By Mike Augustyniak

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Like jazz and baseball, bourbon is uniquely American.

Chances are that when you think Bourbon, you think Kentucky. And, when you think Kentucky, you may think Maker’s Mark.

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Bill Samuels Jr. — the man behind the brand, and the son of its founder — was president and CEO of Maker’s Mark in Loretto, Kentucky until his retirement in 2011.

Today, with his son Rob now running the company, Samuels holds the title “chairman emeritus,” and travels the world telling the family’s story.

The Samuels’ distilling bloodline actually dates back to the American Revolutionary War.

Bill Samuels Jr. (credit: CBS)

“My first memory of a great distiller was being Jim Beam’s godson,” Samuels said. “He was our next-door neighbor, he was my grandfather’s best friend, and I got to play with him every afternoon after kindergarten and first grade and second grade.”

Bill Samuels Sr. founded Maker’s Mark when he purchased the Burks family distillery in the 1950s.

“This really was his retirement hobby. He was really focused on creating a bourbon that tasted good, and then Mom kind of took over with the package designs,” he said. “It was the two of them. She worked on the outside, he worked on the inside, and it got discovered in the early 80s, and lo and behold, bourbon went from swill to swell.”

A front-page story in the Wall Street Journal put the local brand on the worldwide stage, and it’s been growing since.

“We still make Maker’s in exactly the same batch size, in exactly the same way with the same ingredients that we did when we started in 1954,” he said. “It’s just we make more batches. But, always grain from the same farm, always the underground spring water.”

Samuels knew in his time as CEO that his primary job was to maintain the integrity of the product his family had create. But he knew he also had to innovate.

“Right before I retired, I had this idea that it would be interesting to explore different flavors within the Maker’s DNA. And we started on this little idea of utilizing a process and an innovation used by the wine industry,” he said.

Full Interview With Bill Samuels Jr.

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Samuels says they added flavor staves to the wine barrels, and cooking those flavor staves “in very unique ways” led to additional complex flavors.

“That led to [Maker’s] 46, and that was my retirement project,” he said.

It starts as fully-mature Maker’s Mark, but then spends a few extra months aging in what are called “finishing barrels,” constructed with flavoring staves.

Samuels says he believes that the wood used in the barrels provides “about 50 percent of the flavor.”

When designing Maker’s 46, Samuels determined that the finished product had to adhere to three rules.

First. “Whatever we did, it had to be yummy.”

Second. “We wanted to ramp up — intensify — the flavors already existing in Maker’s.”

And the third was a long, smooth finish; aimed at what Samuels says was a focal point for critics of the original Maker’s Mark.

The resulting Maker’s 46 wasn’t just the first new Maker’s Mark recipe in 50 years, but it also received critical acclaim, and set the path for the company’s future growth.

Today, Samuels isn’t the only person who can make a custom barrel of Maker’s Mark. The company’s new “Private Select” program allows the brand’s premium customers to make their own barrel of bourbon, utilizing the same technique that creates Maker’s 46.

As of now, three outlets in the Twin Cities have a barrel of Maker’s Mark Private Select on site: Bellecour in Wayzata, Butcher & the Boar in Minneapolis and the Blue Plate restaurants: Mercury Dining Room and Rail, The Lowry and The Freehouse.

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Watch the next edition of Mike’s Mix on June 24 to see how this one-of-a-kind bourbon is used in cocktails.

Mike Augustyniak