Maker's Mark

A modern farm distillery in the Kentucky hills.

Of all the whiskey bottles one passes down the aisles of a liquor store, there is one that always stands out: Maker’s Mark. But long before its signature dripping red wax made its debut, the distillery where Maker’s Mark is crafted was known as Burks Mill Farm.

In 1803, Charles Burks and family settled on Hardin’s Creek in Washington County, Kentucky, between Bardstown and Lexington. Two years later he received approval to build a dam to power a grist mill. It’s generally accepted that sometime after the construction of the mill, whiskey production began.

1950s Beginnings

Almost a century later, descendant William Marcus Burks and his sons would incorporate the distillery into M.H. Chamberlain & Co. Through a series of sales, portions of the property exchanged hands inside and outside of the Burks family. By Prohibition, the farm and distillery were owned solely by a man named J.E. Bickett. Frank Bickett, his son, resumed whiskey production in 1937.

The property changed ownership over the next 16 years, until a gentleman by the name of William Samuels purchased its 200 acres in 1953. He called it Star Hill Farm and started producing whiskey the following year.

The Samuels

The Samuels family descends from a long line of distillers descended from Scots-Irish settlers. In 1840, Bill Samuels’ great-grandfather T.W. Samuels established a distillery near Samuels Depot, Kentucky. That property is now owned by Heaven Hill and is the site of their famous Deatsville rickhouses.

While Bill Samuels enjoyed bourbon, he reportedly wasn’t a fan of the family recipe and sought a fresh start at Star Hill Farm. Initially, he sourced his whiskey from various distilleries, a common practice for new distilleries lacking aged stocks. But by 1958, Samuels was bottling his own bourbon using a recipe with soft winter wheat, as opposed to the more commonly employed rye, as the secondary flavoring grain – a method that he reportedly learned from his friend, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. He called it Maker’s Mark, thanks to a suggestion from his wife, Margie Samuels, a collector of fine pewter who admired how craftsmen left their mark on their art. She created Maker’s Mark’s signature seal, the “S, IV” circled by a star, as well as the iconic red wax seal which adorns every Maker’s Mark bottle to this day.

The Samuels

The Samuels family descends from a long line of distillers descended from Scots-Irish settlers. In 1840, Bill Samuels’ great-grandfather T.W. Samuels established a distillery near Samuels Depot, Kentucky. That property is now owned by Heaven Hill and is the site of their famous Deatsville rickhouses.

While Bill Samuels enjoyed bourbon, he reportedly wasn’t a fan of the family recipe and sought a fresh start at Star Hill Farm. Initially, he sourced his whiskey from various distilleries, a common practice for new distilleries lacking aged stocks. But by 1958, Samuels was bottling his own bourbon using a recipe with soft winter wheat, as opposed to the more commonly employed rye, as the secondary flavoring grain – a method that he reportedly learned from his friend, Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle. He called it Maker’s Mark, thanks to a suggestion from his wife, Margie Samuels, a collector of fine pewter who admired how craftsmen left their mark on their art. She created Maker’s Mark’s signature seal, the “S, IV” circled by a star, as well as the iconic red wax seal which adorns every Maker’s Mark bottle to this day.

Marketing Genius

In 1975, Bill’s son Bill Samuels Jr. became the president of Maker’s Mark. Formerly a rocket scientist, Bill Jr.’s true genius was marketing. In the decades that followed, Maker’s Mark moved from a small, regionally known Kentucky brand to one of the most recognizable and respected bourbons worldwide. After a series of ownership changes beginning in 1981, the operation moved under the control of spirits conglomerate Beam Suntory, where it remains to this day. Bill Jr. stayed on and in 2010 Beam Suntory named his son Rob as chief operating officer. The following year, Bill Jr. announced his retirement as president and chief executive of Maker’s Mark; Rob succeeded him in those roles too.

Landmark

Maker’s Mark is one of the most frequented distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and for good reason. The grounds are well manicured, and maintain their 19th-Century historic charm while incorporating top-flight dining and recreation opportunities. The distillery and its buildings are registered as a U.S. National Historic Landmark, though accented by stunning modern works of art by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. Visitors can tour the distillery and witness bourbon production first-hand, then dine at Star Hill Provisions, Maker’s Mark’s on-site restaurant that specializes in farm-to-table cuisine.