COO of Maker’s Mark, Rob Samuels, Gives an Interview
Recently, PhoenixBites had the opportunity to interview Rob Samuels, COO of Marker’s Mark (our favorite bourbon).
Named after Robert Samuels Jr., who brought his family to Kentucky in 1784, Rob Samuels is the eighth generation of Bourbon producers, the longest lineage of any family within any distilled spirits category in the world.
When he was nine years old, he constructed his first Maker’s Mark Holiday Advertisement, which was published and cited as the “Best business advertisement of 1982” by Malcolm Forbes.
Fond memories of his grandparents throughout his childhood, as well as his father’s impassioned inspiration, motivated Rob to continue in the family’s iconic tradition. Rob stayed true to the family calling while earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in Applied Sciences from the University of South Carolina by managing a local college bar, where he ensured that the establishment’s top selling spirit was Maker’s Mark.
Upon graduation, he moved to Dallas, managing sales development of the Maker’s Mark brand for the region and later becoming Regional Manager for Houston. He subsequently worked as Ohio State Manager and Florida Territory Manager for the distilled spirits division of Allied Domecq Spirits & Wine before returning to Maker’s Mark in 2006.
After more than ten years in the market, Rob was pleased to be back in Kentucky, alongside his father, as Director of Global Brand Development, working to expand the brand in emerging markets throughout the world. He also went back to school, despite vowing he never would, and completed both the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business Executive Education Program as well as the Harvard Business School General Management Program.
In 2010, he was appointed COO of Maker’s Mark. In this role Rob is accountable for business, financial and marketing goals, and he works closely with his father, President Bill Samuels, Jr., in the leadership, guardianship and marketing of the brand. In addition, he serves as General Manager of the Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Ky., working directly with Maker’s Mark Vice President of Operations Victoria MacRae-Samuels and Master Distiller and Director of Distillery Operations Greg Davis.
Separate and apart from his career in the spirits industry, Rob serves on the board of directors for The Healing Place, The Leadership Kentucky Foundation and The DePaul School. He currently resides in Prospect, Ky., with wife Whitney Lyons and their children, William Boone Samuels and Blair Temple Samuels.
Read our interview with Rob:
PhoenixBites: You’ve been in your new position for a couple of months now – are there any plans for 2011 that you can share with us?
Rob Samuels: The good news is I have NO plans to change the handmade process that delivers Maker’s Mark.
PhoenixBites: Have you always had an appreciation for bourbon, growing up in the Samuels family?
Rob Samuels: As the 8th generation in the Samuels family involved with making whisky in Kentucky and the grandson of the founders of Maker’s, I have always treasured my grandparents vision for crafting a handmade bourbon that would have a refined taste profile and not “blow your ears off” as one noted distillery commented about the early American whiskies.
I am also proud that nearly 60 years after the founding of Maker’s Mark, we have never wavered from the founder’s handmade process, which means the bourbon being made today is made exactly as the very first nineteen barrels were produced.
PhoenixBites: Has the SIV symbol become an inside joke among your family (since your grandfather was actually the sixth generation of the Samuels family)?
Rob Samuels: My grandfather came from a long line of distillers (dating all the way back to Samuels Town Scotland and the early 1500’s) and his passion was for handmade bourbon. My grandmother provided the name and designed the bottle to reflect the handmade values of the handmade bourbon.
As passionate collectors of English pewter, they noticed that the English pewter makers would always mark their proudest pieces as a sign of handmade. The Maker’s Mark or mark of the maker is blown into the glass and on the label.
“S” is for Samuels, grandfather was a registered IV fourth generation distiller (two further generations made whisky in Ky. unlawfully!), Star is for Star Hill Farm and each of the three breaks in the Circle denote the instances in US history when it has been illegal to produce whisky in America (Prohibition and two wars).
PhoenixBites: I’ve heard that the best way to fully appreciate Maker’s Mark is to drink it slightly diluted. Is this true? What is your favorite way to enjoy it?
Rob Samuels: My grandfather preferred Maker’s over ice, grandmother’s preference was a splash of Ginger, and Dad enjoys the classic cocktails like Manhattan. What I enjoy best about Maker’s is the handmade bourbon allows for variety.
I have a close friend that has always enjoyed a heavy pour of Maker’s with a splash of diet coke and he would never order his drink near me because he thought I would be offended (which I always sort of was) – and one night he asked me if his bourbon with a splash of Diet Coke is better with Maker’s than other bourbons and I said yes – then he said quit giving me s*%$ about it then!
I don’t believe there to be a right or wrong way to appreciate Maker’s. For those interested in exploring the true handmade essence of Maker’s, it is probably best served over a little ice or splash of water.
PhoenixBites: Do you have a favorite food pairing to enjoy your bourbon with?
Rob Samuels: Leading chefs all over the world are incorporating their craft and signature dishes with bourbon – and we are proud that many choose Maker’s.
PhoenixBites: Is the new 46 a permanent addition or is it limited in release?
Rob Samuels: The founders of Maker’s Mark would be proud of 46, which is the first ever new expression from the Maker’s Mark Distillery. The taste profile of 46 is consistent with Maker’s, only amplified, while incorporating a little spice without bitterness. However, Maker’s consumers and friends will in the end make this decision.
PhoenixBites: Are there any upcoming plans for themed bottles?
Rob Samuels: Second year of generating $3M for the University Of Kentucky School Of Music by contributing all proceeds from the sales of a commemorative bottle.
PhoenixBites: On average, how many people visit the distillery each year?
Rob Samuels: Second only to crafting the handmade bourbon, what we are proudest of is sharing the handmade process that is unique to Maker’s with those brand fans that visit the Distillery.
My grandmother designed the layout of the Distillery and grounds knowing that we would one day host guests and as part of the experience, they get to live what it is like to be Maker’s by exploring the entire process first hand.
The experience includes touring the entire distillery, label room where each and every label is printed and torn by hand, bottling line where every single bottle is sealed by hand in red wax, warehouses where the barrel are rotated to ensure each and every barrel is aged consistently, and tasting (of course!).
The Kentucky Bourbon trail kybourbontrail.com, much like wine country is an opportunity for family and friends to visit the region, spend quality time at the distilleries during the day then stay the night in either Louisville or Lexington at a premium / yet affordable hotel and dine at premium restaurants justaddbourbon.com and lounges that celebrate all bourbons.
Amy Martin: Is there a specific time of year that the barrels are opened?
Rob Samuels: Maker’s Mark Distillery has a tasting panel that is comprised of fifteen individuals (nine women and six men). Each barrel of Maker’s Mark is tasted on average five times by the tasting panel before we bottle. Tasted off the still, throughout the aging / rotation and before we bottle. Since the seasons vary (this influences the impact of the maturation process) we bottle to taste, not years of age. On average six and a half years old, never fewer than six or older than seven.
Amy Martin: I love your Ambassador program! I just signed up myself recently and I have a good friend who has been an ambassador for 10 years. Do you ever get to read stories from ambassadors and their experiences holding tastings?
Rob Samuels: We love learning about how friends enjoy and share Maker’s!
The Ambassador program is an opportunity for consumers that enjoy Maker’s to get their name on a barrel of Maker’s just as it enters the warehouse. Then, we send friendly updates as their barrel ages overtime. Ambassadors are also invited to extraordinary events in their hometown and at the Distillery.
We are more than excited to be able to share this interview with you all. For die-hard Maker’s fans like us, we encourage you to visit the distillery someone in the New Year and take a tour!
Look for Maker’s Mark recipes coming soon!
For more information, visit makersmark.com