Bill were drinking bourbon one night. Bill promised Tubby they would produce a charitable bottle for his foundation that year.  Samuels later learned there was not enough bourbon in production (remember this is a 6 year production cycle where supply cannot be immediately increased to address demand) to support a charitable edition that year. He informed Tubby: next year.  Tubby said that wasn’t good enough. Tubby, well aware of the loyalty in the Wildcat fans, came up with the novel idea to sell an empty bottle. The night before the bottles went on sale, people lined up outside liquor stores to buy Tubby’s empty bottle. (The secondary lesson here – never underestimate a Wildcats’ loyalty to UK when that individual is associated with UK.)

Charity

8. Have fun with it.  Over the years, the Maker’s ads have been funny, memorable and sometimes irreverent. It is not just a shtick. It reflects the persona of the family and the folks running the business. It embodies the people that run Maker’s and their family members that came before them.  It’s a good reminder to never take anything too seriously.

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Now go enjoy a glass of bourbon and feel good about the contribution to the economy!

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