The Maker’s Mark Story: A Front-Page Story Puts Tiny Distillery on Map

By Bill Samuels Jr., president/ceo, Maker’s Mark Distillery

Third of a series.

Maker’s Mark struggled until Aug. 1, 1980.  That’s when The Wall Street Journal did a front-page center column feature on my Father and his little hobby.  That blew the roof off interest in Makers.

That Journal article was an accident.  If you listen, you take advantage of unexpected things.

The Wall Street Journal’s reporter responsible for adult beverages lived in St Louis.  He was in Louisville for Humana Corp.’s annual meeting.

After the Humana Corp. meeting, he went back to the bar at the Brown Hotel.  They had the news on, with a report about Maker’s Mark Distillery being the first bourbon distillery to be designated  a National Historic Landmark.  Actually, I think it was the first beverage facility to become a National Historic Landmark.

The Journal reporter said, “Hey, this sounds interesting.”  The bartender knew who I was.  They were able to get my phone number.  I was home.

He called and said his airplane wasn’t leaving until the afternoon of the next day, and if I had any time, he’d love to see the distillery.

I said, “Great.  I’ll pick you up at 7 a.m.  Then I had to call Dad, who didn’t like the press and didn’t like marketers.  I had to tell my Dad I had a fraternity brother in town that wanted to see the distillery and really wanted to meet him.

I knew Dad being a gentleman would put up with it, and then would “beat the hell out of me” after the guy was gone.

That was one of only three interviews he did.  He made only one speech, and I tricked him into that, too.

25,000 Letters

The moment that issue of the Journal arrived at the office, Dad said, “That’s great.”

And I said, “Yes.  But it isn’t over.  It’s just beginning.”  That was at 8 a.m. By 8:15 we had ordered five new phone lines.  We had taken my sisters who were younger than me and had gone into “full retirement” early and put them on the phones.

Dad and I committed every night and weekend to personally responding to every letter we got.  We had over 25,000 letters as a result of that WSJ article.  We didn’t keep count of the phone calls, but it was way up in the thousands.

That’s when we said, “Hey, we finally got somebody interested in what we do, and we can talk back to them.

We took out our first ad – it was in the Journal — and it was thanking folks for their interest in what we do in Loretto.  We recognized they were going to have a horrible time finding it outside Loretto.  Just be patient, keep in touch and tell us where you like to have some.”  We kept the conversation going for six years until the whisky finally started showing up.

It was the first time on a commercial/marketing issue that my father and I were fully aligned. I had thought what you did was you went and got a bunch of sewing kits,  put your logo on them and threw them around the bus station.  I didn’t know.

Dad never liked that approach.  He always figured you talked to the people who were interested.  They would then go influence and talk to their friends if they thought the product was worthy of recommendation and it would be the classic discovery model.

Here we were, executing exactly what he wanted to happen.  It was the most fun five years I’ve had in the business.

Keeping Interest Alive

Of course, we didn’t have any distribution out of Kentucky at the time.  We were only selling a few thousand cases.  We wound up the distillery, but we knew it would be six years before we had enough bourbon to meet the demand.

To keep interest in Maker’s Mark alive during those six years, we begged and borrowed some bottles from Kentucky and sent them out to fine restaurants in New York, Washington, Atlanta.  Not too much, just enough to keep interest up.

By the time the distillery expansion was complete with mature whisky, the interest was still there.  Ever since that Wall Street Journal article, we’ve had double-digit growth every year for our brand.

I think if my Father who died in 1992 were to come back and look around and saw how well-respected bourbon is not only in the U.S. but internationally, what a fire storm bourbon has created in Europe, in Asia, he would be amazed.

Tomorrow:  Maker’s Mark’s breakthrough spurred innovation at other distillers.


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