Usually, distilleries boast of their practices that go centuries back, traditions that smack of prehistoric times, and yeast cells that outlast a minimum of three human generations. They guard their recipes like nuclear weapons. That was exactly why the world raised its eyebrows when T. William “Bill” Samuels Sr., a sixth-generation bourbon distiller, just after he assumed charge of his family business, threw the 170-year-old family recipe into a bucket of fire!
Murder! Blasphemy! Suicide!
But Samuels knew his lines. Could almost foresee his tryst with destiny.
The one thing that he hated all his life was the taste of bourbon his family was making. A lifespan of a couple of centuries doesn't mean that the stuff you have been making is good, proven, he reasoned with the ancestral ghosts that might have protested in his dreams.
Samuels laid the first steps of revolution in the bourbon industry by buying land outside Loretto, Kentucky, and renaming it as Starhill farm. This would be his battleground. Inside, the old Burk's Distillery was standing in ruins.
In his kitchen rather than from a proper still, Samuels now began to chisel out a new bourbon right from the scratch, a bourbon that would be flavourful, rich, and creamy. He had a very talented companion for a wife, Margie Samuels.
The couple sped up the drawling procedure of making bourbon by mixing various grains with baked loaves of bread. Red winter wheat kicked the abrasive rye out of the mash bill, which gave the new bourbon a suaveness that the original family recipe that smoldered in the fire could never even dream of.
The new bourbon was ready. Who would want to buy it!
Margie stepped forward to assume one of the most impressive offices a woman had ever taken up in the bourbon world - that of singlehandedly taking her husband's new bourbon for a ride.
She began with the packaging.
First, Margie didn't want her husband's name, Samuels' on the bottle, even though that was the obvious option, anywhere else. Margie insisted on a more human touch in the new bourbon whisky. How about christening it the name 'Maker's Mark Bourbon Whisky (A 'maker' is a generic name for the artisan who handcrafts spirits)?
That would definitely drive home the point it was handmade for the drinker.
For the shape of the bottle, Margie had only to fall back on her rich collection of 19th-century cognac bottles for inspiration. She came up with a square-shaped wonder.
Today, the first thing that you notice in a Maker's Mark bourbon whisky bottle is its red wax cap that seems to drip down from the neck. That was the greatest contribution of Margie Samuels to the bourbon world. Margie took one of the first bottles to her kitchen, dipped its head into the red wax that was melted in her deep fryer to 350-degree Celsius, and that evening, presented a phenomenon to her unwary husband.
Thanks to her daredevilry, even today no two bottles of Maker's Mark bourbon look the same, though the drink inside clinically sticks to the same taste, bottle after bottle.
Hand-dipping each bottle is a laborious process that can slow down production but now there was no turning back, for the cap now became something iconic.
No dripping red wax at the top, no Maker's Mark Bourbon.
(The only time when Maker's Mark dared to tinker with the original format that Samuels and Margie created in the 50s, it faced stiff resistance.)
In February 2013, the company announced they were going to bring down the alcohol content of their bourbon from 45 to 42% ABV. America exploded in anger. The protest was so huge that they were forced to backtrack quickly from their decision. But the failure had its silver lining too. They realised how deeply engrained Maker's Mark had now become in the life of Americans).
If you look closely at the bottle you can read 'Star S IV' forged into the glass (again, designed by Margie). While the 'Star' stands for the expansive Star hill where the distillery is located, S recalls the contribution of Samuels. And the Roman numerals 'IV' speaks about his lineage (He belongs to the fourth generation of distillers in the Kentucky bourbon country).
Aggressive marketing took Maker's Mark to the skies. Doe Anderson, a marketing wizard was hired in 1973. From selling just 35,000 cases a year, Maker's Mark was soon caught clocking at around 1.3 million a year.
Elsewhere, a roadside billboard screamed out with the picture of the bottle with its iconic red hat: "Honk if you're proud to be redneck!"
Margie's creative efforts to make the bourbon, that her husband created, a huge success didn't go unnoticed. In 2014, she was inducted as the first woman into the Kentucky Hall of Fame.(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)