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Maker’s Mark

Anyone who knows me well knows I love my wine, but if I had to name my liquor of choice, it’s bourbon, and to be more specific, it’s Maker’s Mark. I’m not sure how or when this love developed, but if memory serves me correctly, I think I was was introduced to Maker’s on my brother’s 21st birthday, and while we’ve had a few breakups over the years, I have never cheated on it.

I credit the love of the brand to my brother’s best friend, Beau. Beau was born in Winchester, Kentucky and grew up down the road from us just outside of Atlanta. Beau introduced us to all things Kentucky over the years- Ale 8, Beer Cheese, the Hot Brown, and Kentucky Basketball. He also introduced me to Maker’s Mark. In fact, I vividly remember the look on my father’s face when Beau bet me I wouldn’t take a swig straight from the bottle of Maker’s. I took that bottle out of Beau’s hands and turned it upwards. To my father’s surprise, I felt fine the next day. I can’t say the same for my brother.

Over the years, Maker’s has always been present at our weekends together. We picked up a bottle to have during my brother’s wedding weekend, the drink of choice this past New Year’s Eve was Maker’s, and whenever we are all catching up about life, wherever we are… it’s usually with a Maker’s in hand. It’s become a tradition to pick up a bottle when we are all together. And while I don’t imbibe as much these days, I drink a Maker’s and Ginger as much to keep a tradition alive as I do for simply enjoying the taste. There are so many good memories associated with it, ok- and maybe a hangover or two, but for storytelling purposes, we’ll leave those details out.

Recently, Beau and I started to discuss a visit to the Maker’s Mark distillery in Loretto, Kentucky. Beau was pushing for this, but I didn’t really need that much convincing. A roadtrip with friends to the Maker’s distillery… I was onboard from the day he first mentioned it. But Beau’s passion and desire to see the birthplace of this sweet bourbon was much stronger than mine, and it came down to family and a special interaction he had shared with the Maker’s Mark family the year before, one that we would learn went a lot further back than we initially thought.

Winchester, Kentucky isn’t a big city at all. The population today is 18,000. In fact, you can cross town in the matter of moments and if you blink, you’ll miss it. It’s still the type of place where everybody knows everybody else, where you go to dinner and if you’re Beau’s grandmother, Shirley, you look around when you walk in the restaurant to see who you know there. There’s a sense of community and a southern hospitality that’s sweeter than that of most other southern cities.

Beau’s family has lived in Winchester for generations, so they know a few people. Beau’s late grandfather, Cap Langley, was a man about town, and a few people know of him. After his service in World War II, he returned to Winchester, Kentucky and led a group of men in the construction of US Route 60 which runs from Winchester to Louisville. During this time, he met and employed Bill Samuels, Sr, who later went on to create the brand Maker’s Mark in 1954.

The whole family knew of the connection between Cap and Bill, but family lore had it that Cap had been very influential in one of Maker’s Mark’s famous ad campaigns. The story goes that while at a dinner party one night, Bill Samuels was telling a small group of people about the potential new tagline, “It tastes expensive,” and Cap turned around and said, “Because it is!”  Apparently, the family believed that this was turned into the tagline, “It tastes expensive and is,” which Maker’s Mark ran for many years following that night.

Beau, being the curious guy he is, decided to get to the bottom of this legend, and back in January 2011, he put pen to paper and drafted a letter to Maker’s Mark. Not knowing who to address it to, he sent it to the PR department, with hopes that it would fall into the right person’s hands. Well, wouldn’t you know that less than two weeks later, Beau had a letter back from Bill Samuels, Jr.confirming the story was indeed true. Bill Samuels, Jr. spoke very highly of Cap and was well aware of his father’s relationship with the Langley family.

I’ll never forget being on the receiving end of Beau’s phonecall and listening as he read the handwritten card he had just received from the bourbon maker himself.  If Beau could love the Maker’s Mark brand anymore than he already did, it just happened. And the need for a visit to the distillery became even more necessary.

We made that trip this past weekend. Beau flew into Lexington Friday afternoon, and I drove up from Atlanta picking him up when I arrived in town. We went straight to Grandma Shirley’s house for a visit, and she was eager to hear about our plans for the weekend. We had a lot we wanted to see and do, but the main event was the visit to Maker’s Mark the following morning.

Without missing a beat, Shirley began to recollect her early memories of Maker’s and the Samuel’s family. She spoke of transporting bottles of Maker’s down to Florida for the Samuel’s family back in the day because what they were selling down there were actual Maker’s bottles filled with Jaeger. Beau and I exchanged glances that conveyed the “can you believe what you’re hearing?” look. She and Bill Samuels were on a first name basis.

The following morning, we were up around 6:30 and in the car driving towards Louisville by 8:30a.m. The distillery opened at 10:30 and we wanted to get on one of the first tours before it got too busy. We drove down numerous winding country roads that led us to the little town of Loretto, Kentucky, home of the Maker’s Mark distillery. We felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, but it was beautiful, and we felt pretty lucky when we came across this sign.

We signed up for the $7 tour, which took us around the Maker’s Mark grounds and to the distillery where we learned about the special sour mash mix and the 3-day fermentation process. We walked through the barrel house to the on-site bottling factory where bottles are filled and then dipped in Maker’s Mark’s signature red wax. We were then taken to a tasting room, where we both sampled the original Maker’s Mark and Maker’s 46 for the first time. This was polished off with a bourbon chocolate.  We were then let loose in the gift shop.

One can’t make a visit to Maker’s and not dip a bottle! So we purchased our bottles and got in line to dip. Decked out in goggles, gloves, protective sleeves and an apron, I felt quite professional as I “slam dunked” my bottle in the liquid red wax.

As it sat to cool, a lady working at the dipping station made sure the wax hadn’t entirely covered the tab to open the bottle. She then said, “They all say they’re not gonna open it, but I bet you do.” If and when I do, it will be a damn special occasion, that’s for sure!

We left Maker’s and toured a few of the surrounding historical sites, including Abe Lincoln’s birthplace and childhood home, and we drove home on the back country roads via the Paris turnpike. We headed back to Shirley’s for dinner. As we walked in the door, the first thing she asked us was, “Did you see Bill there?” We hadn’t seen Bill, but what we did see was a legacy created by him that still lives on in Loretto, Kentucky and around the world for that matter.

We showed Shirley the bottles we had dipped and asked her which one she liked better. Her response, “Well it’s 6 of one and half a dozen of the other.” I thought that was kind of ironic.

For more information on the Maker’s Mark brand and the distillery’s hours of operation, visit