Recently I took the Maker’s Mark Distillery Tour in Loretto, Kentucky and for this blog entry I’ll share some of my pictures along with a few things I learned on my visit. It all started with a long drive… As in ten hours of long drive. I began in northern Virginia and I drove through West Virginia with a final destination of Bardstown, Kentucky.
The Bourbon Capital of the World
Before I planned my trip to the Maker’s Mark distillery I hadn’t heard of Bardstown. When we arrived we discovered a really cool town with some amazing history including: recognition as one of the 100 Best Small Towns in America, being named one of the 50 Best Small Southern Towns, and inclusion in the book “A Thousand Places to See Before You Die”. Bardstown is the second oldest city in Kentucky and is home to Federal Hill, the inspiration for the state song, “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Plus the city calls itself “the Bourbon Capital of the World” so it’s a perfect place to get a hotel for the night if you’re planning to tour distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail. There are seven distilleries on the trail but I was in Kentucky to see just one – the Maker’s Mark Distillery.
It was about a 20-30 minute drive from my hotel to the Maker’s Mark distillery. Along the way we passed some 7 story black rack houses where I’m sure bourbon was aging in charred oak barrels. After passing through a small town we found the sign above which told us we were in the right place. We continued on until we arrived at an old toll house and the sign that let us know that we had arrived.
After you pass the toll gate you arrive at the Distillers House. There’s a good sized parking lot and a sweeping view of the distillery grounds. Signs tell you to go on in and that’s where I met the friendly representative who got me signed in and ready for my adventure. Here’s a look at the outside of the Distiller House:
My tour was lead by the Chairman (emeritus) of Maker’s Mark himself. Bill Samuels, Jr. is the son of Bill Samuels (Sr.) so he’s personally witnessed a lot of the history of Maker’s Mark. He’s quick to share a story from a first person view and he really knows the history of Kentucky, the Civil War, bourbon and Maker’s Mark. With a slight southern accent and a bounce in his step, Bill, Jr. began to delight us with tales about his family, the room we were in and the room we would be going into next. It’s a room I call the Old Office.
On the office walls animated pictures talked to each about the future of Maker’s Mark. It was a great way to get into the spirit of the rest of the tour.
After a quick stop in the old office we made out way to a kitchen that was fully restored to recreate the place where Bill’s mother helped to create the taste of Maker’s Mark bourbon. According to a plaque on the wall this room is called: “Mom’s Kitchen”.
When the Samuels family took over the old Burk Mill and Distillery the Whisky it produced tasted aweful. But it was whisky so people were buying it no matter what it tasted like. Around 1953 Bill Samuels, Sr. (father of our tour guide) decided that it was time to make a smoother and better tasting whisky. This was a major undertaking since whisky takes years to age and if a change to the recipe fails then the distillery would be in some serious trouble. But Bill senior’s wife (mother of our tour guide) helped the speed up the process by baking loaves of bread and substituting different grains in the bread recipe (grains are the main ingredient of bourbon). Baking a loaf of bread is so much faster than waiting for a bourbon to age that they could quickly try lots of combinations until they found one they liked. This is how they discovered how red winter wheat, when combined with maize, made for a much softer and gentler taste than the traditional rye flavored grain. This is how Bill junior’s mother helped to create the flavor we enjoy today.
“That’s my mom for you – always willing to go against the grain” – Bill Samuels, Jr.
On the kitchen counter there are some cool flip-top jars with ingredients that represent those experiments with bread that helped create Maker’s Mark.
I also learned about how Bill’s mother created the logo, the new brand name, the distinctive shape of the bottle and the signature red wax seal.
The distillers house portion of our tour concluded in a cool library room. We exited out onto the porch and crossed the road heading in the direction of a bridge over Whisky Creek. Bill Jr. was quick to point out that this bridge didn’t have a visible right angle (talk about a carpenter’s nightmare).
Originally created as a diversion channel to prevent flooding, Whisky Creek flows slowly throughout the grounds of the Maker’s Mark Distillery. This bridge is one of the few remaining covered bridges in Kentucky and, according to our tour guide, was constructed just a little smaller than the width of a wagon to discourage locals from crossing the creek on the distillery grounds.
The Quart House
Our next stop was at a historic building called the Quart House (named becuase this is where customers used to come and fill up their quart jugs).Today it’s a National Historic Landmark. By being up high a worker could lean out a window to refill whisky without the customer needing to get off their horse or down from their wagon. Here’s a look at the exterior of the one of the oldest liquor sales buildings in the United States.
Inside the Quart House the contents look frozen in time.
One look inside the Quart House and you know that Bill Samuels, Jr. is serious about the history of Maker’s Mark and he works hard to save as much as possible for visitors like me.
The Still House
After seeing the Quart House our tour guide took us into the Maker’s Mark board room where all sorts of incredible pictures and historic artifacts lined the walls. According to Bill Samuels, Jr. this isn’t part of the normal tours but it’s one of his favorite rooms. Because of all the history on the walls he wanted us to see it.
One of the cooler stories Bill shared with us was about a picture of him and Colonel Sanders (yes, the Kentucky Fried Chicken guy). It turns out that before KFC, Bill worked for the Colonel (Harland David Sanders). Bill received a first hand education from the colonel and I had to smile when he told us first hand accounts of his adventures.
After our stop at the administrative offices we proceeded to the five-story tall Still House. Before we went in Bill took a few minutes to tell us more stories. Here’s a quick shot I took of our tour guide before we went inside:
And the stories continued inside.
Just inside the Still House entrance is another historic exhibit. The very first barrel to hold the new recipe for Maker’s Mark (serial number: 1) is proudly on display. I couldn’t resist getting a picture with such an important barrel.
The picture behind me is a Guinness World Record Certificate that lets visitors know that they are in: “the the worlds oldest operating bourbon whisky distillery”. How cool is that?
Next on the tour was a stop to see where the sour mash is fermented in huge cypress tubs.
After seeing the fermentation tubs we made our way through an area where labels are still cut one at a time on an old style press. It was another reminder that everything happening in the distillery is being done exactly how it was done in the 1950’s. In an adjoining room there were boxes filled with labels waiting to be cut on the press.
Also on display (in the label cutting room) were a number of special edition bottles of Maker’s Mark in a really nice looking display case. Very cool!
The next stop on the tour was the bottling area. This was one of the only areas where a modern machine is used. Bourbon is one of those things that the government loves to tax and according to Bill the taxes are charged when the liquor touches the bottle. In order to keep track of how much bourbon is being bottled I’m sure there’s some high tech meter being used. I’m sure there’s also health and safety reasons to have modern equipment but I bet the taxes are the real reason that humans aren’t pouring bourbon into bottles with a funnel. Here’s a look at the bottling area:
Next up Bill took us to see where the bottles are hand dipped in the signature red wax. Before we arrived Bill took a few minutes to explain a wall filled with cool print ads and pictures of billboards. Here’s a quick shot of our tour guide telling us a story about how Jim Beam tried to make a beer and the Maker’s Mark ad that resulted from the failed experiment:
And here’s a look at the dipping area where each bottle gets it’s signature red wax seal:
Last Stop – the Bourbon Samples
With the Still House portion of our tour complete we took a short walk past the quality control lab (talk about a job to kill for…) and we made our way into a beautiful tasting area.
Floor to ceiling walls of glass separated different tour groups and allowed our guides to explain all the subtle ways to taste and enjoy bourbons. Four samples were waiting for every member of our tour and I took a seat up front to make sure I could hear every word that Bill Samuels, Jr. said. Here’s a look at my four bourbons and Mr. Samuels telling more stories:
After an incredible lesson from Mr. Samuels, Jr. we were invited to sample a special chocolate (which was incredible) and exit into the gift shop.
Inside the gift shop are all sorts of incredible things to marvel at (and buy) but the highlight is the area where you can dip a newly purchased bottle of bourbon into the signature red wax. This is something I did but I’ll share that experience in a future blog entry.
And that concluded my distillery tour. But before Bill Samuels Jr. left for an important meeting I did get a chance to thank him for everything. To me Bill is an American treasure and a custodian of some really incredible historic artifacts. Getting to meet him was an honor for me. He was even nice enough to let me get a quick picture with him.
And that wraps up my distillery tour with the incredible people at Maker’s Mark. I have lots of memories and more stories I could share – but if I did that you you’d might not go and take the tour yourself.
You can find out more by visiting the Maker’s Mark website.
And don’t forget to please drink your bourbon responsibly!