Less than a hundred people work at the Loretto, Kentucky distillery of Maker’s Mark bourbon, and every one of them loves their job. “Turnover here? It’s pretty much zero.” That’s what Denny Potter, Assistant Master Distiller told us on our exclusive tour of the Maker’s facility. On a sunny day in May with just a slight breeze rolling down over the Kentucky hills, Denny took us on a tour of how bourbon is made, and what separates Maker’s Mark from the other fine bourbons made in what the tourism board is calling the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
The distillery has an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for being “The Worldâ€™s Oldest Operating Bourbon Whiskey Distillery.” History is all around you here, starting out at the house where a replica 1950’s era kitchen and study show the story of the Samuels’ family’s historic decision to stop making “rotgut” and to create a new recipe for bourbon. Worth seeing, by the way, is the cool interactive storytelling done in picture frames, created by Doe-Anderson, Maker’s 38-year-and-counting advertising agency of record.
Maybe because we were with Denny, or maybe because we had Jason Falls with us, we got an extra special tour, which involved opening up mash tubs, sticking our fingers into the early phase materials that make up bourbon (at least 52% corn is what makes a whiskey a bourbon), all ending in a delicious taste test (but I get ahead). I also learned that Maker’s Mark is made without rye grain, because the Samuels family was shooting for a sweeter, smoother finish for their product. Instead of rye, they use red winter wheat. The taste difference was obvious, even to an unskilled palate like mine.
What was equally interesting about the tour was that every bit of the distillery is tour-ready. We walked through the cedar plank mash tubs, into the area where the actual “still” in the distilling process works, and through to several other parts of the process, ending out in one of their barrel barns (there’s a really good name for this, like “rick rack” or something, but I forget it). They give tons of tours every day, and it seems to be a focal point of everyone’s job at Maker’s Mark. Why? Because brand ambassadors beat the hell out of any standalone advertising they could do. (The idea for creating a formal ambassador program – and boy is it cool! – came from a brainstorming session between Bill Samuels, Jr and Doe-Anderson.)
Maker’s Mark has a process for storing their barrels, too. They rotate them from the top of each barn (3 summers at the top) to lower into the barn, and then to the bottom. This rotation gives the bourbon a much more robust setting process, and normalizes the differences in the heat you’d expect at the “attic” area versus the “basement” area of the setting. They age bourbon for somewhere between 5-7 years, and that’s another difference: Maker’s doesn’t believe that the older a bourbon gets, the better it gets. They believe the peak time is somewhere in that 5-7 year spot. In taste tests later in and amongst the barrels, we got to test that first-hand.
Denny Potter pointed out at many steps in the process the strong and reinforced relationships that Maker’s Mark promotes with its employees. He explained this with great passion out in the bottling area, where he talked about how the company worked very flexibly with the staff, and how they worked on scheduling according to the natural ebbs and flows of family life. I was struck by the feeling that even this difference, the better treatment of their employees, came through in the brand of this product. Could you actually taste the pride of working for Maker’s Mark in their product? Let’s not get far-fetched. But suffice to say that a lot went into the making of this special bourbon before it arrives at the famous wax treatment that sets it apart on the shelf.
What I came away with was an appreciation for Maker’s Mark and a very strong sense that you can’t fake the level of passion that they put into their brand. It’s not advertising. It’s not a slapped-on after-effect. It’s built into every step of the process. This brand is human passion: distilled, bottled and shipped.
I’m grateful to Jason Falls and Denny Potter for the tour of the Maker’s Mark distillery, and to the folks from Louisville that I met who told me more of the history and stories around the whole experience.
See more photos from the Maker’s Mark tour here