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A Man and His Barrel

John Lair


June 20th, 2019   |   By Helen Benefield Billings

Are all Whiskey barrels created equal in this world? What makes a Whiskey unique and downright extraordinary? Many factors play into constructing the exceptional product that is the revered Maker’s Mark, of Loretto, Kentucky.

Start with the storied history of co-founders Bill Samuels, Sr. and wife Margie Samuels, and their desire to construct smooth Bourbon to share with friends and family. In 1953, this dynamic duo modified an old family recipe and they were hands-on in the creation of this internationally acclaimed brand known for its certain “front-of-palate sweetness.” Margie Samuels created the Maker’s Mark name and label, as well as the instantly recognizable signature red-wax-dipped necks. She was truly a trailblazer in her day.

Segue to the actual precision and consistency of its production, year after year. Maker’s Mark has been carefully handcrafted for three generations. “Handcrafted” is a term that is thrown around liberally these days, but Maker’s Mark insists on keeping the process pure and true to its original roots. Even though it uses techniques that are quite labor intensive, the brand refuses to hand over time-honored methods to automation.

It all begins with red winter wheat (as opposed to rye), corn and barley as its basis. Next up is exceptional filtration, for which they use on-site sourced limestone water. Unique yeast fermentation tanks made from 100-year-old cypress planks, along with the double distillation process taking place in double copper barrel stills, ensure Maker’s Mark refined and distinctive taste.

Don Billings, IMI Agency’s Founder and our fearless publisher here at in the Mix magazine, signed up to participate in the Maker’s Mark Ambassador Program some seven years ago. Having your name etched onto one of these exclusive 525-pound Bourbon barrels was too intriguing and, frankly, too much fun to pass up. His barrel would go through the same meticulous aging process as others in production on site in Loretto. Periodic updates were sent via mail and email to Don throughout every year, with special gifts being sent during the holidays including festive red ear muffs perfectly sized for our Maker’s Mark bottle in our home bar. I delighted in dressing up our Maker’s bottle at Christmas and taking photos, while throwing together the obligatory eggnog or Don’s favorite classic Manhattan.

Anticipation grew until we received notification in late 2018 that his barrel was indeed ready for consumption. A March 2019 date was set for the trip up to Kentucky to “fetch the juice.” With great expectation Don and I set out to claim the ultimate prize: his very own Whiskey collection, complete with personalized labels. With the help of our guide named Christopher, Don was schooled in the proper art of hand-dipping the bottle neck into the famous red wax (just about half way down), then quickly swirling several times before promptly tilting sideways and placing each individual bottle in an upright position.

This remarkable concept is wildly successful and is a brilliant way to draw upon consumers’ already existing enthusiasm for the Maker’s brand. A certain feeling of satisfaction and pride were certainly evident as Don Billings’ very own private label Maker’s Mark bottles were loaded into our SUV for the long drive back to Georgia.

About the author

Helen Benefield Billings

Helen Benefield Billings

Travel and hospitality industry writer Helen Benefield Billings has been with in the Mix since its inception in 2004. Helen lives in her native childhood home of Sea Island, Ga. when not traveling or attending industry functions with her husband, Don.